Biggest Winners and Losers from NBA's Schedule Release

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJune 27, 2020

Biggest Winners and Losers from NBA's Schedule Release

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    The NBA's regular season is officially scheduled to resume July 30.

    In a one-hour special on ESPN on Friday, the league revealed the eight reboot games for each of the 22 teams headed to Orlando, Florida.

    Generally speaking, no one has it easy between now and the playoffs. Eliminating the NBA's eight worst teams has made the slates naturally more difficult.

    But there are a handful of squads returning that are in better shape than others. Some have solid shots to improve seeding. One Western Conference team on the outside looking in could jump into the playoffs.

    As we continue to await the actual games, let's break down the new schedule's biggest winners and losers.   

Winner: New Orleans Pelicans

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    The New Orleans Pelicans are the only participating team whose opponents have a sub-.500 combined winning percentage.

    And for those who think the NBA is laying out a red carpet to the playoffs, think back to early March. When the 2019-20 season shut down, New Orleans had by far the league's easiest remaining schedule.

    There was clearly an effort on the schedule-makers' part to try to reflect how the season would've played out under normal circumstances. And fans should be cool with that.

    Understandably, plenty want the Memphis Grizzlies to secure that eighth spot in the West, but Zion Williamson is appointment viewing. Getting to watch him for more than eight games is going to make a lot of people happy.

    There may not be another player in NBA history who had quite as unusual a combination of size (6'6", 285 lbs) and athleticism. And when Zion is on the floor with fellow youngsters Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, the Pelicans play like juggernauts.

    When those three are in the game, New Orleans is plus-18.6 points per 100 possessions (100th percentile).

Loser: Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Pellies have the easiest remaining schedule of the NBA's 22 rebooting teams. The squad they're chasing, the Grizzlies, are tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for the fourth-hardest slate.

    Memphis can take some solace in a few facts.

    It has a 3.5-game lead in the standings over the Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings.

    The Grizz close their season against the Milwaukee Bucks, who pretty much have the East's top seed locked up. Who knows if Giannis Antetokounmpo or other Bucks starters will even be playing at that point?

    And finally, if Ja Morant and company do lose their hold on the eighth seed, they're not necessarily out. If they can stay in ninth and within four games of the final spot, they'll get a play-in game.

    Controlling your own destiny in a tournament situation isn't always all it's cracked up to be, but Memphis will surely appreciate the chance if it happens to be the team in ninth.      

Winner: Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Philadelphia 76ers have the second-easiest remaining slate. And while this isn't directly tied to the schedule release, the fact that Ben Simmons had time off to recover from a back injury is a silver lining.

    The Sixers, who are tied with the fifth-place Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference, are within striking distance of the Miami Heat. And they're set to play five straight games against sub-.500 teams after opening against Indiana.

    It's not unreasonable to think Philadelphia could begin the reboot with six straight wins. And that kind of momentum could be a problem heading into the postseason.

    In FiveThirtyEight's final preseason projection, the 76ers had the fourth-best chance at a title. And it wasn't hard to see why. In terms of raw talent—headlined by Simmons and Embiid and supplemented with Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson—Philly is tough to top.

    And if Al Horford is the new centerpiece of the second unit, Philadelphia could dominate reserve minutes too.

    This schedule is the perfect playoff primer for a team that might have to sort out a new rotation.    

Loser: Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Los Angeles Lakers are tied with the Grizzlies for the fourth-most difficult remaining schedule. And while their 5.5-game lead over the second-place Los Angeles Clippers is probably insurmountable in this truncated schedule, the tougher stretch isn't ideal for one of the league's older teams.

    L.A.'s first seven games are against teams over .500. The Lakers don't get a slight reprieve until they close out the regular-season slate against the Sacramento Kings (28-36). 

    Of course, given that nice cushion in the standings, the Lakers could play it safe with the minutes for stars like LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But that could make it more difficult for the team to find a rhythm before the postseason.

    This restart was going to be difficult—or, at the least, unique—no matter what. Facing almost exclusively playoff teams adds more potential complications.                 

Winner: Boston Celtics

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    The Pelicans and 76ers are the only teams returning to easier schedules than the Boston Celtics.

    And Boston, like New Orleans, has a chance to leverage that schedule into leapfrogging the team ahead of it.

    The Celtics are three games behind the second-place Toronto Raptors, who have the second-most difficult remaining schedule.

    And landing No. 2 in the East could be a big deal. Right now, the 3-6 matchup for the first round is Boston and Philadelphia. The 2-7 matchup is Toronto and a sub-.500 Brooklyn Nets squad that won't have Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant.

    Few things are a given in the NBA, but the C's over the Nets in this situation would come close.

    And Boston can charge into that 2-7 matchup with a four-game closing kick against the Raptors (a chance to make up a whole game in the standings), Orlando Magic, Grizzlies and Washington Wizards.      

Loser: Toronto Raptors

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    Toronto is on the other end of the spectrum, with the second-most difficult remaining schedule.

    The Raptors have to face the Lakers, Miami Heat, Magic, Celtics, Grizzlies, Bucks, 76ers and Nuggets.

    Their slate includes both conferences' top seeds, six teams over .500 and the fighting-for-their-playoff lives Grizzlies.

    And, as was explained in the Celtics section, a skid over these eight games could mean playing a team like the Heat, Pacers or Sixers instead of the Nets in the first round.

    On the bright side, the Raptors will have had nearly five months to heal after been rocked by poor health this season. No team has lost more win shares to injuries than the Raptors, according to Man-Games Lost.     

Winner: Dallas Mavericks

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    The Western Conference features five teams with between 40 to 43 wins. The seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks may be the furthest back of that bunch, but four of their eight games are against sub-.500 teams, including each of the last two.

    Of the other five teams in that cluster, the Utah Jazz are the only one with four games against opponents with losing records. They have their own problems, though, with Bojan Bogdanovic out for the rest of the season because of wrist surgery.

    All of this is to say there's a path for Dallas to move up in the standings ahead of the postseason. In the West, though, who knows how helpful that is.

    Outside of the Lakers and whomever they face, first-round matchups in that conference will be borderline impossible to predict. That side of the bracket is as loaded as ever.

    There's nothing wrong with finding a groove on the way into the playoffs, though. And if Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis can reignite their on-court spark against softer competition, Dallas is going to be trouble in the postseason.      

Loser: Other Teams Chasing 8th

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    This reboot format is primed for chaos.

    In the East, the Washington Wizards are 5.5 games back of eighth place. All they have to do is get to within four to force a play-in game.

    Out West, the Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns are all within six games of one another.

    The play-in game isn't far off for any of them, but it's tough to imagine the Pelicans not being involved. Their schedule and depth (when healthy) make them a solid pick to join the postseason. 

    While everyone will be living in luxury resorts and the league's campus will be outfitted with food service, barbers and more, it wouldn't be surprising if the thought of leaving their families just to be ousted a couple of weeks later is in back of plenty of players' minds.                   

Winner: Basketball Fans

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    These are strange times. NBA regular-season games are about to be played in a "bubble" without fans.

    Those who enjoy watching games in person won't have the opportunity in a season that was one of the most anticipated in recent memory.

    But the league's alternative should excite everyone. There are up to seven games per day, with tipoff times ranging from 12:30 to 9 p.m. ET.

    In a year mostly devoid of sports, the NBA is about to give us a March Madness-like atmosphere. Almost every game will matter. MVP and Rookie of the Year debates will heat up. Playoff matchups won't be burdened by travel.

    Obviously, this isn't an ideal situation, but the silver linings are bright.