A number of scenarios for returning to NBA action are being discussed, but one way or another, it's looking more and more likely that we're going to get a finish to the 2019-20 season barring an unexpected setback. The playoff format under which games resume is up in the air. For my money, the reportedis the best one out there, but we could still see a 1-16 inter-conference seeding or a traditional East-West 1-8 format.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban the top 10 teams from each conference make the playoffs, with a play-in tournament to determine the last two seeds, before ultimately getting reseeded -- regardless of conference -- according to record. Some kind of play-in tournament , whether it's this or another format, remains a distinct possibility.
But again, however it shakes out, it looks like we're going to get playoff basketball this season. Here are five major storylines to watch when the ball is finally tipped.
1. Brett Brown might be coaching for his job
The Philadelphia 76ers have all the indicators of an underachieving team -- the seventh-highest payroll in the league, which will balloon to the highest in the league in 2020-21 based on current salary commitments, all to currently be the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference with a worse road record than the Knicks.
This is not all Brown's fault. Philly GM Elton Brand has put together a roster long on big names with even bigger contracts that is woefully short on shooting, fit and chemistry. He could've signed Malcolm Brogdon or Bojan Bogdanovic for tens of millions less than he gave Al Horford, who has fit like a square peg in a round hole next to Joel Embiid.
Both Embiid and Ben Simmons need as much shooting as possible around them, and over the last year and a half Brand has shipped JJ Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova all for the right to lose Jimmy Butler and wildly overpay Tobias Harris.
Meanwhile, Brown is stuck trying to figure out how to play half-court offense with a guy in Simmons who refuses to shoot and/or be anything other than a focal point of the offense. It ends up being this theoretical equation of a little bit of cutting, a little bit of rolling, a little bit of screening, a little bit of hanging out in the dunker's spot, all of which adds up to a whole lot of confusion and half-court obstacles.
I have watched a lot of Sixers film. That is one ill-fitting team. You can gripe about Brown's rotations, but he's throwing you-know-what against the wall not because he doesn't know any better, but because he doesn't have any better options. If the Sixers bow out of these playoffs early, he has an unfortunately great chance of becoming the fall guy.
The good news is the Sixers are extremely talented, which is why they come attached to such high expectations in the first place. In a wacky playoff format after more than three months off, with a healthy Simmons and rested Embiid, this is a team that can beat anybody on any given night. If you had to pick one wild card to make a title run in these new conditions, you could do a lot worse than putting your money on Philly to catch lightning in a bottle.
2. The Bucks' sales pitch to Giannis
If the Bucks are playing to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo, these are not ideal circumstances. You could argue everyone is in the same boat, but the Bucks were clearly the best regular-season team, tracking for 70 wins for most of the campaign. However, now they're home-court advantage is out the window. It has been speculated that Milwaukee would need to win the title, or at least make it to the Finals, for Giannis, a free agent in 2021, to re-sign.
Antetokounmpo is eligible to sign a max extension with Milwaukee this offseason, but that max number is determined as a percentage of the salary cap, and nobody knows what that's going to be at the moment given all the lost revenue. There is a distinct possibility that Giannis, regardless of how the Bucks perform in these playoffs, will hold off on signing that extension until the league's financial picture at least clears up, or hopefully improves, in 2021.
That would, of course, put the Bucks in a tight spot, as they'd be into Giannis' walk year without any formal indication as to whether he intends to stay or leave. At least in a case like Anthony Davis, he gave the Pelicans notice he was leaving in enough time to seek a trade prior to his walk year. The Bucks could well go into next season not knowing one way or the other, and there will certainly be blockbuster trade offers on their table to entice them if they get skittish about their chances of retaining their MVP.
The bottom line is this year's playoff run was supposed to be Milwaukee's best sales pitch to Giannis, and it still can be. They just have to go out there and prove they're the organization that gives him the best chance to win championships. No pressure.
3. Zion's availability
My guess is we'll see Zion Williamson again this season. I think the league will ultimately settle on either a for the final seeds, or an expanded playoff field that would likely include the Pelicans, who are currently the 10th seed in the West and three games back in the loss column of the No. 8 Grizzlies.
Bottom line: I think the league wants Zion in the mix. This is all about putting the most entertaining product on the floor, in the most entertaining format possible. We need eyeballs on TVs, and Zion is must-see material.
In other words, if for some reason the league just decides to play a few regular-season games, perhaps to hit the 70-game mark that would fulfill local TV contracts, the second the Blazers were mathematically eliminated, which could be within a few games, Lillard will not be playing.
You could understand New Orleans doing the same thing with Zion, who feels like an injury risk every time he sets foot on the floor. They're not just going to throw him out there with nothing to gain but a few exhibition games after three months off. That's a freak injury waiting to happen.
4. Clippers must capitalize with Kawhi, George
Keep in mind, the Clippers traded away a huge part of their future in the form of both picks and players for an immediate shot at winning a title with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Both those guys are going to be free agents in 2021, meaning the Clippers have this season and next to secure a title. After that, who knows what will happen.
To be fair, there has been no indication that Leonard or George -- both of whom are from the Los Angeles area and long expressed their desire to get back home -- intend to leave the Clippers. Leonard signing a two-year deal was likely a money move to get him to 10 years of NBA service, which qualifies him for the full super max at 35 percent of the salary cap.
Still, in today's NBA, you can only count in guaranteed years. The Clippers, as of now, have Leonard and George for two years, and they are just thankful they didn't lose one of them. It looks like they'll get their championship chance this season, and they'll have as much incentive as any team to take immediate advantage.
5. Major upsets on the horizon
Typically, the NBA playoffs are pretty predictable. The best teams almost always win over seven-game series, and there tends to only be a handful of them with true championship potential. But under these circumstances, with home-court advantage thrown out the window and teams and players in various degrees of rhythm and basketball condition, not to mention the possibility of a complete format shift, there are a number of variables you normally don't have to consider.
The more random the conditions, the more random the results.
The Bucks could go cold at the wrong time around Giannis. The Lakers can't really shoot to begin with. The Clippers haven't had a lot of time together as it is and their chemistry just might not be there. I already mentioned above that I think Philly might be a team that could sneak up on everyone, and I think the Miami Heat, Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder all have a shot to pull an NCAA Tournament-style upset on a higher seed.
I would especially watch out for Miami in the East. The Heat are one of the best conditioned teams in the league led by one of the most maniacal workers in Jimmy Butler. They're not going to be out of shape, they have an ace defensive stopper in Bam Adebayo who can guard anyone (including Giannis), they have shooters and they have an elite closer in Butler. From a matchup standpoint, that checks just about every playoff box.