As NBA owners and executives discuss the return of the NBA playoffs this summer, Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer is reporting that “There is some support in the league office for the NBA to have a World Cup style ‘group stage’ replace the first round of the NBA Playoffs.”
With this format, the top-20 teams by record would be placed into five tiers by record. Each group would have one team from each tier randomly selected.
Each team would play every team in their group twice. Upon conclusion of these games, the two teams with the best records would move on to the second round, where the final eight teams would play normal seven-game series from there on out.
This begs the question: would the Indiana Pacers benefit from this format, as opposed to the normal format?
I believe they would.
Let’s start with the matchup the Pacers would currently have if the normal playoffs began today. As the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, Indiana would face-off against the Miami Heat in the first round, a team they are 0-2 against this season, including a loss on January 8 in which the Heat led by 28 points at the end of the third quarter.
Many people are anxiously anticipating this matchup, due to the verbal exchange between Jimmy Butler and T.J. Warren during the last matchup. Nobody is disputing that this would be an entertaining series, but Miami’s three-point shooting and lengthy perimeter defenders have given the Pacers a tough time this year.
Even if the Pacers were to get past Miami, they would run into the juggernaut that is the Milwaukee Bucks. The Pacers scored a victory over the Bucks this year, but it was without 2019 MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
In the past, Indiana has had Thaddeus Young to give Antetokounmpo issues. This year, there is no Giannis-stopper on the team. It’s hard to envision a scenario where the Pacers are able to knock off the Bucks with a healthy Greek Freak.
What the group stage format offers is uncertainty. Uncertainty, for the 2019-20 Pacers, is better than the alternative: a best-case scenario of a second-round exit.
Sure, there is a world where Indiana draws a tough group stage. Currently slotted as a tier-3 team, they could still have to face the Bucks in the group stage, and could draw other tough matchups such as Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans as their tier-5 opponent.
But they could also get lucky and draw a tier-2 team like the Bojan Bogdanovic-less Utah Jazz or a tier-1 team like the Toronto Raptors (which would still be a tough matchup, but better than the alternatives).
A scenario like provides at least a path past the second round of the playoffs for a team like the Pacers.
With nine of their top-10 players in minutes per game under contract through the 2020-21 season, the Pacers have nothing to lose this season. Give me the gamble that a group stage format offers.