Big NBA return questions: What will the playoffs in Orlando look like?

What will the rest of the 2019-20 NBA regular season and playoffs look like? We’re tracking the big questions and updates as the league prepares to return after beginning a suspension due to the coronavirus on March 11.

The NBA’s board of governors has a 12:30 p.m. ET call on Thursday with the intention of approving the league’s plan for a 22-team return in Orlando, Florida, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The final details of that plan are still coming together.

Get the latest from ESPN’s insiders and analysts here.

MORE: Current NBA standings


What’s the latest?

The NBA is targeting a resumption of regular-season games on July 31, with 22 teams arriving at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports earlier in July. A timeline shared with teams has a last possible date for a Finals Game 7 being Oct. 12, sources told Wojnarowski.

Each of the 22 teams will play eight regular-season games in Orlando for seeding purposes for the playoffs. Joining the 16 current playoff teams in Orlando will be the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs in the West and the Washington Wizards in the East.

If the No. 9 seed is more than four games behind, the No. 8 seed will make the playoffs. If the No. 9 seed is four games back or fewer, there will be a play-in tournament. The expectation is that the NBA draft and the opening of free agency would follow in sequential order in October.

The NBA’s board of governors requires a three-fourths passage of the 30 teams on a plan, but there is an expectation among owners that they will fall into line and overwhelmingly approve the commissioner’s recommendation.

What are the specifics of the potential play-in tournament?

That’s still to be determined. The Grizzlies currently hold the No. 8 seed, with a 3½-game lead on the Blazers, Pelicans and Kings. The Spurs and Suns are further behind.

With an eight-game regular season, how will the league determine standings and seeding given an uneven number of total games played among teams? Portland has already played 66 games, but San Antonio is only at 63. And what if multiple teams finish in a tie for ninth? How the league sorts out those details remains unknown.

Who would be helped and hurt most in a neutral-site playoff format?

Kevin Pelton has projections here for each team’s championship odds compared to the standard playoff structure.

What about the safety logistics?

Teams will begin training at team sites in July and advance to full training camps in Orlando. The NBA informed teams that players currently overseas will be granted clearance to reenter the United States, regardless of U.S. travel restrictions existing in those countries, according to a memo obtained by ESPN.

Life in the NBA bubble will be governed by a set of safety protocols. While players and coaches will be allowed to golf or eat at outdoor restaurants, they will also need to maintain social distancing, sources told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.

The NBA is planning to have uniformed, daily testing for the coronavirus within the Disney campus environment. If a player tests positive for the virus, the league’s intent would be to remove that player from the team to quarantine and treat individually — and continue to test other team members as they play on.

Employees at the Disney resort will have to maintain similar protocols. For example, no staff will be allowed into players’ rooms, while hallways will be carefully managed to avoid crowding.

Do players want to play?

In team-by-team virtual calls with players in May, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts said the “overwhelming” sentiment has been that “they really want to play” and resume the season.

“It’s time. It’s time,” Roberts told ESPN. “It’s been 2½ months of ‘what if?’ My players need some level of certainty. I think everybody does.”

Will family members be able to join players in Orlando?

In May, the NBA and the union were progressing on a plan that would allow for a limited number of family members in the bubble environment, sources told ESPN.

Conversations centered on the timing of family arrivals at Disney, which are likely to start once an initial wave of teams is eliminated and the number of people within the league’s bubble decreases.

Family members would be subjected to the same safety and coronavirus testing protocols as everyone else living in the NBA’s biosphere. Many players are eager to have family join them in Orlando, particularly those on contending teams who anticipate lengthy stays in the playoffs.

What about the teams not in Orlando?

For those teams left out of the playoffs, there has already been dialogue on the possibility of mandatory summer training camps and regional fall leagues of four to five teams that could bridge the lengthy gap between seasons, sources told ESPN. Those are ideas many teams consider vital, and there’s an expectation that the NBA will raise possible scenarios such as these with the players’ association.

The inequities facing smaller markets had to shape the league’s thinking, Thunder owner Clay Bennett suggested on a board of governors call. Nine months without games — March to December — could have an impact on developing players, cultivating sponsorships and selling tickets in markets where franchises struggle to gain a hold.

What’s going on with the league financials?

That will be the next big question as soon as the NBA finalizes a return-to-play plan. Silver told players that 40% of league revenue comes from money built around game nights in arenas. Without that revenue, there could be a drastic decline in the projected $115 million salary cap and $139 million luxury tax for 2020-21.

The initial cap projections were based on an expected $8 billion in basketball-related income (BRI), which is now expected to decrease by at least $1 billion and potentially as much as $2 billion. BRI takes into account a wide range of revenue from gate receipts to broadcast rights, and it is split roughly evenly between teams and players.

NBA players are already having 25% of their paychecks for this season withheld to account for the loss in revenue. That money — and potentially additional pay cuts — could be returned to teams if the final restart outcome doesn’t even out the BRI split.

The league and the players’ union will need to make adjustments to the CBA and how the business of basketball operates going forward. ESPN’s Bobby Marks breaks down what those negotiations will look like here.

Editor’s note: ESPN is owned by The Walt Disney Co.