2020 NBA Playoffs: Every Team's Top Realistic Outcome in Orlando

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 28, 2020

2020 NBA Playoffs: Every Team's Top Realistic Outcome in Orlando

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    NBA basketball is back.

    Or, at least it will be in late July when the 2019-20 season resumes in the Orlando, Florida, bubble with 22 teams competing for playoff position, and then, a title.

    Which of those 22 franchises might plausibly collect a ring, and which will half-heartedly bow out following eight games of perfunctory play? We've gone long enough without the league that a prebubble reassessment of each club's ceiling feels necessary.

    Based on performance up to the March 11 stoppage and any intervening factors—from positive COVID-19 tests to recoveries from injury—we'll separate teams into tiers based on their top realistic ceilings in Orlando.

Potential Champs

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    Los Angeles Clippers

    In Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Marcus Morris Sr., the Los Angeles Clippers have more slower-downers (stoppers don't exist) for LeBron James than any other team. When you've got to go through the Los Angeles Lakers to reach the Finals, that's no small thing.

    Leonard proved last postseason he could carry a team to a ring, and he's as well-equipped to do that with these Clips as he was with those Toronto Raptors.

    The Clippers should have concern about Leonard's ability to hold up under a somewhat condensed schedule after a long layoff, and they'll also have to face the possibility of sitting Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell in key closing moments (if Williams decides to play).

    Forever the Lakers' little brother, the "other" L.A. team has loads of depth to power it through the early rounds and will enjoy the bonus of not playing potential "home games" against the Lakers in a Staples Center covered in 90 percent Purple and Gold.


    Los Angeles Lakers

    Considering the gravity and duration of subsequent world events, the Lakers' eye-opening wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers on March 6 and 8, respectively, feel like they happened ages ago. But really, those were two of the last three games L.A. played, so those victories deserve as much weight as we can give them.

    It's a good look for a team to down its top two threats in the same weekend. We should assume the Lakers will hit the bubble with as much confidence and firepower as anyone.

    The Lakers are the West's best team by point differential and record, and though there's no way to measure this, James has the most motivation to attack the restart full bore. The season stoppage was a reminder—to viewers and James himself—that nothing's promised. As he moves into his late 30s, James must understand he's running short on prime years and title shots.

    Led by James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers are long on star power and seem perfectly built for the slower pace and increased physicality of playoff ball. They prefer to play big, they limit opponent success at the rim and they will never struggle to create a quality look under pressure with James running the show.

    Avery Bradley's decision to skip the trip may seem like a blow, considering he was a regular starter. But the Lakers still have Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to throw at opposing guards, and we should expect potential substitute signings to put L.A. first on their lists.


    Milwaukee Bucks

    The Bucks destroyed the league before the stoppage, posting a plus-10.7 net rating that was 3.6 points clear of the second-place Lakers. Fueled by a defense that has a case as the best ever, Milwaukee hits the bubble with fewer variables to consider or strategic tweaks to make than anyone else.

    The Bucks are a system team on both ends; they know exactly how they want to play, and they know it works. That's a real asset coming off a long break, as there won't be any need for scheme refreshers before the real playoff action starts.

    We saw some evidence in last year's playoffs that the Bucks' inflexibility, while reliable most of the time, rendered them "solvable" in series that give sharp coaches more time to prepare. Until Milwaukee proves it can win four times in seven tries against top competition by spacing the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo's drives on offense and sinking everyone into the lane on defense, it'll be fair to harbor nagging doubts.

    Remember, the Bucks failed to reach the Finals last year after entering the playoffs with the top net rating and best defense.

    That said, Milwaukee should have learned from last season's failures. Add to that its possession of the likely two-time MVP and the franchisewide drive to keep him happy (and in town) by winning a ring, and there's no scenario in which it'd be a surprise if the Bucks were the last team standing.


    Toronto Raptors

    Some might see the Raptors' inclusion here as one of those "which one of these doesn't belong?" exercises, but rest assured Toronto earned its place in this elite tier.

    The Raptors are the defending champs, a team that actually improved its winning percentage and net rating after losing Leonard and Green in the offseason. Pascal Siakam's ascent, Kyle Lowry's status as one of the smartest, most competitive point guards in the league, Serge Ibaka's renaissance campaign and OG Anunoby's quiet rise into the league's upper echelon of one-on-one shutdown defenders give the Raptors a legitimate shot to repeat.

    Head coach Nick Nurse proved his mettle as the game's top strategic coach last postseason, cracking the Bucks' code and then deploying a box-and-one, basically unheard of at the professional level, to smother Stephen Curry and the Warriors in the Finals.

    We should assume the Raptors will again dictate the terms of engagement in every series, hitting opponents with tactical tweaks and surprising looks that, based on recent history, have a great chance of working.

    Much depends on Siakam, who'll be primarily responsible for filling the superstar void left by Leonard's departure. The 26-year-old forward leapt to All-NBA levels this season, adding off-the-bounce threes, upping his assist rate and cutting his turnover rate while taking on the high-usage role of a superstar. He's ready for the challenge, and he'll have loads of battle-tested help (we haven't even mentioned Marc Gasol or Fred VanVleet yet) at his side.

Conference Finalists

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    Boston Celtics

    Can it be as simple as saying the Boston Celtics aren't quite ready for prime time?

    That might seem like a risky conclusion, as an even younger and less star-studded Celtics team came within a win of the Finals two years ago. Jayson Tatum turned into a superstar in February, Jaylen Brown looks like a guy who'll make a half-dozen All-Star teams before he's done and Boston entered the hiatus ranked in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency—the marker of a viable championship threat.

    Kemba Walker's troublesome knee is a concern, though, and Daniel Theis may not be able to keep thriving as a 6'8" defensive centerpiece against bulkier postseason foes.

    There's absolutely a scenario in which Tatum and Brown (whose hamstring injury should be behind him) announce their arrival as top-tier stars with an improbable run through Milwaukee, Toronto and the rest of the East. But the likelier outcome is a deep run that sees the Celtics fall short of the true contenders.


    Dallas Mavericks

    If you're a subscriber to the notion that clutch play during the regular season rarely means much in the playoffs, the Dallas Mavericks clearly belong here. Though they own the league's No. 6 net rating (plus-5.8), they're just 13th in winning percentage—all because they rank 27th in clutch net rating.

    Maybe that abysmal close-and-late performance has connections to Luka Doncic's wearing down over the course of a game spent dominating the ball. Or maybe there's something in Dallas' offense that just stops working when opponents tighten the screws down the stretch.

    Or...maybe this is all a case of bad luck, and we should ignore small samples and focus instead on the metrics that say the Mavs are as good as anyone in the West outside the two Los Angeles juggernauts.

    Doncic should be recovered from wrist, hand and ankle injuries that dogged him this year, and Kristaps Porzingis has a career-long habit of starting hot before fading. If he's in peak form following several months off and comes out of the gates like he did in the early months of his pre-ACL-injury seasons, the Mavs will enter the bubble with a one-two punch few teams can match.

    If you're on the hunt for a dark horse, start with the Mavericks, whose brilliance this year doesn't show up in their win-loss record.


    Denver Nuggets

    Seeded third in the West and boasting a funhouse-mirror version (the slimmed, stretched-vertically kind) of Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets might seem like a team that deserved a spot in the previous tier. 

    For a few reasons, the conference finals feel like the more realistic ceiling.

    First, it's impossible to know how effective a skinnier Jokic will be following his recovery from COVID-19. Maybe he won't suffer any lasting effects once the league resumes play, but we're in uncharted territory with him and several other players who've tested positive in recent days.

    Second, Denver is losing one of the league's best home-court advantages. The Nuggets were 25-8 at home and 18-14 on the road before the stoppage. Among the top eight teams in the West, only the Memphis Grizzlies had a harder time winning outside their own arena.

    Finally, the Nuggets aren't elite on either end, and they looked particularly out of sorts after the All-Star break, going 5-5 with a minus-1.5 net rating. They're balanced, which is nice, ranking ninth on offense and 12th on D for the year. And when they need a clutch bucket, they know Jokic can provide it, as he's reliably done all year. But what about when the Nugs need to string together a handful of game-sealing stops, particularly against big wings they lack the personnel to handle? Do we really trust them to get it done?

    It's not a knock to say Denver belongs a notch below the league's exclusive set of ring threats, and reaching the conference finals would still represent progress for a team that won a playoff round last year for the first time since 2009.


    Houston Rockets

    You've got to believe the Houston Rockets led the league in time spent gaming out the best way to exploit the unusual conditions we'll see in Orlando. We already know they've got the guts to scrap centers entirely (which met with mixed results before the hiatus), and the Rockets have long been on the forefront of trusting the math.

    Maybe Houston won't approach the final eight regular-season games and playoffs any differently than it otherwise would have, but don't be surprised if it embraces a high-variance style that gives it the best shot to advance this deep. Basically, if anyone's going to get a little weird, it'll be the Rockets.

    What might that look like? Maybe even more deep shots from the squad that led the league with a 48.8 percent three-point attempt rate. Or an even greater emphasis on isolation ball, effectively abandoning any sets that don't start and end with James Harden predatorily pounding that low dribble, alone at the top of the arc. Considering one of the main reasons for the Rockets' recent playoff failures was the wearing down of Harden, the time off might disproportionately benefit him and his team.

    While it's possible Houston could hit the West with a norm-shattering style, the team is still too small and too dependent on one player to reach the Finals. The Lakers have the interior D and rebounding to destroy undersized lineups, and the Clippers' cadre of big wings will prevent Harden from getting into a groove.


    Philadelphia 76ers

    There's not much of a statistical argument for including the Philadelphia 76ers here.

    Sure, Ben Simmons' back healed, and Joel Embiid has demonstrated before that he can control a playoff series. Conventional big men may be out of favor generally, but Embiid is a separate class of dominant when he's in shape.

    So...does anyone want to bank on his being in top condition after several months off? Not seeing any raised hands. Let's continue to what might be the clearest sign Philly is in for a short postseason stay: its extreme home-road splits.

    The Sixers went 29-2 at home but just 10-24 on the road. No team will be hurt more by a neutral site than Philadelphia.

    Why, then, are the Sixers here? Top-end talent matters most in playoff series, and they've got a lot of it. Embiid, if in shape, should dominate. Maybe Al Horford will look like the 2018-19 version of himself after a long rest. Simmons' five-position defense can't be overlooked. And hey, Philly was a Leonard dagger away from overtime in Game 7 of the conference semifinals last year.

    It's not that great of a stretch to say it can advance a step beyond that with better luck.

1st-Round Winners, but No Further

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    Indiana Pacers

    Malcolm Brogdon's positive test for COVID-19 makes it difficult to forecast the Indiana Pacers' performance, as does Victor Oladipo's uncertain status.

    If we presume full health and a complete roster, Indy could easily climb to fourth in the East, earn "home-court advantage" and bounce either the Miami Heat or 76ers to advance beyond the first round.

    That'll be it, though.

    The conference semis will almost certainly pit the Pacers against the Bucks or Raptors, and although Indiana's defense, ranked seventh ahead of the restart, is sturdy enough to make things interesting against most opponents, there's not enough scoring punch on this roster. Indy went 7-3 after the All-Star break but ranked dead last in offensive efficiency during that span. Oladipo played six of those games, and Brogdon played seven.

    We cannot assume the two of them, fully healthy, will vault Indy's mid-range-happy offense anywhere near the top 10. If one or both is diminished or sits out entirely, it'll be a miracle for the Pacers to advance past the first round. We're talking ceilings, though, and this is where Indiana peaks.


    Miami Heat

    The Heat could lean hard on their zone defense to muck up a series and advance. Derrick Jones Jr. is the key to those looks, though, and his positive COVID-19 test injects uncertainty. Supposing Miami has all hands on deck, the best it can hope for is an exit before the conference finals.

    In Bam Adebayo, the Heat have a versatile weapon on D and a facilitating big who'll tax opposing matchups by pulling them further out from the bucket than they'd prefer. If Miami draws Philadelphia in the first round, perhaps it could wear down a deconditioned Embiid enough to swing an upset. 

    The Heat have plenty of shooting, ranking first in the league in three-point percentage and eighth in attempt frequency, but Jimmy Butler's struggles from deep will pose a problem. He's at an ugly 24.8 percent on treys this season, the continuation of a four-year trend that has seen his accuracy and attempt rates decline. He's compensated by becoming a premier foul-drawing force this season, but can the Heat really depend on their go-to scorer to continue to bait opponents and officials so effectively in the playoffs?

    Miami will play hard, and every team Erik Spoelstra has ever coached shows up prepared. But, like the Pacers, moving beyond the first round will mean a date with a true title contender. That's a little over this roster's head.


    Oklahoma City Thunder

    If the Mavs are a dark horse because their bad clutch luck has dragged down their overall record, the Oklahoma City Thunder are the reverse: a paper tiger propped up by unsustainable good fortune late in games.

    OKC went a league-best 29-13 in contests that featured a margin of five points or fewer in the final five minutes, racking up a ridiculous plus-30.2 clutch net rating. Based on their overall point differential, the Thunder should have hit the hiatus with 3.4 fewer wins than they had. 

    Chris Paul gets a bad rap as a player who disappoints in the postseason (his career regular-season PER is 25.1; it's 24.5 in the playoffs). But he was primarily responsible for Oklahoma City's clutch success this year, piling up a league-high 146 total points on 53.5 percent shooting. If we're going to look skeptically at the Thunder for their clutch-based inflated record, we have to apply the same gaze to CP3.

    At 35, can we really expect him to keep saving OKC in close contests?

    The Thunder are a veteran-led team with enough supporting youth (led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) to get frisky. But it's hard to trust their three-point-guard lineup against playoff defenses, and that clutch luck has to run out eventually.


    Utah Jazz

    The Utah Jazz don't have the personnel to replace what they've lost in Bojan Bogdanovic.

    The 31-year-old forward, who was second on the team with 20.2 points per game and easily its most dangerous high-volume three-point threat, is out for the year following wrist surgery. Utah's best option is starting both Joe Ingles and Royce O'Neale alongside Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, but that quintet will be undersized and short on scoring.

    The Nos. 3 through 7 spots in the West could change significantly during the eight-game run-up to the playoffs, and though Utah should have a good shot to beat whichever first-round matchup presents itself, Bogdanovic's absence and the potential for lingering discontent between Mitchell and Gobert don't offer much reason to hope for a run to the conference finals.

    Even if the team's two best players claim to have reached an accord, playoff intensity sometimes has a way of forcing buried tensions back to the surface.

Playoff Participants

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    Brooklyn Nets

    No Kyrie Irving and no Kevin Durant means we can comfortably slap a first-round-exit label on the Brooklyn Nets and call it a day. Essentially locked into one of the last two playoff spots in the East, Brooklyn will get either Milwaukee or Toronto in the first round.

    Peace out, Nets.

    The Washington Wizards, five-and-a-half games out of the eighth spot (and, therefore, one-and-a-half games shy of earning a play-in berth against whoever finishes eighth), don't look particularly overmatched against this version of the Nets. It's possible Brooklyn doesn't even make the playoffs. 

    The Nets' over/under on postseason wins should be 0.5, and we should all bet the under.


    Memphis Grizzlies

    Barring a shock, the Memphis Grizzlies are at least going to be the eighth seed in the play-in scenario that pits them against whoever finishes ninth. There's also a good chance Memphis will outplay the West teams trailing it by between three-and-a-half and six games, negating the need for that extra miniseries entirely.

    With virtually no chance to catch the seventh-seeded Mavs, the Grizzlies will see the Lakers in the first round. Ja Morant's rookie season was sensational, and Jaren Jackson Jr. looks like a future star. But those two aren't ready to lead a team to victory against James, Davis and a host of veterans stalking a title.


    New Orleans Pelicans

    The buzz surrounding Zion Williams is mounting, and the New Orleans Pelicans hit the hiatus having won 11 of their last 18 games.

    The five-man unit of Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, Williamson and Derrick Favors has only logged 511 non-garbage-time possessions together this season, but that group's plus-26.3 net rating is absurdly high. A number like that means we shouldn't view New Orleans as the 28-36 outfit that its full-season record says it is.

    With a healthy group and Williamson raring to go, the Pels seem likely to maintain or shrink the three-and-a-half game distance between themselves and the Grizzlies.

    The higher seed in the play-in pairing owns the massive advantage of only having to win once, but don't be surprised if New Orleans, far more dangerous than its overall statistical profile suggests, takes two from Memphis and steals the eighth seed...which it might have secured without the stoppage, in light of its comparatively soft closing schedule.

    In some ways, a Pels playoff appearance would feel like a just result. Unless you're from Memphis, in which case it'd be a travesty.

    Either way, the Pelicans can't beat the Lakers in a series. So their ride, as entertaining as it figures to be, ends here.


    Orlando Magic

    If there's any advantage to playing close to home in the bubble setup, the Orlando Magic will have it. Don't expect that edge to mean much, as the Magic enter the affair with the worst offensive rating out of any of the 22 teams present.

    Even worse, the Magic were just 5-26 against teams at or above .500 before the shutdown. That's also the worst winning percentage of any squad that'll make its way to Orlando. A team that ran up 25 of its 30 wins against losing opponents can't be taken seriously in a situation where the franchises with the worst eight records in the NBA aren't around.

    We could see some surprises brought about by the unusual circumstances and long layoff that preceded the season's resumption, but an Orlando upset of either Milwaukee or Toronto in the first round is a bridge too far.


    Portland Trail Blazers

    The Portland Trail Blazers won't have Trevor Ariza in Orlando, but they'll get Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back in the fold. That's a value-add on balance, and much like we can't view the Pelicans as the team they were for most of the 2019-20 season, we should also look with fresh eyes on a very different Blazers squad.

    Nurkic, over 15 months removed from last year's broken leg, was a key to a 2018-19 Portland offense that ranked third in the league and pushed the team to the conference finals. Collins, back from November shoulder surgery, adds stretch, rim-protection and athleticism to the frontcourt.

    On paper, the Blazers have the best combination of star power and experience outside the top eight in the West, and you'd be hard-pressed to argue Memphis is more dangerous than Damian Lillard and his rejuvenated pals.

    Again, though, reaching the playoffs means tangling with the Lakers in the first round. Dame and CJ McCollum could give L.A.'s hulking lineup some trouble above the arc with repeated high-pick-and-roll action, but it's not fair to expect more than a single win in a series.


    Sacramento Kings

    The Sacramento Kings were hit hard by news three of their players—Buddy Hield, Alex Len and Jabari Parker—tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week. We'll hope for (and assume) full recoveries before the restart, but even with everyone ready to roll, Sacramento doesn't look as formidable as New Orleans or Portland among teams chasing the Grizzlies.

    Yes, the Kings were 7-3 after the All-Star break. And yes, De'Aaron Fox was quietly settling into consistent game-changing stardom after struggling with injuries early in the year. But, Sacramento likely won't get into the playoffs, and even if it does: Lakers.

What Are We Even Doing Here?

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    Phoenix Suns

    As measured by proximity to actual playoff position, the Phoenix Suns, six games out of the eighth spot in the West, are the least deserving of entrance into the bubble.

    Phoenix is a combined 7-10 against Memphis, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio and Portland. Not bad, but certainly not an indicator the Suns can outplay all of those teams by the enormous margin it'd take to crawl into the ninth spot (and get within four games of Memphis) to force a playoff.

    Kelly Oubre Jr. won't play while he continues rehabbing a torn meniscus, and the Suns are far enough back that a loss or two in their first couple of games will probably push them right to the edge of mathematical elimination. Expect Phoenix to approach its time in Orlando with the competitive seriousness of summer league—which makes sense.

    Phoenix is young and, because of Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, has more reason to stay future-focused than most teams in Orlando. It doesn't have a lot to gain by advancing to the playoffs, which almost certainly won't be possible anyway.


    San Antonio Spurs

    With LaMarcus Aldridge out following shoulder surgery in early June, the San Antonio Spurs are another club with no realistic shot to play more than eight games in Orlando.

    Though both LMA and DeMar DeRozan figure to return next season, the Spurs have reason to focus on a rebuild. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Jakob Poeltl and Lonnie Walker IV could benefit from reps of all kinds, so there might be added value in the action they'll get against mostly quality teams with something to play for in the bubble.

    Aside from a little taste of playoff-ish competition, San Antonio has no reason to take the restart too seriously.

    When you've made the postseason 22 times in a row, you're entitled to a break. For the first time in since 1997, the Spurs will get one.


    Washington Wizards

    The Washington Wizards have the worst defense in the league this year (though, in fairness, they improved in the weeks before the shutdown) and only managed their grisly 24-40 record by scoring at a clip that ranked 13th

    But Bradley Beal can only do so much. He already carried an impossibly heavy load this year, averaging 30.5 points per game with a career-high 34.4 percent usage rate that ranked fifth in the league. Davis Bertans won't play in Orlando, wisely opting to prioritize health ahead of unrestricted free agency. Take him away, and the burden on Beal becomes crushing.

    Washington averaged 106.2 points per 100 possessions in the minutes Beal played without Bertans, 15.5 points worse than when the two shared the floor. We know the Wizards won't stop anybody, and the evidence suggests they also won't score without their floor-stretching No. 2 option.

    The Wizards will play eight games and head home.


    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com and Cleaning the Glass.