AND then there were 22. We all know the NBA’s blueprint for a season restart, with eight unfortunate franchises failing to make the cut. Instead, those teams will have to watch the rest of the league duke it out in the Orlando bubble as we look to crown a 2019-20 champion. Basketball isn’t the most important topic in the world right now, but if a title is on the line, expect the NBA’s elite to do everything in their power to claim a championship ring.
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22. Phoenix Suns (26-39)
SORRY Phoenix, at 26-39 I can’t see another eight games making too much of a difference. Mathematically speaking the Suns trail Memphis by six games, meaning things would have to go perfect for them from here on out JUST to qualify for the playoffs. There’s a possibility Devin Booker will entertain us for a game or two and give fans some fleeting hope, but Phoenix won’t be a heavily featured in the season restart.
21. Washington Wizards (24-40)
JOHN Wall is just one of the league’s superstars who has been hampered by injury this season and any fleeting hope Wizards fans had of him returning can be extinguished. While Wall’s ongoing Achilles rehab will keep him from the floor, his backcourt mate in Bradley Beal will be out to make the most of the eight games in front of him. Since the All-Star break, no player has averaged more points a night than Beal and Washington is going to need every one of his 36.5 PPG if they’re going to make up the 5.5 game gap between them and the Magic – especially with Davis Bertans now set to miss out on Orlando action.
20. Sacramento Kings (28-36)
THERE’S a lot of promise in Sacramento and it’s easy to see why Kings fans are adopting a glass-half-full approach with this playing group. In their 15 games before play was suspended, Sacto posted a 10-5 record which helped them re-enter playoff calculations and helped instil the franchise with confidence. The future is bright for the Kings, there’s no denying that, but De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagely and Buddy Hield won’t be making waves in the playoffs this season.
19. San Antonio Spurs (27-36)
THE San Antonio Spurs have only missed the playoffs once in the last 30 years. Just let that sink in for a minute. For the better part of three decades, the Spurs have been a picture of consistency, capturing five championships with thanks to David Robinson, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and of course, head coach Gregg Popovich. Pop is the only one from that group still with the team, and LaMarcus Aldridge’s shoulder injury coupled with Tyler Zeller’s signing as his replacement suggests their streak of 22 straight postseasons seems destined to be snapped.
18. Orlando Magic (30-35)
YES the NBA season restart will be hosted in Orlando come late July, but don’t think that gives the Magic any sort of advantage. Steve Clifford’s men managed to post a winning record at home this season (16-15), but the unknown circumstances each of the 22 teams are about to enter means there’s no such thing as a home-court advantage this season. If the Magic can hold onto their spot as the East’s 8th best team, then Milwaukee should make quick work of them regardless in Round 1.
17. Portland Trailblazers (29-37)
NO matter how hot Damian Lillard has got this season, the Trailblazers haven’t been able to rally around him. Multiple injuries struck Portland down and an elongated period of rest could be beneficial for players like Jusuf Nurkic and Zac Collins, however, they still have their work cut out for them to make the final cut. Memphis holds a 3 ½ game lead over Rip City for the coveted final playoff spot out West, making their clash against one another to commence a season restart crucial for both teams. The point spread technically sides with the Blazers against the Grizzlies, but on a neutral court in Orlando, anything’s possible and Portland will need to snatch that win if they’re going to stay in the postseason picture.
Image from blazersedge.com
16. Brooklyn Nets (30-34)
WITHOUT Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving in uniform, the Nets are purely there to make up the numbers in Orlando once the season resumes. DeAndre Jordan and Wilson Chandler announcing they’re out of action doesn’t aide Brooklyn, and with the superstars sidelined their season seems all but lost. Take nothing away from the likes of Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris Levert and other members of the Nets’ supporting cast, they’re still talented enough to make life hell for a first-round opponent. I can’t see them progressing much further though.
15. New Orleans Pelicans (28-36)
THERE was no way the league was going to let NOLA miss out on the rest of the season and even though they’re half a dozen games under .500, they’re still capable of finding their mojo and challenging Memphis for the 8th seed. With a now healthy roster, the Pelicans will be looking to live up to their preseason hype and the first 19 games of Zion Williamson’s NBA career has given New Orleans a sense of hope and optimism. Zion is set to become the first rookie since Allen Iverson to average north of 23.0 PPG in year one and despite his potential ceiling, there’s still some lumps and bumps he and his teammates have to endure to prove their credentials as a title threat.
14. Memphis Grizzlies (32-33)
ANOTHER exciting, youthful franchise eager to make their presence felt in the playoffs is the Memphis Grizzlies, who have rapidly turned their fortunes around before our eyes. After a 22-60 and 33-49 season in the past two years, Memphis finds themselves inside the playoff picture, with a spot in the postseason theirs to lose. Buoyed by rookie sensation Ja Morant and the rest of their young nucleus, the Grizz could make life hard for one of the top-tier talents come round one. First though, they have to fight off the rest of the pack.
Image from nba.com
13. Oklahoma City Thunder (40-24)
OKC surprised everyone this year by vaulting into the playoffs – an incredible achievement considering the high amount of turnover the roster underwent this summer. Out went Paul George, Jerami Grant and arguably the best player in franchise history; Russell Westbrook and in came Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Mike Muscala and veteran floor general Chris Paul. Everyone, including myself, expected the Thunder to crater, but Billy Donovan’s three-guard rotations of SGA, Paul and Dennis Schroder has helped Oklahoma already overachieve in season 2019-20.
12. Indiana Pacers (39-26)
FOR Indiana their fortunes hinge on the health of Victor Oladipo, who before action was halted had started to refind his mojo. Having missed roughly a year with a quad injury, Dipo was averaging 18.6 PPG and shooting 40% from deep through his five most recent games, with a 27-point outing in the Pacers’ last match. Overall, their roster is full of quality players, with Myles Turner and Domonatas Sabonis forming a lethal frontcourt duo and newest Pacer Malcolm Brogdon providing Oladipo with a solid running mate at guard. Sleep on them at your own peril.
11. Dallas Mavericks (40-27)
RESIDING in the uber-competitive West can see a team with fringe playoff hopes crumble before our eyes. This year, Dallas was able to avoid such a slide, coming together to be one of the NBA’s fast improvers after finishing with the second-worst record in the conference in 2018-19. Sophomore sensation Luka Doncic has become a walking 30/9/9 which will naturally lead to a few more W’s, but the rest of the Mavericks squad has galvanised around him with Tim Hardaway Jr and Set Curry providing a scoring punch to ably support their stars. The loss of Willie-Cauley Stein and Dwight Powell’s earlier Achilles injury means Dallas is thin in their frontcourt and matchups will dictate a lot for the Mavs in the upcoming postseason. If their draw breaks right though, a West Finals berth isn’t out of the question.
10. Utah Jazz (41-23)
ONE of the ‘sexier’ preseason picks this year was the Utah Jazz, with their offseason of moves leading to increased expectations in the Mile High City. Through 64 games things were going somewhat according to plan. Mike Conley put a rough shooting start to the season behind him to average 16.5 PPG (45.8 FG%, 44.1 3P%) over his last dozen games, Donovan Mitchell took another step to cement himself as a true All-Star calibre player and Rudy Gobert remains as important as ever in the middle of the paint – in line to capture his 3rd straight Defensive Player of the Year award. However, given the turmoil that hit their locker room once COVID-19 started to rear it’s ugly head AND the season-ending wrist injury Bojan Bogdanovic suffered, I think Utah is bound for another first-round exit.
9. Miami Heat (41-24)
ANOTHER preseason darling this time coming out of the East is the Miami Heat, who, with their new alpha dog leading the charge are proving their worth as a top-10 team. Jimmy Butler’s tumultuous 2018-19 season is in the rear vision now, with the All-Star guard thriving as Miami’s go-to guy. You’d be hard-pressed to find a star and a team better suited to each other than Butler and the Heat and while they might not breakthrough for a deep playoff run this year, adding another piece or two could vault them into one of the leagues very best.
8. Philadelphia 76ers (39-26)
WE can expect the unexpected from the Sixers as the rest of 2020 unfolds, hardly filling us with confidence with their performances so far. That being said, their young, star duo in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid gives Philly a great platform to launch form, however, the rest of the roster leaves a lot to be desired. With a glaring lack of reliable shooters on their roster, the 76ers might still make a move or two to tweak their roster, but no matter who else is added, their successes this year hinge on Simmons and Embiid.
7. Toronto Raptors (46-18)
DEFENDING your crown is always a tough task, especially when your best player and the reigning Finals MVP opts to leave in the offseason. And yet, despite losing Kawhi the Toronto Raptors have managed to post a better winning percentage this year than they did in the 2018-19 campaign. Pascal Siakam has been a driving force in the Raps’ success in the regular season and he’ll once again have to shoulder the load if Toronto are going to make their postseason stay a worthwhile one. Key contributors like Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka aren’t spring chickens anymore, so if they can’t ably support Siakam it could a brief stay in Orlando for the Raptors.
6. Denver Nuggets (43-22)
HAVE we all forgotten that Denver was one win away from the conference finals last year? I know they haven’t laid waste to the rest of the NBA, but there’s no reason why the Nuggets can’t replicate their heroics from a season ago – perhaps even going a step or two further this time around. Owning what some believe is the deepest roster in the NBA, the Nuggets will be relying on their one-two punch from Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray to propel them in the playoffs, with the budding young stars the catalysts for Denver’s 2020 title run. If they (Murray in particular) can find another gear then don’t be surprised if this team dethrones another West giant and makes it all the way to the Finals.
Image from youtube.com
5. Houston Rockets (40-24)
DOUBT the Rockets all you want, but my gut tells me things will be different in 2020 for Houston. Now is a good time to mention my gut has had this same feeling about the Rockets for the past few seasons and time is running out for James Harden and Russell Westbrook to change their reputation as annual playoff disappointments. Adding Luc Mbah a Moute and David Nwaba won’t move the needle a ton, but it may provide Houston with enough depth to finally qualify for the NBA Finals. To do so, they’ll likely need to cause multiple upsets in the latter rounds of the postseason and I’m throwing my support behind Harden and the Rockets – maybe for the last time.
4. Boston Celtics (43-21)
THE title as the Eastern Conference’s second-best team is certainly up for grabs and my vote would likely side with the Boston Celtics. Through three-quarters of the season, Boston owns 5th best record in the league and are in the box seat to continue building momentum for the franchise’s first championship since 2010. Kemba Walker has meshed in with the rest of the Celtics’ exciting core, ably filling the void left by another All-Star guard in Kyrie Irving, but the most important player in Boston is now Jayson Tatum. The scoring sensation has taken his game to another level in 2020, averaging 26.0 PPG in 28 games so far this calendar year. Tatum will need to lead the charge offensively if they want to advance past the likes of Toronto and Milwaukee, but there’s no doubt the Celtics have the on-paper talent to take the challenge right up tho the conference’s elite.
3. Los Angeles Lakers (49-14)
AS we gear up for Orlando action at the end of the month, the favourites to leave with the Larry O’Brien according to most are the Los Angeles Lakers. It’s hard to mount a case against the L.A. LeBron’s with his star teammate in Anthony Davis arguably the best supporting star he has played alongside. Davis and LBJ will do a lot of the heavy lifting for the Lakers, but all of a sudden there are justifiable concerns around their supporting cast. Kyle Kuzma hasn’t found his groove all season, Rajon Rondo looks very 34 years old and Avery Bradley opting out of a season restart means Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith will be entrusted to make a bunch of buckets. For all the doubt surrounding this squad, let’s not forget LeBron once dragged Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlović, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the NBA Finals and until he fails, we all assume James will make a 10th trip to the final series of the season.
2. Milwaukee Bucks (53-12)
MILWAUKEE has a clear path through to an NBA Finals and an ensuing championship this season, providing they can fight their way through the inferior conference. The Bucks’ first-round opponent won’t cause too many headaches and many believe there is clear daylight between the top of the East and the other seven squads on their side of the bracket. Giannis Antetokounmpo will put up his usual 30/12/5 stat line or something in the vicinity and make life hell for anyone he matches up with. Providing he can keep producing at an MVP calibre, this could be a legacy altering opportunity for the Milwaukee franchise and the Greek Freak.
1. Los Angeles Clippers (44-20)
L.A. isn’t a one-team town anymore with the Clippers more than staking their claim as a title threat this season. Ignoring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George for a minute, this deep, veteran squad is poised for a long tenure in Orlando thanks to the likes of Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet and new additions Reggie Jackson and Joakim Noah. Providing Kawhi and PG can stay healthy I think the Clippers deserve to be the favourites to claim the 2020 championship with Leonard their real measuring stick. If he goes on a similar run to the one he completed just over 12 months ago, then an NBA title is well within their grasp.
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