After three dreary months with only conference calls and virtual meetings on the calendar, the NBA has finally released the schedule for its July return at Disney World.
The 22 invited teams will each play eight regular-season games between July 30 and Aug. 14 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando. The games, which will be played without fans at three gyms within a protected bubble, will count toward each team's regular-season record and determine seeding for the playoffs, which will begin Aug. 17.
Here's a quick rundown of answers to key questions as teams prepare to head to Florida next week.
Q: Why did the NBA decide to play regular-season games rather than skip to the playoffs?
A: Money, rust and buzz.
Extending the regular season allows the NBA, which is facing more than a billion dollars in lost revenue since going on hiatus March 11, to air dozens of games on national television. Adding the games will also help participating teams surpass 70 games played for the season, a key benchmark for satisfying the terms of their local television deals.
By the time games roll around, players will be more than four months removed from their last regular season games - a longer layoff than the typical offseason. Playing regular season games offers a ramp-up between an abbreviated training camp in Florida and the start of the postseason.
The additional regular season games also enabled the NBA to expand past 16 teams, thereby engaging a larger number of fan bases by creating chases for the final playoff spots. Rather than resume with lopsided first-round matchups after so much time off, the NBA has scheduled rookie phenom Zion Williamson and a clash between LeBron James's Los Angeles Lakers and Kawhi Leonard's Los Angeles Clippers on opening night. They clearly want to restart with a bang.
Q: What's at stake during the regular season games?
A: Home-court advantage will be a non-factor in these playoffs because all games will be played at a neutral site, so the top concern is who plays whom in the first round. With so many tight races for seeding in both conferences, all eight first-round matchups remain unsettled.
There is also a new twist with the final playoff spot in each conference. After the eight extra games, the NBA will utilize a play-in round if the ninth seed in either conference is within four games of the eighth seed. During the play-in round, the eighth seed would need to win one game against the ninth seed to advance to the playoffs, while the ninth seed would need to win twice in a row to advance.
In the Eastern Conference, the Washington Wizards will seek to push the Brooklyn Nets or the Orlando Magic for the eighth seed. In the West, five teams are chasing the Memphis Grizzlies for the final spot.
Q: What will a typical day of games look like?
A:Prepare for hoops overload: The NBA will utilize three venues to play up to seven games a day, with as many as four on national television. Tip times will range from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Eastern time with staggered starts, meaning die-hards can watch multiple games simultaneously and consume up to 10 consecutive hours of action on a busy day.
Q: How did the NBA set each team's eight-game schedule?
A: The NBA started with the next remaining opponents on each team's original schedule in chronological order, throwing out any games that included the eight teams that weren't invited to Orlando. Other minor adjustments followed, including removing some repeat matchups between the same two teams.
Q: Which teams enjoy the easiest schedules? Which are stuck with the toughest slates?
According to WinsAdded.com, these five teams have the softest schedules: the New Orleans Pelicans, Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers and Magic. By contrast, the Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors, Denver Nuggets, Lakers and Grizzlies have the five toughest.
A: Thanks to Williamson, all eyes will be on the Pelicans, who were mounting a late push into the playoffs and a possible first-round date with the Lakers before the shutdown. Six of the Pelicans' eight games will come against teams with losing records - the highest number for any team in the field. Their relatively easy slate gives the Pelicans an outside shot of moving past the Grizzlies into eighth place before the play-in round.
There is more good schedule news for the Pelicans. The Portland Trail Blazers, one of their chief rivals to force a play-in, have the NBA's sixth-toughest schedule. New Orleans also gets two games against the Sacramento Kings, with whom they are tied in the standings, to help control its fate. Add it all up, and ESPN.com simulations give New Orleans a 54 percent chance of finishing eighth or ninth, with Portland at 21 percent and Sacramento at 20 percent.
The Celtics are another team to watch given that they have a much easier schedule than the Raptors, whom they trail by three games for the East's second seed. Jumping up would allow the Celtics to face a weaker team such as the Nets or Magic in a No. 2 vs. No. 7 first-round matchup, rather than the Heat, Pacers or 76ers in a No. 3 vs. No. 6 series.
Q: How did the Wizards fare?
A: Things could have been better. The Wizards will have the ninth-toughest schedule as they chase the Nets and Magic, who rank 17th and 18th, respectively. To make matters worse, the Wizards, who are 5½ games out of eighth place, must close within four games to force a play-in. Their hopes took a blow when sharpshooting forward Davis Bertans elected not to play because of his impending free agency. As such, ESPN.com's projection gives them just an 8 percent chance to force a play-in.
However, Washington's schedule might not wind up being as tough as it appears. The Wizards' toughest opponents - Boston and Milwaukee - come in their two final games. By that point, the East's powers might elect to rest their stars because their seeds might already be sealed. If the Wizards can string together a few early wins, they might be able to capitalize.