The NBA is (almost) back! We’ll get 22 teams in Orlando for eight regular season games, a Play-in tournament and then the NBA Playoffs with 16 teams. Sticking with the Five Guys theme, I’ll take a look at five teams who will be playing in Orlando that I consider to be must-watches once we get going again.
Here’s the tentative timeline for how things will go in Orlando, starting on July 31.
July 31: Eight-game regular season begins
August 16 & 17: Play-in Tournament
August 18: First Round begins
September 1: Second Round begins
September 15: Conference Finals
September 30: Finals Game 1
December: 2020-21 season starts (could be Dec. 1, could be Christmas Day, etc.)
Here’s my understanding of how the Play-in will work. Once the eight games are in the books if the No. 9 seed is within four games of the No. 8 seed, they’ll have a potential two-game play in. If the No. 8 seed wins Game 1, they’re in and the No. 9 is out. If the No. 9 wins Game 1, they play Game 2. If the No. 8 wins that one, they’re in, but if the No. 9 wins both games, they’re in and the No. 8 is out. I could see this creating some real drama if a team four games back wins both of these games and knocks out a No. 8 seed. Heads may roll.
Here are the teams that are going to Orlando, and five that I think might be worth watching more than others.
1. Bucks 53-12*
2. Lakers 49-14*
3. Raptors 46-18
4. Clippers 44-20
5. Celtics 43-21
6. Nuggets 43-22
7. Jazz 41-23
8. Heat 41-24
9. Thunder 40-24
10. Rockets 40-24
11. Pacers 39-26
12. Sixers 39-26
13. Mavericks 40-27*
14. Grizzlies 32-33
15. Nets 30-34
16. Magic 30-35
17. Blazers 29-37*
18. Pelicans 28-36*
19. Kings 28-36
20. Spurs 27-36
21. Suns 26-39
22. Wizards 24-40
The Bucks are not only the best team in the East, but also the entire league with their gaudy 53-12 record. But things were going a little south before the stoppage as the Bucks lost their last three games before the shutdown. On top of that, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was on his way to winning another MVP Award, and Khris Middleton both said they really didn’t touch a basketball for the first part of the pandemic because they didn’t have access to a hoop. I guess Jayson Tatum wasn’t alone in that issue. With Giannis leading the way the Bucks clearly have all the tools to win it all. And I’m guessing the three-game losing streak will quickly become an afterthought once the games fire back up in Orlando. I like the Bucks to come out of the East and possibly win a title for Antetokounmpo, which would also do wonders for keeping him in Milwaukee for the long haul. The key to this entire thing might be point guard Eric Bledsoe, which makes me a little nervous, but again, as long as you have Giannis, you have a legit shot at winning it all. The Bucks will get the Celtics, Heat, Grizzlies, Wizards, Rockets, Wizards, Mavericks and Raptors to finish out the regular season.
The Lakers were almost must-see TV from opening day due to the presence of LeBron James and Anthony Davis playing on the same team. Unlike the Bucks, the Lakers went into the break on a roll, winning four of their last five games with monster wins over the Bucks and the Clippers. LeBron has only missed three games this season and Davis missed eight and both should (obviously) be quite rested and ready to roll for the playoffs. And while they don’t need any motivation to try to win their first title in 10 years, the fact they’ll be playing for the memory of Kobe Bryant gives them even more reason to jump every obstacle put in front of them. LeBron still has a shot at another MVP Award and Davis has a shot at winning the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Add in the fact that this looks like a perfect time for James to get his fourth NBA Title and then the duo would have a real shot at winning James a fifth title next year. There’s a chance DeMarcus Cousins could end up back with the Lakers (he was waived for Markieff Morris) if the league allows teams to carry up to 17-20 players and he could truly end up being the X factor for the Lakers. Along with the Bucks, the Lakers will be must-see TV for both the regular season and the postseason, and a lot of folks are going to be rooting for LeBron to get another ring in October. There are no guarantees that Boogie Cousins will be back with the Lakers, but if it happens, things should get even more interesting in Lakerland going forward. The Lakers schedule isn’t perfect, as they’ll face the Rockets, Nuggets, the Jazz twice, the Raptors, Wizards, Pacers and Thunder to round out the regular season. They’re in the playoffs either way though, so it doesn’t really matter.
You knew I was going to list the Mavericks here, right? Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis have had ample time to rehab their ailments and Luka has hopefully been working on his free throw shooting, and also thinking about how he can be more effective in the fourth quarter of big games, where he struggled for much of the season. I think his ankle and thumb injuries were a problem for him most of the season but there’s no reason he won’t come back at 100 percent, as long as he doesn’t tweak either injury again. Obviously, keeping Luka and Porzingis healthy is the priority and the X factors for this team should continue to be Seth Curry, Tim Hardaway and Maxi Kleber. Luka has been working out and playing pickup ball in Slovenia since March and my guess is he’s going to come back on a mission. He’s trying to become the third player in history to average 20-5-5 in each of his first two seasons, joining Oscar Robertson and LeBron if he can do it. And I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. If Dallas can figure out how to close out games, no one is going to want any part of them in the playoffs. But I’m not feeling all that great about the bet my brother made for me in Vegas back in October when I took a flier and bet them to win it all. The Mavs will finish up with the Suns, Clippers, Kings, Blazers, Suns, Rockets, Jazz and Milwaukee.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers are another team to watch after Damian Lillard said he wasn’t going to play meaningless games. He got his wish and the Blazers will be hoping to be one of the teams to emerge from the Play-in Tournament, assuming they don’t make up the 3.5 games with eight regular-season games to play. With Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Hassan Whiteside and Jusuf Nurkic (knee - who was set to return right as the stoppage happened) the Blazers should be a blast to watch, as usual. While the return of Nurkic will be a fun story line, the fact Whiteside is locked and loaded takes some of the luster off of it. The Blazers have their work cut out for them, sitting 3.5 games back in the West, but Lillard is going to be as motivated as anyone in the league. In addition to Nurkic the Blazers are also going to get Zach Collins (shoulder surgery) back, but I’m not really expecting huge outputs from them. That means that Whiteside is going to really have to step off and come through, while Lillard and CJM are going to need to ball out in Orlando. The Blazers will finish with the Grizzlies, Rockets, Mavericks, Celtics, Sixers, Nets, Jazz and Grizzlies. The fact they will avoid the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks should work in their favor.
New Orleans Pelicans
Lastly, the Pelicans are going to be one of the more popular teams to watch on TV upon the resumption, mainly because of Zion Williamson, who should come back rested and ready to rock (or the opposite). This team started out woefully at 7-23 without Zion (knee surgery) but have climbed back into this thing and could be one of the 16 teams we see go to the playoffs. Lonzo Ball was playing out of his mind before the shutdown, Brandon Ingram was an All-Star and they still have Jrue Holiday, who is probably one of the most underrated players in the league. And then you add in my man Derrick Favors, who was having a bounce-back season and looks like he might be the X factor here. They also need Ball to pick up where he left off, which I think is going to happen. The biggest question to be answered is what will Zion look like when he returns? Did he gain weight? Is he in shape? Will he be even better than he was before the shutdown? The schedule is in the Pelicans’ favor, they’re only 3.5 games back and if Zion, Ball, Holiday, Ingram and Favors are all ready to roll, they can beat anyone in a play-in format. I can’t wait to watch this team in a few weeks. The Pels sit 3.5 games back and will finish up with the Kings, Jazz, Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Kings, Grizzlies and Spurs and you can bet the NBA wants Zion to be a part of the postseason festivities. And the fact they get the Kings twice, the Grizzlies twice and the LaMarcus Aldridge-less Spurs twice looks pretty tasty to me. In case you missed it, Aldridge is done after undergoing shoulder surgery back in April, which should mean the Spurs are done, as well. But I wouldn’t put anything past Gregg Popovich at this point.
The NBA is coming back and I can’t wait. I had no idea I was a such a big NASCAR fan, but being deprived of live sports, when that’s pretty much all you do, will do some weird things to a person. Go Chase Elliott!