Six players to watch during NBA’s restart

Alex Caruso

Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go and the NBA is back! Finally.

The players from the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans will kneel around the Black Lives Matters phrase on the court then tip-off the restarted NBA season, maybe with Zion Williamson playing, maybe not. After that appetizer comes the main course, the Lakers vs. Clippers.

You’ve got questions about the return of the NBA season, and we’ve got answers. Or at least predictions. Here are Dan Feldman and my predictions for the restart of the NBA season.

1) WHAT TEAM MAKES A SURPRISING PLAYOFF RUN?

Kurt Helin: Give me the Oklahoma City Thunder. This was a team that was 33-13 from Dec. 1 on with a top-10 offense and defense, before the coronavirus sent the league into hibernation. Chris Paul has been arguably the most clutch player in the league this season, and the three-guard lineup with CP3, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder has been a problem for opponents. I think they advance to the second round, regardless of opponent, and they can push the Los Angeles teams. (Honorable mention to Dallas in this category.)

Dan Feldman: Nobody. I’m picking mostly chalk. But I like the Rockets as a dark horse. They have top talent in James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and supporting players like Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker fit so well. Houston’s small-ball system invites variance, which could lead to upsets.

2) WHAT TEAM IS THE BIGGEST THREAT TO THE BUCKS IN THE EAST?

Kurt Helin: I like playoff teams that have versatility, so I will take the Boston Celtics. Their combination of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward — with Marcus Smart off the bench — makes them a matchup nightmare on offense and a switchable defense. With Kemba Walker at the point (if his left knee doesn’t hold him back) and Brad Stevens drawing up the plays, the Celtics just need good play out of the center position to be a real challenge for the Bucks. That said, they may need Milwaukee to stumble to beat them.

Dan Feldman: Raptors. The Raptors, Celtics, 76ers and Heat all have a chance. Philadelphia has the highest upside – a roster designed not only for the playoffs, but specifically to match up with Milwaukee. Still, I’ll take Toronto, which can also match up with the Bucks but has played at a much higher level throughout the season.

3) WHICH PLAYER NOT IN THE BUBBLE WILL BE THE BIGGEST BLOW TO THEIR TEAM?

Kurt Helin: Avery Bradley of the Lakers. So long as Los Angeles has LeBron James and Anthony Davis, they are title contenders (and Davis is expected to play in the opener after suffering an eye injury). But losing a versatile starting two guard hurts. There are matchups where Bradley may not have played extensive minutes, but against teams with elite wings (the Clippers or Rockets, for example), his defense, three-point shooting, and veteran presence would have helped. Throw in the loss of Rajon Rondo (thumb) and that’s 44 minutes a game of guard rotation that has to be filled.

Dan Feldman: Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic. Though better players will miss the rest of the season, they’re on lesser teams. Bogdanovic was superb for Utah before undergoing season-ending surgery. With him, the Jazz were a fringe championship contender. Without him, they’ll likely lose in the first round. The difference is especially stark considering Donovan Mitchell‘s and Rudy Gobert‘s rift. Winning cures most ills, and losing tends to exacerbate problems.

4) WHICH TEAM IS MOST LIKELY TO GO 0-8?

Kurt Helin: The Washington Wizards. No John Wall, no Bradley Beal, no Davis Bertans. Outside of that, how many Wizards players can you name? This is a 24-40 team without its two best players and questionable motivation to push and stay in the bubble. Don’t be surprised if things fall apart fast for Washington.

Dan Feldman: Suns. I project Phoenix to play at a higher level the rest of the season than the Nets, Wizards and Spurs. The Suns will probably beat Washington in their first seeding game and render this moot. But if not, they have a tough schedule that ends with teams (Thunder, 76ers, Mavericks) likely to be still competing for seeding position. Phoenix could also fall from playoff contention quickly, reducing motivation to compete.

5) WHICH TEAM GETS THE EIGHTH SEED IN THE WEST?

Kurt Helin: The Memphis Grizzlies. Two reasons for this. First, Ja Morant is really good at basketball. Second, the NBA gave advantages to the Grizzlies at the restart — advantages Memphis earned in the first 65 games playing its way into the eighth seed. They have a 3.5 game cushion, outside of a total collapse the Grizzlies will be in a two-game play-in series to make the playoffs. Then Memphis just needs to win one of those two games to advance. Portland and New Orleans have a shot, but Memphis is the favorite to get that spot.

Dan Feldman: Grizzlies. This is math more than confidence in Memphis, though both obviously factor. Up 3.5 games on the chasing pack, the Grizzlies are the most likely team in the race* to clinch a playoff spot in seeding games. The Grizzlies are the most likely team to be involved in a play-in. The Grizzlies are most likely to be in eighth place in a play-in, which would mean needing to win only once before the ninth-place team wins twice. The Trail Blazers and/or Pelicans might play at a higher level than Memphis the rest of the way, but the Grizzlies’ record advantage makes them the safe pick.

*The Mavericks haven’t technically clinched a playoff spot yet. But I don’t consider them in the race. They’re practically a lock.

6) WHO WILL BE THE MVP OF THE BUBBLE?

Kurt Helin: Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers. He showed last season for Toronto that, when healthy and focused, he can raise his game to the highest level of any current player and lead a good team around him to a ring. He is trying to replicate that formula with Los Angeles. Leonard is fully rested and ready to go, and a Clippers team around him that was knicked up is healthy as well. LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo both have a real shot at earning this title as well.

Dan Feldman: Kawhi Leonard. Leonard, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo are all fine choices. But how could Leonard not get the benefit of the doubt after last year’s championship run with the Raptors? Leonard absolutely can deliver in the biggest moments. He looks even better this season – getting closer to his peak lockdown defense and improving as a passer.

7) WHAT IS YOUR NBA FINALS MATCHUP? WHO WILL BE CROWNED CHAMPION?

Kurt Helin: I’ll take Leonard and his Clippers over the Bucks. If any of the Lakers, Bucks, or Clippers won the title it would not be a surprise — they are all incredibly close — but come the playoffs the teams that win have great versatility and strong play on the wings. That’s the Clippers. They can beat a team playing small or playing big, and the Leonard and Paul George pairing is the best wing combo in the league. The only question for the Clippers is getting everyone healthy and in Orlando, and building enough chemistry.

Dan Feldman: Clippers over Bucks. The Lakers are right in the mix, too. But the Clippers get the edge because their stars (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George) outshine Milwaukee’s (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton), and their depth/versatility bests the Lakers’ depth/versatility around LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

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