NBA playoff debate: Most exciting first-round matchups and players to watch

The NBA’s return-to-play plan, which includes a likely 22-team field competing in Orlando, Florida, in regular-season games and a play-in tournament to decide postseason berths, is expected to pass in a Thursday board of governors vote.

The Memphis Grizzlies and Orlando Magic were holding the No. 8 seeds in their respective conferences when the league was suspended on March 11, but it looks like they will have to compete for their spots in the postseason when the season resumes.

Our experts break down what they’re most excited for in a play-in tournament, debate who has the most at stake and share their bold predictions for the playoffs.

MORE: When will the NBA return? Latest updates and big questions


1. What intrigues you most about the proposed play-in tournament?

Kevin Arnovitz: We’ve been openly debating the merits and drawbacks of a play-in tournament for years, and now we’ll finally have a pilot program to measure its value. We’ll find out whether this product is something players and fans respond to and something broadcast partners are intrigued by. If it works, it could generate a significant amount of revenue for the NBA in the next broadcast deal, which consequently might afford the league the chance to shave a few regular-season games off the schedule.

Kevin Pelton: How wide open it might be in the West this year. Despite the 3½-game lead the Grizzlies enjoyed in the race for eighth, all six teams that might be invited to Orlando are separated by barely a point per game in terms of differential, from the minus-0.8 mark for the New Orleans Pelicans to minus-1.9 for the Sacramento Kings.

Mike Schmitz: I’m interested in the viability of a play-in tournament every season moving forward. If all goes well, starting the playoffs with a quick-hitting tournament to determine back-end playoff slots could be a great way to hook viewers early, providing more of an NCAA tournament feel that would surely be welcomed by the sports betting community.

Andrew Lopez: I like the idea that the NBA is allowing itself to experiment at this point, but so many questions remain. How many times will Washington have to beat Orlando (or Brooklyn) to get the eighth spot in the East? What will happen in the race for No. 8 in the West? Is this something the NBA implements moving forward? The time for experimentation is now, so let’s get wild.

Royce Young: The novelty of it. Bringing the win-or-go-home mentality of the NCAA tournament to the NBA could produce games like we haven’t really seen before. There’s a fine line between feeling gimmicky and feeling energized, and a play-in tournament will walk it. But if it adds intensity and weight to early postseason games, it could bring the kind of moments typically reserved for a Game 7.

2. Which potential first-round playoff matchup would you most like to see?

Arnovitz: Philadelphia and Boston have a rich history and contrasting styles, schemes and personnel. If Ben Simmons returns healthy for the Sixers, the matchup would be an unusually strong one for a first-round series.

Schmitz: Mavericks-Clippers. I’m fascinated to see how Luka Doncicthe third-most efficient isolation player in the NBA (minimum 200 possessions) — will fare against elite wing defenders Paul George and Kawhi Leonard in his potential playoff debut. Mismatch nightmare Kristaps Porzingis was also starting to hit his stride before the hiatus. This one has far more star power than your traditional 2-7 matchup.

Pelton: Boston-Philadelphia. Coming into the season, I think the expectation was that Celtics-Sixers might be a conference semifinals matchup — maybe even one we’d see in the conference finals. For these two talented teams, connected by Al Horford and Jayson Tatum, to square off in the opening round would be a heavyweight battle.

Young: There’s something of a perfect serendipity to the Thunder and Jazz picking up the NBA season where it left off, but put me down for Luka and the Mavs against the superteam Clippers. What the NBA is going to need out of the gate in these unusual circumstances is a good product, and both teams can play high-level, pretty basketball. Playoff Luka is something we haven’t seen before, and it isn’t hard to imagine some epic individual battles between him and both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.

Lopez: The potential Boston-Philadelphia matchup in the 3-6 spot takes on a new life in the bubble. The Sixers were one of the worst road teams in the league this season. Now that this matchup could take place in Orlando, does that eliminate Philly’s road woes? Does it amplify them? I think it elevates what was already a fun matchup.

3. Which player’s return will you be most interested to watch?

Schmitz: Zion Williamson. Not only is he already one of the league’s most entertaining young stars, but his post-quarantine conditioning also will be a point of interest. If Zion is somehow able to lead New Orleans into the playoffs, potentially knocking out the Grizzlies in the process, is that a large enough body of work to move him ahead of Ja Morant in the Rookie of the Year race?

Pelton: I’m going to cheat and say Jusuf Nurkic or Zach Collins, the Blazers’ ideal starting frontcourt that has played a combined 86 minutes this season. How well Collins and Nurkic play together as starters will go a long way toward determining whether Portland can replicate last season’s playoff success.

Young: LeBron James is the easy answer because it’s probably the best one. Did the time away freshen him to a level we’ve never seen before in a postseason setting? Or will he be rusty? How will he handle the circumstances? Other players are interesting — I’m curious about Russell Westbrook not having any courtside fans to play off of for motivation — but LeBron’s approach is without question the most fascinating individual situation.

Lopez: What will Zion look like? According to Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin, Williamson was cleared by the NBA to use the Pelicans’ facility to keep rehabbing his surgically repaired knee. When Williamson spoke to Ernie Johnson in early May, he said he was ready to return to basketball right away. Williamson was coming into his own in March, when the season was suspended, so what he looks like after three months of rest will be something to behold.

Arnovitz: LeBron James. This season, we saw what happens when James is afforded eight months off in lieu of a 100-game grind through late-June. Can we expect the same kind of production after he got a four-month hiatus on the eve of the postseason? If so, the Lakers — already prime title contenders — will be even more dangerous in a bubble postseason than they’d have been with LeBron logging a full season headed into the playoffs in April.

4. Which player or team has the most at stake in a return?

Arnovitz: The Blazers in that they’ll be playing for their postseason chances in any play-in scenario. Portland owns the fourth-longest current playoff streak. Although the Blazers are currently on the outside looking in, they’ll likely be equipped with their starting frontcourt of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins for the first time this season, essentially fielding the core of last year’s Western Conference finalists.

Young: Again, LeBron. In basically every situation, LeBron has the most at stake. But there will be a certain pressure on Giannis. The Bucks were on track to be historically dominant, and Giannis is probably headed for another MVP. The bizarreness of the situation reshapes the outcome some, but Giannis is reaching the level of being judged by what he does — and doesn’t — have on his fingers. This Bucks team is good enough to win it all, but their chances rest largely on Giannis rediscovering his dominance.

Pelton: The Milwaukee Bucks, who can offer Giannis Antetokounmpo a supermax extension this offseason. We don’t know whether Giannis’ decision will depend on the Bucks’ playoff run, but a championship sure wouldn’t hurt their chances of retaining the reigning MVP.

Schmitz: The 76ers. Teams such as the Grizzlies and Pelicans have already exceeded expectations. I’m most interested in seeing what the Sixers look like with Ben Simmons back in the fold and whether they can make a deep playoff run with this core.

Lopez: LeBron. If there were to be a complete cancellation of the season, James would have missed out on a chance to win a title with a third franchise and further try to cement himself as the greatest player of all time. Now, he gets an opening to lead his team to a title in the most unusual of scenarios.

5. What’s your bold prediction for the rest of the season?

Schmitz: Although this is more hopeful than anything, I optimistically predict that there will be no major injuries after such a long layoff, and the season will finish with a proper champion crowned (knocks on wood).

Arnovitz: Given the lengthy break, the return of numerous players who wouldn’t have otherwise competed in the postseason and the elimination of home-court advantage, we will see an unprecedented amount of parity. I don’t know who and I don’t know when, but some favorites will fall far earlier than we’re accustomed to seeing upsets. Buckle up.

Lopez: The Bucks and Lakers end up in the Finals. It’s probably not really that bold of me to pick the top two seeds to make the Finals, but these two established themselves as the top teams throughout the season, and even with the hectic nature of the remainder of the season in Orlando, they should still shine.

Pelton: Ben Simmons matches or beats his current career total of two 3-pointers.

Young: There will be upsets. We’re picturing these matchups with the teams that left off on March 11, but this will be different. Some teams will be healthier, with deeper rosters than they had before. Some teams will struggle to rediscover rhythm and chemistry. Some might have difficulty with the odd circumstances. True first-round upsets don’t happen too often in the NBA, but the slate is kind of wiped clean this time. There will be numbers next to teams’ names for seeding, but they really don’t matter. There will be no true home-court, no traditional playoff format and an open opportunity to see some weird stuff. Let’s get wild.