By Anthony Clark Jr.
As the season resumes in the National Basketball Association post-mid-season break, there are several things to consider between now and May 16 for contending teams and company.
COVID-19 continues to be the league’s main concern as their strict health and safety protocols have forced a multitude of players, and at times entire teams to sit out. The 72-day break between the 2020 NBA Finals and the 2020-21 season commencement was the shortest intermission between seasons in league history, and the minor adjustment of reducing a normal 82-game season by 10 games to alleviate the exertion of energy has not proven to be effective with load management numbers increasing each game.
With limited fan participation, COVID-19 altering everyday functions throughout the league, endless injuries, and a historic brief intermission for organizations to rebuild and/or reorganize in order to prepare for this current season, the odds of predicting who will be a participant and the eventual victor in the playoffs are slim. Yet, there are still unique factors of each team that assists in building an impression about their playoff chances.
Let’s dive into what teams are the considerable favorites of making a run this season.
Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid has put on a definitive MVP season after an upsetting 4-0 loss to the Boston Celtics in the 2020 NBA quarter-finals. The 7-foot center is averaging 30.2 points per game (league’s second overall) while shooting an efficient 52% field goal percentage, 11.6 rebounds, and continues to lead his team to maintain a first-place standing in the Eastern conference (25-12). The demise of this team during the season is injuries once more: Embiid has sat out of multiple contests due to aggravating an injury-prone back while the elusive Ben Simmons, who was not a part of the quarter-finals sweep due to a knee injury, has continued to deal with more leg complications this season. Although the defense of the 76er’s has led to the successful season thus far, the team will need more from an offensive standpoint if they hope to keep up with high-caliber offenses as it is seeing seventh overall in points per game (115), third-worst overall in turnovers per game (14.7), and shooting 78.4% from the free-throw line as a team (13th overall). If the 76er’s see more production from veterans Tobias Harris, Seth Curry, Danny Green, Simmons and a continuance from Embiid on the offensive end, this could be the year that “The Process” makes a deeper run in the playoffs.
When the trade rumors surrounding James Harden continued to amplify and led individuals to the impression the veteran guard would land in Brooklyn, the league metaphorically began scrambling. With offensive juggernauts Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden leading the charge and the latest addition of veteran big-man Blake Griffin, the conversation continues to center itself on the Nets being crowned champions. Although, there were concerns about how productive the hall of fame lineup could be due to multiple egos and the reduction of defensive intensity. However, the veteran players have proven the doubters wrong as they currently sit first overall for points per game (121.1), fifth overall in assists per game (27.1), all while shooting a collective 50% from the floor (first overall). Again, defense is still the main concern for this group and it has continued to be a problem. The Nets’ are lacking in intensity, allowing opponents 115.9 points per game and averaging the third-fewest turnovers per game overall (11.8). If the former “Lob City” teammates DeAndre Jordan and Griffin can put on the forceful defensive presence they once applied in their previous stretch with the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Brooklyn Nets are able to sign the defensive pillar Andre Drummond, the organization will likely be seen as the team who will make it out of the Eastern conference.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, the league’s reigning regular-season MVP since the 2018-19 season, signed a five-year super-max contract with the Milwaukee Bucks prior to the current season that left many surprised and gave others a huge sigh of relief. The 7-footer has donned the “Greek Freak” nickname rightfully so, as his other-worldly versatility, speed, and impenetrable length has fans referring to the big-man as a “walking cheat code.” Although, even cheat codes do not seem to be enough to make a championship run: the 2020 playoffs were quite the upset for the Bucks as they dealt with injuries and were blown away by the Miami Heat 4-1 in the semi-finals after finishing the regular season with the best record in the league (56-17). The year previous left fans in dismay, as the Bucks were up 2-0 in the conference finals against the Toronto Raptors and ultimately blew their first chance of being in the finals since 1974 by allowing Toronto to win the next four games and close the series 4-2. Antetokounmpo has not been surrounded by hall of famers or star-studded veterans until the recent seasons, which may be the reason the Bucks are not able to get over the final hump of the playoffs; but how many more excuses can one of the league’s most dominant, literal most valuable player, and almost certainly the future poster-child be given until they are held accountable for the unsuccessful outcomes?
The other concern for this organization is their offense in each contest: although Antetokounmpo has extended his shooting game allowing him to get shots outside of the paint, his offensive aggression must come from inside of the perimeter. This would allow the high basketball IQ of Jrue Holiday to control the rhythm and pace while having multiple options in sharpshooter Khris Middleton, Bobby Portis, Donte DiVincenzo, and company, thus building on their second place overall position of points per game (119.2) on 48.7% shooting from the field. The team is currently third overall in the Eastern Conference (22-14) and will hope to have a much more consistent second half compared to the slow and trying first half of the season.
Let’s not forget about the looming Boston Celtics led by the brilliant dynamic-duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Brown (24.4 points, 5.6 rebounds per game) and Tatum (25.1 points, seven rebounds, 4.4 assists per game) will need more support from its sporadic core on both ends of the floor, especially when the team is lacking in depth due to injuries. Veterans Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart have dealt with a fair share of injuries that have led to extensive time off. One of the greater weaknesses at the current moment for the Celtics is the disadvantage on defense in the paint: although they have the options of Daniel Theis, Tristan Thompson, and Robert Williams, these big men are not enough to contain versed paint-players such as Antetokounmpo, Embiid, or even Nikola Vucevic of the Orlando Magic. This is another Eastern conference team that has seen itself in situations that could have led to the Celtics participating in the NBA Finals but instead finds itself being dismantled early in the playoffs or coming up short in the conference finals. Unless the Celtics are able to finesse their way into signing and/or trading for a veteran big-man before the season’s deadline, they will have to rely on the chances of their players staying healthy and producing better numbers on the defensive end for more looks in transition on offense.
There are of course many other teams in the East that should not be discounted too soon, including the Charlotte Hornets, led by the NBA Rookie of the Year favorite LaMelo Ball, the Miami Heat, and, what would be the end of a seven-season playoff drought, by the New York Knicks.
The West has seemingly been the more dominant conference of the league for years, if not decades. With an array of sturdy teams, it is quite the task to articulate who exactly are the favorites out West due to the number of potential teams exceeding the number of eligible playoff spots for the conference – so let’s strap in.
First and foremost, the Utah Jazz has been rolling to start the season as the team is first overall in league standings (27-9) while sitting at third in points per game (116.6) magnified by an impressive 39.8% from three-point land (third overall.) The talented backcourt of Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, the brawny multi-time defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert, and the complimenting sharpshooting from Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson, and Bojan Bogdanović have created many advantages against opponents that must continue during the remainder of the season and into the postseason. Keep in mind this core’s season is succeeding a profound upset from the Denver Nuggets in the 2020 NBA quarter-finals, in which a blown 3-1 lead by the Jazz subsequently led to faces in palms and thousand-yard stares. The Jazz are not only maintaining sound numbers on offense, but have been a hard-nosed presence on the defensive end; ranking fourth lowest in opponent points allowed (107.8) and opponent shooting percentage (44.9%), and eighth in blocks per game (5.3). Whether or not the team can continue to maintain their first place standing, its efficiency should be enough to give the edgy western contenders a run for their money.
Had any individual been posed with the question as to whether or not the addition of one of the game’s highest basketball IQs in league history, Chris Paul, to the Phoenix Suns starting lineup would seed them second overall in a monstrous Western Conference going into the mid-season break, they would have likely furrowed their eyebrows in disapproval. However, the proof was in the pudding. The Suns have not been a team of interest in title contention since the Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire era in the 2000s, but they have still been able to acquire and/or draft raw athletes looking to be developed into all-star caliber players. Devin Booker has continued to be the team’s offensive spark plug since being drafted in 2015 but was not surrounded by offensive juggernauts similar to his production level until recently. The chances of the Suns’ staying within the top-three positions in the West aren’t high, but with the leadership from veterans Jae Crowder and Paul, the majestic shooting touch of Booker, a versatile brick wall in Deandre Ayton, and an athletic two-way guard in Mikal Bridges, the team cannot be deemed as a fluke quite yet. The defense has allowed a third-lowest 107.5 opponent points per game, second-lowest opponent three-point percentage (34.6%), and maintaining a reasonable 15th place position in fouls per game (19.6), which is one of the greater deciding factors in how a game concludes. If the Phoenix Suns are able to maintain the intensity on defense while staying within the top 10 for three-point shooting (38.3%) and field goals overall (48.7%), this talented core may see themselves making a quiet push into the postseason.
It would be foolish to disclude the defending champions, as the Los Angeles Lakers are showcasing there was no fluke in last season’s championship run. LeBron James’ legacy continues to be scrutinized and belittled by simple-minded spectators. However, the 18-year veteran has continued his immortal level of play with an impressive 25.8 points, 7.8 assists, and eight rebounds per game. The problem with the Lakers’ organization is inconsistency in the roster and injuries: alternating between the first and second option, adept big-man Anthony Davis is a fluid player from quite literally anywhere on offense and defense, which makes him a crucial pillar for the Lakers’ success. However, ‘The Brow’ is no stranger when it comes to troubling injuries and has seen himself on the bench many times this season from back and leg complications, and his performance has taken a toll from said injuries. The consistency of injuries from Davis is what likely led to the organization signing the reigning NBA Sixth-Man of the Year Montrezzl Harrell to add to the team’s productivity on both ends of the floor, and he has put on for the team (13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game). The question of whether or not the Lakers will solidify their status in the league this season continues to emerge as it continues to be argued that last season’s championship should have a coinciding asterisk in the history books due to the lower levels of intensity inside the NBA bubble. If role-players such as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dennis Schröder, Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma, are able to ramp up their intensity and production for the team, the Lakers will likely see themselves making a push into the conference finals.
Was poor team chemistry, the disappearance of hall of fame players, or the constant harassment from spectators the demise of the Los Angeles Clippers 2020 playoff failures, or a mixture of all of the above? The addition of veterans Kawhi Leonard and Paul George not only gave the city of L.A another dominant team to root for, but put the league on notice. Having multiple veterans like Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Marcus Morris, and more, paired with a two-time NBA Finals MVP (Leonard) and a consistent defensive and most valuable player of the year finalist (George) had many choosing the Clippers over the Lakers to come out of the West. Those who witnessed the 2019-20 semi-finals saw a horrible dismantling of team fundamentals, frustration leading to selfish play, and endless memes that poked fun at the hype surrounding the once confident Clippers organization. One does have to take into account the fact that this team was facing a new roster, so team chemistry was not yet solidified; add in the global shutdown of 2020 that forced billions into quarantine (including these individual players), and it would be just about impossible for a team at any level of sports to build a strong relationship. However, the team seemed to put the limitless scrutiny in the past and came out rolling with George leading the charge and staying true to his postseason promises that players and spectators better be aware of what was to come and finding himself in the early talks of winning the MVP trophy. Leonard (27.1 points, 4.9 assists, 7.1 rebounds per game) and George (21.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 3.9 assists per game) are staying true to their leadership roles as the Clippers see themselves fourth overall in the western standings on an efficient 115.2 points per game (fifth overall) while leading the league in both three-point (42%) and free-throw (84.3%) percentage. If the Clippers can persist in blocking out the noise, maintain a high level of production on the offensive end, and continue expanding on a healthy, indivisible team bond, the initial talks of the Clippers organization becoming a dominant force once more will likely speak for itself in this year’s postseason.
Prevailing injuries and multiple numbers of positive tests have prevented the likes of the Portland Trailblazers and Denver Nuggets from establishing a more dominant position in the West, but they are nonetheless still in playoff contention at this current time. If CJ McCollum, Jusuf Nurkić, and Damian Lillard can stay healthy, the Trailblazers will continue to make contending runs as they have over the last few seasons. The fault of this team has always been injuries, on top of not being able to close out a series when necessary. Consistency will be prudent if the team hopes to have any success in the unforgiving Western Conference.
The Denver Nuggets made two historic comebacks in the 2020 playoffs against the Jazz and Clippers when they faced a 3-1 deficit in both series. The team showed determination and grit fans of the game haven’t witnessed in years, if at all. If the Nuggets are able to keep Jamal Murray in a healthy state, can continue seeing the ridiculously talented 7-footer Nikola Jokić put up performances no human his size has done, and have the same determination from the previous season’s playoffs courses through the team’s veins, this is yet another West contender that has limitless potential.
Again, there are many teams to consider as possible contenders this season and the teams that were deconstructed are in no way the only teams who have a chance in making a deep run in the playoffs. That also goes for the Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Toronto Raptors (who have not played in their Toronto arena for home games to reduce travel), Dallas Mavericks, and others, who are lethal teams when fully equipped with all of their players. However, there is still plenty of time left in the season for these teams and those consisting of veteran cores to make a playoff run statement.
One can only appreciate the hard work and endless effort of all the organizations’ staff, various state and league officials, and the relentless dedication by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, for creating the opportunity for another season to be carried out as the pandemic continues to assert itself.
The 2020-21 NBA schedule can be found here.