The NBA is Back.
Wait, sorry, that’s taken — sort of.
The NBA does not need a clever new name for the competition that will commence July 30. It’s called “basketball season,” which will be followed by the NBA Playoffs.
These do not usually occur in August, September and October, but even though the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be capable of delaying the NBA for a period of 4½ months, it has not wiped out what had been an entertaining season that portended a fascinating playoff tournament.
Following the eight games per team that will represent the conclusion of the regular season, we will get those playoffs now, in a “bubble” environment in Orlando that has seen no NBA players test positive for the coronavirus since entering. Those players whose teams advance all the way to the NBA Finals may tire of their time at Disney’s resort properties, and they’ll miss the impact an audience can have on a game, but they’ll have 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 an offense that ranks first in the league in 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 have been through use of the 3-point shot. This might not seem a concern in an era of basketball defined by Golden State and its long-bombing approach. But none of the three Warriors’ championship teams was as reliant on shooting from distance: The 2015 team got 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 Milwaukee can’t win it shooting so frequently from deep. It means they’ll have to succeed where others have not.
Perhaps the biggest problem for the Bucks is how little playoff experience their core rotation has gained. Of the top nine in minutes played, only guard George Hill — who has been getting 21 minutes a game — has been on teams that won more than two playoff series. The average number of career playoff games for those nine is 41. Just for a frame of reference, 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 the entire season without big Jusuf Nurkic. He was scheduled to return in March, so it’s not like he couldn’t have gotten back on the court and helped their stretch drive. But he would have been entering the league when most teams had a rhythm and, despite some wear-and-tear, a better grip on their basketball conditioning. Now, he is returning to the game along with everyone else who’s been off for four months. Nurkic was a 27-minute player last season and averaged a double-double. The Blazers currently are in ninth position in the Western Conference, 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies.
One might be tempted to say Indiana was helped most by the layoff because it prolonged the recovery time for star guard Victor Oladipo. He returned in late January after missing roughly a year with a severe knee injury. He played 18 games, and he was an immediate sensation. It took him four tries to reach double figures in scoring, 10 games to at least push the 20-point mark and until the very last outing before he ripped off a true Victor-like game, scoring 27 in a loss to the Celtics. The team was 9-9 after his return.
But some of the hope for the Pacers was diminished when All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis left the bubble to deal with a foot injury. Coach Nate McMillan says he hopes to get Sabonis back, but the fact that he departed Orlando indicates that return will not be immediate.
The Magic were expected to be without forward Jonathan Isaac for the remainder of the season because of a knee injury, but that was before anyone knew the season would pick up in July. He played in Monday’s exhibition against Denver, getting 13 points and seven rebounds in just seven minutes. He had not played since New Year’s Day but was averaging 12 points and 6.9 rebounds when he went down. Orlando is 30-35 overall and was 15-16 without him and currently stands in eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
3. Do the seeding games have much consequence?
In the Eastern Conference? Not really. There are only nine contenders for eight playoff spots. The Wizards are chasing the Magic from 5.5 games back, and the broken Nets are within reach, as well.
The Pacers and 76ers are in a virtual tie for the fifth and sixth seeds. There is some potential jockeying for positions 2-4 among the Raptors, Celtics and Heat.
The Western Conference, though, oh my goodness.
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 — which includes the No. 3 Nuggets, No. 4 Jazz and No. 5 Thunder — are separated by only four games. The seedings for the playoffs could be completely rewritten in the comeback games.
The race for the final playoff spots in the West seems a little more compelling than it is because five additional teams were brought to the bubble. But the Grizzlies were badly damaged by the training camp injury to wing Justise Winslow, and they might be vulnerable to the Blazers, Pelicans and Kings (all 3.5 games back) or the Spurs (four back).
4. Is lost momentum a factor for anyone?
It’s not easy to carry momentum through a month of regular season play — especially when some of those games, for a team good enough to worry about such things, likely would become meaningless — and then a two-month playoff grind.
No, what the Bucks in particular lost, and also the Lakers, was the confidence and rhythm that is intrinsic to a successful basketball team.
Presuming everyone is healthy, they can recover some of this. But what every team still competing is attempting to do is to be closer to the best version of itself than the competition. That’s something that the strongest teams, the Bucks and Lakers, can discover (or rediscover) in the games that precede the opening of the playoffs. The Bucks, though, will have to show they can conjure the same level of performance without a crowd on their side; they were terrific on the road (25-9) but no one dominated at home like they did.
Some Stanley Cup contenders must contend with actual elimination games immediately when the NHL resumes. This isn’t true in the NBA — and it wouldn’t be even if the NBA followed the same format. Only one NBA team seeded as low as No. 4 ever won the title, and only one beyond that.
5. Who should we be taking seriously?
The Rockets would want us to believe they’re one of those teams, but the experimental nature of their approach, the absence of evidence that playing so small is right for them and their failed recent playoff history suggests that is unlikely.
The Clippers would want us to believe they’re one, and they’ve come a long way toward erasing the memory of previous Clipper misadventures. And then Lou Williams, the team’s No. 2 scorer, either neglected that there’s such thing as DoorDash or, more likely, could not resist the appeal of Magic City. (And its chicken wings, of course). Would this happen on a championship team? Not likely.
The Jazz? They’re scary, if they can get over the ill will that apparently developed when center Rudy Gobert came down with COVID-19 and teammate Donovan Mitchell subsequently tested positive.
In the East, the Celtics aren’t what they were when Bill Russell was around, but they aren’t having to deal with Kyrie Irving’s theatrics, either. There definitely is enough talent to win a title, especially if guard Kemba Walker is back to his normal self. He missed nine of 13 games with injuries before the break, and he still is listed as day to day.
The Raptors are reigning champions. They lack the driving force from that squad, Leonard, but young Pascal Siakam has taken another step toward superstardom. They probably have enough to make things interesting, not enough to repeat.
There will be people upset if we don’t mention the Sixers. OK, so we did.
But even with eight games of the regular season and a full 16-team playoff ahead of us, who doesn’t believe we’re on a collision course with Bucks vs. Lakers?
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