Four weeks away from the NBA’s restart in the Bubble in Orlando, and we’re starting to get clarity on what this season will look like. The schedule came out Friday night, the one-week window for transactions closed Tuesday, and we mostly know which players are injured or opting out.
Each of the 22 teams in Orlando will play eight games to finish the regular season. All the statistics count. At the end of the abbreviated season, if the ninth-place team in each conference is within four games of the eighth-place team, those teams will have a play-in series to determine who gets the eighth seed. It’s double-elimination for the eighth-place team, meaning the ninth-place team must win twice to snatch the final playoff spot.
The West-leading Lakers and East-leading Bucks will be tough opponents, but with no rules in place to simulate home-court advantage, the lower seeds may have a better chance to pull an upset in the playoffs.
But finishing the season during a pandemic, with daily street protests nationwide, is unprecedented. With roster fluctuations, health scares, social justice concerns, and actual basketball on the court, there’s any number of wild-card factors that will greatly affect who wins the Finals -– and whether the NBA even gets there.
The revamped Lakers backcourt
The Lakers will be without starting guard Avery Bradley, their best on-ball defender. Bradley has been open with his discomfort about re-starting the season during the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. But Bradley’s family concerns ultimately determined his decision, particularly his son’s history of respiratory illnesses. Because of concerns about his family, Dwight Howard also might miss all or part of the rest of the season.
Los Angeles will especially miss Bradley’s defense because likely replacement starter Kentavious Caldwell-Pope isn’t the ballhawk Avery is. Fan favorite Alex Caruso figures to play more minutes, but the Lakers also added two of LeBron’s old teammates. Dion Waiters has been traded, released, and suspended twice this season. He reportedly overdosed on weed gummies, was sent home for being out of shape, and now he’s playing for a ring. NBA action is fan-tastic!
The Lakers also signed J.R. Smith, who hasn’t played since LeBron took his talents to Hollywood, but his clutch play and shirtless celebrations were crucial when Cleveland won in 2016. Of course, in his last playoff appearance, he forgot what the score was and let the Warriors steal Game 1 of the Finals. There’s no replacement for Howard, whose renaissance season helped the Lakers to the league’s No. 3 defense, but will the extra offensive firepower make up for the leakier D? And will being in lockdown help Waiters and Smith keep it together off the court?
How big is the chip on Houston’s shoulders?
The Rockets are the most unpredictable team going into the bubble. James Harden and Russell Westbrook have disappointed in the playoffs, but two factors suggest this season could be different: They have had four months to rest and recharge, and the Warriors aren’t standing in Houston’s way.
This is a proud, motivated team, and they’re getting more motivated by the day. Harden wants to prove he can get it done in the playoffs. Westbrook wants to make Oklahoma City regret trading him for Chris Paul. P.J. Tucker wants to prove he can play center at 6-foot-5. As if to challenge him, the Rockets doubled down by releasing their tallest player, seven-footer Isaiah Harkenstein.
Impending free agent Mike D’Antoni is coaching for his next contract. GM Daryl Morey wants to win it for the analytics nerds and the Hong Kong protestors. Look, the Rockets can’t match up with Lakers and Nuggets, who have tons of size. But those teams still have to match up with them. And match their intensity.
What's up with Victor Oladipo?
The Pacers are tied with Philadelphia for fifth in the East, but their playoff odds go way down if Oladipo sits out to protect his injured quadriceps. They played well without their star early in the season, but that was when they still had Jeremy Lamb, who’s out for the season with a knee injury. Malcolm Brogdon insists he feels fine after a positive COVID test last week, but his status for Orlando is also in question. With a Brogdon-Oladipo backcourt, Indiana is dangerous. With an Aaron Holiday-T.J. McConnell backcourt, the Pacers are a six seed who will go down meekly.
Is anyone left on depth chart for Brooklyn?
The Nets went into the season knowing they wouldn’t have Kevin Durant, and they won’t have him or Kyrie Irving for the restart either. But that’s not all. DeAndre Jordan tested positive for COVID and will not make the trip to Orlando. Spencer Dinwiddie also tested positive, and because of his symptoms, he will probably sit out the restart as well. That will ruin his plans to wear a “26 Trillion” jersey, in reference to the federal deficit. Clearly, balanced budgets are the pressing social issue of the moment. Wilson Chandler has also opted out of Orlando to spend time with his family.
The Nets added former Heat point guard Tyler Johnson, but this is not a roster with much depth. The Pacers will rely on heavy minutes from Caris Levert, Jarett Allen and Taurean Prince just to get by, but you can pencil in a first-round matchup with Milwaukee already because…
Not everyone seems to want to make the playoffs
That particularly seems to be the case for the Washington Wizards, who have a healthy Davis Bertans sitting out. Bertans had a huge season, but he’s an impending free agent with a history of ACL injuries. The Wizards want to re-sign him, so they won’t pressure him to return.
But franchise player Bradley Beal hasn’t made up his mind about playing either, and new signee Jerian Grant isn’t going to lead a charge to the play-in game on his own. Without Bertans, they may prefer to take it easy, keep everyone healthy, and settle for a lottery pick.
Who else might be settling?
That would be the Spurs, who have replaced injured LaMarcus Aldridge with Tyler Zeller because Coach Pop loves an unathletic big man. The Suns also have no shot at the playoffs, so Kelly Oubre will rehab his knee instead of playing. If the Suns phone it in, the Mavericks benefit from playing them twice, just as Utah gets a boost from playing the Spurs in two of its eight remaining regular-season games.
Joakim Noah could be relevant again
The Clippers are loaded at every position but center. They have Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, their do-everything wings, and Patrick Beverley at point guard for threes, D, and working referees. Marcus Morris, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell can all get buckets, and Landry Shamet and JaMychal Green are excellent role players. But they lack size, and have trouble guarding LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Enter 6-foot-11 Noah, who signed with the Clips before the pandemic. He’s an extra big body to throw at AD, especially if Ivica Zubac keeps fouling at a high rate. Noah has always had a rivalry with LeBron. In fact, it heated up this week when it came out that LeBron ignored his recruitment call in 2010 while Joakim toiled for the Bulls. Noah might be washed up, but he also might provide 12 crucial minutes a game versus the Lakers. Just don’t expect the refs to give him any calls.
The bubble may not be impermeable
FC Dallas, an MLS team, traveled to Orlando for the MLS Is Back tournament. Before it left, no one on the team tested positive. Since arriving in Florida, nine of its 27 players and a coach have tested positive for COVID.
This could certainly happen to the NBA despite all the safety protocols in place. And it’s not clear how many positive tests would make the season an unacceptable risk. The Nets and Nuggets already have closed their practice facilities because of positive tests among players and staff members.
Florida reported more than 10,000 cases of coronavirus in the past 24 hours. The NBA has protocols in place to isolate and treat players who test positive, but so did MLS. No matter how much players avoid each other’s hotel rooms and skip doubles ping pong when they’re off the court, playing basketball is always going to be a risk. And with workers coming and going from the Bubble -– not to mention bored players sneaking out -– the Bubble is not completely safe.
Strength of schedule could be huge
New Orleans has the easiest remaining schedule, which probably has nothing to do with Zion’s TV ratings. The Pelicans face only three current playoff teams, including the team they’re chasing, the Grizzlies, and their opponents’ combined winning percentage is under .500.
Then there’s Portland, whose remaining eight regular-season games are all against teams currently bound for the playoffs. The Trail Blazers have an uphill climb to the postseason, and they’ll have to make it without Trevor Ariza, who's opting out.
In the East, Miami, currently seeded fourth, went from a creampuff schedule to the fourth-toughest slate of games in Orlando. Philly, currently seeded sixth, could easily overtake Miami in the last eight games, which would make ex-76er Jimmy Butler furious.
How will players recover from the illness?
Thankfully, many players who tested positive have been asymptomatic. But even for elite athletes, recovery is no guarantee. Rudy Gobert got sick in March, and he’s still feeling the effects of the virus. His sense of smell still has not fully returned. Denver's Nikola Jokic and Utah's Donovan Mitchell also contracted the coronavirus, but until these guys play, we have no idea what the long-term health implications are.
The NBA is painting “Black Lives Matter” on the courts, and has suggested players could put slogans on their jerseys in lieu of last names. That doesn’t seem like enough to satisfy players who’ve been out marching and organizing their own protests. Will we see protests during the anthem? Players demanding justice for Breonna Taylor during sideline interviews? And if the NBA doesn’t address players’ concerns about diversity in hiring and charitable contributions, could we see teams sit out a game?
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