Breaking down the NBA Restart
By Katie King
The anxiously awaited NBA restart is just over a month away from tipping off inside the quarantine “bubble” at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, FL. However as the July 31 return date nears, the severity of Covid-19 and the increasing number of cases around the country, as well as ongoing discussions about social justice among prominent players, raise persisting questions about the resumption plans. Despite these concerns, NBA commissioner Adam Silver is confident in the league’s ability to safely finish out the season through the end of summer leading into fall.
In a nation full of change, uncertainty, and confusion, many are ready to have sports back, as they so often unite the people around us.
A total of 22 teams have been invited to Orlando, including 16 current playoff teams as well as six teams who are within six games of the eighth seed in each conference. Each team will compete in eight remaining seeding games selected based on teams’ regular season match-ups, including exciting clashes between the Clippers and Lakers, Celtics and Bucks, and Grizzlies and Pelicans, led by their respective rookie sensations.
After two weeks of regular season games, the playoffs will likely begin August 17 with the usual eight seeds from both the Eastern and Western Conference. Results of the seeding games will determine whether a play-in tournament will be necessary with teams competing for the final playoff spot.
Once the seeding is set, the battle for a ring will begin. The playoff layout will be no different than what we’ve seen in prior years. Teams will compete in a seven-game series in all four rounds of play; the first round, the conference semifinals, the conference finals, and lastly the NBA Finals.
With the 22 teams entering the bubble, speculation around who will be healthy and ready to play continues to grow. Players competing in the bubble are now making their way back to their respective teams after months of Zoom calls and individual workouts in anticipation of their return to play. Let’s take a look at each of these teams and how they match-up to the rest of the league competing for the NBA crown.
1.) Milwaukee Bucks: 53-12
Arguably the league’s top contender for the title, the NBA’s defensive leaders are looking for their first title since 1971. Giannis Antetokounmpo along with fellow all-star Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe will be at the forefront of the Buck’s effort. With Giannis’s contract up for extension in the 2020-21 season, a title could be a deal breaker in whether or not the MVP chooses to stay in Milwaukee.
2.) Toronto Raptors: 46-18
The reigning NBA Champions are back and looking for the franchise’s second consecutive title. Although Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green departed after last season’s triumph, the Raptors are still a contender. With several key players entering free agency this summer, including Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol, a playoff run could impact these player’s decisions. With the Raptors healthy and rested, they have the potential to make a deep splash in the playoffs.
3.) Boston Celtics: 43-21
Celtic stars Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown both took significant steps in their growth throughout this season, both averaging 20+ points per game. As long as Kemba Walker remains healthy in the bubble, this young squad can be a real threat in the playoffs. With Tatum and Brown early in their careers, a playoff appearance would be valuable experience for these stars to build upon going forward.
4.) Miami Heat: 41-24
After the four-month break, the Miami Heat will travel to Orlando with a healthy Jimmy Butler along with newly acquired former Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. Iguodala will provide leadership and experience to help this team through the rigor of the playoffs. Like fellow East contenders Philadelphia, the Heat have been dominant at home, posting a 27-5 home record compared to a 14-19 mark away from American Airlines Arena. If the team can turn around their ability to compete away from home, they will prevail.
5.) Indiana Pacers: 39-26
Despite the Pacers’ consistent struggle with injuries, they are still putting up some significant numbers in the race to be a top contender in the East. Victor Oladipo will be a big question mark for this team. All eyes will be on the former All-NBA selection as the team makes an appearance in the bubble. Oladipo is eligible for free agency in 2021, so a playoff run could impact his decision to stay in Indiana.
6.) Philadelphia 76ers: 39-26
There have been plenty of changes to this team over the past few years, leading to many questions surrounding the capability of the 76ers squad. With Simmons and Embiid both healthy, the Sixers could be a significant threat to make a run at the title out of the East. The questions here lay within the team’s ability to perform on the road. With a league best 29-2 home record, it will be interesting to see how this home-dominant team performs in the bubble.
7.) Brooklyn Nets: 30-34
The Nets enter the bubble with a mere half-game lead over the Magic for the 7th seed and are anxious to increase that advantage, even if it comes without their biggest stars in Kevin Durant & Kyrie Irving. Durant has been out since last season due to a ruptured Achilles while Irving underwent surgery in February and has expressed hesitance over participating in the restart amidst the social justice movements sparked around the country by the police murder of George Floyd. This team will be led by new interim head coach, Jacque Vaughn, who was appointed on March 10th. Without two of the team’s leaders, it will be up to a young squad and a new head coach to secure their spot in the playoffs.
8.) Orlando Magic: 30-35
The “home” team will be looking to land a spot in the playoffs with players Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, and Jonathan Isaac at the helm. This team will need to rally together in order to make any type of impact in the bubble. In the years since veteran presence Dwight Howard was traded away, the Magic have lacked leadership and experience, providing a key opportunity for younger players to step-up in this restart.
9.) Washington Wizards: 24-40
The Wizards are the only non-playoff team in the East who will make an appearance in Orlando. Posting the league’s worst defensive rating, the Wizards will rely on Bradley Beal (30.5 ppg) to lead them on the other end of the court. It’s no doubt that the Wizards will have a tough time competing with these playoff caliber teams, but this could be a good experience to prove some type of offensive dominance.
1.) Los Angeles Lakers: 49-14
After a shaky first year in LA, LeBron James is very motivated to get back on the court and compete for his 4th NBA title. James is currently leading the league with a career-high 10.6 assists per game, while posting 25.7 points per game. With league veterans Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard’s future uncertain with the Lakers, this year could be one of James’s best shots at competing for another title.
2.) LA Clippers: 44-20
Entering the bubble as the second seed in the West, the Clippers are hungry to compete for the franchise’s first championship. Following the All-Star break, the Clippers finally started to find some rhythm with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George at the forefront. With significant opportunities to workout in at-home gyms and daily Zoom calls, the Clippers are definitely a team to watch as the season resumes
3.) Denver Nuggets: 43-22
With Nikola Jokic as the face of this franchise, leading the team in points, rebounds, and assists, it will be exciting to see what the Nuggets are capable of in the bubble. Following Jokic’s apparent weight loss during quarantine, his speed and style of play may be unlike what we’re used to seeing. This team might be missing a few key factors in order to make a deep playoff run, nonetheless Jokic is a powerful player with a shot to gain some valuable playoff experience.
4.) Utah Jazz: 41-23
The Jazz will finish the season without the team’s second leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic (20 ppg) following wrist surgery. The primary focus will be on Donovan Mitchell (24.4 ppg) and Rudy Gobert who were some of the first NBA players to test positive from Covid-19. Without Bogdanovic, it will be tough to make a deep playoff run. However, it could be a difference maker for Gobert as he looks for a contract extension.
5.) Oklahoma City Thunder: 40-24
After a slow start for the Thunder, the team began to get things going around the holidays when Chris Paul and company started to develop on-court chemistry. With the Thunder looking to rebuild in the offseason, a playoff run could mean more to this team and Chris Paul in terms of his longevity with the franchise. Key players, Steven Adams and Dennis Schröder could also land with different teams this off season. The Thunder will look to continue their league best 3-game win streak in Orlando.
6.) Houston Rockets: 40-24
This season has been full of rebuilding for the Rockets, as Westbrook joined the team over the summer and Robert Covington got the trade mid-season. With Russell Westbrook and James Harden under contract through the 2020-21 season, the big off-season questions lay within the coaching staff – will Mike D’Antoni be with the team next season? A run in the bubble could impact this decision.
7.) Dallas Mavericks: 40-27
With the star duo of Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks have a good shot to take down some of the more established powerhouse teams in the West. Some playoff experience will be invaluable for these young stars, including Dončić and Porzingis as well as that of Seth Curry and Tim Hardaway Jr. Dončić has been dealing with multiple injuries, yet given the time off there is potential for him to come out and play at his All-Star caliber style to which we all know he is capable.
8.) Memphis Grizzlies: 32-33
The Grizzlies will be an exciting team to watch once the season resumes, with rookie point guard Ja Morant looking to add to his Rookie of the Year campaign. Justise Winslow, a newcomer could also be an important piece to the success of this young squad. Pending his return from a back injury, Winslow’s chemistry and ability to succeed with his new teammates will likely be a determinant on how far they go.
9.) Portland Trail Blazers: 29-37
Injuries have been the story for the Trailblazers all season long, as they look to capture the last spot in the Western Conference. The Trailblazers lost Rodney Hood, Zach Collins, and Jusuf Nurkić to various injuries, in addition to Damion Lillard who is dealing. with an ankle sprain. The absence of these stars made it difficult for the Blazers to compete at the caliber of years prior. Inside the bubble, the Trailblazers should have Nurkić and Collins back, who will support other key contributors Carmelo Anthony and Hassan Whiteside in the battle for the eighth seed.
10.) New Orleans Pelicans: 28-36
With such a young core, any experience in the bubble could be of great value for this Pelicans squad. Derrick Favors, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Zion Williamson are all supposedly healthy and ready to play which could pose an exciting turnaround for a team who started 7-23.
11.) Sacramento Kings: 28-36
With rising stars such as De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Harrison Barnes, and Marvin Bagley III at the core for this team, experience in the bubble could help them with confidence and chemistry down the road. The King’s will have an opportunity to make their first postseason appearance since 2006 in Orlando.
12.) San Antonio Spurs: 27-36
The Spurs are currently posting the franchise’s worst record since 1996-97. However, this team is proving to be very efficient on the offensive end, leading the league in both assist-turnover ratio and turnovers committed. There is a lot at stake for Spurs in terms of adding to the record books. They have made the playoffs for 22 consecutive seasons, which ties for a league best; and if they are able to clinch the 8th spot in the West, they will have this record all to themselves
13.) Phoenix Suns: 26-39
As the last team of the West invited, they will need to pull off something spectacular to clinch a playoff spot in the bubble. Devin Booker, who was selected as the Sun’s first All-Star since 2012, will have to lead his team in this effort. Deandre Ayton only competed in 30 games prior to the suspension of the season, so this could be an opportunity to further prove what he is capable of in the league, battling against some of the best.
The remainder of the bizarre 2020-21 basketball season will begin July 31 in Orlando, Florida at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports. Stay tuned to WPTS Radio for the latest on all things Restart.
Header Photo Credit: NBA.com
ESPN WWOS Photo Credit: ESPN.com
Lebron Photo Credit: Forbes.com/AP Photo/ Mark J. Terrill