FEATURED IMAGE CREDITS: Steve Dykes (AP Photo)
On March 11th the NBA world came to a halting stop after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. At that moment, the league resuming seemed to be one of the last things people were worrying about. Yet somehow, the NBA was able to come up with a plan to end the season and crown a champion in one of the most unlikely of locations, Disney World.
With games supposedly resuming on July 31st, the league has still given six teams on the outside of the playoff spots a chance to get into the tournament. Teams will have 8 games to finish off the regular season to fight for better records and a chance in the play-offs. If the 9th seed is at least 4 games behind the 8th seed then a mini-series will ensue for the final spot in the playoffs. The 8th seed only needing to win one game and the 9th seed needing to win two in a row.
This unprecedented format, new-found rest, and location better suited for AAU-ball can only spell for unexpected drama and story lines to end the year. At this point any of the team below has a chance to grab the 8th spot and possibly make some noise in the playoffs this year.
IMAGE CREDITS- Derick E. Hingle (USA Today)
Current Teams in Jeopardy
Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets
Orlando’s Record- (30-35) Brooklyn’s Record- (30-34)
Realistically, Orlando and Brooklyn are going to be more than likely safe from losing their spots as the Wizards are the only team threatening of a play-in game. More than likely though, whichever team ends up in the eighth spot is more worried about not getting swept by Milwaukee than losing their spot to the Wizards.
Orlando has been a wildly inconsistent team that has relied on it’s long and athletic defense to win games. The Magic own a top 10 defense, however they also own the 6th worse offense in the league. If Johnathan Issac returns from injury, he could boost the already impressive defense. Markelle Fultz’s breakout season was encouraging for the future, yet a team that relies on Nikola Vucevic as their leading scorer is probably not going to make too much noise in the playoffs.
Brooklyn comes into this playoff series playing with house money. The team has nothing to lose, since no one is expecting much without KD and Kyrie playing. I’m sure Nets fans are just ready for the season to be over after firing their head coach and dealing with the dramatic media story lines that tend to follow Kyrie Irving. The team is still solid without it’s two superstars, but it’s not too inspiring. I wouldn’t expect anything besides a first round exit from the Nets.
The West is where the race for the eighth seed gets interesting with three teams already within 4 games back of the spot. With Dallas having a 40-27 record, it would take a monster collapse for them to fall to the 8th seed. That leaves Memphis as the lone team to fight for the spot.
When the league suspended the season, Memphis was about to face the toughest remaining schedule in the league and looked doomed to fall out of the 8th spot. Although they still possibly could be doomed depending on how the league schedules the remaining games. A team that has already surpassed expectations, fans should already be ecstatic with the season that the young team had. Ja Morant seems to be the runaway rookie of the year and a their young core continued to grow as a team.
Credit must also be given to the relatively unknown head coach of the Grizzlies, Taylor Jenkins. He was able to get veterans such as Jonas Valanciunas and Jae Crowder to buy in. Meanwhile, he was also able to develop and expand the roles for younger players such as Brandon Clarke and Dillon Brooks. It’s young core promises a bright future for the team, however a tough schedule could cause them to lose their spot in the playoffs this year.
IMAGE CREDITS- CJ Gunther
Happy To Be Invited
Record- (24-40) 5.5 Games Back from Orlando
The Wizards only need to catch up by 1.5 games to force a play-in match, however it does not seem likely. The Wizards own the 6th highest scoring offense in the league. On the other hand, the also own the lowest defensive rating in the league.
The only reason they are even in this opportunity is thanks to the efforts of all-star snub Bradley Beal. Beal has been averaging 30.5 points per game this season and has had a high usage rate of 34.4%. Beal will need help from rookie Rui Hachimura and sharpshooter Davis Bertans if the Wizards are expecting to play more than their scheduled eight games.
Record- (26-39) 6 Games Back from Memphis
The Phoenix Suns have had an interesting year to say the least. The team has been laughably terrible for the past 5 years as they have not reached the playoffs since the 2013-2014 season. This year seemed to be a return relevance after starting the year 7-4 but the Suns returned to the Suns we know and continued to drop games.
Although still below average, the team is much improved from the year before. The addition of veterans such as Ricky Rubio, Aaron Baynes, and Dario Saric provide experience that the team lacked. Defensively, Baynes was able to cover for when Deandre Ayton was out due to suspension for use of PEDs. Ricky Rubio provided a helping hand and relieved Devin Booker of primary ball handling responsibility. This more balanced cast pushed their ranking of 28th in offense the previous year to a mediocre but better 16th place this year.
Despite all of the impacts the veterans, the team is fueled by the production of its young core of Deandre Ayton, Devin Booker, and Kelly Oubre. In Ayton’s second year he has shown an improvement on the defensive side of the floor and has proven to be a unique blend of athleticism and skill on the offensive side of the floor. Booker is the face of franchise and has yet to reach the playoffs despite his incredible talent. His sharpshooting from three and his ability to create his own shot is underappreciated because of the lack of competitiveness of the Suns in previous years. The Suns need to step up in these games in order to get much needed playoff experience for the young core.
IMAGE CREDITS- Rocky Widner (NBAE)
An Outside Chance
San Antonio Spurs
Record- (27-36) 4 Games Behind Memphis
It’s hard to picture the playoffs without the Spurs to begin with. For years many have pointed to San Antonio as the model organization in the NBA. This could be the year the 22 year streak of playoff appearances comes to an end for San Antonio. However without their second leading scorer Lamarcus Aldrige who is out after receiving shoulder surgery, their season is looking to have a grim ending.
Despite the hole they find themselves in and the loss of their star power forward, I still can’t rule the Spurs out due to one man, Greg Popovich. Coach Pop has been able to get the most out of his roster through ball movement and lack of turnovers. In a league that has turned to 3 pointers as a focal part of their offense, the Spurs have been able to keep an 11th ranked offense despite having an offense that shot the 3rd least amount of 3’s.
The team will look to Demar Derozan to be the star and leader. Despite still lacking a reliable three point shot, Derozan is still a killer in the mid-range and in isolation situations. The team will need to look for consistent production from their guards in order to keep up with higher scoring teams. Meanwhile younger big men such Jakob Poetl and Trey Lyles must take the opportunity to find a bigger role on the team due to Aldrige’s absence.
Record- (28-36) 3.5 Games Behind Memphis
The Suns maybe are a laughable organization, but the Kings are just downright sad. The Kings have the longest active playoff drought in the league, which has lasted since 2006. The team has been woefully mismanaged and has seen many draft busts from Jimmer Fredette to Thomas Robinson. Yet after a 9th place finish last year, the future was bright for the Kings. The front office thought a change in Head Coach would give them the jump they need, however Luke Walton’s first year at helm led to some regression.
Despite the regression, the team is still immensely talented and could make some noise in the playoffs. Their three headed back-court of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic is dangerous. Fox’s blinding speed and savvy passing make him one of the marquee point guards of the future. Buddy Hield’s shooting provides a magnetic force that defenses must pay attention to. He’s basically a higher end Kyle Korver or similar to a JJ Reddick. Bogdan provides a mix of both shooting and play-making as he is able to facilitate of the pick n’ roll or spot up in the corner.
If the Kings are to make a push, they must return to the thing that made them so successful the year before: Pace. For some reason, the 5th fastest team slowed their game down this year and became the 6th slowest team this season. The team is built to run. De’Aaron can push the ball like no other, the team has mobile big men in Alex Len and Marvin Bagley (if healthy), and a team full of knockdown shooters. If the Kings are to be competitive, Luke Walton must urge his team to push the ball.
IMAGE CREDITS- Getty Images
The Real Threats
New Orleans Pelicans
Record- (28-36) 3.5 Games Behind Memphis
The New Orleans Pelicans are the most exciting team to possibly get the eighth spot and are possibly the most competitive as well. After starting the season with an atrocious record of 6-22 the team was able to turn it around in late December. With the addition of Zion Williamson on January 22nd and with one of the easiest schedules left for the rest of the year, the Pelicans were destined to steal the 8th spot.
Currently the Pelicans are 2nd in pace and score the 5th most points per game. Lonzo Ball is the perfect point guard for the team as he is one of the best outlet passers in the league and has incredible vision in general. Jrue Holiday is the heart and soul of the team, as he’s been in New Orleans the longest and provides valuable two-way ability. The team itself is fairly deep with multiple high-end role players such as J.J. Redick, Derrick Favors, and Josh Hart.
Why They Are Scary
The two stars of the team however, are what set this team apart from any of the other teams chasing the 8th spot. This year, Brandon Ingram has made a case to be the most improved player after making his first all-star team. The lanky forward possess the length to shoot over any player and the change of scenery has provided the opportunity to be the first option. Furthermore, Ingram has increased the amount of three pointers taken while simultaneously increasing his trips to the free throw line. Already a match-up nightmare, he saw a lot of his time at power forward allowing him to take slower footed big men one on one.
Although Ingram had an incredible year, the team will only go as far as Zion is able to carry him. Williamson seemed slow and out of shape coming into his start of the season, yet his slow was still capable of 23.6 points per game on 58.9% shooting. His athletic profile combined with touch and IQ is unlike anyone else this season and he provides a constant lob threat despite only being 6’6”. If I were the Lakers, I would pray the Pelicans don’t grab the 8th seed. Their pace, star power, and depth provide a uniquely competitive eighth seed that we haven’t seen in years.
Record- (29-37) 3.5 Games Behind Memphis
Portland has had a disappointing season to say the least. Last year they were the 3rd seed in the West and had the honor of being swept by the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. The Trail Blazers however were scarred by the injury bug which saw them lose two valuable big men in Jursuf Nurkic and Zach Collins.
The team tried to shore up its front line with acquisitions like Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony, however it was no use. Despite the tough circumstances the team was carried by their superstar, Damian Lillard. Over an 8 game stretch in mid-January, Dame took over scoring over 45 points a game, including a 61 point performance over the Warriors.
Why They Are Scary
The Trail Blazers went to the Western Conference Finals last year and it wasn’t because of luck, they were a genuinely good team. The hope for Blazer fans lies on whether their big men can come to Orlando healthy. The Blazers with their front court is a completely different team than the one we saw this regular season. Theirs a problem when you have to rely on Mario Hezonja and Caleb Swanigan for crucial minutes in the front court.
A superstar like Dame Lillard will not have his season ended quietly as we saw in January. If Lillard catches fire, the rest of the Western Conference is in trouble, as there are very few players who can keep up with Lillard. Furthermore, C.J. McCollum has always been a solid performer in the playoffs. Often overlooked due to his back court partner, McCollum is a valuable scorer who has became a more capable facilitator this year.