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The Denver Nuggets’ Best And Worst Playoff Scenarios

With various logistical wheels in motion, and progress being made toward reaching a decision on how to restart the NBA season, it appears that the league’s suspension in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is drawing closer to an end.

According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania on Twitter, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the league office are targeting July 31 as the date for resuming the season.

For the Denver Nuggets, this means they should soon get their chance to compete in the postseason in some way, shape or form, but what that will look like, and whether it will include any remaining regular season games, has yet to be determined.

In fact, the only aspect of the NBA season resumption which appears to have a high degree of certainty at this point is that it will almost certainly be held solely at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, as Charania and Sam Amick reported last week. According to their article, in terms of the safety and manageability of restarting the NBA amidst the pandemic, “Disney World’s controllability as a playing site – with a private property having the necessary complexes, hotels and amenities – has been the most appealing of all the possibilities all along” for the league.

Following a Friday meeting of the NBA’s board of governors, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelbourne reported that sources had confirmed the board will hold a vote on Thursday this week, “with owners expected to approve commissioner Adam Silver’s recommendation on a format to restart the season in Orlando, Florida.”

The exact restart format which Silver and the owners agree upon, however, remains largely unknown, with none of options on the table capable of satisfying all of the franchises, players, general managers and agents who hold stakes in the potential outcome.

“There’s no consensus – at all – on either how to finish the regular season or what the postseason format will look like,” David Aldridge of The Athletic reported, and while he notes that “there is a lot of support among teams and agents to include as many teams as possible,” a recent survey of the league’s GMs points to there being significant divides among the teams with respect to their preferred restart plans.

According to Tim Bontemps of ESPN, the survey – which went out to all 30 of the league’s GMs – found that among four options presented, 16 GMs preferred to only bring back the 16 playoff teams based on the current NBA standings, while nine GMs would opt for a return to the regular season which includes all 30 teams (with one GM differing on the subsequent playoff format), and five GMs would support a straight-to-playoffs plan which opened with a play-in or group stage tournament.

The bottom line is that teams and players in drastically different situations have competing interests which will never be reconciled to all parties’ satisfaction. This creates significant obstacles for the league, owners, players and agents in landing on a single format which will garner broad support, even as the Thursday vote, the targeted July 31 return date, and the broader goal of a timely finish to the season push theleague closer to having to finalize a decision.

In terms of narrowing down the potential formats, the one bit of tangible progress which was reported by Wojnarowski and Shelbourne as emerging from the board of governors meeting was that “bringing back all 30 teams is no longer believed to be a legitimate consideration.”

That would leave some permutation of one of the 16-, 20- or 22-team proposals as the most likely outcome, but teams (and some players) are far apart on those as well. And that is before even factoring in the increased risk of COVID-19 transmission (and the accompanying increase in logistical complications) which would be brought by adding more teams into the mix.

In addition, one of the most cleanly divisive questions on the GM survey was whether to retain the traditional conference-based playoff seeding format or to reseed the top 16 teams according to their records, irrespective of conferences. While 14 GMs would prefer that the NBA try reseeding one through 16 regardless of conference, the other 16 GMs (presumably 15 of them from Eastern Conference teams) would opt to keep the traditional seeding format.

As for the Denver Nuggets, who would currently match up against the Houston Rockets based on the pre-hiatus standings, the range of potential postseason options could bear heavily on their fate by presenting a wide variety of potential playoff seedings and formats. Below is a look at some of the scenarios which may be more or less favorable to Denver.

Best Case Scenario: Straight One Through 16 Seeding

Less-Than-Ideal Scenario: Traditional Conference Seeding Based On Current Standings

Cutting straight to the heart of this matter means addressing these two scenarios together. The short version is that the Nuggets have won just three games and lost 12 against the Rockets over the past four seasons, which is to say, they have pretty much been owned.

Now, this is not to say that they should be automatically written off in a matchup with Houston. On the contrary, there are good reasons to believe they stand a better chance against them this season than they would have the past two or three.

The first of these is the Rockets’ 2019 trade of Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook, and the second is their deadline trade this season of Clint Capela with Robert Covington as the main return – a move which Denver facilitated not only to acquire a first-round draft pick for Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, but ostensibly to get Capela out of Houston as well.

The Nuggets now match up more favorably against the Rockets than they would have a year ago, absent the pick-and-roll and lob threats which Paul and Capela present to a Denver defense that is particularly vulnerable on those fronts. Additionally, the Nuggets went two and two against Houston this season, avoiding losing the season series for their first time since 2016.

All of that said, a straight one through 16 seeding without regard to conferences would put Denver up against the Indiana Pacers in the first round as things currently stand. Even if the Nuggets match up better now with Houston relative to recent incarnations of both teams, Indiana would still be the far more favorable draw for the Nuggets.

As the chart below shows, Nikola Jokic’s head-to-head matchup versus Pacers center Myles Turner, in which he’s won six out of their nine games against each other, has been one of his more advantageous, where he’s averaged significant increases in both scoring (up by 6.8 points per game) and efficiency (a 5.4 percent improvement in his effective field goal percentage) compared to his career numbers, while Turner’s shooting percentages have taken a hit (a 3 percent drop in eFG%) as his scoring remained close to his career par, per Basketball-Reference.com.

While there is some good news for Indiana in that both Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon are rumored to be healthy, given the choice between the Pacers and Rockets, this is a matchup Denver would take every time.

Possible Worst-Case Scenario: A Bad Draw In A World Cup-Style Group Stage

According to ESPN’s Zach Lowe, one version of a World Cup-style group stage of the playoffs would feature 20 teams organized in four groups of five teams, with each group comprised of “a rough composite of the league at large: one elite team; two strong playoff teams; one lower-rung playoff team; one current lottery team.”

Though little information seems to have emerged about just precisely how those groups would be selected, if the process where not randomized in some way but rather based on the current standings with the top seed Milwaukee Bucks going into a hypothetical “Group A,” the second seed Los Angeles Lakers going into “Group B” and so on through the San Antonio Spurs at 20th being the final addition to “Group D,” the Nuggets could well find themselves in one of their most disadvantageous potential playoff scenarios.

As the groupings above show, Denver in this scenario would end up facing two of their worst matchups in the Lakers and Rockets, and would also tip off against lower-seeded teams which have been punching well above their weight class in the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans, which feature the league’s two most talented rookies in Ja Morant and Zion Williamson, respectively.

The Nuggets would certainly prefer to swap places with the Utah Jazz in this case to match up against a Toronto Raptors team that, while still very formidable, no longer features Kawhi Leonard, the aforementioned Pacers, the Brooklyn Nets – who will almost certainly be without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, and the Sacramento Kings.

To be clear once again, these groupings are purely speculative based only on the current seeding, and not derived from any potential grouping process which the NBA has actually announced or leaked to the public. As such, it’s entirely possible that the picture could end up looking quite different for Denver in a group stage format. Then again, “Nugg Life” rules – the popular notion among fans of a sort of Murphy’s Law bad-luck curse which never fails to plague the Nuggets – would dictate that they end up in the nightmare scenario above.

Potentially Beneficial Scenario: A Regular Season Reshuffling Of The Current Standings

With the Nuggets trailing the Los Angeles Clippers for the second seed by just 1.5 games and leading the Jazz by the same 1.5 games for the third, and with only 2.5 games separating the four teams in the fourth through seventh seeds as well, a shortened regular season remainder which even featured as few as eight games could see the Western Conference playoff seeding (or the league playoff seeding in a one through 16 seeding scenario) reshuffle significantly to land on a very altered playoff picture.

Depending on which teams moved up or down, the Nuggets would be in range of facing Utah, Oklahoma City or Dallas in a traditional seeding format, any of which would ostensibly be preferable opponents to Houston. And if Denver were somehow able to wrest the second seed from the Clippers in a play-in tournament scenario in which teams competed for both the seventh and eighth seeds, they could even end up facing a currently lower-seeded team that had some good luck in the play-in games. If that were a team such as San Antonio or Sacramento, it would basically result in the Nuggets’ dream first-round matchup. And while a reshuffling could break the other way for Denver as well, especially in a randomized group stage format, it seems unlikely it would produce a worse first-round draw for them than the Rockets.

Keeping It Real: It’s Probably Houston

While Adam Silver and the league appear both highly interested and motivated to use the coronavirus disruption as an opportunity to experiment with a new postseason format, there appears to be a lot of pressure at the same time – especially in terms of avoiding the “asterisk” label being stuck on whichever team wins the championship – to not depart too far from tradition.

If a compromise is reached which bridges these competing preferences, it would likely be a combination of traditional conference-based seeding with a play-in for the lowest one or two seeds in the bracket. If so, the Nuggets would stay locked into their matchup with the Rockets in a straight-to-playoffs scenario, with their only hope for a different outcome being a regular season seeding reshuffling which, while very possible, would be far from a guarantee, especially with so few games likely to be booked on the remaining schedule.

As much as things still remain up in the air, that leaves Denver with their most likely outcome still being a Houston Rockets first round draw. It may not be ideal, but that’s what both the Nuggets organization and their fans should probably be gearing up for.

Source: Forbes Business

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