It’s finally happening.
We are three weeks to the day away from the NBA restart in Orlando as 22 teams have begun to enter the “bubble” at Walt Disney World. The question is, did the NBA really need to allow 22 teams in? It makes sense why it did so; the regular season was almost finished when COVID-19 forced the shutdown. Naturally, it’s only fair that every team with a gasp of hope will get one last run at the playoffs.
Each of the 22 teams will play eight final regular-season games before playoff seeding is finalized, trimming the list down to the traditional 16 teams, eight from the East and eight from the West. Then, the fun begins. We’ll be getting something that we have never gotten before; NBA playoffs in the late summer, and the NBA Finals in the fall.
Which teams have a real chance to win the championship anyway, though? Some say the bonus “offseason” of over four months will make the title run easier, and some use the same logic to say it will be tougher. Regardless, I count five contenders who will be at each other’s necks for the Larry O’Brien trophy this fall. And by contenders, I mean teams that can win it all without any help from outside entities (i.e. injuries to opponents). Here they are.
Milwaukee Bucks (53-12, No. 1 in East)
The Bucks are what they are, and we’ve seen that all season long. Led by reigning MVP and likely back-to-back MVP after this season, Giannis “the Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have the best record in the entire league at 53-12 and had a real shot at winning 70 games before the shutdown.
Antetokounmpo is putting up the monster stat line of 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists… all while only playing 31 minutes per game. Not bad at all.
But it isn’t just Antetokounmpo that the Bucks have in the fold. Khris Middleton earned his second consecutive all-star appearance this February, and he leads the charge of a unit of Bucks’ wings that can all get their own buckets; Eric Bledsoe, Wesley Matthews and sharpshooting veteran Kyle Korver all come to mind.
Brook Lopez is a bona fide stretch five as well, complementing Antetokounmpo’s slashing skillset perfectly. His ability to score from the perimeter, mid-range and post—and grab some rebounds— makes him a force to be reckoned with alongside his MVP counterpart.
The biggest concern for the Bucks, however, is closing the deal when it matters. The reason for Antetokounmpo’s low minutes is that the Bucks are often ahead by a comfortable margin late, allowing Antetokounmpo to have a seat. In the playoffs, it won’t be so easy to grab those large leads and sit the star down. They’ll have to grind out wins in the clutch, and the 2019 playoffs would suggest that isn’t the Bucks’ strong suit.
The 2019 champion Toronto Raptors were able to neutralize Antetokounmpo’s effects late in games during the Eastern Conference finals by planting tall and/or athletic defenders (Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam) underneath the rim. This forces Antetokounmpo to either pass the ball or shoot, the latter of which isn’t his strong suit. It then comes down to Middleton to save the day. Will that happen? Time will tell.
The Bucks’ bread is buttered by getting those fourth-quarter leads, though, and if they’re able to do that, nothing else will matter.
Los Angeles Lakers (49-14, No. 1 in West)
This Lakers squad has been making headlines since the addition of Anthony Davis last summer. LeBron James, who is still the best player in the world, finally got his right-hand man of choice.
Some concerning losses at the beginning and middle of the season to upper-echelon teams like the Los Angeles Clippers (twice), Houston Rockets and Bucks left some wondering if the Lakers could really compete with the best or if they were just a flashy team beating up on subpar foes.
Then, the calendar turned to spring and the Lakers started to hit their stride. Before COVID-19 struck, the Lakers took down the Bucks and Clippers convincingly, and James and Davis looked flawless in both contests.
If there is one huge advantage for the Lakers, and any team led by a veteran player like James, it’s the time off. It’s well documented that James spends upwards of a million dollars every offseason solely on body care, nutrition and training. If you think he spent quarantine sitting on his ass playing video games, you’ve got your head in the sand.
A well-rested and focused James (who is giving Antetokounmpo a run for his MVP money, averaging 25.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 10.6 assists) will be leading the charge alongside the team’s leading scorer in Davis. The big question, of course, is what about the rest of the guys?
Starting shooting guard Avery Bradley has made the decision not to travel to Orlando, which prompted general manager Rob Pelinka and company to add J.R. Smith to the roster via free agency.
Though Smith is infamously known for forgetting the score in game one of the 2018 NBA Finals as a member of James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, he’s a battle-tested sharpshooting presence, and an above-average perimeter defender as well. He’s more than used to playing with James. The concern would be that he hasn’t played professionally since 2018, and that’s also going to be the reason why he most likely won’t be tasked with replacing Bradley in the starting lineup.
Danny Green possesses much of the same skillset as Smith, having won a pair of championships with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014 and the Raptors last season. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also silently became the Lakers’ fourth-best scorer of the season. Swingman Kyle Kuzma found his niche leading the bench mob, and athletic guard Alex Caruso and fresh signee Dion Waiters will likely provide some needed reinforcement off the bench as well.
In the middle, the Lakers have JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, two above-average rim protectors and rebounders who have no problem running the floor either, something that fits well with James.
I have a hard time seeing anybody defeating the Lakers four times in seven games, which is what it will take to knock them out. The Lakers are my pick to win it all, but I’ll elaborate on that in another piece soon.
Los Angeles Clippers (44-20, No. 2 in West)
The Clippers are the flavor of the year without a doubt. A team stacked with gritty players from top-to-bottom, led by a pair of two-way superstars in Kawhi Leonard (26.9 points per game) and Paul George (21 points per game), is coached by a top-five coach in this league, Doc Rivers? What’s not to like about the Clippers?
Their pair of statement wins over the Lakers to open the season and on Christmas Day somewhat proved what many believed to be true all along: the Clippers are the more complete team than their in-city rivals. I would agree.
While I believe the one-two punch of James and Davis is clearly stronger than Leonard and George, it’s the rest of the equation that plays to the Clippers’ favor. Guard Lou Williams has won the Sixth Man of the Year Award three times, all in recent memory. Montrezl Harrell and Marcus Morris Sr. are two tough enforcers to go through in the paint… IF the opponent can get past Leonard, George and Patrick Beverley on the perimeter. The Clippers’ defense is absolutely stacked.
On paper, they’re also very deep, with 14 players averaging double-digit minutes. Much of that has to do with the load management of Leonard, who has taken 13 games off, and George, who missed 22 games throughout the course of the season. This brings me to my biggest red flag for the Clippers.
The team that got “cheated” most by the shutdown is undoubtedly the Clippers. Their approach and philosophy for winning has been load management, as Rivers has been vocal about. The idea is to rest your stars during the season so that they’re fresh and ready to go for the playoffs. It worked just a season ago as Leonard played only 60 out of 82 games in the 2019 season before being crowned a champion and MVP of the Finals. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The problem? EVERYBODY and their mother is rested now. With Leonard and George missing so many games, the Clippers missed the boat to gel as a full unit and build team chemistry. Can they do that in the final eight regular-season games before the playoffs commence? Maybe, but who has any clue if Leonard and George will even play all of THOSE?
The bottom line for me is that chemistry is undervalued in this league. Teams like the Lakers, Celtics and even the Rockets were hitting their stride right before the shutdown. We can’t even begin to say the same for the Clippers.
Nonetheless, their star-power and defensive prowess make them fearless contenders once the ball is tipped.
Boston Celtics (43-21, No. 3 in East)
When the Celtics made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2018 with star point guard Kyrie Irving sidelined for the entire playoffs, we knew they had next. A team overflowing with young talent finally turned itself into a championship contender by adding free agent all-star point guard Kemba Walker last summer.
The Celtics have three 20-plus points per game scorers in Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown; Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart are comfortably in double digits as well. Coach Brad Stevens is also second to none in this league; he’s balanced offensively and defensively and fosters excellent relationships with his players.
One problem for the Celtics is that all of their exceptional scorers usually carry ALL of the load, which puts them at 11th in the league in points per game. Obviously, that isn’t bad at all, but it’s the lowest of the contenders on this list.
Another glaring hole for the Celtics is their lack of a post presence. And actually, “glaring hole” and “lack of” might be an understatement. Daniel Theis is the starting center, and despite 9.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, he isn’t versatile. He struggles when stepping out of the paint, shooting just 32.1% from 3-point range. He is, however, a solid rim protector and defensive enforcer down low.
His counterpart at the position off the bench, Enes Kanter, is the opposite. Kanter struggles on the defensive end and adds a bit more versatility on offense, though still not from 3-point range.
The bottom line for the Celtics is they have concerns in the post. Their abundance of bucket-getters could compensate for that in some matchups — maybe even more matchups than not — but it’s hard to see the Celtics having their way with the likes of Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, Anthony Davis of the Lakers and even Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets.
Again, if Walker, Tatum and Brown do all the heavy lifting, it might not matter.
Houston Rockets (40-24, No. 6 in West)
Yes, I believe the Rockets have a legitimate shot to win this thing.
Maybe on the surface level it seems foolish, seeing that they’re not a top team in the Western Conference. Add the fact that they’ve gloriously (or not so) flamed out in the playoffs every single year since James Harden entered his prime, and maybe I’m an idiot.
But this year, the difference is Russell Westbrook.
Together, Harden and Westbrook are averaging 61.9 points per game by themselves. That’s over half of the entire TEAM’s scoring average of 118.1 points per game, which is good enough for second in the league this season behind only Milwaukee. Translation: those two dudes can put up some buckets. Add their combined 14.4 assists and 14.4 rebounds per game, and you’ve got two exceptional stat-sheet stuffers in the same backcourt.
Another feather in Houston’s cap is the time off. I mentioned Harden’s flameouts in the playoffs, and that almost always has to do with regular-season fatigue; he just runs out of gas. It’s as simple as that. Assuming he has kept in shape over quarantine, that won’t be the case this postseason, and he’s got his buddy Westbrook as his right-hand man instead of the passive-aggressive Chris Paul.
My concerns with the Rockets are almost identical to those of the Celtics, as the Rockets dealt away big man Clint Capela at the deadline and now start 6-foot-7 Robert Covington at center. The difference is the Rockets’ “center” can score much more effectively (Covington averages nearly 13 points per game), and their top two players are clearly better than the Celtics’ top two.
If I can do the mental gymnastics to believe that Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown can lead a team to a championship, then who am I to say Harden and Westbrook (the only two MVPs of all five players mentioned here) can’t do the same?
Maybe it’s a long shot. Maybe. But to be completely boring here and state the obvious, the name of the game is to score more points than the other team. I could see the Rockets getting borderline manhandled in the paint against a LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard, but I could also see Harden and Westbrook turning around and trading twos for threes.
We shall see. Don’t count out H-Town.
Trent Balley is the sports editor and men’s basketball beat reporter for Impact 89FM WDBM. Follow him on Twitter at @TrentBalley.