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What’s next: Running through the scenarios for finishing the 2019-20 NBA season

The NBA season is on pause. When it comes back — if it comes back? — what will it look like, for the league and for the Toronto Raptors?

COVID-19: What’s next for the 2019-20 NBA season and the Toronto Raptors Photo by Cole Burston/Getty Images

As the world sits on pause, including the world of sports, we don’t have a lot of answers about when it will un-pause, or what it will look like when it does.

However, we can speculate on a few things, based on some of the news that we’ve heard about when large gatherings might resume, and from the tidbits of conversations that people like Adrian Wojnarowski have reported.

So let’s run through a few of those scenarios, determine how likely they are to happen, and speculate on what they might mean for the defending champion Toronto Raptors. (We won’t speculate on what these things might mean for the offseason or 2020-21 season just yet. And we’ll assume arena availability will be worked out.)

Best-Case Scenario: Season Resumes; All Games are Go

Let’s say we (“we,” as in “society”) flatten the curve and the Coronavirus runs its course in a month or so, and the moratorium on gatherings and travel gets lifted by late April. The NBA could, in theory, play the final ~18 games of the regular season (perhaps in accelerated form, with more back-to-backs), start the playoffs by late May and finish by the end of July. (Perhaps the regular season games are played without fans, but large gatherings are OK by playoff time...?)

The competition may not be great to start as teams shake off the rust and deal with a hectic schedule, but I would enjoy playoff basketball in July!

What it means for the Raptors: This would be the best for the league, and for the Raptors. They’d be healthy, have a month to get back into shape, and be ready to defend their title in the postseason.

Likelihood of happening: 1%. I hate to admit this. But I feel like I just wrote a paragraph of speculative fiction.

Worst-Case Scenario: Season is Canceled

If the coronavirus persists — and every St. Patty’s day crowd, every big spring break party, every large church gathering you see extends the lifespan of this pandemic, and folks, I’m seeing way too many of all of those — then it’s going to be a long time before teams will be allowed to gather and play, even in “empty” arenas. (Remember that between the two teams, traveling parties, officials, scorekeepers, TV/radio/media, security, arena ops, etc., you’re looking at over 250 people just to play a game.)

What it means for the Raptors: This would, in a word, suck. This is the most fun Raptors team ever; I don’t want to believe they’ve played their last game. And they deserve the chance to defend their title! If they miss out on the opportunity for a postseason run, it would break my heart.

Likelihood of happening: 50%. No one wants this. But I don’t think the league, or the world, is going to have a choice.

“We’ll Settle for This” Scenario: Truncated Season and Playoffs

If we can contain the coronavirus by June, the NBA could play a truncated regular season — say, eight games, or maybe even as little as four games, all against the division, to minimize travel — and the jump into a playoffs, perhaps with the first (and second?) round being best-of-five. This gives teams a little time to warm up, maybe gives the final playoff seedings a little drama, and wraps everything up in about two months. It’s not ideal, but, it’s better than nothing.

What it means for the Raptors: Given the, ah, fragility of the Raptors this year, anything truncated probably wouldn’t work out so well for them! But, this scenario at least gives them the opportunity to defend the title

Likelihood of happening: 40%. If the NBA comes back, I believe this is the most likely scenario. Perhaps not exactly like described above, but some shortened finish to the season to wrap it up, and still have time for offseason activities and a not-too-late start to 2020-21.

“This Would be Trouble” Scenario: Playoffs Only

The NBA could skip the end of the regular season, finalize seeds based on current standings, and jump right into a full playoffs (or, again, perhaps a best-of-five round one). I think this would be terrible, because the actual first round games themselves would be terrible as teams get back into shape. Who wants to watch basketball that looks like the preseason in the playoffs? And given the demands of the playoffs, on bodies that aren’t in shape, injuries would be through the roof. (Although... rust, combined with a short round one could lead to some fun upsets!)

What it means for the Raptors: Hate to say it, but this might mean a first-round exit for a rusty Raps team — especially if they’re playing a Nets team that might have Kyrie Irving and/or Kevin Durant in uniform.

Likelihood of happening: 30%. I don’t think the NBA wants to skip the regular season, but the playoffs are the most important thing, and timing might force their hands.

“Oh, This Could be Fun” Scenario: Play-in Tournament for 7-8 seeds

This is the old Bill Simmons idea, where the 7-15 seeds play a series of play-in games to determine who gets the final two playoff seeds. I like the idea because there are some races still happening — the Pelicans would certainly love to have this chance, rather than just finalizing seeds now, and I bet Bradley Beal and Damian Lillard would too. And, uh, hello, Golden State with a healthy Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson?

This would be fun to see, but still leaves the problem of teams not having much warm-up time. Could there be a couple exhibition games to start? But that feels like wasting time on meaningless games, when time is at a premium. And are the top six seeds just sitting idle while these teams play this out?

What it means for the Raptors: It would determine their first round opponent, and again, if we’re looking at a Nets-with-KD-and-Kyrie scenario, I’m guessing the Nets win this play-in, get the seven seed, and are a huge handful for Toronto.

Likelihood of happening: 10%. I don’t think it’s off the table, but I think it might go a little too far outside what the NBA wants. (Although, maybe a reduced scenario where the 7-10 seeds play a three-game round robin to see who gets those seeds would work?)

“This Would be Insane and Awesome” Scenario: 30-team Single Elimination Tournament

Can you imagine a March Madness-style bracket with all 30 NBA teams? (The top seeds get a first-round bye, setting up 16 teams in round two, 8 in round three, final four, then championship game.) 31 games total, maybe with a short end-of-regular season to finalize standings and let teams shake the rust off; could all be done in a month. The highest possible stakes, the best competition, every team with a chance on any given night... it would be incredible.

What it means for the Raptors: I think a healthy Raptors squad can beat anyone on any given night. Their defense keeps them in games and confuses enough opponents to give them a chance. I’ll admit I like Nick Nurse’s chances a little more in an extended series — I think he’s great at making small adjustments over time — but he’s also proven he can make in-game adjustments so... yeah. I like Torontos’ chances in this format!

Likelihood of happening: 1.5%. I honestly can’t see this happening. It’s too out there for the NBA. BUT. This is the perfect opportunity! This season is already without precedent. Why not try it? One time? What would you have to lose? The excitement would be off the charts, especially for a sport-starved world. If the shutdown goes into June, and the NBA still wants to wrap its season by August... this could be the way to do it!


Ultimately I would love for everything to get back to normal quickly and for things to simply carry on after this delay. But we’re in uncharted territory, and some unusual solutions will have to come into play, whatever happens.

Stay safe out there!