The NBA’s return plan might seem a little weird, but it’s all about fairness

The format for the NBA’s proposed return to action is weird and funky, and feels kind of clunky — which might be the only rhyme (or reason) you can associate with it.

It is lopsided, and unbalanced, and far removed from the neat symmetry we tend to see from America’s biggest professional sports leagues.

If you were being ungenerous, you could suggest that the formula for the NBA’s resumption on July 31, when 22 of the 30 teams will head to Orlando and play all games there, has the feel of a fledgling start-up competition in an obscure sport. Such entities are often forced to get creative with their postseason formats, and sometimes choose to do so because they are unrestricted by history or convention.

You don’t expect it in the NBA. But, that doesn’t make it wrong.

For all the strangeness of what the NBA has cooked up — and yes, it really is strange — the plan is saved by one, key, often-overlooked factor: It is fair, or at least as close to fairness as we are going to get after all this upheaval.

Even more importantly, that pursuit of fairness is exactly why it looks and feels so unwieldy.

You know something a little bit different is going on when one conference (the NBA’s West) is bringing back 13 teams and the East is only returning nine. And when we have something called a “seeding round,” and when there is a play-in element to the postseason (but only maybe), and which could be just a play-in game or could turn into a mini-series — we just don’t know yet.

That’s not even mentioning the fact that all games will be in one city, with all players quarantined, and no fans in the stands for any of it. Indeed, that part of it we’ve already gotten our heads around, with the scourge of COVID-19 and its lingering effects having spawned new thought processes in terms of what we expect from the broadcasts we’ve watched in other sports with no one in attendance.

It might sound like the entire thing was all drawn up on the back of someone’s hand at the end of a particularly bacchanalian night out, but there are actually a lot of layers to it. Look a bit closer, and you see that the NBA’s comeback has the hallmarks of a cute, and effective, little tap dance.

Money played a part in why things are the way they are, of course. Having eight regular season games for those squads involved allows, in most cases, local television contracts to be fulfilled, thereby avoiding the need for tens of millions of dollars to be returned.

Once that was settled on instead of going straight to the playoffs, there needed to be an acceptable way of narrowing the field to 16. Doing it by simply taking the top eight in each conference at the time of the stoppage didn’t seem particularly just, so the NBA got creative.

And this is the result. Only teams that were within six games of the eighth spot in their respective conferences on that March day, a million or so years ago, when Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus and the league halted operations, will be invited to Orlando.

The West has 13 teams coming because the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns all ostensibly had the Memphis Grizzlies in their sights. In the East, only the Washington Wizards were within six wins of the Orlando Magic.

Each of the 22 will play eight times, and the existing regular season records will carry forward, meaning that even clubs guaranteed a place in the postseason have to jostle for seeding position. After those matchups, at least the top seven in each conference will have booked their playoff spot. If, in either or both conferences, the ninth-ranked team is within four games or less of No. 8, then a play-in “round” will occur.

The twist: a 9 must beat an 8 twice to advance, while the 8 would only need to win once to go through — a shift devised to make up for the fact that there is no home advantage when you’re playing at Disney World.

It is quite a system, and there will be some confusing moments and a multitude of head-scratching before it is done. But no one gets screwed, and there is merit and laudability in that. It means teams that had no chance at the playoffs don’t have to come back and play games they had no stake in.

Meanwhile, no team that had any realistic shot at squeezing into the field gets denied their what-if opportunity. And no team that had earned its way into a strong position before things shuttered has the fruits of their hard work taken away from them.

“My reaction is that somehow the NBA did something I thought could be impossible,” FS1’s Nick Wright said on First Things First. “They might have threaded the needle here and found the fairest, best-possible compromise on how to do this.

“You will be giving legitimate advantage, as you should, to the teams that have accomplished the most. You are not making the end of the season just a total free-for-all. I had been critical of the NBA’s ideas. I love this. I think it makes sense. It is the fairest possible outcome.”

Look, it is still weird. It is still going to be the oddest way to end an NBA season that we’ve ever had. We don’t know what to expect. We’ve no idea who is going to be good or who is going to struggle.

We can’t say whether Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving can magically return and take Brooklyn on a dream run, and we don’t know which teams will be hurt more by having silence in the stands.

But, all things considered, the outcome is going to be as close to equitable as was ever going to be possible. Give me fair … and I’ll happily live with strange. Give me basketball, make it mean something, and it counts as a win.