The NBA restarted the season last July 30 with a bang! Thirteen teams in the Western Conference and another 9 teams in the Eastern Conference suited up to pursue the coveted seats for the playoffs. And having reached the midpoint of the abbreviated restart, it looks like a mad sprint to the finish for a couple of teams.
In the East, the Brooklyn Nets (32-36) and the Orlando Magic (32-37) have clinched the last 2 slots for the playoffs over the Washington Wizards (24-44). Even in the unlikely event of the Nets and the Magic both losing their last 4 games, and the Wizards winning their last 4 games, there is still no chance for the Wizards to catch the last bus at season’s end. The only thing that matters now for the Nets and the Magic is to get the 7th slot to avoid a first round draw against the conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks. Getting a 7th seed at the end of this short sprint of 4 games will reward them with a relatively lighter, yet equally daunting assignment: the defending champs, Toronto Raptors.
The Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks (55-14) and the over-achieving Raptors (49-18) will occupy the top 2 slots in the East. The Bucks have steadily progressed in the last 3 years, moving up a notch in every playoff season. This could be their time finally. With Giannis, Kris Middleton and a stingy defense, the Bucks are poised to clinch the Eastern crown.
But one can never underestimate the heart of a champion, so they say. The Raptors had been a pleasant surprise, hanging tough as a strong contender despite losing franchise main man Kawhi Leonard at the end of last season. Their playoff maturity – acquired from last year’s championship run, plus the elevation of Paskal Siakam to all-star rank, and the massive improvement of OG Anunoby make them a tough nut to crack.
Over in the West, it will be a wild dash to the finish line as 6 teams struggle to get the 8th seed. The winner’s prize? A first round match-up against the crown favorites, the Los Angeles Lakers. The Memphis Grizzlies (32-37) started off on the wrong foot, losing 4 straight games to see their sizable lead cut drastically. The Portland Trail Blazers (31-38), the Phoenix Suns (30-39), the San Antonio Spurs (29-38), the Sacramento Kings (29-39) and the New Orleans Pelicans (29-39) all have varied chances of taking the ticket for 8th spot, depending on how the ball bounces.
Based on their performance in the first 4 games of the shortened restart, I believe it is the Portland Trail Blazers that looks poised to take the 8th. With Carmelo Anthony slowly getting back his all-star form, the Blazers have a solid veteran complimenting Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum. The Suns may have impressed by winning their first 4 games, but I expect the vets to take over in this second half.
The LA Lakers (51-17) clinched the top spot in the West early. That said, the team has been playing on cruise-control in their last few games, giving more playing time for the second team. They want their main men, Lebron James and Anthony Davis, to be healthy and in tiptop condition for the playoffs.
The battle for the the second seed will be an interesting one. On the one hand, there’s the star-studded LA Clippers, and on the other, the young and irreverent Denver Nuggets. The Clippers not only have heavyweight stars, they have the deepest bench among the teams. With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, they have 2 of the best 2-way players in the market. But the Nuggets are tinkering with a new ‘Tall Ball’ concept that could be the future of basketball. With Michael Porter Jr and Bol Bol showing so much potential, and Nikola Jokic capable of handling the point guard role, they could strut out the tallest competitive starting line-up ever.
This year’s NBA playoffs will be very demanding and very unpredictable. At the start of the season, we saw new line-ups with new star alignments. Then we saw the season shaken hard by the corona crisis. Coming back, the season was shortened, and the restart games confined to a single site, taking away the traditional homecourt advantage for the regular season race leaders. The playoffs were quickened as well, which brings forth a new dynamic to the game.
To my mind, there are 3 factors that will greatly affect who the next NBA champs will be.
First is health. With game schedules bunched up, there is a greater risk of injuries. And lesser time to recuperate. If a superstar were to suffer a serious injury (remember Kevin Durant last year?), then it’s goodbye to the team’s chances for the crown. Lucky is the team who gets to play free of injuries under these grueling conditions. This health issue will be a big factor come the playoffs. For now, it is both a boon and a bane to the Denver Nuggets. A bane because it has 3 of its starting 5 on the injury list; and a boon because the injuries are seemingly light, hence their availability soon; and it seems to have provided an opportunity for guys like Michael Porter Jr and Bol Bol to show how good they can be. If the 3 starters heal in time for the playoffs, and the 2 reserves get to jell well with the rest, you have a dangerous team in Denver.
Second is bench depth. Related to the first factor, bench depth will play a big role in the hectic playoff sked. A deeper bench will give the team a wider leeway to rest their superstars, keeping them away from injuries, and getting them better fit for the next battles to come. Among the teams, it is the LA Clippers which seem to have the upperhand insofar as a regular rotation and bench depth is concerned. With 2 6th-Man of the Year candidates in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, plus guys like Marcus Morris and Joakim Noah ready to play, the Clippers have reserves who can come in without drastically diminishing the talent on the court.
And finally, cohesion. Sometimes a deep bench could also be a bane if it fosters the wrong vibes among teammates. We have witnessed this time and again when stars couldn’t find the right chemistry and spoiled a team’s chances instead. Much like the saying: too many cooks will spoil the broth, too many stars or too many role players could also diminish teamwork and cohesion. Players will have to accept the fact that in a stacked line-up, there will be lesser minutes, lesser ball touches and scoring opportunities. Players will have to make some sacrifices for the sake of better cohesion. In the Clippers’ case, what is important now is to get the players to familiarize with a regular rotation and to jell in time for the big wars ahead.
The road to the NBA championship will be full of breaks and bends and boners. The team that can weather that path with the least issues will be crowned the new king. Who shall it be? Give me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a closer look, just click on the pics. Cover pic courtesy of Clutch Points. Other photos courtesy of: CBS Sports, Inquirer.net, Talk Basket, The Dream Shake, Denver Stiffs, SI.com, Belly Up Sports, Bleacher Report, Star Tribune, Forbes, Facebook, YouTube, ESPN, Medium and LWO Sports.