The Biggest Question Mark Surrounding Every NBA Team Still StandingJuly 10, 2020
The Biggest Question Mark Surrounding Every NBA Team Still Standing
With 22 teams beginning their trips to Orlando, Florida, for the resumption of the NBA season, far more questions surround franchises now than coming off a typical offseason.
It will have been roughly five months since players last played a regular-season game, with many not even having access to a court or hoop during initial quarantining.
We've seen some players like Nikola Jokic and Marc Gasol go through drastic physical transformations, while others such as Victor Oladipo, Bradley Beal and Spencer Dinwiddie won't participate in the restart because of injury/health concerns or continued positive tests for COVID-19.
For the teams coming back, these are the biggest questions each will face.
Boston Celtics: Can Jayson Tatum Be the Best Player on a Championship Team?
Jayson Tatum has taken the reins as the Boston Celtics' best player, and at 22, he won't give them up anytime soon.
Before the hiatus, the All-Star forward was averaging 30.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.0 blocks and was shooting 47.1 percent from three over his last 10 games. While Tatum has proved himself as the best player on a top-three team in the Eastern Conference, that's a big step away from leading a squad to a title.
LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Andre Iguodala are the only active players with Finals MVP awards, an elite group that features three of the NBA's best players.
Leonard, Tim Duncan and Magic Johnson were the three youngest Finals MVPs (all 23 or younger), so Tatum's age means the task will be difficult but not unprecedented.
Tatum has the skills to become one of the game's top players, but asking him to lead the Celtics to a championship this year may be too much.
Brooklyn Nets: What's the Point of Playing?
No team will be missing as many players as the Brooklyn Nets, who are already without Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (shoulder) and won't have Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and Taurean Prince (positive COVID-19 tests), Wilson Chandler (opting out over health concerns) and rookie Nic Claxton (shoulder surgery).
"We can accomplish as much as we want," Jarrett Allen said, per Brian Lewis of the New York Post. "Obviously we don't have damn near half of our team. [But] we can go out there and do what Brooklyn has been known to do when we've been faced with adversity: Play our hardest and play with a bunch of grit."
While the Nets will still have Allen, Caris LeVert and Joe Harris, a first-round sweep at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks or Toronto Raptors seems inevitable. With all that could go wrong, what's the motivation for Brooklyn to even play, given how many players are missing?
The focus was never on this season for the Nets, knowing that Durant would likely be rehabbing an Achilles injury until 2020-21. The only positive to come out of the playoff bubble would be some postseason experience for LeVert and Allen. Harris will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason and may not even return to Brooklyn in the fall.
This seems like a no-win situation for the Nets.
Dallas Mavericks: Can Kristaps Porzingis Pick Up Where He Left Off?
With all the attention on sophomore phenom Luka Doncic this season, the Dallas Mavericks almost certainly won't make it out of the first round without a strong performance from Kristaps Porzingis.
Porzingis was quietly playing his best basketball of the season since the end of January, averaging 25.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.3 blocks and shooting 46.5 percent overall in his last 15 games.
The postseason game plan for opposing teams will almost certainly be to double-team Doncic, getting the ball out of his hands and forcing the rest of the Mavericks to win games. While there are a lot of role players to like in Dallas, this means most of the responsibility will fall on Porzingis.
The 24-year-old power forward certainly looked ready before the NBA went on hiatus, but he's yet to play in a single playoff game and is in his fourth season. If the Mavericks remain the Western Conference's seventh seed, it'll likely mean a first-round meeting with Leonard, Paul George and the Los Angeles Clippers.
With as good as L.A. is on the wings and in the backcourt, the 7'3" Porzingis would have a huge size advantage over the Clippers' best post presence, 6'7" center Montrezl Harrell.
If the Mavericks even want to make it a competitive series against L.A., they'll need some huge games from their No. 2 option.
Denver Nuggets: Does Slimmer Mean Better for Nikola Jokic?
Denver Nuggets All-Star center Nikola Jokic has undergone two dramatic weight losses since the start of the season.
While beginning play in 2019 at 284 pounds, Jokic lost from 20 to 25 pounds during the regular season. Since the hiatus, the 25-year-old center has lost an additional 40 pounds, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst and Adrian Wojnarowski.
That would put his weight between 219 and 224 pounds, making the 7-footer suddenly look pretty light.
For someone who does a lot of his offensive work in the post, is this for the best?
One NBA scout told Bleacher Report's Leo Sepkowitz:
"I think his size is actually an advantage; his width allows him to create separation. Now if he's smaller—we're talking about along the margins, but with things like post position, offensively, it might be a slight disadvantage. I think defensively it could help, though. Because he's [in the past been] slow, and if he can move a tad quicker, it would help him hedging on pick-and-rolls. On defense, quickness is an asset. But I've always thought he used his size really well."
Jokic was already averaging 20.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game with his weight in the 264-284 range. His new physique should lead to better stamina and quicker feet on defense, but his offensive game could suffer.
Houston Rockets: Will Small Ball Work in the Playoffs?
The Houston Rockets didn't have much time to try out their new small-ball approach, but the early results were promising. Using 6'7" Robert Covington (acquired at the February trade deadline) as the primary center, the Rockets used a switch-all defense that created some extreme spacing on the offensive end for James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
In 164 minutes over 10 games, the five-man unit of Harden, Westbrook, Covington, Danuel House Jr. and P.J. Tucker have posted a terrific net rating of plus-10.7. With Eric Gordon swapped in for House Jr., the Rockets still have a net of plus-7.1 in 45 minutes.
The biggest concern with going small is getting bullied inside by bigger, stronger power forwards and centers. So far, it hasn't affected the team's defense, as the five-man lineups with House Jr. and Gordon have both posted defensive ratings of 100.6 or lower.
Putting shooters around a rested Harden and Westbrook should create an offense good enough to win a championship, and both guards are big and strong enough to switch onto opposing bigs.
One potential hole for the Rockets' switching defense could depend on who the fifth starter is, however. Teams in the playoffs typically seek out the weakest defender on a switch, using that matchup to set up the rest of their offensive possession. This means Houston may have to shorten its rotation and hope Harden remains locked in defensively throughout games.
Indiana Pacers: Is Victor Oladipo's Absence a Death Sentence?
Victor Oladipo returned to the Indiana Pacers on January 29 after missing a full year following a ruptured quad. After playing in 13 games, Oladipo has decided he'll skip the restart and focus on next season.
Oladipo told Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium:
"With all the variables, from how I have to build my 5-on-5 workload back up, to the increased risk of a soft tissue injury which could delay my rehab, and the unknown exact set up of the bubble, I just can't get my mind to being fully comfortable in playing. I have to be smart and this decision hasn't been easy, but I truly believe continuing on the course I'm on and getting fully healthy for the 2020-21 season is the right decision for me."
The Pacers are in the fifth seed in the East, tied with the sixth-seeded Philadelphia 76ers at 39-26.
Indiana was going to have a tough fight to even make it out of the first round with its best player in tow, especially with shooting guard Jeremy Lamb already out with a torn ACL. This puts even more pressure on Domantas Sabonis, T.J. Warren, Myles Turner, Malcolm Brogdon and the rest of the Pacers' rotation players.
Not all hope is lost, however. The team was an impressive 30-17 before Oladipo made his regular-season debut, and it was just 7-6 in his 13 games.
Making it out of the first round against a team like the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat or 76ers will be a difficult task, with or without Oladipo.
Los Angeles Clippers: Will Core's Lack of Time Together Matter?
The Los Angeles Clippers are second in the Western Conference with a 44-20 record and rank third in offense and fifth in defense.
Those are remarkable numbers, considering how little the Clippers' best players have shared the floor.
Because of various injuries, load management and a closing lineup that differs from the starting one, Leonard, George, Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Harrell have played just 56 minutes together all season.
Led by a suffocating 84.4 defensive rating, this five-man unit has posted a net rating of plus-14.0. While that would destroy most teams, it is an extremely small sample size after 64 games.
Adding in Marcus Morris Sr., Reggie Jackson and Joakim Noah late in the season means more time is necessary for everyone acclimate, which is a lot to ask, considering there will be just eight regular-season games before the playoffs begin.
The talent is there for a championship, but chemistry will matter as well.
Los Angeles Lakers: Is 2020 This Core's Best Chance at a Title?
The Los Angeles Lakers' championship window is closing faster than those of most other contenders, given LeBron James' age (35) and seven rotation players potentially hitting free agency this summer.
Anthony Davis will likely re-sign with the Lakers, but there's no guarantees until it happens. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo all have player options, and Dwight Howard, Markieff Morris, JR Smith and Dion Waiters will become unrestricted free agents.
The level of elite competition will go up next season as well when James turns 36.
The Golden State Warriors will get Klay Thompson back to go along with a healthy Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. The Nets could be a championship team with Durant and Irving at full strength as well.
Young contenders such as the Denver Nuggets, Dallas Mavericks, Utah Jazz, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers should all be better too.
Despite the strange conditions of playing inside a bubble with no fans or home-court advantage, this may be the Lakers' best chance at a title with James.
Memphis Grizzlies: Can They Keep the 8th Seed?
Forget worrying about what happens in the playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies need to make sure they get there first.
Sitting in the eighth seed in the West with a 32-33 record, Memphis is 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, with the San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns not yet eliminated.
If the Grizzlies finish the regular season with a four-game lead or more on the No. 9 seed, they'll automatically be in the playoffs. If the lead is less than four games, a playoff will be held between Memphis and whatever team is directly behind it. The Grizzlies would have to win just once to advance, while the ninth-seeded team would have to win twice.
The schedule opens with three teams (Blazers, Spurs, Pelicans) chasing them for the eighth seed, so getting out to a fast start is extremely important.
Playing the Milwaukee Bucks in the final game before the postseason may actually be a blessing for New Orleans. With a 6.5-game lead in the East and home-court advantage no longer a factor, the Bucks may end up resting most of their rotation players against Memphis.
With New Orleans featuring Zion Williamson for its postseason push and the Blazers seeing the return of a healthy Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, the Grizzlies will be in a real fight to keep their playoff spot.
Miami Heat: Are the Heat Good Enough to Be Title Contenders?
The Miami Heat have remained near the top of the Eastern Conference all season, but should they be considered a title contender?
At 41-24, Miami is fourth in the East, 12 games behind the Milwaukee Bucks. While this represents a significant gap, the Heat have gone 2-0 against the Bucks this season. Miami is also 7-1 against fellow East playoff teams like the Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors, with its biggest struggle coming against the Boston Celtics (0-2).
Jimmy Butler, 30, is in the prime of his career but carries a lot of mileage from seasons playing big minutes under Tom Thibodeau on the Chicago Bulls. Andre Iguodala, 36, is probably only a season or two away from retiring, but the rest of Miami's core is on a different timeline.
Winning now for Butler is important, but the Heat seem built to contend for a championship in a few years. Tyler Herro is 20, Bam Adebayo is 22, Kendrick Nunn is 24 and Duncan Robinson is 26. That group includes two rookies and two players in their first years as full-time starters.
Making it out of the first round is a must for this season to be considered a success, but even asking for a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals may be too much for this growing team.
Milwaukee Bucks: Is There a Death Lineup to Unleash?
The Milwaukee Bucks have been the best team in basketball all season, and their depth is a major reason.
The Bucks have 13 players averaging 14.4 minutes or more per game—a veteran-heavy group with a few rising stars thrown in. While almost any lineup featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton will be successful, figuring out the best lineup will come in handy the deeper Milwaukee makes it into the playoffs.
The Bucks' typical starting lineup of Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez and Wesley Matthews is posting a net rating of plus-19.1 in 408 minutes, a healthy sample size that suggests this could be the team's "death lineup."
As good as the five have been together, better combinations have emerged, albeit in fewer minutes.
Swapping out the 33-year-old Matthews for 23-year-old Donte DiVincenzo has resulted in a net rating of plus-22.0 in 40 minutes. Now with a floor-stretching big in Marvin Williams, the Bucks can experiment with lineups using the 6'11" Antetokounmpo at center and shooters all around him.
With not much else to play for in the eight remaining regular-season games, the Bucks should get creative.
New Orleans Pelicans: Is the Improved Defense Sustainable?
Among the reasons for the New Orleans Pelicans' dismal 6-22 start to the season was a Swiss cheese defense that was among the NBA's worst.
Before the All-Star break, New Orleans ranked 23rd in defensive rating (112.2) in 55 contests. In the nine games since, the Pelicans have jumped to seventh with a 108.0 rating.
Starting center Derrick Favors detailed what's gone right in their turnaround for Jim Eichenhofer of Pelicans.com:
"Guys got comfortable communicating with each other on the defensive end, building that trust on the backside. Guys like Jrue and Lonzo (Ball) did a great job of setting the tone early, coming out and guarding guys (on the perimeter). Jrue guarding the best guy on the (opposing) team. Guys just bought into the system and started developing trust, communication and just started playing harder and believing in that system. That's what helped turn it around."
As good as Williamson, Brandon Ingram and the rest of the Pelicans can be offensively, there's no chance of catching the Grizzlies for the eighth seed unless the defense sustains its vast improvement.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Feel-Good Story or Legit Contender?
The Oklahoma City Thunder weren't supposed to be this good.
A playoff spot seemed out of the question after the team traded three starters, and especially with second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander taking on leading-scorer duties.
Still, the Thunder have continued to impress behind a mix of veterans and youth, tied together by an incredible chemistry led by Chris Paul.
OKC began the season just 6-11 heading into late November. Since then, its 34-13 record is third-best in the NBA behind only the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers.
While some clutch performances from Paul and Co. have helped push the Thunder to 40-24, are they really a top-three team in the NBA?
OKC's net rating in its 34-13 run ranks seventh overall (plus-3.9), and the Thunder are 28th in assist percentage (53.5 percent), even with one of the best point guards of all time.
There's no denying OKC has been great, but those numbers indicate the team might not go as far as its recent record would imply.
Orlando Magic: Will Jonathan Isaac Return for Playoffs?
Don't count the Orlando Magic out of the 2020 playoffs just yet.
They sit in the eighth seed in the East, which means a playoff matchup with the Bucks is looming. Still, Orlando could catch a few breaks and make a first-round series interesting.
With the Nets missing nearly half their team, the Magic should easily make up the half-game on No. 7 Brooklyn in the standings. That's the difference between playing the Bucks or second-seeded Raptors in the first round, assuming Toronto holds on to a three-game lead over the Celtics.
While Toronto has the third-best record in the league at 46-18, it doesn't have Antetokounmpo. That factor alone should provide plenty of motivation for the Magic.
The team hasn't ruled out the return of forward Jonathan Isaac, either. The 22-year-old hasn't played since January 1 following a knee injury but is working out with the Magic and traveling to the bubble. Isaac is already Orlando's best defender and would go a long way toward slowing Raptors All-Star forward Pascal Siakam.
Orlando shocked Toronto by winning Game 1 in their first-round series last year and has a better, more developed group of talent this time, while Toronto no longer has Leonard.
If Isaac can play, the Magic could be a far more interesting team than most expected.
Philadelphia 76ers: How Will Ben Simmons Look and Be Used?
All-Star point guard Ben Simmons appears to have put the hiatus to good use, putting on muscle and rehabbing from a lower back injury suffered in early February.
Simmons told reporters July 2:
"Overall, just more strength. It's hard to keep that size on during the season so this was kind of like a resetting point. I was able to get Pilates in almost every day. Lifting weights, taking care of my body and getting back to 100 percent. I've just been trying to go overboard with that and being prepared to be down there and play."
While a more muscular frame should help him absorb contact on drives, his offensive role will be more interesting to follow.
Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown has expressed a desire to expand Simmons' offensive game, including moving him off the ball. While he's still not a willing three-point shooter (two-of-six this season), Simmons' 6'10" frame carries all sorts of possibilities on the other side of a pick-and-roll.
"I think I'm the type of player who can be in multiple positions and different spots to help the team. I feel like I have a very high IQ on the court and see things a lot differently. I'm able to pass the ball very well, so that's always a threat. But I love playing in that pick-and-roll, that situation — or pick-and-pop, whatever it is. It just gives us so many different options and it's tough to guard."
If the Sixers want to jump up the standings from sixth and win a playoff round or two, Simmons will be key.
Phoenix Suns: Will Suns' Performance Affect Devin Booker's Future?
At 23, Devin Booker is already wrapping up his fifth pro season. With 26.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 6.6 assists per game and a 48.7 percent shooting clip overall, it's also his best.
The Phoenix Suns have Booker locked into a contract that runs until 2024, meaning the only way he can leave is via trade.
If Phoenix continues to miss the playoffs, how long will Booker be content, though?
The New York Knicks are reportedly interested in trading for him, per Marc Berman of the New York Post, as the front office is being run by Booker's former agent, Leon Rose.
The best way to kill any trade talk is to win, which Phoenix will have to do a lot of to make up six games on the Grizzlies for the eighth seed in the West.
While the Suns will almost certainly miss the playoffs, how they perform over the next eight games is important. Even getting close to the postseason could encourage a new level of optimism from Booker this offseason and force the front office to bring in more veteran talent to put around him.
Portland Trail Blazers: Will Nurkic, Collins Be Enough to Make Playoffs?
While so much hype has surrounded Williamson and the Pelicans, it should be the Portland Trail Blazers the Grizzlies fear most.
In a battle for the eighth seed in the West, Jusuf Nurkic could become the biggest X-factor of all.
With apologies to CJ McCollum, Nurkic was arguably the second-best player on the Blazers last season as a 7'0" center who averaged 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.4 blocks per game. He's missed the entire season with a leg injury but is on track to play in the restart.
Collins played just three games this year before going down with a shoulder injury, but he brings floor-spacing and shot-blocking to the power forward position.
While both will be back, a significant amount of rust will need to be removed. Portland doesn't have much time, especially with five teams fighting for the last playoff spot in the West.
Sacramento Kings: What Role Will Buddy Hield Play?
The Sacramento Kings likely wouldn't even be participating in the NBA's restart had head coach Luke Walton not made the controversial decision to bench Buddy Hield, a move that resulted in a 13-7 record.
Hield is averaging 19.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists per game and is shooting 47.6 percent from three off the bench, a move that kick-started the Kings and gave restricted free-agent-to-be Bogdan Bogdanovic a starting job.
Is the bump in record worth potentially pushing Hield toward a trade request, or should Walton go back to the 27-year-old shooting guard as a starter next to De'Aaron Fox?
Figuring out an ideal lineup (one that could put Bogdanovic as the starting small forward and feature Hield at shooting guard), will be key for Sacramento, both while battling for the eighth seed and when considering how lucrative of an offer sheet the team might match for Bogdanovic this offseason.
With hopes to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2006 still alive, the Kings have a lot riding on the next eight games.
San Antonio Spurs: Is This the Official Start of the Rebuild?
After the San Antonio Spurs made the last 22 NBA postseasons, the end of that run seems near for one of the best franchises in modern American sports.
The Spurs are four games behind the Grizzlies for the No. 8 seed in the West and must also leapfrog the Trail Blazers, Pelicans and Kings. They'll also have to do so without arguably the team's best player, as LaMarcus Aldridge is still out following April shoulder surgery.
DeMar DeRozan can exercise his $27.7 million player option this offseason, and veterans Rudy Gay and Patty Mills have just one year left on their contracts.
A rebuild seems inevitable.
The Spurs do have some young talent with Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson and Luka Samanic, but not enough to start a new dynasty anytime soon.
Strong play by the young core could make DeRozan more likely to pick up his option for one more run, especially with LaMarcus Aldridge also under contract for next season. With the playoffs likely out of reach, the Spurs should make sure the young guys get plenty of touches over the next eight games.
Toronto Raptors: How Will the Bubble Affect the Offseason?
The defending champion Toronto Raptors will look to win a second straight title, and their play this postseason will set the blueprint for a potentially difficult offseason.
Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol will all become unrestricted free agents this fall, and franchise staple Kyle Lowry will have just one year left on his contract.
With a roster that revolves around Siakam, the Raptors will have to see if he's worthy of being a No. 1 playoff option or if the team should save money for an additional star in free agency of 2021.
If the Raptors do win another title, they should be more likely to pay VanVleet and at least one of Ibaka or Gasol, sacrificing future cap space to keep winning.
If Toronto drops out in the second round or Eastern Conference Finals, the priority could shift toward future cap space.
Utah Jazz: Will Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert Relationship Affect the Team?
The relationship between Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell didn't seem great before the COVID-19 pandemic, and isn't likely to improve anytime soon.
As ESPN's Tim MacMahon wrote, Gobert has griped that Mitchell hasn't passed the ball enough, and Mitchell admits: "You're not going to always get along or go out to eat and hang out with your teammates. So that's that."
It appears both sides don't see eye to eye, despite preaching a commitment toward winning. It may be little things for now, but members of the Jazz organization already seem concerned.
"If you take a paper towel and just drip water on it, the paper towel is going to get moist and then it's going to get damp and eventually it's going to break," a Jazz source told MacMahon. "Rudy has to pick his spots, and Donovan can't react to everything. Sometimes you have to play chess and appease your teammates."
This will be the first time since March that Gobert and Mitchell have been together since both tested positive for COVID-19, with Gobert's diagnosis precipitating the NBA shutdown.
Will a desire to compete for a title really trump everything else, or will moments of frustration continue to arise between the two stars?
Washington Wizards: Who Carries the Offense with No Bradley Beal?
Sitting 5.5 games behind the Orlando Magic for the final playoff spot in the East, the Washington Wizards were already long shots to even make the postseason.
Now with star guard Bradley Beal out with a right rotator cuff injury, how will the team generate offense?
With no Beal, the Wizards' leading scorer would be backup power forward Davis Bertans, but he too will miss the restart to preserve his health before he hits unrestricted free agency this offseason.
This leaves rookie power forward Rui Hachimura as the team's No. 1 returning scorer, at 13.4 points per game. Mo Wagner, Thomas Bryant, Troy Brown Jr. and Jerome Robinson, all players with three or fewer years in the league, will take on larger roles.
This will essentially serve as extra development time for the Wizards' young core, as no Beal or Bertans means no chance Washington makes the playoffs.