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Suns could be left out of NBA return as bubble debate rages

Phoenix Suns head coach Monty Williams talks to his team during a timeout in the first half during an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets, Monday, Dec. 23, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Forget any quibbles about the safety of an NBA return via a “bubble” at Disney World.

Taking away any health concerns involving coronavirus, a continuation of the 2019-20 season at all comes with its complications about format and participation. How many teams will participate in a return? That remains the biggest question.

Speaking with Yahoo! Sports’ Chris Haynes, Damian Lillard wasn’t shy about needing a true purpose to chase after a postseason berth with his Portland Trail Blazers sitting 3.5 games out of the final Western Conference playoff spot.

“If we come back and they’re just like, ‘We’re adding a few games to finish the regular season,’ and they’re throwing us out there for meaningless games and we don’t have a true opportunity to get into the playoffs, I’m going to be with my team because I’m a part of the team,” Lillard said.

“But I’m not going to be participating. I’m telling you that right now. And you can put that in there.”

Before Memorial Day weekend, it appeared that the NBA was moving swiftly to create a plan for returning to a regular season. Likely, that would happen with teams staging in Orlando at Disney World.

A few days later, the complexities have bubbled up, reports ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe.

The NBA and National Basketball Players Association have discussed a model of 30 teams returning to reach a target goal of 72 regular-season games, sources said. The Hawks, who had 10 players participate in voluntary workouts on Memorial Day, are the league’s closest to that total with 67 games played this season.

Hawks GM Travis Schlenk told ESPN he would still want his team to compete for five games.

In Phoenix, general manager James Jones has held a similar stance in the past few months, saying that returning at 100% health would help the Suns build on their season.

Forward Frank Kaminsky, who has been out since the calendar year flipped to 2020, said last week he and his teammates would play even if it were only to reach 70 or so games (Phoenix has played 65).

The Suns (26-39) are six games back of the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western Conference with four non-playoff teams ahead of them.

“We’re the type of group — we’re really competitive,” Kaminsky said. “Everyone wants to go out there and prove things. We got a lot of young guys on this team that have a lot to prove, myself included.

“Any games we can take at this point to go out there and show what we can do, we’re gonna take.”

But as Lillard showed, players wanting a return regardless of their positioning is not unanimous, per ESPN.

When the NBA and NBPA canvass teams at the bottom of the standings, they also hear ambivalence. Not one owner or GM is explicitly telling anyone they don’t want to play this season. Even so, there are enough players on enough bad teams who’ve shared the idea that they don’t see the value in several weeks of camp and quarantines to play five to eight regular-season games with no playoff potential.

Some lottery teams have also made it clear via back channels to the league that if their players are decidedly so-so on returning, there will be no showdown. Translated: If you need to keep us out, we’ll gladly keep our favorable lottery position. See you next season.

Even locking in the current lottery standings would not alleviate the concerns among players. Playing poorly after the hiatus could cost some upcoming free agents money.

It’s not about asking every team back or only inviting current playoff teams, either.

ESPN reports that GMs were surveyed about a pool play option in which “somewhere between the 16 current playoff teams and the full body of 30 NBA teams” would participate in a certain number of games against their group. The top eight teams in two brackets would advance into a format similar to that of the NBA’s regular postseason.

Current playoff teams, however, might not want that format as they risk falling out of the first eight seeds they worked hard to capture before coronavirus suspended play.

The Ringer’s Kevin O’Conner reports a more specific proposal in which the top 20 teams would be included in the group stage.

One proposal is to replace the first round of the playoffs with a “group stage” in which the 20 teams with the best records would be placed into four groups of five teams. Teams would play two games against each opponent in their own group, and the teams with the two best records from each group would qualify for the second round of the playoffs.

The Suns are one spot out of the top-20 and would not be included in that scenario.

A Thursday call with league GMs and a Friday board of governors meeting could clarify the direction the NBA is heading. All options remain on the table, according to the report.

There are still a number of ideas under discussion, including this one: bringing back the four Western Conference teams on the playoff bubble for play-in purposes, but none in the Eastern Conference, sources said.

At this point, it’s still not certain if the Suns will be part of a return.


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