Bucks-Heat Preview

It’s never smart to overreact to a single loss, especially when it comes in Game 1 of a series.  Last year taught us this well – the Toronto Raptors lost their first playoff game and went on to win the title.

But a loss – and more so a couple underwhelming wins – can teach us certain things.

It’s odd to be writing this about the Milwaukee Bucks, who, unlike their opponent in the Miami Heat, lost once against their first round opponent and didn’t look the absolutely dominant team they were during the regular season.

The Heat emerged from the first round against Indiana looking beastly.  They swept the Pacers in a series that was expected to go longer and at least be more competitive.  Miami dominated the Pacers while the Bucks fell a bit short of expectations.

Orlando beat Milwaukee in Game 1 – and gave them issues throughout the rest of the series – by taking advantage of their lax defense of the three point line.  The Magic essentially turned into the Rockets at their worst.  They shot threes without any regard for the shot quality or for rhythm.  They just chucked them.

At times, it actually worked!  They won Game 1 thanks to their shooting, most notably from Nikola Vucevic, who ate up Milwaukee’s typical drop coverage with its center Brook Lopez.  Even if Vucevic wasn’t shooting threes, he made the Bucks pay with his mid-ranger.  The Bucks were playing so far off him that it actually made the mid-ranger a good shot.

The concerning part is that continually leaving Vucevic open weren’t just mistakes from Milwaukee.  They intended to do so, and not because they didn’t respect him as a shooter, but because their scheme relies on protecting the paint.  Because it’s their scheme, and is one that worked so well during the regular season, there’s no indication that they’ll adjust.

That is cause for concern against the Heat, who were arguably the best three point shooting team in the league this year depending on how you quantify the Rockets.  The Bucks were lucky in a sense that Orlando took a lot of bad threes.  The Heat don’t do that, and since Milwaukee isn’t going to pressure them out of their ways, it could spell big trouble.

The Bucks, of course, have counters.  First, the Heat are going to play Bam Adebayo at the five when it matters.  He’s not a shooting threat (yet – he’ll be unstoppable if he can figure that side of his game out), so they aren’t going to burn Lopez and the Bucks’ bigs like Vuecevic did.

There are times when it could, though.  Kelly Olynyk is a sniper, and Erik Spolestra tends to have just one of Adebayo and him out there at a time (Although, the numbers of Olynyk and Adebayo together in the playoffs have been insane, granted it’s only a sample of 13 minutes).  The Olynyk-at-the-five lineup could be deadly for the Bucks if they don’t adjust their drop coverage – a couple threes could lead to an extended lead, or even be a dagger if Miami is already ahead.

Still, Adebayo is going to get most of the center minutes, which minimizes the threat against Lopez in drop coverage.

The second Bucks counter is obvious: Giannis Antetokounmpo.  Miami is not well-equipped to stop the soon-to-be MVP at all.  While Adebayo is a good defensive player, his rim protection isn’t at its ceiling yet (his game is built on switching).  Olynyk plays so few minutes because his defense makes him close to unplayable.  Miami just doesn’t have a lot of bigs in general, let alone the bigs that Toronto has which slowed Antetokounmpo last year.

Miami probably builds a wall with the likes of Jae Crowder, Andre Igoudala and their bevy of wings, but the size matchup still feels like a problem.

That’s the end-all with Antentokoumnpo.  You have to get lucky in order to stop him.  Minimizing the impact is all you can really hope for.  Miami’s in rough shape when it comes to even doing that.  He makes everything else not matter.

Which includes the three point shooting, unless Miami absolutely shoots the lights out four times.  Even then, they’re still not stopping Antentkoumpo, and the Bucks have enough firepower to keep up with everyone.

Milwaukee’s defensive tendencies are habits and schemes.  They aren’t going to change their ways.  Against shooters like Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, that’s frightening.  Robinson is one of the scariest shooters the NBA has seen in awhile – he has the capability to hit 10 threes in any game.  Herro can get there as well, though his playmaking has really emerged over the course of bubble play, and lineups that feature him, Jimmy Butler and one of Miami’s point guards is a hassle to defend with all the shot creation present.

Antentokoumpo isn’t at the point yet where we should bet against him, but not making the Finals could guarantee it, and a Finals loss in certain fashions could as well.  But the Heat just don’t have any infrastructure that’s going to bring his weaknesses to light.  This series is going to be a battle, but Antentokoumpo should be able to win it.

Prediction: Bucks in 7

Celtics-Raptors Preview

For all the things that could have ended the NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, racial injustice in America is probably the most despicable, embarrassing and unfortunate one.

After the death of George Floyd in May, plans for the resumption of the NBA season felt small and unimportant.  The season’s balance hung in the hands of players – who are predominantly Black – that felt like basketball didn’t matter at a time like this.  Equality doesn’t exist outside the NBA, and this is a problem more important than basketball.

Recall all the things that threatened the NBA’s bubble, which went to great lengths to address racial injustice concerns from players by adding Black Lives Matter to the court and allowing messages on the back of jerseys.  COVID-19 could have penetrated its walls. Player fatigue from being cooped up in a perimeter for months on end could have set in. Opt outs due to an abundance of players’ families being affected by the virus. A god damn hurricane could have hit for that matter.

But more racial injustice – highlighted this time by another incident of police brutality – should have never been the cause for a halt in play.  It’s saddening to see that it’s taken 400 years, not just three months – for things to change. Because it has, what the Milwaukee Bucks did before Wednesday’s Game 5 against the Orlando Magic was not only historic, but a mechanism for much needed change everywhere.

Already, it has been.  Players, and subsequently the NBA and its owners, are attempting to do so. The NBA and NBA Players Association released a statement on Friday morning, signifying action players wanted to see taken before returning to the court.

With racial justice initiatives in place, a couple days of reckoning for some and recovering for others, basketball is back, and it will debut once again with a new series starting on Sunday between the Celtics and Raptors.  Here’s a look at what’s ahead.

 

No.2 Toronto Raptors vs. No.3 Boston Celtics 

Boston enters this series as arguably the best looking team remaining after their stunning sweep of the 76ers in the first round.  Miami certainly has a case as well – their 4-0 series win over Indiana was just as impressive, and the Heat emerged as a potentially serious challengers to the overwhelming favorites to make the Finals out East in Milwaukee.

But Boston overcame a challenge in Philadelphia.  While touting the Sixers that highly seems silly now, the threat of Joel Embiid certainly never was.  The Celtics survived big games from the dominating big man, and got lucky in ones where he didn’t produce (which was not entirely his fault).  That series – despite all of Philly’s problems – had serious landmines for Boston, and they dodged every single one of them.

Toronto comes in much cooler than Boston.  Despite being just one of three teams in the league to sweep their first round opponent, the Raptors’ play in the seeding games was underwhelming, and losing just once to a shelled Brooklyn Nets team would have been embarrassing.  

It’s hard to evaluate the Raptors start to bubble play, especially considering that pre-shutdown this was a team that looked primed to potentially make the Finals for a second straight year.  It’s a tough contradiction.  The Raptors look like a team that could of beaten Milwaukee.  Now, it’s tough to say whether they’ll even be able to get there.

The playoffs are – and have always been – about matchups, and Toronto essentially got screwed by them here.  They could very well lose to Boston and still beat Milwaukee if the system allowed for it – they just matchup better with the Bucks.

Boston presents a challenge to Toronto in a couple ways.  If matchups matter the most, then having legitimate star players matter second in the playoffs, and Boston has that in Jayson Tatum.  Sure, Toronto has wings to throw at him, but Tatum’s ascended to the level where even if a defense makes him work, it won’t really affect his overall impact.

Secondly, any firepower advantage the Raptors might’ve had against Boston is in doubt.  While Gordon Hayward will not play at all in the series, Kyle Lowry is a question mark for Game 1 and beyond with a sprained ankle.  Nothing certain has been reported with media availability understandably cancelled in wake of the week’s events, but Lowry’s absence is one Toronto can’t afford against a team as loaded as Boston when it comes to scoring and shooting.

The good news for Toronto?  Their size is their advantage.  No matter how long and switchy Boston is, guarding Pascal Siakam is an absolute hassle – he’s got the size advantage over practically anyone in the league, and his gracious movement doesn’t make him any easier to deal with.  Size troubles Boston, no matter how well it moves.  That’s where the Raptors’ second advantage appears.  More traditional bigs like Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are devastating for the Celtics.  They follow the Embiid prototype, yet aren’t able to be played off the floor like most bigs are.  The effect those guys had was the biggest non-injury factor in last year’s Finals against Golden State.  If it helped take down the Warriors, then Boston is cake.

The Celtics got help against Embiid mostly from his Sixer teammates rather than Embiid himself.  With the Raptors, that’s not exactly the case.  This team meshes together perfectly – Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Siakam, Ibaka, Gasol is a menace of both scoring and defense.  Almost everyone can create their own shot, play without the ball, effectively shoot, and not get picked on defensively.

VanVleet is likely going to Boston’s target on offense, and that’s not because he’s a bad defender.  He’s just the least good out of all the Raptors.  His size against the wings of Boston will hurt – the Celtics will likely just try to engulf him on switches.

But Toronto’s size in the backcourt helps them on the other end.  Kemba Walker is an average defender, and the rest of the lineup features tall guys that the likes of VanVleet and Lowry can sneak around.  Marcus Smart will be getting heavier minutes with Hayward out, but he can only put a stop to one of the guards, and we’ve seen VanVleet win games before.

Toronto’s going to need fantastic play from its guards.  Since bubble play began, the Raptors have struggled mightily in the half-court.  Siakam has not been the No.1 offensive option he looked like in the regular season.  It’s unclear if it was just a hot stretch, a fluke, or the league figuring out how to minimize his additional impact.  He’s not the guy who should have won Most Improved Player for the second straight year anymore, and with the defense Toronto is going to need from him in this series, expecting that offensive output might be unrealistic.

Both of these teams are incredibly even despite the injuries they have to account for.  The Raptors might not have the guy, but they have others who can chip in and make up for it.  On the contrary, Boston does have that guy.  But their firepower is limited by Toronto’s size and craftiness with the ball.  Ultimately, this series is  advantage vs. advantage, and even though the Raptors have the opportunity to play for another championship, getting there just happens to be the problem this year.

Prediction: Boston in 7


Now for some quick hits on each of the first round series’ still in progress, where we look at what each team needs to do in order to win their respective round.

Bucks-Magic

  • Unfortunately, Orlando’s Game 1 win which was captured in incredibly similar fashion to last year’s against Toronto won’t pay off, and will likely result in the series being ended the same way.
  • Orlando just ran out of options for Giannis Antetokounmpo.  Aaron Gordon’s absence ran longer than expected, and it left them incredibly weak in their fight against the soon-to-be MVP.
  • They need the three-point shooting they got in Game 1 to occur in every game the rest of this series, and hope Antetokounmpo falls off a cliff.
  • This series has said a lot more about Milwaukee than it has Orlando.  The Magic have exposed the Bucks’ other hole aside from Antentokoumpo’s lack of a jumper and the team’s half court offense: its loose defense of the three point line.
  • It didn’t bite them at all during the regular season, but when a team like Orlando can make it matter in a playoff series, and Miami is next in line, it’s a little frightening.

Rockets-Thunder

  • This was never going to be an easy series for Houston and it has certainly not turned out that way.
  • For a team that is obsessed with the concept of it, you would have thought the Rockets would have understood its own variance.  But that’s clearly not the case, as Game 4 indicated.  Houston finished the game shooting 5-21 from three after going 8-8 to start the half, which led to a lead of 15 points.  From there, it was yet another brutal playoff collapse, and possessions that featured some hint of ball movement weren’t enough late.
  • Houston has looked unstoppable at times this series, but that’s really just because they’ve been shooting well.  The age-old question with them has been: what happens when they’re shooting well?  Monday’s second half answered that in glaring fashion.
  • OKC has found sticking points in this series.  Lugentz Dort has done a phenomenal job against James Harden – he’s the league’s best defender on him and it’s not close.  But Dort’s brutal offensive performance (which was the sole reason he went undrafted, by the way) has made it tough on OKC to play him late in games.  While their classic three-guard set combined with Dort and Danilo Gallonari neutralizes Harden, it’s still tough to sacrifice the offense Steven Adams brings to the table with Houston’s wings swallowing the guards.  The Thunder are stuck with two non-enticing options: Let Harden cook, or struggle to score on the other end.
  • The cards are in Houston’s hands, and it’ll be up to their adjustments to see how well the hand is dealt.

Lakers-Trail Blazers

  • This series is giving off massive Bucks-Magic vibes, with the underdog taking Game 1 and slowly falling apart ever since.  With Damian Lillard out of the bubble due to a knee injury and his team down 3-1, the Trail Blazers are hanging on a limb.
  • Without Lillard, it’s probably not even worth considering how Portland can get back in it.  Instead, we can recall what this series taught us.
  • LeBron James finally decided to be LeBron and Anthony Davis finally decided to be AD.  The power duo turned out to be just more powerful than CJ McCollum and Lillard.  Portland doesn’t have anyone to stop those two, and it showed, making us look silly for ever doubting them in the first place.
  • Houston and the Clippers are struggling in their own series, having multiple embarrassing outings and look certainly beatable. With the West looking the way it is, it’s possible that the Lakers are in fact best suited to make the Finals.

Mavericks-Clippers

  • This series was going to be all about what Luka Doncic could do.  It turns out he can do a lot.
  • Of course, the Clippers reminded him who they were in Game 5, with Paul George breaking out of a playoff slump and Kawhi Leonard looking like the player we saw last postseason.
  • Regardless, the degree to which Doncic has carried the Mavericks has been incredible.  No one is that surprised, but to see it actually occur is a different experience.
  • How much more does he have in him?  If the Clippers played like they did in Game 5, likely not much.  But LA’s losses in this series haven’t totally just been dependent on effort.  The Clippers at times really haven’t been able to stop Doncic, and it’s paid its dividends.

Jazz-Nuggets

  • Perhaps the two most unfit teams for postseason play have brought it this series, and the guys we arguably blamed the most for prior struggles have shown up (Well, maybe just one of them).
  • Jamal Murray’s ascension this series has been massive.  He’s established himself as a legitimate go-to scorer, and someone who could probably turn out as the second-best player on a championship team.  He’s been that good – willing Denver back into games, hitting massively clutch shots, putting the team on his back.  He’s done it all.
  • Donovan Mitchell though – at times – has just been better.  The guy has dropped 50 twice in this series, including an unprecedented 57 points in Game 1.  Denver’s defense, which has been nonexistent throughout the entire series, hasn’t had an answer, which put them in a 3-1 hole before Monday’s win.
  • We knew Mitchell could be this type of guy.  He has been before.  But it feels like he’s gone up a level this time – the offensive boost from Rudy Gobert has been nice, but there’s been no threes generated from that ascension.  Mitchell is carrying a heavier load than Murray, even with the injuries faced by both sides.  He’s the only creator on the team.  Murray’s coach just needs to turn their third creator loose.

Previewing Tuesday’s Series Tip-Offs

Monday was an awesome day of basketball and Tuesday should be just as fun.  Here  are previews for the series that tip off today.

No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 8 Orlando Magic 

Writing about this series might seem a little bit pointless.  The Bucks are the runaway favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals, have the should-be MVP for the second straight year and established themselves as a historic team in certain statistical aspects this past season.  It would be slightly embarrassing if they even lost a game.

But Orlando is pesky.  That was especially proven last year, when they won Game 1 of their first round series against the eventual NBA champions Toronto Raptors thanks to a DJ Augustin three-pointer.  For a couple days, it felt like the Magic were going to send Toronto back to their normal choking ways.

A big problem exists this time.  Orlando doesn’t have the exact same squad as they did a year ago after Jonathan Isaac torn his ACL suffered against the Kings on August 3rd.  

Isaac could have played a massive part in giving Orlando any chance against Milwaukee.  They have personnel extremely similar to what Toronto possessed last season, which turned out to be the key to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Toronto built a wall in front of the Greek Freak.  They placed their man-to-man best defensive option in the middle of it – which was Pascal Siakam – and flanked him with a combination of a wing (In its best form, that wing was Kawhi Leonard) and a sturdy big man (Either Serge Ibaka or Marc Gasol, typically) and made sure the big(s) wouldn’t get played off the floor.

Orlando could have done something similar.  Isaac is a menace on the defensive end – it’s the reason he’s hard to give up on after underwhelming throughout his career thus far.  His thin frame could have been troubling against Antetokounmpo, but his height and history of solid rim protection could’ve made him one of the more promising prospects against the MVP.  Couple that with the underrated switchability and overall defense of Aaron Gordon and the big body of Nikola Vuecevic and the Magic would have had a decent chance at minimizing Antetokounmpo’s overall impact.

But Isaac won’t play regardless of whether Orlando pulls perhaps the greatest upset in NBA Playoffs history.  That hurts.  His replacement is a massive downgrade on the defensive end, and that’s all Antetokounmpo needs even if the other defenders put up a good fight.

If Orlando were to slow him down a bit, they’d still be in a tough spot.  Khris Middleton was one of the best 15 players in basketball this year, and using Isaac on Antetokounmpo turns Middleton loose.  Orlando has wings they could throw at him, including Wes Iwundu, Terrence Ross and James Ennis.  

It seems unlikely that it matters.  Middleton’s an underrated pure scorer – he’s not the common off-ball wing.  Neither of Orlando’s options are defensive stalwarts, unless they decide to switch Gordon, who will be out for Game 1, onto him.  That would be a good fit, but then you’re letting Antetokounmpo work.

Orlando’s massive lack of firepower bites in this series.  Even if they were able to limit Milwaukee’s best, the shooters and firepower the Bucks have just makes them a tough beat for a team as limited offensively as Orlando is.  This isn’t the series for Vuecevic to get easy buckets down low with Brook Lopez capping off a Defensive Player of the Year worthy season.  Markelle Fultz would have to emerge as the James Harden version of his self we thought he could be in the draft.  It’s such a bad matchup that Orlando winning even a game in this would be shocking, though we know they’re capable of making things interesting for a bit.

Prediction: Bucks in 4


No. 4 Miami Heat vs. No. 5 Indiana Pacers 

The Heat enter these playoffs as one of the more underrated teams in basketball.  They figured out their slipping defense during bubble play, rising to eighth in defensive rating.  Duncan Robinson looks like he isn’t going to miss a shot ever again.  Tyler Herro has taken on an expanded role that doesn’t just feature him as a shooter.  Jae Crowder has made a huge impact defensively throughout the eight seeding games, with the Heat posting a 105.8 defensive rating with him on the court and a 111.8 rating with him off it.    The Heat have such depth that typical shortening of playoff rotations will be a tough task for Erik Spoelstra and staff.

Indiana is the opposite.  They’re missing their second-best player in Domantas Sabonis, who still has no timetable for return.  Victor Oladipo still looks like a shell of his pre-injury self – it’s likely that next year is the year he returns to form, if he ever does.  TJ Warren has been their saving grace – the former Suns wing emerged as a go-to scoring option in the bubble, only to be stymied by this exact Miami team (and on a lesser degree, Mikal Bridges).

The Pacers chances in this series lie in the midst of a bunch of what-ifs and questions.  What if Oladipo can be the guy he was before his injury during the 2018-19 season?  What if Warren can play like he did against every other team except Miami in this series?  Does Indiana still have enough firepower to keep up with Miami, who’s in the top ten of the league in three-point attempts and makes them at the second-highest clip?

Miami’s downfall isn’t something that should affect them this series.  Jimmy Butler is a fantastic player, and was one of the 20 best in the league this season.  But to make the Finals, the Heat are going to have to stop guys better than Butler: Antentokounmpo and Jayson Tatum.

Butler should be the best player in this Indiana series.  Counting on Oladipo to play at a level where he could go toe-to-toe with Butler just isn’t realistic.

He might have the opportunity to do so though.  One would think Miami puts Butler on Warren to keep any embers from the wildfire he ignited during seeding play out.  Oladipo isn’t the greatest matchup for Miami if Butler isn’t the player on him – Oladipo doesn’t bow down to swallowing wings like Crowder or Andre Igoudala.  But, even with a favorable matchup, it’s fair to wonder whether Oladipo can make something of it given his health.

At full strength, Indiana can put a daunting group out there.  Malcolm Brogdon, Oladipo, Warren, Sabonis and Myles Turners is formidable.  Even without Sabonis, Warren’s ascent and a fully healthy Oladipo challenges any defense, especially paired with a guard who can shoot (Aaron Holiday, for example).  But with Oladipo still middling in his return and Warren set to go against his greatest foe, the Pacers are going to struggle to score, and that’s not something you can afford to have happen against Miami.

Prediction: Miami in 5


No. 4 Houston Rockets vs. No. 5 Oklahoma City Thunder 

For all the hoo-rah stoked about the potential the Rockets had in the bubble, this is certainly the worst possible matchup Houston could have asked for to begin these playoffs.

Oklahoma City is just a pain in the butt to play.  They play incredibly hard, have players that makes opponents tick, and float out lineups that shouldn’t work but do.  They’re incredible late in games, and never tend to leave anyone disappointed.  They’re basically the opposite of the 76ers.

Houston is built on a simple predicate: threes going in.  If they do, they probably win.  If they don’t, then they probably don’t win.

This formula should work against Oklahoma City.  The Thunder took the fourth-fewest threes per game this year and made the fourth-fewest.  Steven Adams will likely get played off the floor by Houston’s small-ball lineups – the Thunder don’t have a stretch big who could viably protect the rim (Danillo Gallonari at the 5 is great offensively, but not exactly defensively).  Mike Muscala is the best option they have, but then you’re also playing Mike Muscala late in a playoff game – you’re not going far if he’s one of your best five players.

It’s possible the rim protection issue isn’t one OKC has to worry about immediately.  With Russell Westbrook out for at least Game 1, Houston’s drives will be limited.  Harden will still penetrate and attempt to get fouled, but the Thunder committed the fourth-fewest fouls in the league this year, and the least among playoff teams.

Westbrook has to stop shooting from the outside.  The Rockets take enough to afford one non-shooter on the court.  In addition, it just makes them better. His speed and athleticism is unmatched – he’s too quick for any wing defender, let alone a big.  Houston has to let him drive, or they can play him in the paint at center and get him quick entry passes like in this play below.

This is an extremely intriguing set from Houston.  It doesn’t allow Westbrook to shoot from the outside and matches him up with perhaps a slow center in the lane.  It’s like a post-up without taking the time a post-up does.  In addition, it doesn’t leave Westbrook as the lame duck in the offense.

Of course, they won’t be able to run this in Game 1 with Westbrook out.  But there hasn’t been any indication he’ll miss the series, which is good news for Houston.

OKC is dealing with injuries as well.  Lugentz Dort will miss Game 1 for the Thunder with a knee sprain – a massive blow considering he’s their best option for Harden.  That said, Dort’s probably being a bit overrated as a defender just because of his burst onto the scene this year, but he has done well in their previous matchups.  

Even if Dort can give Harden some trouble, the rest of the Rockets are a troubling proposition for the Thunder.  OKC’s incredibly thin on the wing, which is why we’ve seen heavy three-guard sets throughout most of the year.  The weak spots outside, an attacking Westbrook and the prototypical Harden should overwhelm.

Houston just has to defend, which should be doable.  PJ Tucker won’t be too taxed at the center position, so be it that Adams is expectedly played off the floor.  Robert Covington was brought to Houston for his defense, and Eric Gordon should be able to hang with whoever Houston puts him on.  Covington could matchup with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander late in games, since SGA’s height makes him a bit more versatile of a scorer.  

The Rockets are gonna have to put Harden somewhere.  He’s the matchup OKC is going to have to exploit on a nightly basis, and hope whoever he guards can take advantage and have a big game.  Harden’s defense is a rare scenario in where having no wings is a good thing – it will force Harden to actually move and try to not get cooked by one of the Thunder’s guards.

OKC’s ability to walk out 3-4 players in crunch-time who can all get their own shot is similar to the Toronto mold.  They lack a true superstar – someone who’s been there before and can go up against anyone.  SGA is still young, CP3’s playoff record is well known and this will automatically be the most important basketball Dennis Schroder has ever played.  That said, Houston’s playoff record isn’t impeccable either, and if the craftiness and scrappiness of the Thunder prevails, then the math may not be able to bail out the Rockets after all.

Houston cannot afford to lose their series from an organizational perspective.  Harden’s legacy would be toast.  Mike D’Antoni would be more gone than he already is.  Daryl Morey could find himself out the door as well.  This team is too good too fall this early, but it doesn’t mean they won’t have some bumps in their journey.

Prediction: Rockets in 6 


No. 1 Los Angeles Lakers vs. No. 8 Portland Trail Blazers

Like Houston, the Lakers drew the worst possible matchup in the first round.  This one could be even scarier.

Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are a serious problem for Los Angeles.  Without Avery Bradley – the Lakers best defender against smaller guards – guarding one or both of these guys might be impossible.  That’s terrifying to consider against Lillard, who’s been on an ungodly run in the bubble and earned the seeding games MVP award because of it.  Lillard’s at the point right now where Portland’s performance as a team could be completely negated by a monster game from their point guard.

That’s where the potential hole left by McCollum – who’s been playing with a fracture in his lower back – is actually a good thing for the Lakers.  Lillard’s play recently have indicated nothing else matters.  If they can stop Lillard, it’s going to be up to the dude with the broken back.

McCollum’s been up and down since we learned about the fracture.  He is certainly not himself, but he has still made threes and shown some of what makes him special. McCollum and Lillard are not going to be the forceful duo we’ve seen in postseasons past because of McCollum’s limitations, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t give them a chance.  Lillard alone does that.

The Lakers desperately need Rajon Rondo back at some point in this series, which just seems like a ridiculous statement to make about a team that is the Vegas favorite to win the title (Maybe they shouldn’t be?  Isn’t this a pretty good case for them not to be?).  That said, Rondo could provide legitimate value to the Lakers.  It reduces meaningful minutes for Dion Waiters, who with a growing role probably becomes less effective.  It gives them a much better option for Lillard – Rondo is a good defender when he tries, he just doesn’t like to try often.  A re-emerged Playoff Rondo trying on defense is a good, important player in this series though.  He’s not going to stop Lillard, but he could reduce his impact.

Without Rondo, things are bleak for the Lakers.  It forces them to pivot to their normal two-big lineup, with Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and LeBron James on the wings or to play Anthony Davis at the five and slide in JR Smith or Kyle Kuzma.  These lineups aren’t necessarily about offensive fit (more on that later), it’s about the group best equipped to defend Portland’s guards.  The Lakers best unit with Rondo is probably features James, Davis, Green and Smith, just because of the size matchup between Rondo and Smith on Lillard and McCollum.  Smith isn’t a great defender, but the last thing the Lakers want is Portland’s guards sneaking around a bad defensive wing.  McCollum is especially good at that, and ruling him out 100 percent as a threat despite the injury is how you get yourself in trouble.  The Lakers can’t afford that; they’re already in enough of it.

It’s possible that none of this matters for the Lakers.  While Lillard and McCollum are a terrible matchup for them, the James-Davis duo, which should finish in the top five of MVP voting (Two and three on this ballot), is an even worse one for Portland.  And if you’re talking about overall impact, Davis and James likely swallow what Lillard can do.

The Lakers not having guards who can defend is the equivalent of Portland not having wings.  James is just a nightmare for them, let alone Davis.  Gary Trent Jr. has been unconscious in the bubble, and had a good reputation as a defender coming into the league, but expecting him to contain James and continue to produce the offensive output he has is unrealistic.  Thinking that Carmelo Anthony is going to play any defense at all – let alone on James – would make one wonder where your head is at.  The hole only gets deeper after Anthony – we’re now in the Mario Hezonja area of the land, and it’s probably a good idea to stop here.

Then there’s Davis to worry about.  Jursurf Nurkic has improved greatly as a defender, and has been a monster since his return to play in the bubble, but he’s not the most switchable defender – it’s been his rim protection that’s developed so much.  Zach Collins is going to be out for at least Game 1 with an ankle injury, which hurts against Davis’ post-ups, but Collins isn’t the best defender either and will be toast if Davis stretches him out to the perimeter and attacks.

Wenyen Gabriel, who will be getting the start over Collins in Game 1, might actually be the best bet.  He’s more athletic than Portland’s common frontcourt tandem, and has serious size.  His defense has been horrible during his playing time in the bubble – as has Portland’s as a whole – but in terms of the gift of chance, Gabriel might actually stick.  His offensive game is raw, even though he’s made threes at times in August.  That would make him a tough play late in games – this series likely comes down to offense vs. offense since no one can guard anybody on either side, and Gabriel is a minus on that end.

The defensive matchups for each team are both so poor that they just may not matter.  It’s going to be about whether Lillard and McCollum can score every time or whether Davis and James can.  Neither defense really stands a chance.

James and Davis have been unstoppable all year.  We know the ceiling that each of them can reach – James is arguably the most unstoppable force of all-time while Davis isn’t as far behind as you think in that category.  But Lillard has elevated to James-esque levels lately, and he’s perhaps the second scariest guy to bet against in the league aside from James.  Combine that with the Lakers’ complete lack of resources to make his life harder, and Lillard is going to take Portland down to the wire here.  It’s just going to be about who’s more unstoppable when the time comes.

Prediction: Lakers in 7

Previewing Nuggets-Jazz, Raptors-Nets and Clippers-Mavericks

With four series getting underway Monday and the other four Tuesday, previews will be released on those corresponding days.  Below are previews for the Nuggets-Jazz, Raptors-Nets and Mavericks-Clippers series, all of which tip off Monday.

10:30 AM PT playoff basketball is very nice.

Celtics-Sixers preview can be found here


No. 3 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 6 Utah Jazz

For two teams that have questions about the viability of postseason success, Aug. 8th’s double overtime thriller between these two certainly quelled some fears.  Donovan Mitchell played like the best player on a championship team, hitting tough shot after tough shot to keep Utah in it after controlling most of the game.  Jamal Murray – in his bubble debut – matched Mitchell at times after Michael Porter Jr. brought Denver back in the third quarter.  Denver just pulled it out, and they’re in good shape to do it again in this series.

If Utah’s lack of firepower wasn’t pressing enough, Mike Conley’s absence for what looks to be at least two games of this series only adds to it.  The chemistry between him and Mitchell had obviously been shaky throughout the year – Utah moving Conley to the bench prior to the league’s suspension generated more success for the Jazz.  But Conley was shooting 37.5 percent from three on 5.4 attempts per game, and given that Emmanuel Muiday is the replacement for Conley, it’s a much bigger loss than January would have indicated.

Jordan Clarkson has produced the instant offense Utah hoped for when they traded for him prior to the deadline, but the point of that trade was to support the offense when Mitchell wasn’t on the court.  The Clarkson-Mitchell duo had a net rating of -0.7 this season, and a brutal -6.6 net rating in 83 minutes during bubble play.  

Utah’s best offensive lineup isn’t very good at offense.  It’s a group that will need Joe Ingles to be its second-best player, Royce O’Neal to emerge as a sharp-shooter and Rudy Gobert to, well, stay on the floor.

That should be doable against Nikola Jokic.  Denver won’t go small on Utah, play five out and force Gobert out to the perimeter much.  He’s not someone you’re going to feed, but pick-and-rolls with Mitchell or Clarkson could be an easy way to get buckets.  It forces Jokic to have to play defense, whether that be him hedging or dropping and going up straight up to contest.

The loss of Bojan Bogdanovic is crippling without Conley.  Things were going to be tough enough for Utah in this series without the Croatian sniper.  Conley at least provided a makeup for some of the shooting lost.

Denver is without key guys too, though.  Gary Harris and Will Barton aren’t expected to play for the Nuggets in Game 1 – Denver has been without them throughout the entire bubble thus far as the pair have been dealing with hip and knee injuries, respectively.  Counting Harris as a loss might be generous, his spot in the rotation might have been in question with the rise of Michael Porter Jr and PJ Dozier coupled with solid play from Monte Morris.  Harris’ shooting fell off a cliff during the regular season, making him a tough play for a team that has dealt with similar problems as Utah.

Porter Jr. might have solved those, though.  Now that Michael Malone is finally playing him, the 6’10 forward from Missouri is shining, and looks like the top five pick some projected him to be in the 2018 draft.  The skillset is the type that develops into a top ten player in this league someday.  He can get any shot he wants with his size, and make any shot with his scoring ability.

He’s the type of player that Murray probably never will be.  Denver’s playoff exits have been tied to their reliance on the offense Jokic creates, which can be figured out easily if a team seals the passing lanes and defends cuts.  That’s led Murray to have to create for himself and the team, and it hasn’t gone too well.

The problem is that Porter Jr. would thrive as the first option rather than the second or third.  Malone’s been resistant to fully turning him loose, which is odd considering Murray’s late arrival to bubble play.  In Murray’s first game back, Porter Jr.’s was 0-5 in the first half, and found themselves down 14 as a result. Porter Jr. then went on a tear in the third that got Denver back in the game, and he finished with 23 points.

Porter Jr. can’t get phased out like that, even if Denver gets back Harris and Barton and can use those guards off Jokic. He represents the highest ceiling the Nuggets can reach.  If Denver works through Murray or relies on Jokic too much, it allows Mitchell to become the best player on the floor, and as we saw last weekend, that can be trouble for Denver.  Even without substantial help, Mitchell can do what he wants.  He’s that good.

Malone’s unwillingness to give Porter Jr. a role elongates this series.  Denver doesn’t have to defend that well for Utah to struggle offensively.  They might actually not have to defend well at all.  The longer Porter Jr. doesn’t play, the more time Mitchell has to go off.

It will have to take a superhuman effort from Mitchell to win this series though.  He’ll have Torrey Craig on him, who’s done a good job in the past.  Combine that with the workload that he will have – which is a large one even with Conley on the court – and it’s tough to see Utah posing a real fight.  But they did last Saturday, and it was all because of Mitchell’s stardom.  If that’s what he can do alone, then his potential with an actual surrounding cast (which a player like Bogdanovic would be featured in) is scary to imagine.  For now, our viewing of that will be delayed.

Prediction: Nuggets in 6


No.2 Toronto Raptors vs. No.7 Brooklyn Nets

Despite being the 2-seed vs. the 7-seed, this series feels like even more of a mismatch than Magic-Bucks, with Orlando having at least some hope in attempting to contain Giannis Antetokounmpo (more on that series tomorrow).

The Nets are just trying to get to next season with a large part of their rotation not even in the Orlando bubble due to various injuries and COVID-19.  With that, it’s probably best to just look at this series in terms of how Brooklyn could put up a fight.

They’re going to need massive games from Caris LeVert, who has shined in the absence of heavier ball-handlers like Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyrie Irving.  In their loss to Portland Thursday night, LeVert showed what he was capable of: taking on a No.1 scorer role and doing it in a way that was efficient and translated to winning.  LeVert went toe-to-toe with Damian Lillard, who was at the peak of his powers, and almost won.

Part of that could be pinned on LeVert literally not being guarded – Portland’s defense was pathetic in the do-or-die match.  Imagine what LeVert might’ve been able to do if they weren’t trying.

He will certainly face increased defensive pressure against Toronto.  No team is longer and has the plethora of wings the Raptors do.  Options range from OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Terence Davis or even someone like Norman Powell.  Those guys are all lockdown defenders.

If LeVert is neutralized, Brooklyn is toast.  Massive shooting performances from the likes of Joe Harris, Rodions Kurucs and company would have to be in store.  Perhaps there would have to be a Jamal Crawford game, which would be incredibly entertaining, hilarious and also be the most Toronto thing ever.

Toronto should dominate this series and it shouldn’t be close.  But, if LeVert continues to stay hot, it could be a really good sign of things to come for the Nets, whether he’s on their roster or not next year.

Prediction: Toronto in 4


No.2 Los Angeles Clippers vs. No.7 Dallas Mavericks

It’s a testament to how good the Western Conference is, but for Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks to draw this matchup in the first round is just unfair.

Dallas felt like a way better team than one that will likely go home in the first round.  (Arguably) The best offense of all-time according to various metrics should not be facing the team that should win the title right off the bat.  A team that had a top five finisher in MVP voting should be making serious noise.  Dallas felt better than a one-and-done postseason showing.

The Clippers are a disastrous matchup for the Mavericks.  No one is going to stop Doncic – which is just an asinine thing to say about a 21-year-old – but Los Angeles has arguably the two best wing defenders in the league to put on him.  While Dallas didn’t post the highest offensive rating ever this year without others aside from Doncic producing, he’s the engine behind the car.  It’s a pretty fast one, too.

It seems unlikely that the others are going to make the Clippers really pay.  Despite having snipers like Kristaps Porzingis, Seth Curry, Maxi Kleber and others, it’s tough to get them the looks they’re used to if Doncic is getting clamped.  The Clippers don’t have to send so much help on the Slovenian star – Leonard and George can probably handle it.  That allows the other defensive menaces to stay closer to their guys – the shooters that Doncic so frequently kicks out to.  The shots that typically go down for Dallas may not in this series.

That’s the just offensive half.  Dallas finished the regular season 18th in defensive rating and had the second worst number – an ugly, ugly 120.6 – throughout the eight seeding games.  Their best defender is Dorian Finney-Smith, who had a good year but wasn’t allowed to reap the credit for it given his team’s performance – his effort just didn’t matter.  Doncic and Porzingis typically have their feet glued to the court.  Seth Curry will get picked on because of his size.  Kleber is surprisingly switchable and athletic on the defensive end – him against a Marcus Morris or JaMychal Green isn’t the disaster the other matchups are.

Doncic is going to have to pull some seriously special stuff in this series to keep Dallas around.  Him against Leonard or George pits a top four offensive player against a top one to three defensive player.  It’s a fascinating matchup, and the winner of it determines the series.  If Doncic can take on either of them, then no one ever would have been as good as he is at this age.  It would be historical.  It would probably break the league.  Doncic might get anointed the league’s best player right then and there.

The craziest part is that it’s not totally, 100 percent inconceivable either.  If Doncic single-handily won this series for Dallas, we’d just go “Oh, he’s just doing this a lot earlier than we expected to.”  It’d be stunning, but it also wouldn’t be that surprising either.  If anyone can do it, it’s him.

The problems on the defensive end for Dallas just seem insurmountable.  Not only do they not have anyone for Leonard, but they don’t have anyone for basically anyone else on the Clippers roster either.  That team is juggernaut offensively at their best, and they’re going to finally be that in these playoffs.  Remember how daunting their closing lineup was last year with the Lou Williams-Montrezl Harrell two-man game?  Take that and add Leonard and George as your wings, who can also emerge as 1A and 1B scorers if they want to do so.  This team has top-end talent and depth – it’s a rare combination in a league dominated by stars.  Because of that, this series should be a breeze for them.  

Prediction: Clippers in 5

Attempting To Project The NBA Play-In Game(s)

Predicting the outcome of a single, winner-take-all game without any prior precedent hasn’t been done by this website or any other website in basketball history.

It seems silly to pick who’s going to win a single game without watching one or two games between the two teams first.  But for Trail Blazers and Grizzlies, there isn’t that option.  They haven’t played six games in a series prior to this one, even though it has the same implications as a Game 7 for one team.  Any of the two matchups they had in the regular season are subject to some flaws – February’s meeting featured a Portland team that looks nothing like is does now, and even though the two played just 15 days ago in Orlando, it was the first game back for either after nearly five months off.  How much stock can we really put into it?

This serves as a buffer and warning for what’s below.  Take all the analysis and predictions with a grain of salt, because this is uncharted territory.  To think deeply about a single game in this sport is not how things are typically done, but it is what sells, and there’s no doubting that eyes will be on it.

Play-In Game: No.8 Portland Trail Blazers vs. No.9 Memphis Grizzlies

Ultimately, the deep analysis mentioned above may not totally be needed for this game(s).  The outcome might be based on a single simple factor.

Damian Lillard is about as hot as a basketball player can be right now.  He’s averaging 51.3 points per game over his last three, has sinked 21 threes, is forcing teams to blitz him over the half court line and is still sticking it in their face by pulling up from the logo and making those shots as well.

It feels like Lillard has reached an unprecedented level of individual play each of the last three years.  He had a six game stretch back in late January where he averaged 48.8 points a game and hit a sickening 57 percent of his threes while taking 14.3 a game.  In the bubble thus far, Lillard is averaging 37.6 points a game with 9.6 assists and is shooting 43.6 percent from deep.  During the 2018-19 season, he had back-to-back 40 point games early in the year and led Portland over Oklahoma City in the playoffs while just cooking the rest of the league.  Lillard’s now the guy where it’s just mind-boggling that he hasn’t made the Finals yet, because he’s performed like someone who’d be the best player on the court in them the past three years.

“Dame Time” has inflicted itself on multiple teams thus far in Orlando.  Memphis seems to be next up.  As long as Lillard doesn’t fall apart, the Grizzlies are likely screwed in this matchup.  The Trail Blazers point guard has taken it upon himself to make sure Portland doesn’t lose lately – he’s performed in such a way that makes losing virtually impossible, no matter how close they come to it.  When players ascend to this level, there’s just nothing an opponent can do.  It’s the Stephen Curry/LeBron James/Kevin Durant level, where nothing a team tries works.  Those guys’ impact just outweighs everything else.

Memphis doesn’t exactly have the feisty defensive guards that have given Lillard trouble in the past, a la the Elfrid Payton’s and Rajon Rondo’s of the 2017-2018 playoffs.  Ja Morant is incredible on one end, however he isn’t going to get up in Lillard’s grill and bother him.  De’Anthony Melton is a good player who’s had an underrated season, but we’re kidding ourselves if he’s going to stop Lillard.  Memphis has the ability to try and swallow Lillard with the likes of the longer Brandon Clarke, but the Bubble MVP has proved that the only strategy that semi-works against him is the heavy blitzing and trapping schemes, and doing that leaves the likes of Gary Trent Jr. (A revelation) and CJ McCollum open for threes.  

Regardless of what Lillard does, Memphis just doesn’t have the firepower to get a single win against Portland.  That was likely the case even if this game was played pre-bubble.  Now, after watching the Grizzlies offense completely sputter thanks to what seems to be the effect of high stakes games on young players, it feels like they don’t have a chance.  It would take a special effort from Morant, and some lights out shooting from Anthony Tolliver for them to keep up.  For now, “Dame Time” is still what the clock is showing, and who knows when its hands will come back around.

Prediction: Portland in 1

A Primer For The Celtics-76ers First Round Playoff Matchup

No.3 Boston Celtics vs. No.6 Philadelphia 76ers

Between the bad blood these teams have for each other, the impossibly weird, up and down performance of Philadelphia, Boston’s reinvention and the Al Horford departure and signing last summer, the Celtics and 76ers was the playoff matchup that was highly anticipated and seemed inevitable throughout what has been a funky, broken season.  

The loss of Ben Simmons for likely the remainder of the season obviously hurts Philadelphia significantly on one end of the floor: defense.  On the other, possibly not so much.  But in the context of the series with Boston, it forces the 76ers to put a combination of Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle or even Shake Milton on Jayson Tatum, who despite some bubble struggles established himself as a top ten player in basketball this season.  Richardson is likely the best option.  He’s a good defender with his length, quickness and athleticism while providing enough shooting on the other end.  That’s the downfall with someone like Thybulle, who despite putting up better offensive numbers than expected in his rookie year – 35.1 percent from three on 2.4 attempts per game – will face increased defensive pressure and a higher share of minutes this postseason.  Milton will likely draw the Kemba Walker assignment, just to keep things easy and not allow Walker to get away, but is viable enough on Tatum in switching situations.

Thybulle needs to play a bigger role for Philadelphia with Simmons out, and he’s capable of it.  It’s more about 76ers head coach Brett Brown – who’s job could depend on this series – needing to let Thybulle have a bigger role.  He’s just an absolute force on the defensive end, which wasn’t surprising considering what he did at Washington last year.  Thybulle’s switchable 1-4 and has an impeccable sense of where the ball is going – his ability to blow up passing lanes and sniff for steals is unmatched by anyone in the league, which is a statement that just shouldn’t be made about a rookie.

To replace Simmons in the new starting lineup – which was rolled out at the start of bubble play, featured Milton and benched Horford – Philly should likely pivot to Milton-Richardson-Thybulle-Tobias Harris-Embiid in crunch-time.  Not once did Philly run this lineup this season, which isn’t surprising because their rotation was never as short-handed as it is now.  The lineup gives Philly two crunch-time options – Embiid, whose star power we’ll address shortly, and Milton, who was given the offense’s car keys coming into the bubble.  The group is also the best defensive matchup against a wing-heavy Boston team.  It would pit Milton on Walker, Richardson on Tatum, Thybulle on Jaylen Brown, Harris on Gordon Hayward and Embiid on whichever big Boston trots out: Daniel Theis or Enes Kanter, which either way is a matchup Embiid should win on both ends.

Horford is still a good player – he’s in a bad situation that provides a terrible fit for his game.  The cohesion offensively between him and Embiid predictably never appeared, and while he played an important role defensively, the offensive fit is just too detrimental.  Per NBA.com, the Embiid-Horford has a net rating of -0.6, with a solid defensive rating of 103.1.  Obviously, the offensive rating is lower than that, which is not what you want.  Horford could be a great offensive option for the Sixers when Embiid’s on the bench.  Like his superstar counterpart, he should be able to cash in on favorable matchups against Theis or Kanter.  Don’t rule out the revenge aspect either.

Horford’s the only close call.  If Philly prides itself on defense, the lineup above is the best one they can throw out there.  While Furkan Korkmaz would provide a nice boost offensively, his defense is poor and you’d have to catch him on a scorching hot night to rely on him late in games.

Is the Sixers best enough?  In one way, it could be.

Joel Embiid is arguably the best player in basketball when he plays his best.  The only other force that is comparable is Giannis Antetokounmpo, and we’ve seen certain teams be able to tame him with the right strategy.  With Embiid, there has been no stopping him.  The only thing that has is himself, due to injuries and effort.  

Out of the top six teams in the Eastern Conference, Boston is the best possible matchup for Embiid.  It’s why as Philly’s season slowly fell apart, Boston was the playoff matchup they’d have to hope they got – it was kind of their only chance.  That statement is even more true in the absence of Simmons.

This is the time for Embiid to validate himself as the type of force he has the capability of being.  If Embiid plays up to his potential, then Philadelphia has the best player in the series and should win it.  Thirty-plus points a night should be a given for Embiid in this series, and a couple monster games puts Philadelphia in the driver’s seat.

There’s two big IFs with that though.  One, IF Embiid can actually do it, to which the answer has routinely been “no” for a multitude of reasons throughout his career so far.  Two, if he can do it, what IF Tatum is even better?

Richardson is the Sixers best option for Tatum but that doesn’t mean he’s going to do the job.  The difference with Tatum this season has been his assertion as a dominant No.1 scorer and a true star.  The list of players he’ll go toe-to-toe with and lose to is now much smaller.

If you’re going to compare the impact of Embiid and Tatum, Tatum probably wins because of the threes he can hit.  That’s just the brutality of the math.  At the same time, Embiid scoring on 60-70 percent of his touches probably cancels that out, which would be the result of the monster games mentioned above.  But Embiid would have to put together one of the most dominant series of all time from a big man, and even though expectations should be set high for Embiid, that is unrealistic for anyone.

A massive Embiid series could still not be enough for the Sixers.  His greatness has to be supported.  Unfortunately, Boston just wins the firepower/math battle in this series.  Each of Walker, Brown, Tatum and Hayward are all better than any key Sixers player from deep (Korkmaz doesn’t get credit as being “key” here).  

It creates a real challenge for Philly.  What do you do?  Focus your efforts on stopping Tatum and let Walker (Who is really a bad matchup for the Sixers…  Milton has the length, but Walker’s small size and craftiness is a tough guard for Philly.  Swallowing someone with length doesn’t always work), Brown and Hayward make up the points and firepower?  Or do you focus on everyone else, let Tatum cook and hope Embiid can outplay or match him?

Embiid will have to be extraordinary for Philly to win this series.  The odds of him being special should be cautiously set – he has the chance to be so.  But we’ve just never seen him put everything together yet, and if it doesn’t happen soon, it’s fair to wonder if it ever will.

Prediction: Celtics in 6

Who’s In Better Shape Thanks To The NBA’s Restart?

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.

76ers

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.

Heat

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.

Trail Blazers

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.


ALL-NBA TEAMS:

1st team:

G-James Harden

G-Luka Doncic

F- LeBron James

F-Giannis Antetokounmpo

C-Anthony Davis

2nd team:

G-Damian Lillard

G-Bradley Beal

F-Kawhi Leonard

F-Jayson Tatum

C-Nikola Jokic

3rd team:

G-Chris Paul

G-Kyle Lowry

F-Khris Middleton

F-Pascal Siakam

C-Bam Adebayo

Tough cuts: Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid, Jaylen Brown, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler

All-DEFENSE TEAMS:

1st team:

G-Kris Dunn

G-Ben Simmons

F-Giannis Antetokounmpo

F-Anthony Davis

C-Brook Lopez

2nd team:

G-Marcus Smart

G-Jimmy Butler

F-Kawhi Leonard

F-Pascal Siakam

C-Rudy Gobert

Tough cuts: Eric Bledsoe, Kyle Lowry, Bam Adebayo, OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet

All-Rookie Teams:

1st team:

G-Ja Morant

G-Kendrick Nunn

F-Tyler Herro

F-Terence Davis

C-Eric Paschall

2nd team:

G-Cam Reddish

G-Matisse Thybulle

F-Rui Hachimura

F-Brandon Clarke

C-PJ Washington

Tough cuts: Michael Porter Jr.

MVP:

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  2. LeBron James
  3. Anthony Davis
  4. James Harden
  5. Luka Doncic

Defensive Player of the Year:

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  2. Anthony Davis
  3. Kawhi Leonard
  4. Pascal Siakam
  5. Brook Lopez

Sixth Man of the Year:

  1. Dennis Schroder
  2. Montrezl Harrell
  3. Lou Williams
  4. Donte DiVincenzo
  5. Christian Wood

Most Improved Player of the Year:

  1. Pascal Siakam
  2. Brandon Ingram
  3. Christian Wood
  4. Jayson Tatum
  5. Domantas Sabonis

Tough cuts: Luka Doncic, Bam Adebayo, Jaylen Brown, Dennis Schroder

Rookie of the Year:

  1. Ja Morant
  2. Kendrick Nunn
  3. Eric Paschall
  4. Tyler Herro
  5. Terence Davis

Coach of the Year:

  1. Nick Nurse
  2. Frank Vogel
  3. Billy Donovan
  4. Mike Budenholzer
  5. Nate McMillan

The Rockets Are The NBA Restart’s Scariest Team

James Harden does not wake up on the mornings of playoff games and decide to suck that night.  No player as good as Harden – arguably a top 30 player of all-time already – should have such a large gap in his success between the regular season and postseason.

It has nothing to do with how skilled a player is.  It’s all about how they respond mentally to the pressure, the potential presence of a hostile crowd, and the elevated competition.  We’re lying to ourselves if we don’t see lesser performances from Harden in the playoffs every year, but what if none of it was actually his fault?

No player in NBA history has had a greater workload during the regular season and gotten farther in the playoffs than Harden did during 2018-19 season based on usage rate and playoff games played.  The Rockets guard finished with a usage rate of 40.47 percent, the second-highest number of all-time.  That year, the Rockets played 11 games in the postseason.  The same goes for the 2017-18 season as well.  Harden’s 36.07 percent usage rate ranked 13th all-time, and Houston played in 17 playoff games.  None of the 12 players ranked above Harden played in more.

The year before that, in 2016-17, only four players in NBA history got farther in the playoffs than Harden did with a highest usage percentage (34.24 percent and 11 playoff games played): Allen Iverson in 2001-02, Carmelo Anthony in 2012-13, Dominique Wilkins in 1987-88 and Michael Jordan in 1992-93.

“Workload” is subjective and there’s not much we can do with that.  Usage rate is the best statistic we have to help quantify that.  At the same time, it’s worth acknowledging that there has perhaps been no greater carry-job than LeBron James willing the Cavaliers along in the 2015 NBA Finals or getting them to the 2007 NBA Finals.  Those were, however, shortened sprints with lesser game totals – the maximum amount of games a team can play in the playoffs is 28.  Harden’s statistics are spread across an 82 game season.  It’s easier for statistics to be less accurate with a lower sample size.

But Harden is playing the game differently than anyone else in basketball history.  The former MVP has been the conductor of an offense that hasn’t only led the league in average three point attempts per game over the past four years (including this 2019-20 regular season that has yet to be completed), but for three of the past four has put up the highest number ever in that statistic.  Harden also has the record for most three point attempts in a season with 1,028 in 2017-18, which was a historic season in its own right as mentioned above.

Threes are easier yet harder shots both at the same time.  They’re easy because they can be jacked up with little risk – rebounds bounce out faster and farther than any other shot, giving the offense a better chance of retrieving it.  That also comes with high reward: a 50 percent increase in total value over that of a two point field goal if either are made.

But threes secretly take their toll in ways that statistics and even the eye test can’t communicate: arm fatigue.  Shooting from beyond the arc requires a lot more mustard on the ball than any other shot on the court.  While it does build strength, it can also wear you down, just like a pitcher’s arm does late in the MLB playoffs.

If this is Harden’s problem, then why haven’t shooters like Stephen Curry experienced the same thing?  Well, even though the total number of three pointers attempted is quite close (Harden’s career 3PAs is 6,320 while Curry’s is 5,739 – keep in mind Curry has missed almost all of this 2019-20 season and dealt with injuries early in his career, which makes up the large gap numerically), there is a difference: you won’t find Curry’s name anywhere close to Harden’s on the all-time usage rate chart.  The system Curry’s played in since he emerged as a superstar doesn’t rely on his volume of shots.  It relies on his gravity and the team’s ball movement instead.  Meanwhile, Houston is isolating every possession and then putting up threes – a much tougher task for Harden and its other players which builds fatigue and tires quicker.

In addition, Harden has four of the top 52 seasons ever in free throw attempts, and in 2016-17 attempted 881 shots from the line, good for 24th all-time (which is tied with Oscar Robertson 1965-66) in a single season.  Even more impressive, Harden’s 2016-17 season at the free throw line is just one of three seasons since 2000 that rank in the top 25.  He’s the second person this past decade behind Dwight Howard in 2010-2011 to attempt that many as well.

You can say that Harden leans into defenders and doesn’t draw his fouls the right way – those criticisms are fair and they rightfully draw frustration from players, coaches and fans alike.  But he still takes a beating (He’s fouled consistently driving to the rim too), and you don’t luck into potentially 20 free throws a game by cheating the refs every single call.

Harden and the Rockets were likely on yet another path to postseason letdown this year.  Harden’s usage percentage before the suspension of the season was 10th all-time at 36.41 percent, and the should-be third place finisher in MVP voting was scoring a ridiculous 34.4 points per game this year.  Meltdown was likely on the horizon again, especially with the road to the Western Conference Finals clogged by the Lakers and Clippers – it would have been stunning – and maybe still will be– to see one of those teams not play for a trip to the Finals.

But in a way, the suspension of the NBA season couldn’t have benefitted Houston more.  Even with Eric Gordon’s ankle injury that will cost him two weeks (Which is essentially the length of the eight seeding games prior to the playoffs), the Rockets might be the scariest team in basketball right now.  Harden’s had almost five months off – the length of an entire normal offseason.  If his playoff meltdowns are caused by the heavy usage and insane numbers he puts up during the regular season rather than pure choking, then the NBA is about to experience a Harden they’ve never seen before come playoff time.  With Clint Capela gone and Russell Westbrook fully unleashed, Houston can outscore anyone even though their center is a 6-foot-7 wing.  The ungodly amount of shots that Harden misses in the playoffs will go in at a much higher rate.  Cold shooting nights will truly be cold shooting nights – they won’t happen every other game like they have previously.

The Lakers are likely Houston’s biggest problem.  They’ve had success with an old-school approach – one that not even the biggest supporters of analytics and small-ball can detest because Anthony Davis is one of the most gifted and unique talents we’ve ever seen on a basketball court.  P.J. Tucker has been pretty effective at center, and Houston should be able to get away with it given their offense.  The Lakers are likely the exception to that.  Davis is so big and skilled he could legitimately score every time he gets the ball.  The Lakers continuously feeding him would be easy buckets, and help them keep pace on a good shooting night from Houston.  A bad shooting night – even with a Harden that’s not in the middle of a postseason letdown – would be devastating for the Rockets.

Perhaps Houston could stand more of a chance against the Lakers if they varied their offensive approach.  Constant isolations resulting in pull-up threes can lead to bad things quickly if the shots aren’t going in.  Westbrook driving – and likely not kicking – is the closest thing to ball movement that they have.  Getting better shots increases the likelihood of shots going in.  It would also make a Lakers defense – down one of their key defenders – work a bit harder and cover the whole floor.

Houston has seen this work before.  The strategy has been staring them in the face for years.  It – not Harden – is what’s led to the underwhelming losses of the past, and now is their chance to fix it.

Which Teams Are Worse Heading Into The NBA’s Restart?

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:

Lakers

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.

Nets

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.

Jazz

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.

Pacers

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.

The 23 Teams That Can Win The World Series: Part 2

In the mere hours after the publishing of yesterday’s column, MLB saw its whole postseason realigned, Juan Soto test positive for COVID-19 and Clayton Kershaw go on the IL with a back injury and not make his Opening Day start.

Let’s hope for better luck today.

The one positive out of yesterday’s news is that, despite the absurdity of it, MLB’s new 16 team postseason makes the idea of 23 teams having a shot to win the World Series seem less ridiculous.  Think about how much this benefits the Toronto’s (Sorry, Pittsburgh’s 2.0s – wait, no, Buffalo’s) and San Diego’s of the league.  What about the loaded NL Central?  It’s no longer impossible for four of their teams to make it now (That’s a hint at the projected standings way at the bottom).

Still, it is incredibly frustrating this change came down literally an hour before the first pitch of the 2020 season was thrown.  It’s now a hassle for teams who set their rosters a certain way – based on how competitive they thought they were going to be in a 10 team playoff format – to re-adjust, not to mention pressure from ownership groups who now see a greater opportunity to win (And therefore make bad decisions).  Everyone in the media already wrote their articles (Cough), did their podcasts and made their predictions for the 10 team postseason.  Now they’re scrambling (Cough, cough).

It will be fun, sure.  But the timing was ridiculous, just as the timing on everything this MLB season has been.  

As for the four teams covered yesterday, things have changed a bit.  The biggest issue with Washington heading into the season yesterday was their lineup, and now their best hitter will be out for what’s going to likely be at least two weeks.  It was going to be tough for them to sneak into the normal playoffs, but with Soto’s injury, the 16 team format probably cancels out any advantage that gave them.

The Dodgers will be fine without Kershaw.  Their depth was written about extensively this past week – having Dustin May be ready to step in like that is a luxury no one else has.  He figures to be Kershaw’s long-term replacement in the rotation, and why wouldn’t he be?  May’s stuff is pure electricity.  Obviously the Dodgers would like to be careful with their young starter, but last night was a perfect example of not letting him get into bad situations.  The worst pickle May got himself into was two on with one out, and the Dodgers pulled him as soon as he let the second man on.  That’s your pitcher being awesome and the team being careful at the same time.  

So, with every other team beginning their shortened 2020 season today, here are the cases for 20 of them to win the World Series.  But first, let’s finish off those who have no shot first.

Nope:

  • Mariners

We’re on about year three of just having zero clue of what the plan is in Seattle.  General Manager Jerry Dipito has refused to fully rebuild or going all-in on crafting a championship squad, and instead has made miscellaneous, seemingly non-impactful trades the past two years.  What does that get you?  A team with two prospects as its two best players (Justus Sheffield and J.P. Crawford, whom the later is 25) and Shed Long Jr. at second base.  The Mariners might have some good players available for your fantasy baseball team, but it seems as if Dipito is playing that game with his actual big league roster instead of on ESPN.com.

  • Marlins

Almost every player in Miami’s lineup is like if you inserted the first bench guy off nine random teams’ roster into a single lineup.

Almost is the key here.  Lewis Brinson is awesome and is no replacement level player.  Jorge Alfaro is productive, and he has Francisco Cervelli behind him.

But the rest of the offense is troublesome.  The Marlins basically need a career year from the likes of Jesus Aguilar to Corey Dickerson to Jonathan Villar.  If that happens, they could be getting somewhere.

Significant improvement needs to come from the rotation, which might be better off bull-penning two times and letting Sandy Alcantara, Pablo Lopez and Jordan Yamamto throw as starters (Lopez and Yamamoto weren’t good last year, but they’re only 23) the other three games.

The bullpen is loaded, but that just isn’t going to be enough.  Using them as much as they would have to would likely result in a burnout come playoffs.  If the starting pitching or offense was there, Miami would be among the likes of Kansas City this season.

  • Orioles

Like Detroit, Baltimore is not necessarily trying to compete this year, and even if they were, the roster talent wouldn’t give them a shot.  Aside from some Adley Rutschman at-bats, the Orioles are probably not a squad to even keep an eye out for.

  • Pirates

Ben Cherington took over as GM after the conclusion of the 2019 season, signifying an acceleration of a rebuild that had kind of begun under Neal Huntington.  Starling Marte got shipped to Arizona, and the Pirates replaced him with former Diamondback Jarrod Dyson, which isn’t exactly an upgrade to the major league roster.  Pittsburgh’s two best pitchers – Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer – are both out this season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, which leaves Joe Musgrove as the ace (Yikes).  Despite an intriguing bullpen, the Pirates just don’t have much else to support it, and Josh Bell could likely be the next veteran on the way out.

  • Tigers

The most indicative reason why Detriot can’t win the World Series this year is that they’re probably not even trying to.  The Tigers are in the midst of what’s been an impressive tank job/rebuild the past couple years, which has garnered them prospects such as Casey Mize, Riley Greene and recent No.1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson.  The Tigers have been pretty cognizant of their ill-fated rosters over the past three years, and haven’t tried to improve them dramatically yet.  Even in a 60 game sprint, the talent just doesn’t seem to be there around the diamond for this team despite a young and hopefully still developing rotation, which will likely feature Mize at some point this season.


Now for those who can win the World Series in 2020, sorted by alphabetical order:

  • Angels

The Angels are not helping their division’s case to not be entirely confusing.

This could be the best team Los Angeles has put around Mike Trout.  They went out and signed Anthony Rendon to a mega-deal, have an exciting youngster in Jo Adell  ready to make his debut and get one of the most exciting and intriguing players in baseball back on the mound in Shohei Otani.

Yet, not everything feels great about this Angels team.  The effectiveness of Albert Pugols waned significantly last year.  Tommy La Stella is fine (Play Luis Rengifo instead!).  Justin Upton needs to stay healthy and be productive – he struggled in 63 games last year.  Then there’s the pitching staff.

Los Angeles had seven pitchers make more than 10 starts last year – no one started more than 18 games in 2019 (In the lead was Andrew Heany).  

Literally none of those who started games for the Angels last year were good.  Ohtani will certainly help with that.  Griffin Canning could also.  The 23-year-old struggled in his rookie season with a 4.58 ERA, but an ERA+ of 99 of indicates it wasn’t a total disaster.  Canning has been the Angels star in the waiting for awhile now – him not improving would be a disappointment.

Aside from Ohtani and the hope of Canning, the Angels don’t have much else.  That’s why Canning’s success is paramount.  Heaney has had a single good season in his career, and Dylan Bundy – Los Angeles fourth starter – hasn’t had a good year ever.  Their bullpen probably isn’t one good enough to be confident in them bull-penning successfully, which makes a fifth starter even more questionable.

Los Angeles’ offense just doesn’t seem potent enough to push them through their issues.  Trout will likely win MVP again, Rendon and Ohtani will be awesome and Adell should be awesome, but this isn’t an order that strikes enough fear yet.  It may not matter thanks to the new playoff format, but .500 seems like a fair play for this team.

  • Astros

Written extensively about here, Houston enters this season as one of the more confusing teams in baseball.  It feels wrong to say they can win this thing given that cheating may or may not have significantly influenced their success the past three years, but it also feels ridiculous to say that with no real statistical evidence to back that up.  Knowing what we knew prior to the details of the cheating scandal, this team probably has the best lineup in baseball.  Whether those guys are actually good at what they do or not, well, we will likely just have to see.

  •  A’s

This is one of the more A’s-esque teams in awhile.  It’s a lineup that half strikes fear and half underwhelms.  It’s a rotation full of maybes.  Yet, it just feels wrong to totally count them out.

Oakland is actually riding on a lot of youth this year.  Franklin Barretto, A.J. Puk (who has a shoulder issue that doesn’t seem great), Jesus Luzardo and even 2020 first round pick Tyler Sodorstrom could all have major roles for this  team.

It’s Barretto’s turn at second base after the departure of Jurickson Profar.  Profar’s 2019 was an anomaly offensively, which is where Baretto seriously struggles.  That could be a big downgrade for Oakland offensively if the 23-year-old rookie can’t develop at the plate.  Puk, who easily could have been Oakland’s ace this year, is starting the year on the IL and it doesn’t sound like things are great.  Jesus Luzardo had COVID-19, and is projected to be ready for his first start, but assuming players will be able to just come back from the illness without long-term effects seems negligent.  In addition, this is also his rookie year, and with pitchers, we don’t know what we’re going to get (The same case can be made for Puk).

Aside from the young pitchers – both of whom have questions – Oakland’s rotation and pitching as a whole is worrisome.  2020 will be Sean Manaea’s first full year back from shoulder surgery – how he fairs over a larger sample size than 2019 is a question mark.  Frankie Montas is awesome, but you’re looking at him and Mike Fiers as the real, solidified options in this rotation, and with Fiers you’re getting average at best.  Plus, the bullpen aside from Liam Hendricks is troubling, so that safety net isn’t there as well.

Oakland’s offense is going to have to carry them this year, which is doable, especially if Khris Davis can hit baseballs again.  But there’s a chance the pitching staff just doesn’t allow them to hit their full ceiling.  At the same time, if anyone is used to pulling off miracles, it is the A’s.

  • Blue Jays

One of the more fun teams in baseball, Toronto (Or, Buffalo) might have a very, very limited shot at making serious noise in the playoffs, but the amount of youth and potential present on the roster makes them not one to rule out given the expanded playoffs.  If every single one of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette, Nate Pearson and even Austin Martin show up, ball out and demonstrate that they will all eventually hit their ceiling, then the AL has a problem on its hands.  But to expect 4-5 AL Rookie of the Year caliber performances from five guys on one team is obviously unreasonable, and the pitching – although improved – just quite isn’t there yet.  Next year is where Toronto should have their eyes set, even though all it takes is a good two months.

  • Braves

In a normal year, this Braves team may not get a shining endorsement.  Their loss of Josh Donaldson stings a bit, and leaves them with a lack of power.

But, the power aspect to the game won’t be as prevalent this year – the sheer volume of homers will be drastically lower thanks to the 60 games.  In perhaps a flukey year, teams with varied offensive approaches could go farther than we anticipate.

Atlanta has Ronald Acuna Jr., which could be all that matters for them offensively as well.  He’s a NL MVP candidate and will be tasked with doing some stupid statistical feat this year – is 20-20 instead of 40-40 in play?

Austin Riley is sitting there as a potential solution to a problem.  The Donaldson hole leaves Johan Camargo back at third, where Riley could easily step in and play.  If he delivers, the power void could be resolved quickly.

The Braves question marks have nothing to do with the regular season.  They should win their division (although it is much better than given credit for) and their pitching is good enough.  But come playoff time, how will their youth – especially in their rotation – perform?  They got walloped last year, which might have been what needed to happen to ensure future success.  There isn’t exactly a bullet-proof bullpen behind them – it’s a lot of names that collectively struggled significantly last year.  Atlanta can win the World Series.  They just have to put the whole thing together now.

  • Brewers

Milwaukee’s rotation is a deep, dark hole of underperformance and question marks, but there is arguably no team built better for this 2020 season than the Brewers.

The Brewers have stretched pitching strategies to their limits over the years. They have no regard for long inning, traditional starters.  This year, they could probably get away with letting Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes be their one and two starters and bullpen the other three outings.  Adrian Houser also makes a good case to be a third starter if the Brewers want to turn him loose.

Aside from that, you’re likely getting average returns from the rest of the options Milwaukee has in the rotation.  Stretching Woodruff and Burnes long into their starts will reduce work from relievers on non-bullpen days, and would likely be effective into the playoffs as well.  The innings structure of the staff would be all about preventing a meltdown in the playoffs, because no other team will be dealing with that come October.

If the Brewers can devise a formidable pitching strategy, they should be in pretty good shape.  Their lineup has some holes, but the power in the outfield should be able to make up for it.  This is also a year where small-ball offense will rise, which benefits the Brewers greatly.  There are few teams smarter than Milwaukee in baseball, and those will teams will be the ones who can make noise this year.

  • Cardinals

The NL Central is extremely competitive, but a couple teams in the division have less questions than others.  The Cardinals are one of those.

Like perhaps their biggest divisional foes, pitching is what drives this Cardinals team.  Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson are a top two young duo of starters in baseball.  Miles Mikolas is solid, and there’s no reason to think Adam Wainwright will decline just yet.  

That rotation plays, and it plays well enough to mitigate other concerns.  Last year the offense lacked power, and there were no changes made to the lineup in the offseason.  A rebound year from Paul Goldschmidt could take care of that, or 60 games and its power to change offensive strategy could as well.

St. Louis might lack the oomph, but they’re solid all around, and in a season full of questions, that might be all you want to ask for. 

  • Cubs

From a talent perspective, they aren’t many more teams that are in better shape than the Cubs.  It’s astonishing to think that this team hasn’t made it into the NLDS since 2017, but a crazy NL wild card race in 2018 (Also, Tony Wolters) and a massive letdown last season led to a manager change with David Ross replacing Joe Maddon.  

The hope is that a change in leadership is the jolt this team needs.  The pitching last year was not great – their second best starter was Cole Hamels, who had an ERA+ of 117. Tyler Chatwood, who takes his spot in 2020, was decent in a small sample size.

The bottom line is that this staff is getting old.  Jon Lester is 36 and was bad last year.  Yu Darvish will be 33 soon and has been good every other year recently.  The Jose Quintana trade keeps looking worse every day.

The talent we once thought was there in the pitching staff just isn’t anymore.  That would be okay with a great bullpen, but the Cubs have the opposite of that.

Chicago’s offense is probably good enough to mash everyone and win the World Series for them.  No one should be shocked if they can do it.  But even in a year where pitching seems a tad less valuable, the Cubs just don’t have enough of it.

  • Diamondbacks

Arizona’s busy offseason couldn’t have come at a better time.  For a team that was going to be in a tight NL Wild Card race, the expanded playoffs serve as a massive boost to the Diamondbacks playoff odds.  If they aren’t the second place team in the NL West, then there are going to be serious repercussions.

The Diamondbacks were the most average team in baseball last year, and they made moves to fix that.  They have a trustworthy ace in Madison Bumgarner now, who spearheads an intriguing and most importantly solid rotation.  It felt like Arizona was another productive bat short last year, and Starling Marte will provide that after the D-backs acquired him from Pittsburgh.  

Certain spots in the lineup are still questionable.  Christian Walker needs to be good again with the DH being a full-time position now.  Jake Lamb needs to regain his All-Star form.  Kole Calhoun hitting for legit power would be nice.

The pitching staff has a ceiling.  The bullpen is still worrisome, and the rotation, while solid, feels like one that will just barely get the job done.  That’s not going to win you much in the playoffs.

But the potential is there.  If Luke Weaver can be the guy we saw pre-injury last year, that’s an awesome No.2 or No.3 starter.  Zac Gallen is young and promising.  Robbie Ray as potentially the fourth guy isn’t bad.  Merrill Kelly is getting you average production, which is fine at the No.5 spot.

They have other places they can go if anyone struggles.  Alex Young will be a nice addition to the bullpen, but could be moved into the rotation if need be.  The same goes for Jon Duplantier – counting on him isn’t a good bet though.  Still, Arizona has options.  Whether those options just hold steady or actually improve things will determine how far they make it.

  • Cleveland

For a team that has severely lacked outfielders for the past two seasons, Cleveland has filled the holes on the grass well.

Though young, Oscar Mercado and Jordan Luplow were quite productive last year, and seem to be the solution alongside Franmil Reyes – who was a nice power bat pickup by Cleveland last trade deadline – or Delino DeShields (which is less inspiring, but likely better than Greg Allen).

They finally have the right pairing for a pretty loaded infield.  Cesar Hernandez is a bit of a question mark at second base, but is a nice flyer regardless.  Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor are sick on the left side, and Carlos Santana smacked 34 home runs last year.

As it has been for practically all of the 2010s, Cleveland’s pitching is their heart and soul.  Even without their two-headed monster of Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber, talent still exists.  Shane Beiber seems destined to be the next ace in Cleveland, and Mike Clevinger isn’t a bad No.2 starter alongside him.  Aaron Civale gets an elevated role this year, and at 24 years old, he becomes the third of Cleveland’s five starters to be that age (Beiber and Zach Plesac both are as well).  

It’s an impressive group that’s capped by the veteran Carlos Carrasco, who can hopefully improve after a down year last season.  Cleveland has impressive youth in their rotation, and it will likely churn out a lot of value.  The offense could be good enough to sneak them into these extended playoffs, but how far they go will be determined by how those young mound-minders respond.

  •  Mets

The strategy invoked by Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen when he took over in late 2018 is not going well.  Win now moves that featured highly-touted prospects being sent out the door without regard for the future deserve to result in this current Mets lineup.  There’s a lot of potential, but it all coming together seems unlikely.  The Robinson Cano trade keeps evolving as a disaster, and Brandon Nimmo seems unlikely to live up to his projected hype.  Pete Alonso and Michael Conforto certainly make up for that in terms of joy and sanity, but they may not do so in terms of wins.

The Mets rotation is solid if everything goes right.  The loss of Noah Syndergaard to Tommy John surgery bites, but they’ve actually done an okay job making up for it.  Marcus Stroman – despite going on the IL to begin the season – is a good No.2 starter.  Michael Wacha is due for a rebound season back into a competent middle option.  Rick Porcello takes a lot of crap and has his faults, but as a flyer, No.4 starter, you will take it.  Steven Matz is one of the more disappointing players in baseball over the past half decade, but potentially a lower pressure situation could bring out the best in him.  The bullpen needs Edwin Diaz to turn back into his 2018 self, because there isn’t much else back there to support him. 

New York is in a tough division where a lot of other talented teams are trying to be competitive as well.  Unfortunately, the Mets might be close to the end of that line.

  • Padres

Written extensively about here, the Padres have a lot to look forward to this season.  It’s a significant test for their youth.  The pressures of such a short 60 game season could potentially make them better in the long-run.  In addition, youngsters tend to do better in small samples, not worse.  If everyone lives up to their hype, San Diego could easily find themselves in the expanded playoff, and potentially make a run.

  • Phillies

This is another team like the Mets and Cubs that has a ton of talent, yet isn’t one we can totally trust simply because of the resume they have of letting us down.

Philadelphia has spent a ton of money and it’s paid off well.  The Zack Wheeler contract was a bit much this past offseason and represents them pushing their cash a little too far, but the spending has paid for Bryce Harper, Didi Gregorius and Andrew McCutchen at three of eight position spots.

Philidelphia’s lineup is loaded.  Harper, Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto balanced with Jean Segura and Gregorious is nasty – the other spots may not matter (and they’re not bad either).  

It’s the type of lineup that can overpower pitching problems, which the Phillies might have.  Aaron Nola showed some regression last year after an awesome 2018, but should rebound given a short season.  The rest is anyone’s guess: Jake Arrieta is 34 and pitched like it last year.  Vince Velasquez has not developed as Philadelphia would have liked to see.  Wheeler, despite earning himself that massive contract, is probably getting overpaid a little too much and is likely just a No.3 starter-mold.  The fifth starter is still TBD – they’re probably best off handing the job to highly-touted right-hander Spencer Howard, who’s their last gasp at having a single young pitcher live up to expectations.  

The bullpen is fine and isn’t one that will bail out this rotation, leaving it all up to the offense to do so.  If the pitching can be everything we hope, Philadelphia could find themselves close to the World Series.  If it’s not, this front office might have seen its last days.

  • Rangers

This Rangers roster reeks heavily of a team like Arizona last year, where they will be middle of the pack practically everywhere.

They’re not bad.  They’re just not necessarily great, either.  The top three in their rotation is impressive: Corey Kluber, Mike Minor and Lance Lynn is a solid group.  But behind them is Kyle Gibson – who’s struggled to make it happen at the MLB level, and a bullpen with more names than actual production.  

Is it enough to overcome the offense?  Joey Gallo is awesome and is one of the candidates to push for 30 home runs or something crazy over the course of 60 games, but the rest of the lineup is bleak.  Todd Frazier is washed, Rougned Odor doesn’t provide the pop; neither does Isiah Kiner-Falefa.  Danny Santana should be someone’s fourth outfielder, not their centerfielder.  

Scoring runs is destined to be a problem for this Rangers team.  But few teams have as reliable of pitching as Texas does.  In the postseason, that can be all that matters.  They just have to get there first, and that’s the problem.

  • Rays

Alongside Milwaukee, no team is better built for a 60 game sprint than the Rays, and saying that almost feels like a criticism.

The Rays would be better than you think in a normal season.  Sure, they carry the same traits someone like Kansas City does – lack of power, small ball, etc.  But neither of those are totally true.  Tampa Bay has Hunter Renfroe, Yoshi Tsutsugo (a slugger from Japan who would have been excellent for the D-backs… let’s carry on) and Brandon Lowe in their lineup, two of whom they accquired this offseason.  That’s added to Ji-Man Choi who can hit 20 bombs in a normal year and Austin Meadows who could emerge as one of the best outfielders in baseball soon.  This offense is more than fine, and with their depth, is even scary.

Combine that with a pitching staff that isn’t going to be as bullpen-reliant as you think and this is a team that in a normal year is likely a contender.  The short season makes them even better than that.  Tyler Glasnow has NL Cy Young potential, Blake Snell has already won that award, and Charlie Morton is the perfect No.3 on any team.  That’s three awesome starters, and Jalen Beeks could also get some looks too.

Tampa Bay will have to use its bullpen less than expected this year, and this was a group destined to have a heavy workload.  Now that’s lifted off their shoulders, making them somehow even more effective.  If the Yankees succumb to some of the concerns mentioned yesterday, then the Rays will be right there for the taking.

  • Red Sox

Talk about a fall from grace.

Since the Red Sox hired Chaim Bloom, here is what the former Fangraphs writer turned Rays executive turned GM has had to endure:

  • A demand from ownership to cut payroll significantly, with the only viable way of doing so being trading Mookie Betts away with a contract
  • The Astros sign-stealing scandal implicating Alex Cora leading to his departure as manager a year after winning the World Series
  • The start of the 2020 season being delayed until July 23 due to a global pandemic
  • Betts then inking a 12 year deal with the Dodgers while the Red Sox planned to reengage contract talks with him when he becomes a free agent

That is brutal, and literally none of it is Bloom’s fault.  Now he’s staring at a team that still has a world-class lineup with zero pitching whatsoever, which lines them up likely right in the middle of the pack – the worst place to be.

The offense is the case for the Red Sox to remain in the mix this year.  Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez, Andrew Benintendi (hopefully on a rebound year) and possibly Michael Chavis are all great at the plate.  Almost no one has that many good hitters, and in a year where lower strikeout numbers will go far, Boston’s balanced attack could pay off well.

The pitching just has to survive, which is a tough sell.  Chris Sale’s Tommy John surgery was probably the difference between this team getting a Wild Card spot or not, especially factoring in the expanded playoffs.  Now, Martin Perez and Nathan Eovaldi are their best starters with Eduardo Rodriguez still having COVID-19 symptoms.

The bullpen has some arms, but it’s likely not enough to outweigh the rotation.  They don’t have enough quality arms to bullpen games effectively.  

In 2018, Boston’s offense was the most dominant force in baseball.  It was borderline historic.  Expecting that same output from this group is not realistic, but this year could provide an interesting case study into how much value a group of hitters can truly provide, because the pitching certainly won’t be doing so themselves.

  • Reds

Arguably the team that had the busiest offseason, the Reds big-time spending should pay off.  This team is legit.

Assuming Trevor Bauer doesn’t have long term problems adjusting to Cincinnati’s tiny, waterfront ballpark, the Reds have one of the best 1-2 punches in the rotation out of any team in baseball.  Bauer and Luis Castillo combines one of the best young pitchers in baseball with one of the best in recent years.  Add in Sonny Gray – who had a surprising rebound year in 2019 – and Cincinnati has about as formidable of a three man rotation as you can get.  They also snagged Wade Miley, who should quit being doubted after stringing together quality back-to-back years.  Additionally, Anthony DeSclafani finally put it together last year, and though he’s starting this season on IL, him as your fourth or fifth starter means you’re in pretty good shape.

The lineup is a murderer’s row.  Bringing in Mike Moustakas and Nicohlas Castellanos adds potentially 30-40 home runs to this offense in this shortened season.  Over the course of 162 games, that could be 70-80.  Engenio Suarez sneakily hit 49 home runs last year and has emerged as a true slugger.  Joey Votto will be the typical OBP monster, and Shogo Akiyama – a fantastic hitter from Japan – will love Great American Ballpark. 

Cincinnati is deep too.  They have a million outfielders behind Akiyama, Castellanos and Nick Senzel: Michael Lorenzen, Jesse Winker, Travis Janikowski and Aristides Aquino all exist as either fun or effective options at DH.  That’s notwithstanding Christian Colon and Kyle Farmer in the infield too.

The Reds are contenders this year.  A tough division could hold them back a bit, and the bullpen lacks some depth, but with this rotation and offense, it shouldn’t matter.  Stop labeling this team as a sleeper.  They’re better than that.

  • Rockies

Colorado and Boston are extraordinarily similar teams this year.  All hitting, zero pitching.

And just like Boston, it will be the Rockies offense that will have to produce potentially historic outputs to make this team successful.  Colorado goes as far as their offense takes them.

The Rockies have their own murderere’s row.  Charlie Blackmon, Trevor Story and Nolan Arenado in the same lineup is unfair.  Throwing in the potential of Ryan McMahon, Garrett Hampson, Brendan Rogers and David Dahl makes them look unbeatable.  A lot of those guys haven’t done much yet, though we’ve seen limited samples from Hampson and Rogers.

The pitching just needs to be treated as a net zero. The rotation has a higher ceiling than Boston’s – we’ve seen Kyle Freeland and Jon Gray both be good in years past.  German Marquez has nasty stuff but it doesn’t always translate to good numbers – the same goes for Antonio Senztatela.  But actually getting everyone to produce will be tough.

Colorado hits a ton of home runs, but they’re also well-rounded at the plate.  While that helps them this year, the decreased innings from pitching staffs all across baseball doesn’t at all.  Everyone’s staff gets better this year, and should be better going into the playoffs as well.  Colorado’s pitching could be so bad that less innings stagnates them, making the offense’s role that much more important.

  • Royals

One of a couple “There is no way but in a world far far away you could see it” teams on this list, Kansas City basically gets a nomination here due to their past.  What happened in 2014 (and even 2015, to an extent) was one of the most improbable occurrences in baseball during the 2010s, and some of those key players are still around.  

They have a super scrappy lineup.  Whit Merrifield, Adalberto Mondesi and Salvador Perez are awesome at their jobs.  They’ve added some power recently – Jorge Soler hit 48 home runs for them last year, and though he will miss time due to recently testing positive for COVID-19, Hunter Dozier provides some pop as well.  Maikel Franco is a low risk flyer who can also potentially hit 20 home runs or so in a 162 game season.

Their rotation is a disaster aside from Danny Duffy.  They don’t really have options after him: Brad Keller and Mike Montgomery are meh and Jakob Junis is on the IL to start the year.  Even with Junis back, it’s still bleak.  The highly-touted Brady Singer is starting Saturday, which provides some excitement and hopefully success going forward.

Pitching is what gets you to the World Series, but the offense we’ve seen needed to get teams there in previous years isn’t needed this season.  Kansas City still has the formula that got them there in 2014 and ’15 present on this roster.  That will have to be their saving grace.

  • Twins

Minnesota’s attempt at acquiring competent pitching last year went okay.  Jake Odorizzi pitched well for them and Michael Pineda was fine.  At the same time, Martin Perez didn’t work so well, and the Twins ended up started some guy named Randy Dobnak in a playoff game.

This offseason, they were done messing around.  In comes Rich Hill, Kenta Maeda, Homer Bailey and ready-for-a-larger role Devin Smetzler to the Twins rotation, giving them a bottom line of competence behind Jose Berrios.

The Twins won 101 games last season with a faulty rotation.  They made it not matter until the playoffs.  Now, throwing in veterans like the names mentioned above gives them not only experience but a group that won’t give the offense no chance.

Certain numbers indicate Minnesota’s offense was historic last year, and they only added to it in the offseason.  Josh Donaldson takes over at third base, where he’ll take the reigns from Miguel Sano who likely sees split time with Nelson Cruz at DH and potentially in the outfield (That depends on Byron Buxton’s health, which is always a question).  The Twins still have a massive glut of talent amongst their position players – Sano, Willians Astudillo, Marwin Gonzalez, Jake Cave and Ehire Adrianza are all bench players for Minnesota, and all provide tons of value in respective situations.

The Twins could absolutely win the World Series.  But while the pitching they acquired serves as a new precedent and a massive upgrade, all of those guys were available for a reason.  At the end of the day, all of them are just okay, and that is not where this Minnesota team wants to be, nor should be.

  • White Sox

The White Sox are really, really good, and if starting pitcher Michael Kopech hadn’t opted out of the 2020 season, Chicago could have been a serious player come October.

The rotation is good even without Kopech.  Lucas Giolito blossomed into everything we wanted in 2019, and the team signed Dallas Keuchel to a four year contract in the offseason to give the group some experience.  Gio Gonzalez is a solid option at the third spot, while Dylan Cease is a bit of an unknown and Reynaldo Lopez shouldn’t be counted on too much.

As written earlier this week, the White Sox have ways to plug these holes if they want to.  They also have an intriguing bullpen that could work out in their favor.

Chicago’s pricey offseason will do them well.  It made their lineup daunting, which is impressive considering the youth they possess.  That can backfire on them, but it’d be more likely to do so over the course of 162 games rather than 60.  It’s a tough division, but if Yoan Moncada and Luis Robert live up to their potential this season, the White Sox should be in the mix at the top, and could potentially go deep in October.


Division Predictions

Win totals will not be listed due to the 60 game season

AL East

  1. New York Yankees
  2. Tampa Bay Rays
  3. Toronto Blue Jays
  4. Boston Red Sox
  5. Baltimore Orioles

AL Central

  1. Minnesota Twins
  2. Chicago White Sox
  3. Cleveland 
  4. Kansas City Royals
  5. Detroit Tigers

AL West

  1. Houston Astros
  2. Oakland A’s
  3. Los Angeles Angels
  4. Texas Rangers
  5. Seattle Mariners

NL East

  1. Atlanta Braves
  2. Philadelphia Phillies
  3. Washington Nationals
  4. New York Mets
  5. Miami Marlins

NL Central

  1. Cincinatti Reds
  2. St. Louis Cardinals
  3. Chicago Cubs
  4. Milwaukee Brewers
  5. Pittsburgh Pirates

NL West

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers
  2. Arizona Diamondbacks
  3. San Diego Padres
  4. Colorado Rockies
  5. San Francisco Giants

Playoff Predictions

Here’s how MLB’s new 16 team postseason – which they unveiled an hour before the season began Thursday – works.  Eight teams in each league make the playoffs.  The top three seeds are the division winners ordered by record.  The next three are the second place teams in each division ordered by record.  Then, the final two seeds are the two best records remaining the league.  So, as seen below, the Yankees are the projected AL East winners, the Twins are the Central’s, and the Astros are the West’s, with the Yankees having the best record of all of them.  Then, Tampa Bay is projected to finish second in the AL East, having more wins than the White Sox and A’s, who each finish second in their respective divisions. Then, Cleveland and Toronto are projected to have the two best records remaining. Got it?  Good?

AL Seeds:

  1. New York Yankees
  2. Minnesota Twins
  3. Houston Astros
  4. Tampa Bay Rays
  5. Chicago White Sox
  6. Oakland A’s
  7. Cleveland 
  8. Toronto Blue Jays

NL Seeds:

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers
  2. Atlanta Braves
  3. Cincinatti Reds
  4. St. Louis Cardinals
  5. Arizona Diamondbacks
  6. Philadelphia Phillies
  7. Chicago Cubs
  8. Milwaukee Brewers

Then it becomes the NBA playoffs.  The No.1 seed plays the No.8 seed, the No.4 seed plays the No.5 seed but in a best of three series.  

Wild Card Series:

AL:

#1 New York Yankees vs. #8 Toronto Blue Jays: Yankees in 2

#2 Minnesota Twins vs. #7 Cleveland: Twins in 3

#3 Houston Astros vs. #6 Oakland A’s: Astros in 3

#4 Tampa Bay Rays vs. #5 Chicago White Sox: Rays in 3

NL:

#1 Los Angeles Dodgers vs. #8 Milwaukee Brewers: Dodgers in 3

#2 Atlanta Braves vs. #7 Chicago Cubs: Cubs in 3

#3 Cincinatti Reds vs. #6 Philadelphia Phillies: Reds in 2

#4 St. Louis Cardinals vs. #5 Arizona Diamondbacks: Cardinals in 3

Division Series:

Then, the winner of the No.1 vs No. 8 seed plays the winner of the No.4 vs. No. 5 seed series in a best of five series.

AL:

#1 New York Yankees vs. #4 Tampa Bay Rays: Rays in 5

#2 Minnesota Twins vs. #3 Houston Astros: Twins in 4

NL:

#1 Los Angeles Dodgers vs. #4 St. Louis Cardinals: Dodgers in 4

#3 Cincinnati Reds vs. #7 Chicago Cubs: Reds in 4

Championship Series:

Then the winners of the Division Series play each other in the best of seven LCS series like normal.

ALCS

#2 Minnesota Twins vs. #4 Tampa Bay Rays: Rays in 5

NLCS

#1 Los Angeles Dodgers vs. #3 Cincinnati Reds: Dodgers in 6

World Series:

Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Tampa Bay Rays: Dodgers in 6

Awards Predictions:

AL MVP: Mike Trout

NL MVP: Ronald Acuna Jr.

AL Cy Young: Tyler Glasnow

NL Cy Young: Walker Buehler 

AL Rookie of the Year: Luis Robert

NL Rookie of the Year: Carter Kieboom