The initial report on the NBA resuming with a group stage presented a 20-team scenario. There’d be four groups with five teams each – one from each tier of the current standings:
Tier 1: Bucks, Lakers, Raptors, Clippers
Tier 2: Celtics, Nuggets, Jazz, Heat
Tier 3: Thunder, Rockets, Pacers, 76ers
Tier 4: Mavericks, Grizzlies, Nets, Magic
Tier 5: Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs
Teams would play each other team in its group, and the top two finishers in each group would advance to an eight-team tournament (effectively the second round of the playoffs, though without conference splits).
But that format could apparently include four more teams.
In brief, per several sources who have seen the league’s proposal: The NBA could take 20 (or 24) teams and divide them into groups
The simplest way to expand to 24 teams would be adding a sixth tier then forming four groups of six. That’d mean adding:
Tier 6: Suns, Wizards, Hornets, Bulls
The more games the NBA holds, the more money the league will make. But the more people involved, the more risk of someone contracting and spreading coronavirus. It’s a fine line, and the league has sought a middle ground.
Phoenix, Washington, Charlotte and Chicago strike me as too lousy to include. Those teams are well outside the normal playoff race, and there’s no good reason to believe they would’ve made a late push.
In this environment, they might have shot, though. Coronavirus increases variability. Players have had differing access to resources and differing motivation to train during the hiatus. Once play resumes, positive tests could be scattered randomly. Would anyone view the Suns, Wizards, Hornets or Bulls as deserving of a berth in the eight-team tournament? If one of those four teams qualified, that’d probably just show the setup was flawed.
The fairest way to set the playoffs is with 20 teams, depending on structure. Resuming with just 16 teams wouldn’t be that far behind. The highest financial upside comes with all 30 teams, but that seems infeasible.
Setting the line at 24 teams seems like the worst of most worlds – including four bad teams that wouldn’t generate much interest but would threaten to disrupt everything else.