The NBA is entering a period that we have never seen before. Everything is up the air, and the chips could land anywhere in terms of who makes it into this year’s playoffs. But what teams stand to gain the most from these unprecedented times? Our scribes give their thoughts…
Portland Trail Blazers
By Tom Hall
The resumption of the regular season could give the Portland Trail Blazers the first opportunity to field a full-strength line-up for the first time this season. After the highs of reaching the Western Conference Finals last year, the Trail Blazers suffered a difficult 2019-20 campaign with big men Jusuf Nurkić and Zach Collins out with injuries. The ageing Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza and Hassan Whiteside were brought in to bolster the ranks, but ultimately failed to click, leaving the Blazers in the ninth seed, 3.5 games back from Memphis in the eighth spot.
The postponed season has given Portland the opportunity for Nurkić and Collins to get back to full health and raise the Team’s ceiling all that much more. While they will likely come back with a minutes restriction, it gives a roster boasting Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum the tools to make a run for a playoff seed or to finish within the four-game window for a play-in tournament.
One thing to keep an eye on: Portland and the New Orleans Pelicans are the same number of games back from the eighth seed, but the Trail Blazers have played two more games. If the rumors are true that the NBA will rank teams based on winning percentage, and if both teams have the same record through the remaining eight games, the Blazers would finish above New Orleans by 0.001%. Advantage Portland.
New Orleans Pelicans
By Thomas Lamming
Sitting 3.5 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies at the suspension of the NBA season on 11 March, the 28-36 New Orleans Pelicans were a team on the up after a disastrous start to a season marred by injuries.
After a December 16 overtime loss to the Brooklyn Nets, the Pelicans had fallen to a 13th straight loss, a franchise record. Holding a 6-22 record, New Orleans was one game better off than the league’s worst record.
Superstar rookie Zion Williamson was yet to make his NBA debut and key pieces of the Pelicans roster such as Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and Derrick Favours found themselves side-lined for large periods of the early season due to injury.
However, in the month prior to Williamson’s highly anticipated January 22 debut against the San Antonio Spurs, there were signs the Pelicans had started to turn the tables. They went 10-4 over that stretch, capturing notable victories over the Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, and Memphis Grizzlies, all rivals for the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
Buoyed by Williamson’s spectacular start to his NBA career, the Pelicans continued their growing momentum with a 10-9 finish to the season despite their star’s minute restricted play. Victories over Miami and Minnesota left Alvin Gentry’s team on a two-game win streak at the suspension of NBA action. And now, the race for playoff seedings was once again at the forefront of NBA discussions.
The Pelicans sit in the middle of a four-team logjam alongside the Trail Blazers, Kings, and Spurs who all sit within four games of the eighth spot.
Interestingly, given the abrupt nature of the season suspension, the 29-37 Blazers had played two games more than the Pelicans and given Portland’s .439-win percentage in comparison to NOP’s .438-win percentage, should the two teams tie, the Pelicans would need to better Portland’s record by one game to advance to the postseason.
Despite this, Williamson and co hold what looks like the easiest remaining schedule out of their rivals. Six out of New Orleans’ eight remaining games would pit them against sub-.500 teams, with rumors that they will be facing off against the Grizzlies and Kings twice, alongside clashes with the Spurs and Orlando Magic. With games interspersed against two of the top four Western Conference seeds in the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers.
The only team of the four to play the Grizzlies again this season, the New Orleans Pelicans are must-watch TV when the season restarts. In a battle likely to go down to the wire, can a resurgent Pelicans sneak into the play-in tournament and clinch a playoff berth? Only time will tell.
By Justin Quinn
The Boston Celtics stand to gain quite a bit from the new format of the remainder of the 2019-20 season. While the Celtics are unlikely to move from the third seed with just eight more games to go, it will provide them with just enough run to see which of the trio of teams who could plausibly end up facing them in the first round of the playoffs.
For a team that has struggled against their current first-round foil, the Philadelphia 76ers, this could be critical. While it’s reasonable to believe a healthy Boston could hang with the Sixers – especially if star Joel Embiid has not kept himself in shape over the hiatus – the Celtics struggled earlier in the season against them, and have a legitimate reason to try and avoid what would be a very tough start to the postseason.
With their final game against the Miami Heat, who, along with the Sixers and the Indiana Pacers, are all within two games of one another four through six in the East, Boston may well be served by giving their starters the night off to close the season –and maybe, their second unit as well.
While there are certainly other teams who will see the new format create a potential path to play in the postseason, the Celtics could dodge the biggest obstacle to the Eastern Conference Finals, if not the NBA Finals themselves.