Every NBA team embarking on Orlando practically got to experience a whole offseason before the playoffs. According to the laws of science, that probably means that everyone just got a lot better by virtue of health.
That being said, there were teams who could have really used the break though, and others who might not have benefitted as well. Was it really a good thing for Milwaukee’s historic season to be stopped on a whim like that? Or for the Raptors, who on a roll as well? Maybe not.
But for the teams that did need it, it comes as a massive break, and should help them out greatly. Below are those teams, followed by what an awards ballot should look like this year since the NBA announced that the eight seeding games prior to the playoffs will not affect this season’s honors.
Philadelphia is better in every conceivable way heading into the league’s restart, even in a non-basketball sense.
When something is hard or frustrates you, sometimes it’s good to take a break and come back to it later. That’s essentially what the 76ers just did in the middle of a season where they’re potentially the NBA’s most disappointing team.
Things weren’t going well for Philly before the shutdown. They sat at sixth in the East with a (predictable) struggling offense, a defense that was lockdown but not winning them enough games and injuries that made their starting lineup fluctuate with its most important guys. Plus, Ben Simmons was on the cusp of missing perhaps the rest of the season, depending on how deep the Sixers made it into the playoffs.
Now, a lot of this could go out the window. The layoff gave everyone not only a chance to get healthy and rest up before the most competitive time of the year but time to think about the problems at hand. This includes the players, coaching staff and front office. During the season, the day-to-day grind of playing and traveling doesn’t really allow teams time to practice, let alone switch their entire offensive scheme and have long-term conversations about what it should be. If the front office is thinking about it, their thinking about how to implement it the next season, not in the current one. That’s too hard of a midseason change.
Philly practically just got an offseason to think it over, and perhaps they’ve realized that things need to change. In scrimmages and practice videos, the Sixers have been experimenting with Simmons at power forward, alongside Shake Milton, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid.
Putting Milton into the mix is intriguing yet may not solve the entire problem. With just 52 career games played at the age of 23, the former second-round pick doesn’t quite have the NBA chops under his belt just yet. But, at 6’5, he’s an explosive guard who can use his size to get where he wants on the court. The athleticism combined with his passing ability is impressive and at times scary for opposing defenses. It’ll make him more of a true point guard for this Philly offense – one that can contribute more on the offensive end than Simmons.
But there are drawbacks. Milton’s a bit of question mark shooting the ball – it was a weakness on his scouting report in the 2018 draft, and while he’s shooting 45.3 percent from deep this season on 3.3 attempts per game, that does average out to just 1.5 makes per outing. It’s certainly an upgrade over Simmons, but doesn’t move the needle quite enough.
Simmons at power forward is something that could make Philly work better. The threes he made in the scrimmages the past week seem like click-bait teases – we shouldn’t be projecting Philly forward as if Simmons is going to change his game and emerge as an offensive threat. However, the 4-spot brings some intrigue. Simmons is an awesome screen-setter, and his seven foot frame makes him a looming presence at the rim. Playing him more like a post player could make sense – there were aspects of that during his brief LSU career.
But who currently occupies the post? None other than Joel Embiid, who’s the best player in basketball when he wants to be. There’s no reason to disrupt that force with Simmons down low.
Moving Simmons to power forward feels like them benching him without actually doing so. Philly is practically getting him out of the way and letting Milton cook instead. If Simmons actually has a three point shot now, a wing-like role in the corner would be extremely effective. At the same time, if Simmons has added to his game and is taking steps forward like that, why would the Sixers be moving Milton into the picture and taking the ball out of Simmons’ hands? A versatile, aggressive offensive game from their now power forward would solve practically all of their problems.
This legitimately working for Philly seems unlikely. Though the Sixers won’t be tasked with a playoff environment (They also lose their homecourt advantage though, where they were a historic 29-2), Milton coming in and taking the league by storm with less than a full year of NBA experience would be one of the best/most improbable stories in awhile.
The Sixers won’t recover from this season – the ship has sailed on their expectations. But that’s what makes the Milton experiment worth it. What do they have to lose? If things get worse, then the season is a wash anyways due to expectations already being low. If things get better, then great: the Sixers can see how far the new scheme gets them, and possibly implement it next year.
Miami got the same help from the shutdown Philly did: when times are tough, take a break and do something else.
The Heat’s issues were never as deep as the Sixers. But they were on a problematic trend.
February was a tough month for Miami. They went 6-7 and dropped from 15th in defensive rating to 21st. Tyler Herro missed a significant amount of time during this stretch, but he wasn’t exactly the cog to Miami’s defense and their offense didn’t suffer much as a result of his absence.
The answer might be found in certain lineup combinations, and it might be tied to Kelly Olynyk and some of Miami’s more traditional lineups.. With Olynyk on the court in February, Miami’s defensive rating rose to 115.7. When he was off it, it fell to 111.3. A lot of these pitfalls could be found through Miami’s roster. Jimmy Butler saw a similar decline, with Miami’s defensive rating clocking in at 116.1 with him on the court and 109.7 off it. That’s not a difference you’d expect to see from one of the game’s best perimeter defenders.
It’s clear defensive breakdowns were in full swing throughout the month, which might have led to Miami’s big trade for Jae Crowder and Andre Igodouala at the deadline. Both are consistent wing defenders who could replace Olynyk’s spot in the rotation, and contribute enough offense and shooting to be playable. The brief numbers the duo showed were promising: a 106.6 defensive rating for the Heat when the two played their 186 minutes together in the month.
Miami’s second most heavily used lineup in February, featuring Crowder, Igoudala, Goran Dragic, Olynyk and Duncan Robinson was sick defensively, posting a 96.6 defensive rating. Butler’s decline is even more evident when considering net rating – the dynamic two-way player made Miami better when he was on the bench from Feb. 1 through the shut down, where as Crowder made Miami better by playing with a net rating of 2.2.
For whatever reason the miscommunications were happening, Miami should have had plenty of time to figure them out. Butler is too good of a player – especially on the defensive end – to be having the lapses he did in February and March. Miami’s deadline upgrades should also provide a needed boost defensively, and allow them to be play a bit smaller and more efficiently as well.
Even though Portland saw their schedule getting significantly harder in addition to losing half of the games they had remaining to catch the eighth-seeded Grizzlies, there’s no doubting that the Trail Blazers are in better shape heading into Restart Night Friday. For the first time all season, they have their real team together.
The days of Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony in the starting lineup together are over. Over a year after suffering a nasty leg fracture, Jursurf Nurkic is back to anchor Portland’s defense down low and bring back his crafty offensive game. In addition, Zach Collins will make his return after suffering a shoulder injury just three games into the season last October.
Collins and Nurkic most importantly give Portland offense they desperately need. Though it’s a tiny sample, Collins had seemed to expand his offensive game a bit earlier in the year, stretching out to three point line and making 42.9 percent of his attempts, a career high by far. If that’s in the mix now for Collins, it would open up the court even more for Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to cook. Collins had always moved better than his game would suggest – he would play an integral part alongside Nurkic in Portland’s screening game for its guards. The defense – like everyone on Portland – was always meh, but the Blazers’ philosophy has always been to outscore the opponent. With their backcourt, there has always been a ceiling on what the team could be defensively.
However, Nurkic’s return will certainly help on that end. He’s a much better defender than given credit for, and took massive strides on that end last season before his devastating injury. His offense will be welcomed as well – the passing he provides can help take the burden of Lillard and McCollum to create everything for this offense. It’ll also take the ball out of Anthony’s hands more, who will still be getting heavy minutes thanks to Trevor Ariza’s opt out. Portland could opt to play Anfernee Simons more despite his rawness, but the impact we thought he could deliver this season was a bit overrated, and likely reduces his minutes.
No matter how you shake it, Portland has gotten back two of their four best players for the restart, and while some of the issues that have plagued them for years in the playoffs are likely to still be prevalent, they’re a threat to any of the teams in front of them, including the one they could see first in the playoffs.
The Spurs and Suns
The only reason these teams are in better shape is because their playoff hopes before the suspension of the season were much smaller than they even are now, which are both still pretty small.
The restart can serve each of these teams well. Even though it may not make sense from a long-term perspective to try and get into the playoffs, the Spurs aren’t ever going to purposefully tank for draft position, and Suns GM James Jones probably needs all the help he can get before owner Robert Sarver decides to cut bait with him too early. The NBA’s decision to bring back San Antonio and Phoenix may not have been smart for the safety of the bubble, and still doesn’t make sense considering LaMarcus Aldridge’s shoulder surgery and the low odds these teams still face trying to get in, but it certainly changes the legacy of the season for both, especially if they get in. It would be a massive win for the Suns to steal the eighth seed – it’s been 10 years since Phoenix made the playoffs and would lessen fright among Suns fans about Devin Booker potentially bailing. In early-to-mid March, these teams were already preparing for next season and were focused on developing their youth rather than actually trying to win. Now that’s changed significantly, and it’ll give both teams experience they could use.
F- LeBron James
Tough cuts: Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid, Jaylen Brown, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler
Tough cuts: Eric Bledsoe, Kyle Lowry, Bam Adebayo, OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet
Tough cuts: Michael Porter Jr.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
- LeBron James
- Anthony Davis
- James Harden
- Luka Doncic
Defensive Player of the Year:
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
- Anthony Davis
- Kawhi Leonard
- Pascal Siakam
- Brook Lopez
Sixth Man of the Year:
- Dennis Schroder
- Montrezl Harrell
- Lou Williams
- Donte DiVincenzo
- Christian Wood
Most Improved Player of the Year:
- Pascal Siakam
- Brandon Ingram
- Christian Wood
- Jayson Tatum
- Domantas Sabonis
Tough cuts: Luka Doncic, Bam Adebayo, Jaylen Brown, Dennis Schroder
Rookie of the Year:
- Ja Morant
- Kendrick Nunn
- Eric Paschall
- Tyler Herro
- Terence Davis
Coach of the Year:
- Nick Nurse
- Frank Vogel
- Billy Donovan
- Mike Budenholzer
- Nate McMillan