The NBA will determine this week how it will try to restart its season, sorting through options to find the best way out of a bad situation to crown a champion.
The Clippers and the Lakers will be paying extra close attention. When the NBA shut down March 11, the two Los Angeles franchises were regarded as the best teams in the Western Conference, and along with Milwaukee the teams with the best chance to finish the season on top.
But the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent NBA shutdown forced the league to consider new formulas to finish the season, and those formulas will impact the Lakers and the Clippers in their pursuit of a title.
To figure this out, we’ve created a ranking system based on win-loss record, net efficiency rating and a points-based system that rewards teams for having All-Stars, All-NBA players and MVPs over the last three seasons to assign value to each team.
Our rankings: 1. Milwaukee/Lakers (tie); 3. Clippers; 4. Boston/Houston (tie); 6. Toronto; 7. Miami/Denver; 9. Utah; 10. Dallas; 11. Philadelphia; 12. Indianapolis; 13. Oklahoma City; 14. Brooklyn; 15. Portland; 16. San Antonio; 17. Memphis; 18. Orlando/New Orleans (tie); 20. Sacramento.
Here’s how things could shake out for L.A.’s two contenders.
Option 1: Start the playoffs
For teams in the top eight in each conference, this is largely believed to be the preferred route — a way that values the games played and doesn’t tinker too much.
If there are no more regular-season games, the Lakers’ path would be much easier than the Clippers', the reward for more consistent effort and execution during the regular season than anyone else in the Western Conference.
Of the 16 playoff teams, only Orlando scores lower in our ranking than Memphis, the Lakers’ first-round opponent in this scenario. Assuming they’d dispatch the Grizzlies, the Lakers will see either No. 13-ranked Oklahoma City or ninth-ranked Utah, which will be without starting small forward Bojan Bogdanovic because of season-ending wrist surgery. Utah has played without its second-leading scorer once this season and lost by nine to the Lakers. While the Thunder might be scarier than their ranking in the eyes of some, the Lakers' first two rounds shouldn’t provide too tough of a challenge.
The Clippers’ path is more arduous. They would face Dallas in the first round. The Mavericks, thanks to the NBA's third-best net rating, are ranked 10th in this methodology (and would be higher if second-year phenom Luka Doncic was a few seasons deeper into his career).
Things would be even tougher in the second round, with the sixth-seeded Rockets ranked ahead of No. 3 Denver. Houston is ranked third in the West in this system behind the star power of James Harden and Russell Westbrook — dynamic players who can swing a series with one hot week.
Option 2: Playoffs with 1-16 seeding
A possible wrinkle on returning with the playoffs would be to seed the postseason 1-16 based on record — a method that again likely would favor the Lakers.
The Lakers would be the No. 2 overall seed and would have to beat Brooklyn in the first round before meeting the winner of Houston and Utah in the second round. The rest of their side of the bracket would include Toronto, Memphis, Indiana and Denver.
The Clippers would see Dallas and Doncic in the first round before battling either Philadelphia or Boston in the second. The rest of that bracket — top-seeded Milwaukee, Orlando, Miami and Oklahoma City — ranks close to the Clippers, Mavericks, Celtics and 76ers. It's a toss-up.
Option 3: Borrow from World Cup
This option might be the scariest for the Lakers and the Clippers because it’s the most random.
In this scenario, the NBA would invite 20 teams to Orlando — the 16 already in the playoff spots plus Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento and San Antonio — and split them into groups of five. The pool play essentially functions as the first round of the playoffs, with the top two teams in each group advancing.
Each group would attempt to be as balanced as possible by separating teams with the best records. But in the end, it’s a draw — and it’s random.
We did a random drawing based on the NBA’s expected methodology, and it wasn’t too bad for the Lakers or the Clippers. In our draw, the Clippers would compete with Miami, Indiana, Dallas and New Orleans. The Lakers would have Utah, Philadelphia, Orlando and Sacramento.
But it’s just as likely that the Lakers or Clippers could end up in a group with Boston, Houston, Brooklyn and San Antonio.
Option 4: Invite Only
This scenario is harder to project.
The NBA would invite 22 teams to return to action — the 20 previously mentioned plus Phoenix and Washington. The league would stage games to conclude the regular season before conducting a play-in tournament for the final playoff spots.
This could be bad news for the Lakers. Both the Trail Blazers and Spurs are rated as more difficult opponents than the Grizzlies in our formula, and while the Pelicans trail the Grizzlies, a healthy New Orleans with Zion Williamson is scarier than Memphis.
Option 5: Everyone returns
This seems like the least likely scenario, but it would be the most “normal” in this abnormal return to play and a chance to recover some financial losses. This proposal would give the NBA a chance to salvage commitments to local broadcast partners. The down sides, though, are also financial.
The more teams in Orlando, the more testing and processing required and the greater the risk of positive tests for coronavirus — a cluster of which could again shut down the league. If that happens, neither the Lakers nor Clippers can accomplish their goals.