NBA Restart 2020: What To Look For When Season Resumes With Lakers, LeBron, Bucks and Giannis Hunting For NBA Finals
The NBA is back.
Wait, sorry, that’s taken – more or less.
The NBA doesn’t need a smart new name for the league that opens on July 30. It’s called “basketball season,” which is followed by the NBA Playoffs.
These don’t usually occur in August, September and October, but while COVID-19’s pandemic has been proven to delay the NBA by 4½ months, it hasn’t wiped out an entertaining season that bodes fascinating playoff tournament.
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After the eight games per team that will represent the end of the regular season, we will now get those playoffs, in a ‘bubble’ environment in Orlando, where no NBA players have tested positive for the corona virus since the start. Those players whose teams go all the way through to the NBA finals may be tired of their time at Disney’s resort properties and they will miss an audience’s impact on a match, but they’ve earned a championship worth celebrating.
These are some of the questions that will be answered in the coming months:
1. Are the Bucks built for this?
Why would we say they are not? They have a foul that is number one in the league in terms of output and the best defensive rating in the league. They have the most dynamic player in basketball, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Well, there are concerns.
Of the field goals they’ve earned, 31.6 percent is from using the 3-point shot. This may not seem to be a concern in a basketball era defined by Golden State and its long bombings. But none of the three Warriors’ champion teams depended so much on long-range shooting: The 2015 team achieved 25.8 percent of their field goals from behind the arc; it was 27.8 percent in 2017 and 26.3 percent in 2018.
This does not mean that Milwaukee cannot often win from the depths. It means that they have to succeed where others have not.
Perhaps the biggest problem for the Bucks is how little playoff experience gained their core rotation. Of the top nine played in minutes, only guard George Hill – who got a 21-minute game – was in teams that won more than two playoff series. The average number of career playoff games for those nine is 41. For reference only, Kawhi Leonard has played in 111 playoff games, Steph Curry 112 and LeBron James 239.
2. Who was helped by the four-month break?
The Trail Blazers had played all season without major Jusuf Nurkic. He was scheduled to return in March, so it’s not like he couldn’t get back on the field and helped their stretch drive. But he would have entered the league when most teams had a rhythm and, despite some wear, a better grip on their basketball conditioning. Now he returns to the game, along with everyone else who is free for four months. Nurkic was a 27-minute player last season and averaged a double-double. The Blazers are currently in ninth place in the Western Conference, 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies.
You might be tempted to say that Indiana was most helped by the layoff because it extended recovery time for observatory Victor Oladipo. He returned in late January after missing about a year with a serious knee injury. He played 18 games and he was an instant sensation. It took him four tries to reach double digits in scoring, 10 games to push at least the 20-point marker, and until the very last outing before ending a true Victor-esque game, he scored 27 in a loss to the Celtics. The team was 9-9 after his return.
But part of the hope for the Pacers was diminished when All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis left the bubble to fix a foot injury. Coach Nate McMillan says he hopes to get Sabonis back, but the fact that he’s left Orlando indicates the return won’t be immediate.
The magic would have Jonathan Isaac without an attacker for the rest of the season due to a knee injury, but that was before anyone knew the season would pick up in July. He played in Monday’s exhibition against Denver and achieved 13 points and seven rebounds in just seven minutes. He hadn’t played since New Year’s Day, but averaged 12 points and 6.9 rebounds when he went down. Orlando is 30-35 overall and was 15-16 without him and is currently in eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
3. Do the seed games have many consequences?
In the Eastern Conference? Not really. There are only nine contenders for eight playoff spots. The magicians are chasing the magic from 5.5 games and the broken nets are also within reach.
The Pacers and 76ers are in a virtual tie for the fifth and sixth seeds. There is potential jockeying for positions 2-4 among the Raptors, Celtics and Heat.
But the Western conference, oh my god.
The Lakers’ No. 1 seed seems safe given a 5.5-game lead, but the five teams between the No. 2 Clippers and No. 6 Rockets – including the No.3 Nuggets, No.4 Jazz and No.5 Thunder – are separated by just four games. The seedings for the playoffs could be completely rewritten in the comeback games.
The race for the latest playoff spots in the West seems a bit more compelling than it is because five additional teams were brought to the bubble. But the Grizzlies were severely damaged by Justise Winslow’s training camp injury and may have been vulnerable to the Blazers, Pelicans and Kings (all 3.5 games back) or the Spurs (four back).
4. Is lost momentum a factor for everyone?
It’s not easy to keep going during a month of the regular season game – especially when some of those games, for a team good enough to worry about such things, would likely become pointless – and then a playoff session of two months.
No, what especially the Bucks lost, as well as the Lakers, was the confidence and rhythm inherent in a successful basketball team.
Assuming everyone is healthy, they can restore some of this. But what every team that still tries to compete is closer to being the best version of themselves than the competition. That’s something the strongest teams, the Bucks and Lakers, can discover (or rediscover) in the games leading up to the opening of the playoffs. However, The Bucks will have to show that they can perform the same level of performance without a crowd at their side; they were great on the road (25-9) but no one dominated at home like her.
Some Stanley Cup contenders may face actual elimination games immediately after the NHL resumes. This is not true in the NBA – and it wouldn’t even be if the NBA followed the same format. Only one NBA team as low as No. 4 ever won the title, and only one after that.
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5. Who should we take seriously?
The Rockets would like us to believe they are one of those teams, but the experimental nature of their approach, the lack of evidence that playing so small is right for them, and their failed recent playoff history suggest that it’s unlikely.
The Clippers want us to believe they are one, and they’ve come a long way from remembering past Clipper setbacks. And then Lou Williams, the number 2 on the team, ignored that there was such a thing as DoorDash or, more likely, it couldn’t resist the appeal of Magic City. (And its chicken wings, of course). Would this happen in a champion team? Unlikely.
The Jazz? They are scary if they can overcome the bad will that apparently developed when center Rudy Gobert got COVID-19 and teammate Donovan Mitchell then tested positive.
In the East, the Celtics are no longer what they were when Bill Russell was around, but neither are they related to Kyrie Irving’s theories. There is certainly enough talent to win a title, especially when guard Kemba Walker is back to normal. He missed nine of the 13 games with injuries before half time and he is still on the list from day to day.
The Raptors are reigning champions. They miss that team’s driving force, Leonard, but young Pascal Siakam has taken another step towards superstar. They probably have enough to make things interesting, not enough to repeat.
People will be upset if we don’t mention the Sixers. OK, so we did that.
But even with eight games of the regular season and a full play-off of 16 teams ahead, who doesn’t believe we’re on an attacking track with Bucks vs. Lakers?