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Moore: Western Conference 8-Seed Format & Race Do No Favors for Blazers

Moore: Western Conference 8-Seed Format & Race Do No Favors for Blazers article feature image

Photo credit: Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Damian Lillard

There’s a lot we still don’t know about the NBA‘s return-to-play plan, which was approved Thursday by the Board of Governors.

We don’t know the schedule. We don’t know specifics of the safety protocols to guard against COVID-19, a subject which the NBA is both recalcitrant to discuss and is at the top of most outside observers’ minds.

But from what we can tell from what the NBA’s release did not say, the situation is dicey for the teams chasing the 8-seed in the Western Conference.

The first big issue is that the NBA isn’t discussing changing the number of games played from eight. Everyone’s playing eight more games. This is an issue because Portland has played two more games than the Pelicans and Kings, three more than the Spurs and one more than the Suns and Grizzlies.

Let’s say, hypothetically, both the Blazers and Pelicans go 8-0. The Blazers would finish with 37 wins, the Pelicans with 36. But with two fewer games played and one fewer loss, the Blazers would finish with a winning percentage of .500; the Pelicans would be at .507.

In that scenario, the Pelicans would gain the 8-seed and play the Blazers with double-elimination advantage.

Furthermore, the plan that was approved only discusses a scenario in which the 8- and 9-seeds play for a tiebreaker.

The Kings and Pelicans have the same number of games, so they can finish tied. What if the Grizzlies clinch the 8-seed, but the Pelicans and Kings both finish within the mandated four-game bubble to allow for a play-in?

Presumably, in that instance, it would go to regular season tiebreaker. The Pelicans lead 1-0 in the head-to-head series, and if the next eight games from the schedule are not adjusted, the two teams will play each other twice more.

So there’s a realistic chance a Pelicans-Kings game could be for the 9-seed, which is what the NBA wants.

The Grizzlies come out as a much bigger winner under this format than I originally thought. While the best situation for them was obviously just to take the 16 current teams, consider their advantages.

If the Spurs go 6-2, they finish 33-38. If the Grizzlies finish 2-6, they go 34-39 but with a higher win percentage (by 0.10) and would finish above the Spurs.

The Grizzlies can go 0-8 and still finish with the 8-seed if the other teams, playing a schedule entirely made of playoff teams or playoff-contending teams, go 3-5 or worse. That seems unlikely until you consider that all the easy teams are gone. It’s all good teams.

That’s slightly good news for the Blazers, who have the second-best winning percentage against teams over .500 (32.3%) just behind the Spurs (36.7%). But overall, the deck is stacked against them.

ESPN’s Kevin Pelton simulated the remaining projected games (again, subject to change), and the Grizzlies landed the 8-seed 75% of the time. In that simulation, the Pelicans appeared 37% of the time in the play-in.

So the most likely outcome is Grizzlies (8th) in a play-in vs. the Pelicans. The Pelicans are 2-0 vs. the Grizzlies this season.

We have a lot more to figure out, like how the NBA will schedule teams if a team is due to play an opponent in their eighth game after that team has already played eight games. But if the NBA wanted to create games with stakes for the teams out of the playoffs traveling to Orlando, they’ve done it, because every single loss by a team that isn’t Memphis puts them in real danger of missing out on even the chance altogether.

The biggest winner of this format is Memphis; the biggest loser is Portland. The Spurs and Pelicans both come out pretty well. The Kings are fine, and the Suns?

Well, the Suns are just happy to be there, I guess.

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