10 Bold Predictions for NBA's Regular-Season Conclusion

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 17, 2020

10 Bold Predictions for NBA's Regular-Season Conclusion

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The sheer novelty of the NBA bubble makes almost any prediction about the regular season's conclusion a crapshoot. Whatever baselines you'd normally use for forecasting the results of this unique 22-team, neutral-ground experiment are basically useless.

    Oh, the Brooklyn Nets were on a three-game winning streak prior to the shutdown? Cool, but what does that mean set against a backdrop defined by teams' widely varying motivation levels, non-basketball concerns, dramatically altered rosters and the uncertain effects of months-long isolation?

    Tepid-Disney-hotel-water-glass-half-full: All this unpredictability might up the odds that some of these bold predictions come true.

    What qualifies as bold? For starters, the predicted outcome can't be likely to happen. Only three or four of these, at most, should turn out to be right. Otherwise, were they really that bold?

    They can't be entirely without justification, either. To the extent possible, we'll keep these from being completely off-the-wall and offer some statistical or anecdotal support. Wherever the line is between unfounded gut feeling and "if you squint, that looks like evidence," we want to be on it.

    Finally, we're not going to touch the topics of player health or whether the regular season will successfully conclude. This is supposed to be fun, so we'll stick to basketball as much as possible.

The Raptors Will Emerge as Title Favorites

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    My favorite big-picture bold prediction is that the Toronto Raptors will repeat as champs. But since we're only focused on the eight-game run-up to the playoffs, I'll just amend this to say Toronto will emerge from the eight-game slate with an elevated profile, one that says it belongs with the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks in the "serious shot to win it all" club.

    This is a Raps team that finished tied for third with the Clippers in net rating despite a raft of injuries that kept the likely playoff rotation at least a player or two short of full strength all year. Kyle Lowry missed a dozen games, Fred VanVleet sat out 16, and Pascal Siakam was sidelined for 11. Marc Gasol (28), Serge Ibaka (14) and Norman Powell (20) also missed plenty of games.

    Toronto's likely starting five—Lowry, VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Siakam and Gasol—played together in only 17 contests, posting a plus-11.7 net rating when sharing the floor.

    Head coach Nick Nurse, for my money, is the best tactician in the league. Now equipped with a full set of lineup options and months to mull over different looks, he's going to run strategic circles around everyone in Orlando.

    Anunoby and Siakam are perfect weapons against high-end opposing wing scorers, Lowry and VanVleet are verified big-game standouts, and Gasol is a genius—still probably the best in the league at guarding Joel Embiid on the block.

    Does it matter that the Raptors were the first team to reach Orlando and therefore might also have some kind of comfort advantage over the other 21 teams? It can't hurt.

    This is an already excellent team with championship experience that, with better health and time to prepare, will hit a new level. Get on the bandwagon now.

Boston's Other Star Wing Shines Brightest

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Remember when Jayson Tatum broke out in the 2018 playoffs, leading the short-handed Boston Celtics to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals?

    Everyone seems to forget that Jaylen Brown was just as good in that improbable run, averaging 18.0 points to Tatum's 18.5 while out-rebounding his teammate and posting a higher usage rate with a 56.3 true shooting percentage that was just a hair lower than Tatum's 57.8.

    The bet here is that Brown does even better than that and actually outperforms his higher-profile teammate over the final eight games leading into the postseason.

    Tatum's ascent to superstardom effectively began after he was named to the All-Star team. He ratcheted up his three-point shooting off the dribble, displayed advanced craft attacking the basket and generally morphed into exactly the kind of get-your-own-shot superstar wing around which championship-caliber teams are built.

    But his shooting spike, which saw him hit 48.7 percent of the 6.3 pull-up threes he attempted per game in February, is simply unsustainable. Nobody's that good.

    Damian Lillard was the best pull-up three-point shooter in the league this year (among guys who attempted at least 4.0 per game), and he shot 40.1 percent.

    That's not to say Tatum is going to be some massive disappointment. He's still on the short list of young franchise cornerstones. But considering the extreme defensive attention he's going to get as a result of the "he's a megastar now" narrative, Brown, who made his own leap this season, will be in prime position to capitalize.

    At 20.4 points per game with career highs in true shooting percentage (58.9) and usage rage (24.7), Brown doesn't need the advantage of being second or third (depending on Kemba Walker's health) on the opposing scouting report. But he's going to get it anyway.

    Brown is going to blow everyone away with defense, athleticism and breakout scoring in the restart.

Zion Powers the Pelicans to the Playoffs

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Pelicans only have a 42 percent chance of making the play-in between the eighth and ninth seeds in the West, according to simulations run by ESPN's Kevin Pelton.

    They're going to do more than just buck the odds to make the play-in. They're going to emerge from it as the West's eighth seed. That'll mean winning two straight against the Memphis Grizzlies, the team almost statistically locked into the eighth spot.

    New Orleans was just 5-5 in its last 10 games prior to the shutdown. Much of the buzz surrounding its playoff chances was based on a schedule that looked markedly easier than Memphis' and the time (18 games) necessary to capitalize on it. That latter advantage is gone now.

    The other hype-generator, though, was Zion Williamson.

    He's the real reason the Pels are going to pull off this unlikely feat. And yes, this prediction is roughly 10 times bolder than it'd otherwise be because Williamson left the bubble Thursday to attend to a family medical matter and was suffering leg cramps prior to that.

    Williamson, immediately upon arrival, was a force. He averaged 20.9 points per 36 minutes in the paint over his 19 games, a rate that would have led the league over a full season. Now, with over four months to improve his conditioning and further recover from the torn meniscus that shelved him for most of the regular season, he's only going to be more physically dominant. And that's saying something.

    What's the scheme to counter a player who can't be denied deep position under the offensive boards, who can't be slowed in the open floor and who overwhelmed veteran NBA athletes while playing his first professional minutes at far less than full strength? Do you triple-team him away from the ball, basically boxing him out the entire possession, hoping to keep him off the glass? Do you face-guard him to prevent his cuts and dives to the rim?

    Zion already looks the part of an indomitable supervillain. The fire rises, and Memphis is going to be found in the wreckage.

Somebody Goes 0-8

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    We can all agree there are too many teams in the restart, and that was clear before so many players opted out of the bubble entirely, mostly weakening clubs that already faced long odds to make the playoffs.

    Now, with the Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards leading a list of starless skeleton crews, the chances of at least one team going 0-8 have only increased.

    Imagine if the Phoenix Suns lose to the Wizards while the Grizzlies take down the Portland Trail Blazers on July 31, the second day of game action. That'd put the Suns seven games back of the eighth spot with seven games to play. Sure, they could console themselves by knowing they only have to be in ninth and within four games of eighth to force a play-in.

    But practically speaking, the Suns could be on the brink of mathematical elimination just over 24 hours into the restart. Under those circumstances, it's not just likely they would shut it down; it would be the smart move.

    Why risk Devin Booker's and Deandre Ayton's health with (almost literally) nothing to play for? Even at full strength, the Suns are overmatched. Without those two, Mikal Bridges and anyone else on whom Phoenix's future relies? Forget it. 

    The same logic applies to several other squads—looking at you, Wizards, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs. Already needing near miracles to survive, an early loss or two would remove incentives for long shots to keep trying.

    Somebody's going to stumble early, pack it in and treat the rest of the bubble experience like a glorified summer league. That'll produce a winless team. Maybe two.

Russell Westbrook Will Outperform James Harden

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    Michael Wyke/Associated Press

    This one's a little like the "Jaylen Brown outplays Jayson Tatum" prediction, but it's even bolder because of the logic suggesting James Harden should benefit from the four-month layoff.

    The Beard has a reputation for breaking down as games, minutes and shots mount. Over the last four regular seasons, Harden's true shooting percentage has hovered between 61.3 and 61.9 percent, but his best playoff efficiency rate in that span is 58.3 percent. His last four regular-season box plus/minus figures range from 8.7 to 11.0. In the accompanying playoffs, he has a low of 7.0 and a high of 8.8.

    There are several explanations—superior competition, referees less inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt on 50-50 calls, more time to scout his tendencies and tailor specific anti-Beard game plans—but fatigue has obviously been a key factor. Shouldn't Harden, then, be in better form and more poised to dominate than ever?

    Not according to this bold prediction.

    Russell Westbrook went on a tear over the last few weeks of the pre-shutdown season, thriving in a five-out lineup, holstering ill-advised threes, getting to the rim, cutting hard and generally playing to his strengths. He shot 53.4 percent from the field after the All-Star break, a major upgrade from the 46.3 percent he shot before it.

    Houston's centerless strategy won't change, and we should also assume Harden will continue to get the lion's share of defensive attention. The same opportunities Westbrook exploited to great effect prior to the shutdown will still be there.

    He revealed Monday that he tested positive for COVID-19, but he said he was feeling well. He'll feel even better when he's leading the Rockets in scoring during the restart.

The Mavericks Will Finish with a Higher Playoff Seed Than the Nuggets

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    Brandon Wade/Associated Press

    The Dallas Mavericks will begin play on the Disney campus four games behind the Denver Nuggets. That's a lot of ground to make up in eight games.

    Dallas is better than its 40-27 record, though, sporting the best offense in the league and a point differential that says it should be more like 45-22. Rotten luck in the clutch, which is most likely the product of a small sample size and isn't predictive of future performance, is the main culprit behind Dallas' relatively underwhelming win-loss performance.

    In addition, Luka Doncic's nagging hand, wrist and ankle injuries should be healed. That's really bad news for opponents.

    The Mavs are primed to ascend.

    Denver, meanwhile, was in a nosedive prior to the shutdown. A 5-5 record in its last 10 games and a minus-1.5 net rating after the All-Star break were the results of a collapsing defense and an offense that, while not the main problem, was hardly a solution, either. And while the Mavericks should have had five more wins on their regular-season ledger, the Nuggets had a league-high 4.4 more than their differential says they deserved.

    If this prediction comes true, it'll likely mean the Nuggets lose home-court advantage (such as it is) and suffer a first-round playoff exit. That will lead to some tough offseason questions in Denver.

Giannis and LeBron Combine to Play Fewer Than 8 Games

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Lakers are five-and-a-half games ahead of the second-seeded Clippers, while the Bucks own an even larger 6.5-game cushion on the Raptors. Neither conference's top seed is in danger of losing its playoff position, which is why even the safest predictions should have LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo enjoying some bench time.

    Sure, the Lakers and Bucks need to knock the rust off. And yes, it's also true that getting into "basketball shape," that elusive, singular state of fitness that can only be achieved by playing basketball games, is a priority for both stars.

    But all the added dangers—soft-tissue injuries and the risk of more close exposure to other humans than is necessary—will result in extreme caution.

    How extreme? LeBron and Giannis will combine to miss more than half their teams' games.

    You could argue the top two MVP candidates would be better-served logging something like 15-20 minutes in seven or eight contests apiece instead of sitting out entirely. But why bother? Give them entire nights off, call it load management and ramp up gradually through the first round, in which both clubs should have warm-up-level opponents. 

The Anonymous Hotline Will Have a Major Impact

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Players are pledging to abide by a strict no-snitching code, but the cracks in that united front are already showing.

    Of course they are!

    It's just too hard to believe that among a collection of edge-seeking competitors this big, there won't be one who capitalizes on the opportunity to shift the landscape by tattling anonymously.

    If Chris Paul is willing to alter the course of a regular-season game by unabashedly lobbying for an untucked jersey technical foul, you'd better believe someone's going to sound the alarm on a high-profile opponent breaking quarantine or otherwise running afoul of the bubble rules.

    This is going to happen, and it's going to at least affect seeding while possibly extending into the playoffs—depending on the whistleblower's timing.

Damian Lillard Will Average 40 Points Per Game

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    The Blazers guard finished up the pre-shutdown portion of the season at 28.9 points per game, a career high that ranked fifth in the league. He also averaged 45.1 points in an eight-game span between Jan. 17 and Feb. 1.

    So we know he's got a run in him that could produce a scoring average that ridiculous.

    This is still bold because Jerry West is the only player to average over 40.0 points per game in a single playoff run that included at least eight contests, which is a decent way to frame how unlikely Dame's feat would be.

    De'Aaron Fox's sprained left ankle and Zion Williamson's uncertain return date should have Lillard's Blazers licking their chops. And you'd have to favor the veteran-led Portland squad over a very green Memphis team in a play-in scenario.

    More than that, Dame has laid down the mandate that the Blazers aren't at Disney to mess around, and nobody leads by example quite like he does. 

The Sixers Don't Improve Their Playoff Seed

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Joel Embiid got time off to rest, Ben Simmons' back is all better, and Shake Milton's insertion into the starting lineup will solve everything for a Sixers rotation that needed a shifty ball-handler at the 1.

    Right? Wrong.

    That's the easy read on the sixth-seeded Sixers, who only have the Indiana Pacers to climb over to prove this prediction incorrect. That's a Pacers team which, by the way, might or might not have Victor Oladipo in the rotation.

    The thinking here is pretty simple: There's just something off about the Sixers.

    You don't go 29-2 at home and 10-24 on the road without some larger underlying issue affecting consistency. The Simmons-Embiid fit won't be any less clunky than it was four months ago, Al Horford is still searching for his form, and if Milton was the cure-all, don't you think head coach Brett Brown would have figured that out a long time ago?

    The lineup tweak feels more like desperation than anything else.

    Milton may yet be a fine player, and it's clear the Sixers need someone to play the role he's purportedly excelling at in practice. But that's just it: Milton and the Sixers look great in practice. When games start, all the same problems will be there. Only now, Philly won't have whatever magic there was in Wells Fargo Center to paper over them.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played March 11. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.

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