As the sports world makes incremental progress towards returning in some capacity, the 2019-2020 NBA season is still in need of punctuation, and its return likely will be heavy on how a post-season tournament would set up.
If the NBA does indeed return, any postseason scenario almost assuredly makes the Milwaukee Bucks the number-one seed. The most simple of scenarios is a 16-team playoff, with the top 16 remaining NBA teams going at it. Other scenarios include adding in all 30 teams for some form of an extended playoff run; the answer likely lies somewhere in the middle (such as the top 20 teams getting playoff spots and the remaining 10 teams left to sort out NBA Draft Lottery standings, for example).
For the purposes of this preview, we will assume either a 16-team playoff seeded by league record or even a 20-team playoff with the lower seeds involved in play-in rounds; it doesn't change the projection that much since Milwaukee will have a favorable first-round match-up. I went with overall league standings rather than conference standings since most of the proposals eliminate conference or division ties due to unbalanced schedules with the postponement (or in this case, cancellation) of about a quarter of the season.
Here we go!
FIRST ROUND: #1 Milwaukee Bucks (53-12) vs. #16 Orlando Magic (30-35) (or #17 Portland Trail Blazers (29-37) in a 20-team scenario)
Neither team offers much of a test; the Bucks went 4-0 against the Magic and 2-0 against the Trail Blazers. Whether it's best-of-5 or best-of-7, Milwaukee would be a heavy favorite and likely looking at a sweep. Ample opportunity to shake off the rust if the NBA doesn't include some form of play-in for all teams and goes straight into the playoffs.
Other First-Round Match-ups: #2 Lakers vs. #15 Nets (Kevin Durant's return could make this a fascinating series), #3 Toronto vs. #14 Memphis, #4 Clippers vs. #13 Mavericks, #5 Boston vs. #12 Philadelphia (two of the Bucks' primary rivals), #6 Denver vs. #11 Indiana (Bucks avoid Denver in this setup), #7 Utah vs. #10 Houston (two top teams on the opposite side of the bracket), #8 Miami vs #9 Oklahoma City
SECOND ROUND: #1 Bucks vs. #8 Miami Heat (41-24) or #9 Oklahoma City Thunder (40-24)
Here's where the playoffs get interesting. Milwaukee lost both of its match-ups with the Heat in the regular-season, including a March contest just before the season was postponed. Oklahoma City was a tough customer in the first meeting, but the Bucks blew out the Thunder in the second meeting. Still, Milwaukee would be a favorite in a best-of-seven, although a sweep seems unlikely given the talent on both rosters. Miami is probably the tougher opponent here; a young team with shooting ability will steal at least one game.
Other Second-Round Match-ups: #2 Lakers vs. #7 Utah or #10 Houston (Lakers/Rockets would be a blast!), #3 Toronto vs. #6 Denver, #4 Clippers vs #5 Boston or #12 Philadelphia (Celtics-76ers is a lot closer than the seeding indicates; just three wins separate the teams)
SEMIFINALS: #1 Bucks vs. #4 Los Angeles Clippers (44-20)
Everyone knows what Kawhi Leonard did to the Bucks in the 2019 NBA Playoffs. A semifinal match-up against Leonard (in a different uniform) would be a dream scenario for NBA executives; it would also be the first legitimately challenging series for the Bucks in the playoffs. Milwaukee did take the two regular-season match-ups, which might make them a slight favorite. If the Bucks can avoid going cold from deep, they could find themselves advancing to the finals in six or seven games.
Other Semifinal: #2 Lakers vs. #3 Toronto or #6 Denver
FINALS: #1 Bucks vs. #2 Los Angeles Lakers (49-14)
The two NBA All-Star Game captains... the top two seeds in the NBA... Giannis Antetokounmpo versus LeBron James, the two MVP favorites. This would be a series with no shortage of storylines. On the court, the teams split their regular-season meetings, but the Lakers may be the favorite based not only on fan perception, but the star power of James and Anthony Davis. Milwaukee's going to need someone beyond Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton to step up in either Los Angeles series if the Bucks are to claim an NBA Championship, and that will remain the biggest question for the team until they can find that extra gear against a worthy opponent.
The playoff path if the league keeps the conferences (and splits the league into Las Vegas-Orlando, West-East) looks pretty much the same, with the very notable exception of getting to avoid playing both Los Angeles teams in the same NBA Playoffs: Magic (or play-in winner), then Heat (or Pacers) to start things off, before facing the likes of Toronto or Boston (or Philadelphia) in the Eastern Conference Finals.
As far as the Bucks are concerned, the better playoff path would be a conference-only setup through the conference finals, which would allow Milwaukee to continue to dominate against its Eastern Conference foes, where the Bucks posted an NBA-best 37-5 mark against other teams in their conference.
Regardless, in any form, the NBA Championship likely goes through at least one of the teams from Los Angeles, and that means meeting either LeBron or Kawhi for a title. That much, at least, won't change, even with the interrupted season.
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