After what will have been more than a four-month hiatus, the NBA is back in the fray following the postponement of the regular season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The basketball world was shaken to its core back in March when Jazz star Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, putting a halt to the season altogether as the league exercised caution and prioritized the health of its players and employees.
But, after months of careful planning and consideration, the NBA and its players agreed on a plan to give the fans games and a full postseason. 22 teams will head down to Orlando, Florida in July for a tentative July 31 start date, and will play in a bubble-style environment with “seeding games” on the docket to get teams back into a rhythm before the playoffs.
The format includes the chance for a “play-in tournament” for the eighth seed in each conference, depending on whether or not the ninth-seeded team is within four games of the eighth-seeded team in that conference.
The unique proposal comes at a similarly unique time in the sports world, and the long break in between games makes this postseason anything but ordinary for the 22 teams involved.
Some players will have the advantage of more practice during quarantine based on the resources available to them at their homes, and others have been able to fully rest and recover from lingering injuries that could’ve played a major factor if the postseason had gone on as scheduled.
With all of that taken into consideration, it was time to break down the chances for each of the 22 teams looking to make a run to the NBA Finals in Orlando, accompanied by visual glimpses from “House of Highlights” of what each team has to offer.
22. San Antonio Spurs
The 2019-2020 Spurs aren’t what fans have been used to seeing for the past two decades with head coach Gregg Popovich at the helm, currently getting set to fight for a play-in spot with their 27-36 record. Add in the fact that LaMarcus Aldridge had season-ending shoulder surgery, and it seems like the Spurs have done the equivalent of punting the ball before looking towards a rebuild.
21. Washington Wizards
Having been without John Wall for a year and a half after the point guard suffered an Achilles injury and underwent heel surgery during the 2018-2019 season, the Wizards just aren’t the same team anymore.
Bradley Beal continues to show out when he gets going on the court, but it hasn’t enough to push the Wizards over the hump in the Eastern Conference. With Wall basically ruled out for the upcoming return to action in Orlando, the Wizards are just going to have to accept the fact that they’ll be planning for next season sooner rather than later.
20. Phoenix Suns
The Suns’ season is basically over at this point, currently standing on the outside looking in with a 26-39 record before the season resumes. Losing Kelly Oubre hurt them this year, and the team’s inability to surround Devin Booker with the talent to make a run continues to plague Phoenix’s playoff chances each year.
But, this will all at least give them the ability to get in-game reps for a big-name prospect in Deandre Ayton, who will be a key cog in the Suns machine for years to come.
19. Orlando Magic
Sitting at 30-35 on the year, the Magic are in rough shape heading into a bubble hosted in their own city. And, if all goes as it should over the course of the league’s first few weeks back, Orlando’s players likely won’t be sticking around for long.
But, they still have the ability to play the role of party-pooper against a team like the Nets or Wizards when it comes to seeding. That’s a win at least, right?
18. Sacramento Kings
Unfortunately for the Kings from a schedule standpoint, the postponements due to the COVID-19 pandemic hit at the worst possible time, as they were on a roll before basketball (and the world) shut down in March.
They won seven of their last 10 games before the long break, and their young core of De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Buddy Hield looked like they had figured it all out. Their 28-36 record may not make them seem like much, but they’re in the hunt for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, and any postseason play will be huge for their up-and-coming stars.
17. New Orleans Pelicans
Zion Williamson. That’s all you need to know about the Pelicans when they start playing games down in Orlando.
Oh, and they have a future cornerstone in Brandon Ingram, a maturing Lonzo Ball, a talented veteran in Jrue Holiday and much more to work with on the bench. Yes, many fans will focus on Williamson’s presence in the Orlando bubble, but the rest of the bunch in New Orleans is good enough to make a splash in these final few games, and in years to come, as well.
Then, if it all ends in a Lakers-Pelicans, LeBron James-Zion Williamson series, it’ll all be worth it for the NBA.
16. Brooklyn Nets
Sure, the Nets won’t have Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving when they head down to Orlando in July, but don’t count Brooklyn out in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
With interim head coach Jacque Vaughn at the helm, the Nets will be one of those teams that benefit from the long break between games, and they’ll be able to treat the final push in the 2019-2020 as its own little season. Holding a 30-34 record, they won’t be getting a favorable matchup in the first round, but they may be able to make things interesting with a team like the Bucks or Raptors early on.
15. Portland Trail Blazers
Just a year ago, Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers were waving goodbye to Russell Westbrook and the Thunder, and looked like they were set for a big splash in years to come. But, things fell apart in the 2019-2020 season, and they went on their hiatus with a 29-37 record.
They still have a shot to make a push to the postseason when games resume in Orlando, and having healthy and rested stars like Lillard and CJ McCollum gives them a real chance at taking down numerous teams in the Western Conference. Add in the potential for them to be fired up after their search for a 20-team field rather than 22, and it could time for a fun run down in the Florida sun for the Blazers.
14. Memphis Grizzlies
Much like the Pelicans with Zion Williamson earlier on in the rankings, the Grizzlies are an exciting team in the field of 22 due to an upstart rookie of their own: Ja Morant.
Whether it’s his explosive dunk attempts or his overall success with his 17.6 points per game and 6.9 assists per game, Morant is a star in the making in Memphis. With a 32-33 record in a stacked Western Conference, the chances at an NBA Finals appearance are slim for the Grizzlies. But, like the Pelicans, they’ll add some extra flavor to the league’s return to action in July.
13. Indiana Pacers
Some teams will have their fates sealed by one player in their lineup, and for the Pacers, that person is Victor Oladipo.
After a year off recovering from a devastating knee injury, Oladipo finally returned to the court right before the league shut down in March. He showed flashes of greatness with a 27-point performance in just 28 minutes the night before the postponement, and will either be even better after the break or revert back to a lesser form of himself after more time away from the court. The choice seems to be yours, Mr. Oladipo. The fate of the Pacers is in your hands.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder
Somehow, getting rid of Russell Westbrook and Paul George may have been a blessing in disguise for the Thunder ahead of the 2019-2020 season, as they get set to join the 21 other teams in Orlando with a 40-24 record under their belt.
Chris Paul has changed Oklahoma City into his own version of his former Lob City days from his time with the Clippers, and has turned back the clock to make the Thunder an interesting case study ahead of the league’s seeding games.
Like many of the teams heading down to Florida, OKC is in a tough spot in a deep Western Conference field, but it wouldn’t be the most shocking thing to see them pull off some March Madness-esque miracles in the postseason.
11. Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers are one of a few teams who actually benefit from the season being postponed for four months, as the break gives them the chance to enter the fold with both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid seemingly at full strength.
Their seeding won’t be ideal, given their 39-26 record, but matchups should work out in their favor in most cases with the sheer size of some of their stars. Al Horford tends to step it up in the postseason, and the experience of some veterans could help set them apart from the competition this summer. Watch out for the Sixers if you’re looking for some sleepers after the hiatus.
10. Dallas Mavericks
The Western Conference, like many years, is absolutely loaded this season, so the crazy thought of a team like the Mavericks landing in the seventh seed in the playoffs is actually a potential reality. Sitting at 40-27, there’s some room to move up if stars like Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis get hot off the bat down in Florida.
Then, all it takes is one solid run for them to take down a star-powered team like the Clippers, Nuggets, or Rockets in the postseason, and make some noise after the fact.
9. Houston Rockets
I know, I know. The Rockets aren’t exactly what they used to be, and their play before the postponements didn’t impress many fans despite a 40-24 record to show for it. But, when James Harden and Russell Westbrook are on the same team, combined with a long layoff to figure out how to match up with the best of the best in the West, the Rockets are a true threat in the playoffs.
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Seeding will be crucial for a team like Houston, so the eight seeding games will be of the utmost importance as it relates to their chances this summer.
8. Utah Jazz
Unfortunately for the Jazz, team morale and chemistry appears to be at an all-time low as they get set to resume play in July.
Rudy Gobert isn’t exactly anyone’s favorite player in the league right now after testing positive for COVID-19 and playfully touching microphones while joking about the disease. Plus, his own teammate Donovan Mitchell tested positive after the fact, as well, and likely isn’t too fond of the thought of being in a locker room with Gobert down in Orlando.
But, if they can set all of the hard feelings aside, bounce back from the loss of Bojan Bogdanovic to season-ending wrist surgery, and focus on their play on the court, the Jazz could be a force to be reckoned with.
7. Miami Heat
The Heat, playing in their home state when games resume, could be a real sleeper team in both the Eastern Conference and the NBA as a whole when the league returns to action. They have the ability to bump up their seed if they perform well enough in their eight pre-playoff games, and it’ll give a young star in Tyler Herro the chance to build up some confidence after missing five weeks before the season was postponed.
Jimmy Butler’s experience will be a big factor for the Heat to utilize, and if they can rally around their core and combine all of those elements with a lack of any serious travel, they could sneak up on teams in the postseason.
6. Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic’s conditioning will likely be the pivotal part of the resumption of play for the Nuggets when July 31 rolls around, and it’ll turn into a major hit-or-miss scenario for Denver depending on his status.
If it’s the Jokic that those in the organization have joked about having four-pack or six-pack abs, the Nuggets should be in good shape (no pun intended) to make a run in the West. If quarantine took a toll on him and his teammates’ ability to run the floor, it could be a rocky road for the boys in blue when they make the trek from Colorado down to Florida.
5. Boston Celtics
If Kemba Walker can walk into Orlando without any issues after a lingering knee injury kept him off the court before the COVID-19 postponements, the Celtics could easily be the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.
Jayson Tatum is turning into the star that Danny Ainge and Celtics management expected him to evolve into when they drafted him in 2017, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward have been solid pieces of the puzzle throughout the 2019-2020 season, and Marcus Smart continues to be Marcus Smart. If the trends keep up for Boston and they’re able to add Walker back into the mix with no problems, they could in turn become a big problem for their opponents in Orlando.
4. Toronto Raptors
No Kawhi Leonard? No problem. That’s likely the mindset of Raptors fans around North America after the team miraculously found themselves in first place in the Eastern Conference when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season, and it may be the mentality heading into the postseason, too.
Did the postponement help the Raptors as far as getting all of their players, like Pascal Siakam, to full strength? Or did it hurt them as it relates to their momentum midway through the year. Time will tell, but for now, they remain a favorite to make it to the NBA Finals.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
In the minds of many basketball fans, a team from Los Angeles will be the one representing the Western Conference when the NBA Finals roll around. The biggest question mark comes when discussing whether it will be the Lakers or the Clippers.
While it’s tough to argue with a rested/load-managed Kawhi Leonard and his cast of Clippers cohorts, the true test will come when the two teams inevitably square off in the playoffs. Sure, Leonard, Paul George and company took home wins in the two team’s two battles during the regular season, but it’s hard to not give the edge to the 49-14 Lakers coming off of a four-month, rest-filled hiatus.
2. Milwaukee Bucks
It could easily be a 1a and 1b situation when it comes to the top tier of the NBA teams heading to Orlando, and in this case, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks take the 1b spot. They’re the clear frontrunner in the Eastern Conference, and if Antetokounmpo struggles to get back in a groove after the COVID-19 postponements, he’ll have the support of stars like Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe to pick up the slack.
It’s a dangerous three-headed monster that could wreak havoc on the Eastern Conference, and potentially their NBA Finals counterpart, as well.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
If there’s ever a shot for LeBron James to bring a title to Los Angeles, the shortened 2019-2020 season is his best bet. The extended break should give James and his teammates the opportunity to enter the league’s bubble in Orlando well-rested and free of any lingering injuries.
If that’s the case, it’s tough to imagine many players or teams outperforming a hungry James and company during a run to the NBA Finals for the Lakers.