It’s entirely possible that all of the 22 teams embarking on Orlando for the NBA’s resumption of the 2019-2020 season are worse. It’s also entirely possible that they’re all better.
The bubble that holds this year’s playoffs will be weird. It’s not really an arena, but calling it simply a building feels too mean. It’s more of a gym, like the one your high school probably played in. It just looks fancier on the inside, has cool technology and a better court design.
There’s a chance anything could happen. The rest of this NBA season could play out like the MLB season might – chaos everywhere, guys not being ready to go or vice-versa, a neutral, incubated environment upping the level of play from everyone, not just the good teams, etc. Every prediction we have could be wrong.
But that’s typically not how basketball works. The best team usually wins, and that’s at any level of the game in any environment. Now players have had practically a whole offseason off to rest and let their bodies recover before ramping back up into tip-top shape. That might make everyone better, but it also makes the best even better as well. That’s a bit scary.
So because of that, we should probably evaluate things based on how we left them. But circumstances do change. In 2020, they most definitely have, so much so that the way our daily lives are lived have been affected drastically. NBA players and teams aren’t immune to that, and for some, that effect has been so great that basketball has had to take a backseat, which is not only an understandable position but one that is brave and courageous.
On the court though, those decisions have impacts as well. Not all the teams below have seen the COVID-19 pandemic directly affect them – some of those not participating couldn’t even if they wanted to. Regardless, there are teams that enter Orlando in a much different state than they were before the season’s suspension, and that comes with unfortunate consequences. Here are those teams:
Despite being the No.1 seed in the West, fourth in offensive rating, somehow third in defensive rating and the Vegas favorite to win the Finals, Los Angeles was not a team that could afford the losses they’ve suffered since the NBA season was suspended in March. Avery Bradley’s opt out and Rajon Rondo’s broken hand leave the Lakers without two of their top seven rotation guys for a significant amount of time, and even with reinforcements, the consistency produced by those two will be hard to overcome.
Bradley had emerged as a legitimate NBA player again this year. His defense had been key against point guards and versatile wings of opponents – his offense less so, but the 12-year vet was scoring 8.6 points a game on 36.4 percent three point shooting for LA this year.
He was a competent rotation guy and a starter. Most importantly, he was their No.1 weapon on the defensive end against point guards. You don’t get to be the third best defense in the league by just relying on Anthony Davis and not locking down the Damian Lillards, Lou Williams’ and James Harden’s of the world. Alex Caruso can also play the role Bradley leaves, but Bradley’s length and size enabled him to switch onto 2s and 3s as well, giving the Lakers lineup a varied defensive attack. Caruso is a grinder, but is suited better in lesser minute roles and purely against guys his own size.
Los Angeles’ lineup with the most minutes featured Bradley. Now he’s out of the picture, and LA’s second most used lineup this season is the same as their most used one except for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope taking Bradley’s spot. The difference? A 9.2 point drop in net rating.
Perhaps the newly signed Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith can fill the hole – they’d likely be upgrades offensively, although saying that about Waiters feels risky. Smith is a shooter and there’s no questioning that. With LeBron James alongside him, Smith is a productive player on one end of the floor, granted the mental mistakes. How much does that matter though? We’ve likely yet to see the full unleashing of the James-Davis duo. The usage of the pick and roll between those two has been lackluster this year; LA has gotten away with either feeding Davis post-ups, getting Kyle Kuzma heat-check games or running through James offensively instead. It’s a weapon that will be necessary come the playoffs. Does Smith’s (and in an unlikely world, Waiters’) extra firepower help? And is it worth the sacrifice on the other end of the court?
Los Angeles doesn’t really have much else it could do though, which shows the vulnerability of the roster. James at point guard with Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma alongside him is massive, and while the James-Kuzma two man lineup numbers are good (13.9 net rating with a 98.6 (!!!) defensive rating), James is worse with Kuzma on the floor statistically. Letting those two cook independently might be beneficial, although Kuzma’s numbers without James suggest the league’s best player makes him better (surprise). Caurso is really the only other option. Like Bradley, he’d be there for defense and get out of the way offensively. It’d be nice to see Talen Horton Tucker get some action, but the Lakers playing a rookie in real playoff minutes in a funky environment is playing with fire.
Bradley will be missed. An argument exists that Rondo could fill his void – he’s a good defensive player when he tries, and you never know what Playoff Rondo might bring this time around – but the backup point guard’s broken hand likely keeps him out until the second round of the playoffs. This shouldn’t impact the Lakers too dramatically, unless the eighth seed looks utterly terrifying in this upcoming eight game sprint and play-in game (For Portland and New Orleans, that’s not totally out of the question), but like Bradley, Rondo had revitalized himself this year and at least remained a competent rotation guy for one of the best teams in the league.
Caruso replaces Rondo more than he does Bradley. The role of being the second ball-handler was a massive one for the Lakers this year after LeBron converted to point guard before the season. Rondo has been okay there, but toward the league’s suspension of play, Caruso had really emerged as perhaps a better option, the defense and cutting offensively he brings being the difference.
For now it leaves Caruso and the Lakers filling two holes with one guy: Caruso attempting to make up Bradley’s defense and Rondo’s playmaking at the same time. Evaluating Waiters as anything more than a net neutral feels like a mistake, but you could argue his sixth-man style game helps curb Caruso’s usage offensively, and if they play together, Caruso has established himself as an unselfish offensive player – letting Waiters go to work while saving Caruso for defense could be effective.
A team this good shouldn’t be affected as much as it is by the loss of a role player like Bradley. The numbers say it’s not that impactful; Los Angeles had a defensive rating of 104 with him on the court and 105.2 with him off it. But considering the substitutes, the impact feels greater. If a diversification of the Lakers offense featuring more James-Davis PNR and Smith’s shooting can make up for the points allowed by Bradley’s ghost, then the Lakers should be fine until the Conference Finals, just like they were before. The road there only gets harder though.
The Nets almost go without explanation here. Brooklyn has lost Kyrie Irving and Nic Claxton to season ending shoulder injuries and Spencer Dinwiddie, Wilson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and Taureen Prince all tested positive for COVID-19 and have opted to not return for the NBA’s resumption. As a result, the Nets have had to sign the likes of Jamal Crawford, Tyler Johnson and Michael Beasley and will rely on other unfamiliar NBA players like Donta Hall and Chris Chiozza.
In a way, it begs the question as to why the Nets are even in Orlando. But that would mean the Nets forfeiting a spot in the playoffs as they currently sit in the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, just a half a game up on the Orlando Magic.
Brooklyn could easily fall out. It will be a game of “Who’s worse?” between them and Washington, who has dealt with their own amount of opt outs as well. Orlando seems primed to jump up to seventh seed – at this point they’re far and away better than the Nets and Wizards. Brooklyn could fall to the ninth spot and lose to Washington in the first game of the play-in tournament (Tournament? Game? What if it’s two games? We need a word for this. Maybe just play-in?), ending their season.
Brooklyn is worse because they had the chance to be a frisky first round team even without Irving, who was ruled out for the year before the league’s shutdown. Now much of the core that made them that –Dinwiddie, Prince and Jordan – is done. Sure, we’ll get to see what Caris LeVert can do by himself, but the core around him won’t offer much in the way of making a fair evaluation. After all, it was clear early in the season that this was never the Nets’ year anyways. Whenever next season begins is when they’ll look to get their revenge, and that could come in a very big way.
One of the league’s more disappointing teams this year, Utah seemed to be finally figuring things out once COVID-19 hit them personally, which was not only the NBA’s signal to shutter operations but perhaps a wakeup call for the country about the seriousness of what was on the horizon.
Almost five months later, not much is better for the Jazz. While everyone within the organization is presumably okay after having COVID-19, the Jazz enter Orlando without Bojan Bogdanovic, their big offseason signing in 2019 in conjunction with their trade for Mike Conley. His season-ending wrist surgery has led to Utah to get neither acquisition to pay off just yet.
Bogdanovic should have. He had provided firepower to an offense that desperately needed it. The contract given to him was still a little steep, but the former Pacer gave Utah an excuse to cross off the list titled “Reasons For Lack Of Playoff Success.” Now, he’s out as Utah enters the Orlando bubble, and they’re back at square one with the same problem that’s plagued them for years.
Bogdanovic’s injury is about as close to a death sentence as you can get. The additions of him and Conley were supposed to do two things last offseason: 1) Add firepower and 2) help take the load off of Donovan Mitchell. These kind of went hand-in-hand – taking the load off Mitchell meant he himself could contribute more firepower. Firepower was certainly added as mentioned above, but Conley’s surprising decline has resulted in Mitchell once again having to run everything. Utah found success with bringing Conley off the bench before the shutdown, which while effective is about the worst-case scenario Utah could have hoped for. If less minutes means more production, then this doesn’t indicate it’s just a down year for Conley. It indicates he’s truly winding down from his peak.
The playoffs were already going to be tough for Utah. Even though they had figured things out a bit before the shutdown happened (Mostly thanks to an awesome Jordan Clarkson trade), the Conley-Mitchell dynamic was likely too big of a chasm to overcome. Utah wasn’t going to be pushing for a potential Western Conference Finals berth like some expected them to. They were bound for the second round. Without Bogdonovic, getting even there might be tough, because for a large part of the season, his offense didn’t matter like it should have. Bigger problems are at hand here, and that’s only referring what’s happening on the court.
The East feels a lot more penetrable than the West this year. Sure, one of the best statistical teams of all-time sits at the top of it in the Milwaukee Bucks, but there’s at least a spot open to face them in the Conference Finals. Out West, getting past both LA teams is a much more daunting task. Those two spots have been practically determined since the beginning of the season.
The Pacers were one of those sleeper teams you could see meeting Milwaukee with a trip to the Finals on the line. Indiana had made it through the regular season practically unscathed without Victor Oladipo – they’d been one of the league’s top overachievers thanks to Malcolm Brogdon returning to his college, point guard self and Domantas Sabonis becoming an offensive fixture. Oladipo’s return could have risen them to a new, scary level.
That wasn’t exactly the case. Oladipo returned at a time that seemed to be too early. He didn’t have the burst or the same athleticism. The shots weren’t falling. He was a different player.
The suspension of the league should have helped Oladipo’s return, but the former Indiana Hoosiers star has wavered on whether he’ll actually play in the NBA’s restart. Recent reports have indicated he will, which gives Indiana a needed boost now that Sabonis is out for what seems to be a significant amount of time with a foot injury.
Counting on Oladipo to be himself though needs to come with caution. Even though it’s been close to five months since we saw him struggle on the court last, Oladipo’s torn quad is an injury that just doesn’t happen in sports. It was rare and serious. It could have career-altering effects. The explosion that was so keen to Oladipo’s game may never come back.
If Oladipo comes back after the layoff looking like a guy on the cusp of stardom once again, the Pacers can hang in this restart. That alpha presence on the court can make up for the loss of Sabonis. Indiana will take automatic buckets in any form from Oladipo rather than working for them in the way that Sabonis and others do.
It’s going to be extremely unclear whether Oladipo can provide that though. He’ll have to play arguably the best basketball of his career to give Indiana a shot. The odds of that are quite low.
Indiana is going to experiment with some fun looks this postseason regardless. Their new starting lineup should be Aaron Holiday, Brogdon, Oladipo, TJ Warren and Myles Turner. How the three guards fit together will be fascinating, and Warren is a high-upside option who has improved his efficiency slightly. The best case is that Oladipo looks like himself, Warren puts up numbers, Brogdon is as involved as he was and Holiday provides supportive shot-making. But that’s a lot that has to go right for Indiana, who just haven’t seemed to catch a break over the years with their stars.