Top Storylines If NBA Jumps Right into 2020 Playoffs

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2020

Top Storylines If NBA Jumps Right into 2020 Playoffs

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    Due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, the 2019-20 NBA season appears to be in jeopardy.

    After an initial timeline that pegged the league's hiatus at "at least 30 days," a recent report from ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski presented another possibility: "CDC recommendation of no events of 50-plus people for next two months comes as a number of NBA owners and executives increasingly believe a best case scenario is a mid-to-late June return to play—with no fans. League's scouting for possible arena dates all the way thru August."

    Even if the NBA is able to resume play this summer, it's becoming increasingly likely that it will jump right into the postseason. In that case, a number of playoff-centric storylines would immediately materialize.

    The following would almost certainly enter the collective consciousness of the league's fans.

The West's No. 8 Seed

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    There was still some jockeying for position to be done in both the Eastern Conference and Western Conference standings, but 15 of the 16 playoff berths were pretty much wrapped up when play suspended. The only real question was who would secure the eighth and final spot in the West. Basketball Reference's playoff probabilities broke down the chances of the remaining contenders as follows:

    • Memphis Grizzlies (46.1 percent)
    • New Orleans Pelicans (35.3 percent)
    • Sacramento Kings (7.2 percent)
    • Portland Trail Blazers (6.5 percent)
    • San Antonio Spurs (4.6 percent)
    • Phoenix Suns (0.2 percent)

    The Kings, Blazers, Spurs and Suns could all feign outrage over not getting the chance to make up the respective gaps between their records and the Grizzlies', but the Pelicans would have a real gripe.

    FiveThirtyEight's projection system actually favors New Orleans to get the spot, thanks in part to it having (by far) the league's easiest remaining schedule. That and the return of Zion Williamson had the Pelicans poised to secure a first-round series against Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers. The intrigue for that series would be obvious.

    There's plenty to be excited about with the Grizzlies, as well, but that matchup is missing the revenge factor that would heighten the intensity between L.A. and New Orleans.

    One possible solution has been offered by Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie: "@NBA I think we’re looking at a 28 team tournament. Top 4 seeds get a bye. Teams 27, 28, 29, 30 have the neutral site play in games March madness style in a best of 3. Then the round of 28 is best of 5. And then the round of 16 etc proceeds as usual!"

    Now is the time for creativity, and ideas like this shouldn't be dismissed out of hand. Whenever (or if) play is resumed, the eighth spot in the West is at least one question that could use a more definitive answer before a champion is crowned.

Battle for Los Angeles

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    It'll take a bit longer for attention to focus on this one, but the idea of a Los Angeles Lakers-Los Angeles Clippers Western Conference Finals has been floating around the NBA ether all season.

    When play was suspended, they were the top two teams in the West. If both can take care of business in the first couple of series in a typically structured playoff bracket, they'd meet in Round 3. At that point, the storylines would write themselves.

    Beyond the obvious battle for Los Angeles, this hypothetical series would involve perhaps the playoffs' most intriguing head-to-head matchup: LeBron James vs. Kawhi Leonard.

    Of course, those two haven't faced off in the postseason since 2014, when Kawhi's San Antonio Spurs exacted revenge on LeBron's Miami Heat. Since then, each superstar has added another title and Finals MVP to his respective resume. They're 1-1 against each other in playoff series.

    This matchup would also include two of the game's best duos. Kawhi has Paul George. LeBron is bringing AD to the fight.

    The supporting cast seems to heavily favor the Clippers, who surround their top two with Patrick Beverley, Marcus Morris Sr., Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams, just to name a few. The Lakers' support system has been better than expected this season, but it is still tough to trust it after Danny Green.

    With all those ingredients, this would have the makings of an intense and entertaining series with the potential to go seven games. Right now, FiveThirtyEight pegs these two as the likeliest Finals representatives from the West. The Lakers have a 41 percent shot, while the Clippers are at 39 percent.

The 2020 NBA Draft

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    If the league rebuffs ideas like Dinwiddie's and returns with the traditional 16-team postseason, the other 14 organizations and their fans will turn their collective attention to the offseason.

    And, of course, the NBA draft is one of the biggest offseason attractions for non-playoff teams.

    That is where those bound for the lottery draw hope. Every year, even when a class doesn't project a ton of strength, organizations talk themselves into Pick X being the difference-maker for the future.

    Plenty of scouting has already been done, but team big boards will come into focus, and draft analysis will start popping up all over the interwebs. Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman has characterized 2020 as a "perceived weak draft," but someone is sure to get a steal.

    Some of the biggest names are likely:

    • LaMelo Ball (a point guard with good size and passing ability)
    • Deni Avdija (potentially a point forward who fits today's positionless game)
    • Anthony Edwards (up and down at the college level but still has some potential as a scorer)
    • James Wiseman (you can't teach size)
    • Onyeka Okongwu (a physically gifted big who one scout called a "big man Patrick Beverley," per Wasserman)

    More detailed analysis will surely be coming from Wasserman and other draft experts. But long story short, roughly half the league will be more interested in the draft than the playoffs.

Philadelphia's Existential Crisis

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    The Philadelphia 76ers sat in the sixth spot when the NBA suspended play, but FiveThirtyEight still gives them a 10 percent chance to win the championship. The Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks are the only teams ahead of them on that scale.

    With Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons at the top of the roster, there's no denying Philadelphia has plenty of talent. The question, which has been magnified this regular season, is whether the talents of those two fit in the same lineups.

    As Embiid told Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

    "I think it's B.S. because when you look at the last couple of years, the last two years we were playing together, it was not a problem. This year it's only a problem because at times our offense has struggled, and I think it's definitely going to be better after the All-Star break. Just look at the last two years what we've been able to do. I think it can work, and it's going to work."

    There's some truth to what Embiid is saying. 

    Over the course of 2017-18 and 2018-19, Philadelphia was plus-11.5 points per 100 possessions when both stars were on the floor. No other alignment involving either player came close to that mark. But in 2019-20, the Simmons-Embiid net rating dropped to 1.0.

    Attempting to force a point center (Simmons) and a traditional center (Embiid) to play with another center (Al Horford) was likely the culprit. The Sixers were plus-5.3 points per 100 possessions when the two superstars operated without Horford. But there was enough offensive congestion to cause concern about the long-term fit between Simmons and Embiid.

    If that remains a problem through the 2020 postseason, calls to split the duo up will likely get a bit louder.

    Philadelphia has the talent to make some noise. It was literally inches from the Finals last season. But starting the playoffs at No. 6 opens up the chance for a first-round exit at the hands of the Boston Celtics.

Milwaukee's Title Chase

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    There's always been a bit of doubt among NBA analysts regarding the teams and players who haven't already won a title.

    Perhaps that's why, despite having the seventh-best simple rating system score (combines point differential and strength of schedule) in NBA history, the Milwaukee Bucks haven't become universal favorites over the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers.

    Of course, there's a first time for everyone. You haven't gone all the way until you suddenly have. And there are cases throughout history of those teams, like the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, that upset the status quo.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and the Bucks aren't exactly plucky underdogs, but they definitely have things to prove.

    For Giannis, his legacy is in play. He's the favorite to win this season's top individual honor, which would make him one of 14 players in NBA history with multiple MVPs. He's 25th in career box plus/minus. But plenty will struggle to consider him an all-timer until he wins a championship.

    Of course, Antetokounmpo is just 25 years old. There's plenty of time for him to add to his resume. But real shots at a title often prove harder to come by than we realize. Milwaukee has one this season.

    For Middleton, this is a chance to silence the "Bucks only have one star" takes. Though he's made two All-Star appearances, there still seems to be some lingering doubt about his place in the NBA hierarchy.

    He's averaging 24.0 points per 75 possessions and is one-tenth of a percentage point from joining the 50-40-90 club. That should be enough. But if it isn't, a title would do the trick.

    And finally, for Milwaukee as a whole, a 2020 title would go a long way toward quieting talk revolving around Giannis' free agency in 2021. Long term, that may be as important as anything.

Toronto's Title Defense

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    When Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green departed the Toronto Raptors for competing Los Angeles teams, it would've been natural to write off their chances of successfully defending the 2018-19 championship.

    After all, it was Leonard who won Finals MVP and piled up the sixth-most wins over replacement player in a single postseason. Green was one of the game's premier three-and-D wings and had a net-rating swing in the 98th percentile.

    But the remaining Raptors were undeterred by those losses. When play was suspended, they sat in second place in the East with a three-game cushion between them and the third-place Boston Celtics. And FiveThirtyEight gives them the seventh-best shot at a title.

    If Toronto were able to go all the way again, it would surely be one of the least likely title defenses in NBA history. The Athletic's Eric Koreen tried to find a comparison:

    "You have to go back 26 years for something approaching a real comparison for the road the Raptors are navigating. That was when Michael Jordan retired the first time, but the Bulls tried to remain competitive on the heels of three consecutive titles. Scottie Pippen went from a defence-first sidekick to a legitimate alpha, finishing third in MVP voting. That approximates what [Pascal] Siakam is going through. The Bulls made the conference semi-final that year, eventually losing in seven games to the Knicks."

    Siakam has fallen off since that was written in November. And though he has ably filled the role of No. 1 scorer, this is more about the team and culture that has been established in Toronto.

    Kyle Lowry is among the game's best leaders. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka are solid veterans who were never going to lay down this season. And the team's ability to identify and develop talents outside the lottery. including Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Norman Powell, Terence Davis and Matt Thomas, makes it perhaps the new San Antonio Spurs.

    As long as president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri and the infrastructure remains in place, this team will be competitive. Winning it all in 2020 would be a story for the ages.

    And imagine if they beat Kawhi's Clippers to do so.

Eastern Conference Sleepers

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    The Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors aren't the only Eastern Conference squads that could talk themselves into legitimate title aspirations this season.

    Two of the teams between the Raptors and Sixers in the standings, the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat, could certainly crash the party. The likelihood feels a little lower for the Indiana Pacers, but Victor Oladipo returning to his old form in time for the postseason would make them a worthy challenge for the higher seeds.

    Regarding the Celtics, the midseason leap from Jayson Tatum should have them feeling poised for a run. The overall structure of the roster—positionless wings in Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward, a good scorer at the 1 in Kemba Walker and a switchy, versatile 5 in Daniel Theis—makes this a dangerous squad in today's game. But it's Tatum who could put them over the top.

    Scan over the course of NBA history and you'll find that teams led (or, at least, co-led) by wings or combo forwards are often the last ones standing: Larry Bird and the Celtics; Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Chicago Bulls; Kobe Bryant and the Lakers; LeBron with the Heat and Cavs.

    Tatum's February, in which he averaged 30.7 points with a 63.7 true shooting percentage, gave us a glimpse of that kind of player.

    For the Heat, a scrappy, deep and modern roster surrounding Jimmy Butler is going to make Miami, at the very least, a tough out. Over the course of the season, when Butler has shared the floor with point center Bam Adebayo and lights-out shooter Duncan Robinson, Miami has been plus-13.1 points per 100 possessions (98th percentile).

    And shortly before the hiatus, Adebayo showed the ability to be perhaps the game's closest thing to a Giannis-stopper.

    "That's been my challenge," Bam told reporters after holding Giannis to 1-of-10 shooting when he was the primary defender, per ESPN's Cameron Wolfe. "Go out there and guard the best player and get it done on both ends. It's been working out pretty good for me."

    There may not be another team in the East who can throw as much at Giannis as Miami. In the end, that may be the deciding factor that puts Miami over other sleepers in the conference.

Utah's Chemistry Test

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    Shortly after news broke that Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus, he became a scapegoat. Just check out some of the replies (some of which are NSFW) to this tweet from ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

    Despite no evidence to confirm that Gobert was patient zero for the NBA, some reporting made it seem that he was. And a rift has reportedly grown between the big man and his teammates over his actions, which included touching the microphones and recording devices of reporters days before his positive test. 

    "There is a lot of work to do to repair relationships, not just between Donovan Mitchell [and] Rudy Gobert, but others in the locker room," Wojnarowski said on SportsCenter (h/t What's Inside's Matt Sanchez). "... There's a lot of frustration with Gobert."

    For all we know, Gobert may have gotten the virus from Mitchell. Either may have gotten it from Christian Wood, who also tested positive and played against Utah shortly before the Gobert news broke.

    The point is that no one knows. 

    That may not change how Mitchell and others feel, though. If there's a rift between Gobert, by far the team's most important and impactful player over the last five seasons, and the rest of the Jazz, it may be difficult to overcome that in time for a playoff run.

    Even before this, it started to feel like Utah players not named Joe Ingles had lost faith in the big man, passing to him less than they did in years past. And in games when he's not involved on offense, the team struggles to win.

    If hard feelings toward the team's best player are in place and remain there during the playoffs, it's tough to imagine the Jazz making much noise.

Small Ball

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    We didn't get enough of a sample size on the Houston Rockets' micro-ball strategy to know whether it's a sustainable long-term philosophy.

    There appears to be enough evidence to suggest that it has done wonders for Russell Westbrook, who has averaged 28.4 points per 75 possessions with a 59.2 true shooting percentage when he plays without a traditional 5. But the jury is out on how effective it is for the team.

    Houston is 11-6 (.647) since Capela's last appearance on Jan. 29, but four of those losses came consecutively and included outings against the New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets and Orlando Magic.

    As good as the Rockets' five-out approach has looked for stretches, what will happen in a playoff series against Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers or Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets?

    If the league goes straight into the playoffs upon returning to action, it's Jokic who would get the first shot at the micro-ball defense. Forget about what he might do in the post against P.J. Tucker or Robert Covington; just imagine how easy it will be for the 7-footer to look over the top of those defenders and pick Houston apart with the pass.

    Of course, the five-out attack also means Jokic has to defend on the perimeter, which could be a recipe for disaster for Denver.

    It's a give and take. We just don't know which will outweigh the other until we see it in the pressure cooker that is the postseason.

Wild Wild West

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    Given the current playoff picture, all bets are off for at least three of the four first-round series in the West.

    The Los Angeles Lakers should be able to make relatively swift work of the Memphis Grizzlies, though the latter will likely be competitive in a game or two. 

    Some may think the same of the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks, but with an offense as potent as the one led by Luka Doncic, you can't count out a hot streak from the latter. Dallas is fifth in SRS and just a half-point shy of LAC's net rating. An upset isn't out of the question.

    The aforementioned series between the Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets would offer a compelling contrast of styles, with the Nuggets' center-led attack trying to outmuscle the spread offense of the Rockets.

    Then we have the Utah Jazz, who may still be recovering from the less tangible, team chemistry-impacting aspects of the coronavirus, against the Oklahoma City Thunder. 

    The Jazz entered the season with the rosier outlook, but Chris Paul has the Thunder surging and can control a game better than any individual Utah player. With a three-guard attack that includes CP3, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder, as well as underrated veterans like Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, it wouldn't be surprising to see OKC in the second round.

    Plausible arguments can be made for the opposite outcomes in each of these series, as well. The West is as deep and competitive as ever, which gives the NBA a shot at a wildly entertaining first round.

The Next Generation

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    LeBron James has been the face of the NBA for over a decade. Since 2003-04, his first season, he has 359.6 regular-season wins over replacement player (value over replacement player times 2.7). That's 128.3 more than second-place Chris Paul over the same span.

    For the playoffs, the gap is even bigger. LeBron's 83.2 more than doubles second-place Kevin Durant's 34.0

    The King has a real shot at another title (or titles) with the Los Angeles Lakers, but the end is drawing near, as difficult as that may be to comprehend. This is his 17th NBA season. He's had nine postseason runs that went into June. Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are the only players with more combined regular-season and playoff minutes.

    The league experienced something of a post-Michael Jordan vacuum when the Chicago Bulls legend retired. It's overflowing with talent now, which should make a dropoff a bit less likely.

    Just look at how loaded this list of 30-and-under players is. If they happen, the 2020 playoffs will include Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons, Bam Adebayo, Domantas Sabonis, Pascal Siakam, Donovan Mitchell, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kristaps Porzingis and Jamal Murray, just to name a few.

    The elder statesman of that bunch is Davis, who just turned 27. Most of them are under 25.

    Hopefully, the absence of basketball during this hiatus will make fans' hearts grow fonder. Then, given the increased appetite for NBA basketball, the younger stars can show the world what's on the horizon.

          

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference, PBPStats.com or Cleaning the Glass.