Teams That Could Shock Everyone in the 2020 NBA Playoffs
When the 2019-20 season finally resumes at Walt Disney World in late July, anything can happen.
The teams that were the best when the season shut down on March 11 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, like the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks, will still be favored. But it's been so long since anyone has played that it will be impossible to predict who's in the best basketball shape. And that's before you get to which players might choose to sit out.
The closest parallel to this unprecedented situation is probably the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, which crammed 50 games into three months and featured the New York Knicks making the Finals as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.
If there's ever a year for something like that to happen again, it's this one.
Whether it's making a run to the Finals or just going further than would be expected in normal circumstances, here are some teams worth keeping an eye on because they could surprise people in Orlando, Florida.
Honorable Mentions: Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans
With apologies to the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs, only two teams besides the Portland Trail Blazers have a shot to catch the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
The Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans are tied with Portland in number of games back, but they're both 28-36, as opposed to Portland's 29-37 record. That means either one would need to have a better record than the Blazers to jump past them in the standings and make the potential play-in games against the Grizzlies.
With that said, both are intriguing.
All eyes will be on New Orleans for the potential of Zion Williamson on the playoff stage after his sensational NBA debut in January. The Pelicans have been a different team since the star rookie got healthy. He's proved an ideal lob partner for Lonzo Ball while Brandon Ingram enjoys a breakout season.
The drama of a first-round matchup with the Lakers, given that Ball and Ingram came over in the Anthony Davis trade last June, is a fun subplot. The Pelicans have played the Lakers tough this season, too.
The Kings, meanwhile, had been playing their best basketball of the season heading into the shutdown. They were 7-3 following the All-Star break, and De'Aaron Fox was on a hot streak. They don't have the hype the Blazers and Pelicans do as far as the bubble teams looking to jump into the playoffs, but they shouldn't be counted out.
Currently in sixth place in the Western Conference, the Houston Rockets are hard to pin down because they became a different team at the trade deadline.
After sending center Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks and adding forward Robert Covington from the Minnesota Timberwolves, they committed fully to a super-small lineup that featured P.J. Tucker as the full-time center and unlocked a different caliber of Russell Westbrook play. But with only a month between the deadline and the shutdown, it's hard to know how sustainable that is.
More significant than their recent stylistic change is the idea that James Harden is well-rested.
During the past several seasons, Harden has put up historic numbers in the regular season while finishing among the league leaders in minutes played, and then he's hit a wall in the playoffs. With four months off by the time the season resumes, he will be as fresh and well-rested as he's ever been at this stage of the season.
The Rockets' new style has a high ceiling. Combine that with an extended break for Harden to counteract his remarkable regular-season workload and this could be the year the Rockets unexpectedly break through and make a run to the Finals.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers are the most obvious beneficiaries of the return-to-play format. Three-and-a-half games out of the No. 8 seed when the season shut down, they'll have eight regular-season games to improve their standing and a potential play-in series with the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies to put them over the top.
And they'll have two starters back in the fold.
Portland has been without starting center Jusuf Nurkic since last March; he was supposed to return from the broken leg he had been rehabbing mere days after the shutdown date. Starting power forward Zach Collins, out with a shoulder injury since the third game of the season, was also expected back by mid-March or early April.
If the Blazers make it into the playoffs, they'll still be heavy underdogs against LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. But the addition of two key players, the chaos and uncertainty of the Orlando bubble and a motivated Damian Lillard, who has proved himself a big-time playoff performer, could be a recipe for an upset.
If the Blazers are the team in the Western Conference that benefits the most from players returning from injuries, the Indiana Pacers are that team in the Eastern Conference.
Victor Oladipo returned from his ruptured quad in late January and was still re-integrating into the Pacers rotation when the season was suspended. Now, he'll have a fresh start and a mini training camp with his teammates.
As it stood, the Pacers were fifth in the East standings even though they were competing without their best player for much of the regular season. Due to their lack of star power, they tend to fly below the radar despite being consistently competitive every year.
With Domantas Sabonis breaking through for his first All-Star campaign and strong seasons from Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner, the Pacers have the depth to surprise some people and make a deep run.
The hype is all around Portland and the New Orleans Pelicans to catch the Grizzlies for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, but the Grizzlies are still in pole position and have a three-and-a-half-game lead over the Blazers for the No. 8 seed.
They weren't supposed to be here in the first place. Given their young team and first-time head coach (Taylor Jenkins), few predicted they'd be in the playoff mix. But thanks to Ja Morant looking like a future superstar and the blossoming of youngsters Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke, they've surprised everyone.
Why stop now?
Nobody is expecting Memphis to make a run to the Finals. Not with the team's inexperience.
But this is the exact kind of year and circumstance in which a No. 8 seed could shock a No. 1 seed, even one as loaded as the Lakers. Whether that means actually beating them and advancing to the second round or just making the series unexpectedly competitive, as the Clippers did with the Golden State Warriors in the first round last season, a Lakers-Grizzlies series may not be the blowout a No. 1 vs. No. 8 matchup usually is.