The Pacers could benefit from major NBA playoff structure changes

Indiana Pacers, NBA Finals

Indiana Pacers, NBA Finals (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Two months ago, the NBA Finals felt like a long-term goal for the Indiana Pacers.

Sure, with Victor Oladipo returning from injury it felt like anything could be possible, but the dominance of the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, among other high-powered teams this season, made a Finals bid in 2020 a bit of a stretch for the Pacers.

Even the most optimistic projections struggle to paint the Pacers as a legitimate playoff threat. FiveThirtyEight’s projections give the team less than a 1 percent probability of making the final round.

The Pacers lost to the Bucks by an average of 18.25 points per game this year. And that was with them resting star players far less than they would in a playoff series.

Teams like the Bucks have the potential to step on your neck in a 7-game playoff series.

The Pacers are a good team, but they have not and will not have very much time to generate chemistry as a full unit. Next year’s odds look far better with the continued ascension of Domantas Sabonis and potential marginal signings in free agency to keep things moving forward as the team builds chemistry.

That is, until coronavirus, which flips everything on its head.

Nothing makes sense these days, especially sports.

Let’s summarize:

  • The league suspended its season on March 11
  • The league determined the suspension will go until at least mid-April, then decided nothing could be determined about completion of season until May
  • Recommendations from health experts project the earliest the league can resume to be more like June or July
  • NBA is still motivated to finish the season and crown a champion to ensure the season is finished and to continue to generate revenue

Since the league is motivated to do anything but cancel the season, they’ve looked at some truly out-there playoff ideas.

Ironically, the league was struggling to sell the board of governors on the radical playoff changes and in-season tournaments they wanted to push just months ago. Now, they might be forced into testing similar changes.

Of the most radical ideas is the league attempting to finish the season in a “bubble bowl” situation where every team congregates and quarantines in one spot (all parties would be tested and cleared for coronavirus) and finishes the season in a one-location, neutral-zone tournament. Likely there would be no fans in this scenario, and the most likely location appears to be Las Vegas according to Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated.

It feels like a far-fetched logistical challenge, but it’s on the table. Almost everything is right now.

The format of the playoffs projects to be different because the league likely can’t start things up until September.

According to a report from CNBC, the league is looking at limiting series to best of five in the first round and for the NBA Finals, but replacing the middle two rounds with one-and-done games to speed things up. With the 2020-21 season coming right behind, the completion of this year must be condensed.

That’s right, win or go home. No chance to show up and have a bad game and make up for it with a blistering performance later in the series.

That bodes well for teams like the Pacers, who might not be able to hang around for an entire series against a team like the Bucks, but could put on a strong single-game outlier showing and steal a game.

“Stealing a game” this year might equate to “stealing a series.”

And stealing a series gives you momentum that will carry into the next series, especially for the teams that identify more with the underdog trope.

Cinderella stories are generally reserved for the NCAA Tournament in March and April. This year the Pacers might be an underdog championship competitor.

It still might be a stretch to expect the Pacers to stack up to a hungry Bucks or Celtics team. It certainly wouldn’t be favorable to see an angry (and rested!) LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard in the NBA Finals.

If the league returns with single-elimination in play, though, better believe the Pacers can put up a fight.

Next: 15 greatest playoff moments of all time

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