NBA returning July 31; what does that mean for Wizards?

As reported this morning, the NBA is planning to restart on July 31 after suspending the season due to the COVID-19 outbreak in mid-March. 22 of the league’s 30 teams will be returning to action, as all 16 teams currently in a playoff spot plus the six teams within six games of the eighth seed in each conference will have a chance for the NBA title in October. In the West, those fringe teams include the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns.

The lone outside team in the East? Our very own Washington Wizards. At 24-40, sitting 5.5 games behind the eight-seed Orlando Magic, the Wizards just barely made the cut.

It’s a definitive light at the end of the tunnel. Just under two months until live major American sports begin again. The NHL is still working out the timing of their 24-team playoffs this summer, in which the Capitals will try to win their second Stanley Cup in three years, but until a date is decided, the NBA’s return will be the main focal point on sports fans’ minds.

As reported above, the Wizards will have to finish out eight games of regular season play before determining whether they have a chance at the eighth seed, which would result in a first round matchup against reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the league-best Milwaukee Bucks.

Is this really the most the Wizards have to look forward to? A date with the heavy Eastern Conference favorite and possible league champion? I guess a playoff appearance is better than nothing, and without any “can’t-miss” prospects at the top of this year’s draft, there isn’t a major incentive to improve the team’s lottery odds.

What would really make things interesting is if the supposedly healthy John Wall returned to finish out the season, but he is following through with his plan to sit out until 2020-21. Instead, the team will be moving forward with the likely starting lineup of:

PG: Shabazz Napier

SG: Bradley Beal

SF: Jerome Robinson

PF: Rui Hachimura

C: Thomas Bryant

Of course, guys like Dāvis Bertāns, Troy Brown Jr., Moritz Wagner and Isaac Bonga will be in the rotation. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bertāns is pushed into a starting role with the stakes of these upcoming games being so high, but no matter how you slice it, this roster is not the most formidable group, especially compared to the rest of the field.

So what will the eight regular season games look like? Yahoo Sports reported that the teams will play out the next eight games on their schedule. If they’re scheduled to take on a bottom team that won’t be in Orlando, it skips to the next game.

If this is truly how the schedule works, this is what the Wizards’ remaining schedule will look like:

Boston Celtics (3rd in East)

Oklahoma City Thunder (5th in West)

Philadelphia 76ers (6th in East)

Brooklyn Nets (7th in East)

Atlanta Hawks (14th in East)

Milwaukee Bucks (1st in East)

Boston Celtics

Phoenix Suns (13th in West)

Milwaukee Bucks

As you can see, it doesn’t differ much from what their schedule would have been under normal circumstances, but since the Hawks will be out of contention and not included in the restart, the Wizards will have their original ninth matchup bumped up to eight. As luck would have it, it’s a second meeting against the Bucks.

It would be nice if they had two games against the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic, the seventh and eighth seeds, respectively. It would allow the Wizards to have more control over their fate. Instead, they face Brooklyn just once, have no meetings with Orlando, and have half of their games against two top teams in the Eastern Conference.

The logistics surrounding every remaining team playing their next eight games against eligible teams are still hazy. For example, the Wizards play the 76ers just once in their next eight games, but from the 76ers perspective, their next eight eligible games look like this:

  • Indiana
  • Washington
  • Toronto
  • Phoenix
  • Portland
  • Washington
  • Orlando
  • Milwaukee

It’s impossible for the Wizards to play Philly just once while the Sixers play the Wizards twice, so one of these two schedules will have to be altered. I’d imagine this isn’t the only case in the league, so stuff will have to be worked out on that end, and it’s entirely possible that the schedule laid out for Washington will look totally different come July 31.

No matter who they end up playing, the Wizards will have to be within four games of the eighth spot to qualify for the play-in tournament.

If the Wizards stumble around for their eight games, unable to get any closer to Orlando/Brooklyn in the bottom of the standings, then the season ends there. If they manage to win at least two more games than Orlando OR Brooklyn, then they will force the play-in tournament.

The Wizards’ spot in the standings at the end of the eight games will determine the stakes for the two-game-maximum play-in tournament:

  • If the Wizards finish ninth, but within four games, then they will play the eighth seed in a play-in series. The Wizards would need to beat said eighth seed twice in a row in order to earn the final playoff spot; the other would need to beat the Wizards just once.
  • If the Wizards finish eighth, then the same rules apply, except the Wizards would have to beat the ninth seed just once to secure their spot, while the ninth seed would have to beat the Wizards twice.
  • If the Wizards finish seventh (which would take a miracle beyond reasonable possibility), they would be locked in to face the two-seed, bypassing the play-in tournament.

Essentially, the play-in tournament would be like starting a seven-game series where the eighth seed enters with an automatic 3-2 series lead over the ninth. It’s an interesting concept, and definitely provides a proper advantage to the eighth seed. It will be a tough road for the Wizards, but as a 24-win team, it’s a gift that they’re in this position at all.

There is still plenty of time for details to be sorted out, and once schedules become finalized it will be easier to compare the Wizards’ chances of success with the other fringe teams, but for now we at least have July 31 to look forward to.

(Cover Photo Credit: Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

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