NBA Playoff Picture: LeBron James-Zion Williamson matchup possible; Lakers virtually locked into No. 1 seed

Each of the 22 teams will play eight 'seeding' games prior to the playoffs

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by Brad Botkin    CBS Sports

Barring anything unforeseen between now and the end of July, the 2019-20 NBA season will see its conclusion. On Thursday, the owners approved Adam Silver’s plan to send 22 teams — 13 Western Conference and nine Eastern Conference — to Disney World in Orlando, and on Friday the NBPA (National Basketball Players Association) gave Silver its blessing as well.

So it’s official. The NBA is back.

Seven weeks from now.

Here’s how it will work: Each of the 22 teams invited to Orlando will play eight “seeding” games to conclude the regular season, at which point the Nos. 1-7 seeds in each conference will be locked. At that point, if the No. 9 seed in either conference is within four games of the No. 8 seed, there will be a play-in series for the final spot(s). From there, a traditional playoff format will commence.

That means no group-stage formatting or inter-conference 1-16 seeding — outside-the-box ideas that had been floated.

So a lot is at stake over these final eight games: Seeding throughout the standings, of course, and particularly the final playoff spot in the West. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the respective conference standings as they’ve sat since play was suspended on March 11. This is the baseline from which every team will start as the playoff push kicks in, with the target date for games to begin being July 31.

Western Conference

Team/Seed Record Current Matchup
1. Lakers 49-14 (–) vs. Grizzlies
2. Clippers 44-20 (5.5 GB) vs. Mavericks
3. Nuggets 43-22 (7 GB) vs. Rockets
4. Jazz 41-23 (8.5 GB) vs. Thunder
5. Thunder 40-24 (9.5 GB) at Jazz
6. Rockets 40-24 (9.5 GB) at Nuggets
7. Mavericks 40-27 (11 GB) at Clippers
8. Grizzlies 32-33 (18 GB) at Lakers

To me, the first thing that jumps out here is the Clippers’ three-game lead over the No. 4 Jazz, who will be playing without Bojan Bogdanovic. In other words, the chances of the Clippers falling past the No. 3 seed are slim, which keeps them on the opposite side of the bracket from the Lakers, which puts the two L.A. teams on a conference finals collision course.

As far as the 3-6 seeds, obviously a lot can change in eight games with just two games separating Denver and Houston at each end of that spectrum, and one game separating 4-6.

Of course, normally this would be a race for home-court advantage in the first round, but this year that’s irrelevant. So this becomes about matchups. You have to wonder what kind of manipulating we might see as teams chase preferred first-round matchups and sides of the bracket.

Race for No. 8

Team Record Games Behind No. 8 Seed
9. Trail Blazers 29-37 4 (in loss column)
10. Pelicans 28-36 3 (in loss column)
11. Kings  28-36 3 (in loss column)
12. Spurs 27-36 3 (in loss column)
13. Suns 26-39 6 (in loss column)

The Blazers — who went to the conference finals last season even without Jusuf Nurkic — could be in line to get Nurkic, and Zach Collins, back for this eight-game stretch run, and remember, if they stay at No. 9 and within four games of the Grizzlies, they’ll get their chance at a play-in series.

Of course, that goes for the Pelicans, Kings, Spurs and Suns, as well. A fully healthy New Orleans team sneaking in as the No. 8 seed would make for a pretty great first-round matchup with the Lakers.

Eastern Conference

Team/Seed Record Current Matchup
1. Bucks 53-12 (–) vs. Magic
2. Raptors 46-18 (6.5 GB) vs. Nets
3. Celtics 43-21 (9.5 GB) vs. 76ers
4. Heat 41-24 (12 GB) vs. Pacers
5. Pacers 39-26 (14 GB) at Heat
6. 76ers 39-26 (14 GB) at Celtics
7. Nets 30-34 (22.5 GB) at Raptors
8. Magic 30-35 (23 GB) at Bucks

Boston vs. Philadelphia in the first round? Yes, please. Both teams believe they can win the conference, and one of them is going to be done early if these are indeed the playoff matchups.

If the Sixers and Pacers flip-flop, that could mean a Philly-Miami firs-round series. Either way, the Sixers are likely getting tested right out of the gate.

A first-round loss could well mean Sixers coach Brett Brown is out of a job come next season. The good news is this hiatus is giving Ben Simmons, who had missed significant time with a nerve impingement in his back when the hiatus began, time to get healthy. Philadelphia is super talented, and in a weird format under crazy conditions, anything can happen.

I’m also looking at a potential Bucks-Heat second-round matchup. Nobody can shut down Giannis Antetokounmpo, but Miami’s Bam Adebayo is about as difficult a matchup as The Freak will find.

Race for No. 8

Team Record Games Behind No. 8 Seed
9. Wizards 24-40 5 (in loss column)

The Wizards are the only current non-playoff team from the Eastern Conference to be invited to Orlando, and you have to wonder just how hard they’ll actually be trying to get into the playoffs. As long as they miss the playoffs, their lottery odds will be calculated based on where they stood in the standings when play was suspended, which would have them slotted for a top-10 pick.

But if they do crack the postseason, they will fall completely out of the lottery all for the right to get smashed in the first round against the Bucks without even the benefit of at least two home games worth of revenue. In this situation, they just go play in an empty arena, get eliminated, and then lose maybe five or more slots on their draft pick.

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