Anticipation for the NBA’s reboot might reach playoff levels of excitement immediately upon the regular season’s return on July 31. That’s because there is still a chance for several teams to reach post-season play.
The play-in period will highlight how some franchises have plenty to gain beyond just reaching the playoffs. But for some that miss it, they will lose more than just an extended stay at Disney World.
Most to gain
New Orleans Pelicans
When the New Orleans Pelicans put their roster together in the summer of 2019, many felt they had the on-paper talent to contend for a playoff spot. Little did they know the consensus No. 1 pick would miss the majority of the season due to injury.
Zion Williamson didn’t begin his professional career until the end of January in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs, but his 22 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists in 18 minutes lived up to the hype.
Nineteen games later, (and after leading all rookies in points per game), Williamson had helped the Pelicans climb the Western Conference standings. They suddenly had the momentum to catch the slipping Memphis Grizzlies, despite starting off the season 2-8 and recording a separate 13-game losing streak.
Behind point guard Jrue Holiday and sharpshooter JJ Redick, the young Pelicans have a couple of steady leaders who should be able to help respected head coach Alvin Gentry finish what the team was showing by the time the season suspended.
The Pels also have two great scorers in Williamson (who is averaging 23.6 ppg) and Brandon Ingram.
The only potential issue might be that, since Williamson joined the team, Ingram’s 25 ppg in the first 40 games of the season started dropping to 18 ppg in the last five games they played. How Gentry manages the skillsets and roles between these two players will be key in New Orleans’ ability to come together and reach the playoffs.
If they can’t reach the post-season, we might see the front office (prematurely?) split these players up to build around one of them. But succeeding in the eight games remaining could be the start of a special run for a team already loaded with talent.
Portland Trail Blazers
Even with CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, the Portland Trail Blazers were always going to struggle without Jusuf Nurkic during the first half of the season.
Hassan Whiteside helped fill the gap a little, but the two players are very different. Then, three games into the season, Portland lost young big Zach Collins. Things were looking very bleak, and the desperate search for a forward led them to signing Carmelo Anthony, which shored things up for a period.
But losing Rodney Hood to injury put the Blazers back into dangerous territory.
The season seemed all but over before COVID-19 shut everything down. And yet, Lillard and McCollum—along with a little help from Anthony, who something to prove in his comeback—kept Portland within a puncher’s chance of making the playoffs.
The time off has allowed the Trail Blazers to rest their best and help the wounded. Their All-Star backcourt should be refreshed, but the thing that could see Portland making the playoffs, and maybe even do some damage, is the return of Nurkic and Collins.
The team is curently one game out of the playoffs, but with some of their best players back, last year’s Conference Finalists might have the best upside of everyone.
They will probably need to finish two games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies during this eight-game stretch in order to leapfrog them, (due to playing a different number of games and needing a better winning percentage.)
But if they reach the playoffs, the Blazers’ size inside and talent on the perimeter could be a sleeper against the LA teams sitting at the top of the Western Conference.
Most to lose
San Antonio Spurs
It’s probably already over. The first wheel came off the San Antonio Spurs wagon years ago when Kawhi Leonard left, so credit should go to how well the team was built in the first place, (and what a good driver coach Gregg Popovich has been).
But with LaMarcus Aldridge recently opting for season-ending surgery, it feels like the Spurs dynasty has officially reached the end of the road.
There have been moments this season when San Antonio showed signs of greatness, which reflects the careers of Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, who have led the team during the past two seasons. But the team’s performance has been inconsistent—again, much like those leaders.
When news broke that the 22-team group going to Disney World would include the Spurs, there was a hope that the wagon could keep rumbling for one more season at least. Maybe it would give the youngsters like Dejounte Murray, Jakob Poeltl and Derrick White a chance to take the next step on a bigger stage, without the pressure of being leaders on the team at this still-early stage of their careers.
However, without Aldridge, the Spurs probably have too great a hurdle to clear. They will miss a chance for development, Aldridge and DeRozan will not get the opportunity to show they can get it done, and Popovich might look toward retirement.
And if the Spurs don’t reach the playoffs, it will be the first time for the franchise since 1996-97.
The Spurs missing out won’t just have a negative effect on the franchise, it will stop them from claiming the longest playoff streak in NBA history.
For the majority of the NBA season, the Memphis Grizzlies had been competitive enough to consistently float around .500 win percentage. They’d had a relatively easy schedule early, but that shouldn’t take away what they achieved by the time the season shut down.
The Grizz are 32-33 and currently cling to the final playoff spot.
The problem is that when the season restarts, there are no terrible opponents left for Memphis to play. The teams not going to Orlando previously offered easy wins. And for a young team like the Grizzlies, (led by rookies and second-year players), there might not be enough composure or overall talent on the roster to stand up against more experienced veterans.
The Portland Trail Blazers will have two of their best four players back after season-long injuries; the New Orleans Pelicans have Zion Williamson and their best players clicking; the San Antonio Spurs are motivated to keep a playoff streak alive.
The Grizzlies are possibly not as good as their record.
They played extremely well behind the talents of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson and Brandon Clarke, but they also have arguably overachieved in their first year as a group. Their offensive rating was the third-worst in the Western Conference, according to Basketball Reference, and their record against others in the West was 19-22.
The remaining regular season will be an intense period that will likely favor the experienced. Memphis had plenty of excitement built up, but with nearly three months off, the buzz and momentum might not be with the plucky upstart group.
And the lack of experience could cost them the playoff spot they so previously deserved.
Huw is a TBW staff writer who grew up in Wales and currently lives in England where he coaches a local basketball team. He loves all sorts of basketball: men’s, women’s, wheelchair, international, good and bad. He has bylines with the NBA/WNBA’s UK broadcast rights partner Sky Sports, has featured on Sporting News covering FIBA events and is a Lead Writer with UK-based basketball website and podcast Double Clutch. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @coach_huw where he often posts about how Tim Duncan was the best player of his era.