The NBA is almost back. According to ESPN, commissioner Adam Silver on Thursday will present the league’s full return-to-play plan to team owners. It is expected to pass unanimously.
Per multiple reports, 22 teams will be invited to Disney World in Orlando, where they will play eight regular-season games before starting the playoffs. The group will include all 16 teams currently in playoff positions, as well as five Western Conference teams and one Eastern Conference team that are within six games of a playoff spot. If a team is within four games of a No. 8 seed at the conclusion of the regular season, there will be a play-in tournament.
Here’s what all of this means for the Celtics, who already have clinched a playoff spot.
▪ The Celtics are currently in third place in the Eastern Conference with a 43-21 record. They’re three games behind the second-place Raptors and 2½ games ahead of the fourth-place Heat. With just eight games to play, and with the eight worst teams in the league not taking part, it is most likely that Boston will remain in the No. 3 spot.
There had been urgency to get past Toronto and secure home-court advantage in a potential conference semifinal, but that doesn’t matter anymore, because home-court advantage will not exist. If the Celtics do pass the Raptors, they would likely face the Nets in the first round. Could Kyrie Irving and/or Kevin Durant possibly come back for that series?
▪ The most likely benefit for the Celtics could unfold lower in the standings. The 76ers and Pacers are currently tied for fifth in the East with 39-26 marks, but Indiana holds the tiebreaker, so the Celtics were slotted to face Philadelphia in the opening round.
The 76ers have as much talent as any team in the East, and they have gone 3-1 against the Celtics this season. The Pacers, who were swept by Boston in the first round last year, are a more favorable matchup. 76ers All-Stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, who have combined to miss 32 games this season with injuries, are expected to be back.
▪ So this is all setting up perfectly for the Celtics, right? Well, there are still dangers. Miami is at least within striking distance of the No. 3 slot. The worst-case scenario for the Celtics would be the Heat leapfrogging them and the 76ers moving past the Pacers. That would give the Celtics a first-round matchup against the 76ers, while also setting up a second-round meeting against the Bucks.
▪ The schedule is the biggest variable in all of this. It’s unclear how the league will map out the eight regular-season games. It could attempt to create a slate that best mimics the remaining strength of schedule of each team, or it could have teams play each other team from its conference once. There are a few extra teams in the West, but the East lines up perfectly.
▪ Speaking of the West, this setup will give at least a slight, perhaps temporary boost to the value of the Grizzlies’ first-round draft pick that Boston is set to receive this year.
Memphis is currently in the No. 8 spot, 3½ games ahead of the Blazers, Pelicans, and Kings and in position to receive the No. 17 overall pick. Now, the Grizzlies will have to claw a bit to avoid slipping into the lottery. According to reports, teams within four games of the No. 8 seed at the conclusion of the regular season will enter a play-in tournament for the final spot. The No. 8 team would need to be defeated twice to be eliminated, while the others would face single elimination.
The Grizzlies’ draft pick is top-six protected, so if Memphis falls into the lottery and then vaults into the top four, it would keep its pick and Boston would receive next year’s unprotected choice.