NBA playoff picture coming into focus

Via Unsplash

The basketball season has returned to finish what it started in late 2019. In the midst of a pandemic, they set up a secluded bubble in Orlando, Florida where 22 of the 30 NBA teams have commenced the final games before the playoffs on July 31.

To address the obvious: yes, the NBA is restarting the season for a contact sport in one of the biggest hotbeds for the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the most recent update on Aug. 5 has declared that of the 343 players tested at Orlando since July 29, zero have tested positive for the virus. It’s incredible the success the season has had so far, and it shows an incredible amount of flexibility by the NBA and its players.

With that out of the way, almost every playoff team has been decided, with two exceptions. The Orlando Magic are holding down the eighth seed in the eastern conference, seven and a half games ahead of the Washington Wizards. While not mathematically eliminated, it would be a miracle run to end all miracle runs for them to make it in.

On the other side, the final seed in the Western Conference is still up for grabs between six teams. The Memphis Grizzlies currently hold it down, with the Portland Trail Blazers a game and a half behind them entering the final five games. It’s still anyone’s game, though. As it stands, Portland holds a tiebreaker over the New Orleans Pelicans and the Sacramento Kings. The Grizzlies hold a tiebreaker over the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs. The Suns have a tiebreaker over the Spurs. The series record between the Pelicans and Kings has yet to be decided, as they will play each other two more times.

From there, it’s almost assured that one of the teams will be within four games of the eighth seed, allowing a two-game series between the eighth and ninth seeds. The ninth seed must win both games to advance, but if they do they’ll take over as the final playoff seed in the conference.

The rest of the playoffs are another beast entirely. Awaiting with no pressure in the playoffs are the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets, and 11 other teams. While this play-in is exciting in itself, it could prove to be irrelevant if the Lakers shut the eighth seed down entirely. In fact, that’s the likely outcome. Even if Charles Barkley picked the Blazers to beat the Lakers in the first round (if they make it).

That begs the question: does it even matter who wins? There’s an argument that the winner of this season doesn’t count given the irregularities this season has faced. Honestly, I hate the notion. Shortened seasons have existed in the past, usually for more complex reasons such as strikes among the players. The 1998-99 NBA season was just 50 games due to a player lockout, ending with the San Antonio Spurs taking the championship over the New York Knicks. Did that count? Stat websites still include the 1999 NBA Finals MVP for Tim Duncan, as well as the regular season MVP for Karl Malone. Why argue against it counting? The 2019-20 NBA season will have played far more games than that. This might count more than its predecessors with the entirety of the playoffs taking place on a truly neutral court where it comes down to the skill of the players. Either way, I’m going to relax and just enjoy the return of basketball.