As more and more states take steps towards partially re-opening, it feels more and more likely that the 2019-20 NBA season will be completed in some form or fashion. The long layoff will surely benefit some teams more than others, so let’s take a quick gander across the potential playoff teams who were “helped” the most by the layoff, as well as those who did not. Let’s look at the two groups most effected.
These are intertwined, as the New Orleans Pelicans were making a last dash effort to snag the 8th seed from the Memphis Grizzlies. When play stalled, the Grizzlies held a solid 3.5 game lead over NOP with just 15 or so games left. That’s a nearly insurmountable lead, but Memphis has one of the toughest schedules in the league remaining, while New Orleans has a very easy schedule to close out.
It seems there’s likely to be some finish to the regular season, but we don’t know how many games will be played, which obviously helps Memphis in this case. It was going to be fun to watch Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram try to make a push for their first playoff appearance, but it seems that Ja Morant will get his first taste of postseason action instead.
It is also worth noting that Portland and Sacramento are in the exact same position as New Orleans, at 3.5 games out. There’s been less buzz around those teams, and while Portland has more or less been consistently “meh” the whole year, Sacramento was charging. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that either of those teams could sneak their way in, as the re-start is sure to give us some wacky results.
Some may argue with this classification, but for my money, the Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, Raptors, and Celtics had emerged as the five best teams in the NBA. Denver may or may not belong in a tier with those teams, but they’re also a better team than anyone behind them, so it feels right to include them here.
I personally think the Lakers and Clippers will handle this a bit easier than the other teams. Those offenses are predicated more on their superstars creating something out of isolation and pick-and-roll. That still takes some rhythm, but is easier to get back into right away than a motion-heavy system. I could see the Raptors and Bucks starting a bit slower out of the gates as they find their footing and get that rhythm back. I think the same will probably be true for Denver as they get back into the flow of cutting off Nikola Jokic a thousand different ways.
Boston also fits this bill, but I think they may be most hurt by the layoff because of the roll Jayson Tatum was on before play halted. Tatum had turned himself into a bonafide star leading into the end of the season, cementing himself as one of the greater off-the-dribble threats in the game. It’s not that he can’t get that back, but man, he was in such an incredible rhythm when play stopped.
The flip side of all of this is age, and I’m not really sure how to factor that into this. I think the younger teams will probably get back into game shape quicker. Giannis probably doesn’t need as long of a ramp-up period to get ready as LeBron does.
On the flip side, the rest is surely appreciated by both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. James is at the age where he needs all the rest he can get, however superhuman he may be. I’d expect him to come along slowly, and possibly even use their first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies as an opportunity to really get back into the groove he was in pre-stoppage. Over the past several years, he’s become the king (pun intended) of peaking at the right time. I expect him to find a way to be back in peak form by the start of the second round.
Leonard, on the other hand, has his chronic leg injury. The layoff gives him plenty of time to rest that leg up, but the caveat is that once things get started again, he’s probably not going to get a whole lot of off-days. It’s going to be interesting to see how he holds up, and whether or not Paul George is capable of picking up some of the slack if Kawhi needs to watch his minutes at any point.
One last thing to note on the Clippers — if (when) games are played without fans, that will benefit them the most, by far. There’s a Western Conference Finals showdown looming with the Lakers, and pre-shutdown that series was going to basically be seven straight road games for the Clippers at the Staples Center. Now, it’ll at least all be neutral.
Ultimately, who really knows what to expect. I’d still guess that one of the LA teams will face off with the Bucks in the NBA Finals, which would likely give us one of the better finals series’ we’ve had in a while. The catch is that we’ve opened ourselves up to an incredible amount of variance. We have absolutely no idea what the landscape of the league is going to look like, and there’s obviously still the massive lingering question of handling a positive Covid-19 test once play resumes.
There are still more questions than answers, who do you guys think will handle the comeback the best?