The NBA season returns to action one week from today. And while the league has taken every step possible to pick up where it left off when Rudy Gobert contracted COVID-19 in March, the season's hiatus will undoubtedly affect competition moving forward. For one, nearly a third of the league will not return to play this Summer, increasing the difficulty of remaining schedules for teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat.
And while a neutral environment may seem like the least likely factor to sway the outcome of those games, empty stands will quietly benefit road playoff teams while hindering the top seeds that lean heavily on their 6th man at home. Injuries are less of a new variable introduced in the Orlando Bubble, but COVID-related absences certainly add an additional twist as do the returns of those previously labelled as "out for the season."
As we witnessed with Virginia basketball's 2019 NCAA tournament run and the Toronto Raptors's 2019 NBA Finals run, championship runs often require a string of fortunate events or circumstance to unfold for the team of destiny as less fortunate events and circumstances unfold for those threatening their title. Prior to the 2020 season's return, we're beginning to see such occurrences in the NBA.
Here are the teams that have been helped, and those that have been hurt, by the NBA's unprecedented pause late in the season:
While LeBron's Lakers stole the spotlight form Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in Los Angeles, the Clippers quietly went undefeated in their few games at full health this season. Though four contributors are out at the moment and the Clippers must win a race against time to build chemistry in time for the Playoffs, a four month layoff improved their chances of having the core GM Michael Winger assembled on the floor for the season's final stretch.
Additionally, the fanless environment in Orlando will save the Clippers from what could have felt like a 7 game road series against the Lakers should the two teams meet in the Western Conference Finals. With the 6th easiest remaining schedule and potentially an easier first round match up than the 1 seed Lakers, no team has benefitted more from current circumstances than the Los Angeles Clippers. Health may prove to be the greatest obstacle between this squad and the franchise's first ever NBA Championship.
UPDATE (7/27): Lou Williams must re-quarantine for 10 days after a recent visit to an Atlanta gentleman's club. Patrick Beverley, Marcus Morris, Ivica Zubac, and Landry Shamet have all rejoined the Clippers in Orlando.
LeBron's Lakers may finish the season as the restart's ultimate beneficiaries. With the league's second oldest roster, rest from the wear and tear of the regular season disproportionally helps Los Angeles relative to much of their competition. A regression to the mean from Kyle Kuzma, who struggled for the majority of the 2019-2020 season, could prove to be the x-factor in winning an NBA championship.
But a number of obstacles have arisen for this Lakers team due ripple effects from the pandemic. Most importantly, 3 and D specialist Avery Bradley will miss the remainder of the season (admirably so) to minimize risk of COVID-19 for his son, who is especially at-risk due to pre-existing respiratory issues. This leaves a team that lacks depth and shooters without its starting shooting guard, and it remains to be seen as to whether JR Smith and Dion Waiters can fill the void adequately.
The Lakers will also be without Rajon Rondo for a few weeks, as the former Boston Celtic broke his thumb soon after returning to the court this Summer. Should the Zion-led Pelicans or Lillard-led Trail Blazers slide into the 8 seed, Los Angeles may have their hands full as early as the first round of the Playoffs. And the home court advantage they worked to establish all season long... that won't factor in any more. Sure, Los Angeles performed better on the road this season, and perhaps they will not face the Clippers in this year's Playoffs. But if they do, it's hard to imagine a neutral court benefitting the Lakers as much as a 7 game Western Conference Finals in the Staples Center would have.
If the playoffs were to start today, the Boston Celtics would face a 76ers team that struggles heavily on the road relative to the average NBA team. Boston, on the other hand, is one of a few teams with comparable home/road win percentages. And with one of the NBA's easiest remaining schedules, Boston has an opportunity to steal the second seed from a Toronto team that faces the NBA's hardest remaining schedule.
Milwaukee possesses the best record in basketball because they have the best chemistry of any team in the NBA. A late season pause halts their momentum and levels the playing field for competitors still working to gel. Combine that with the fact that the Bucks have a relatively drastic drop off in performance when they're away from home (with their win percentage dropping from 90.3% to 73.5% in the season's first 65 games), and you have a team that finds itself in a far more difficult situation than it would have had the season played out normally. One thing that the Bucks have going for them is an all-but-guaranteed first round matchup with the heavily depleted Nets or Wizards.
The New Orleans Pelicans have the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA, facing current playoff-qualifying teams in only 3 of their remaining 8 games. A Ja Morant vs. Zion Williamson play-in series feels like it was meant to happen... as does a LeBron vs. Zion first round showdown that also features an Anthony Davis vs. the Pelicans storyline. This one might be destiny.
Hurt: Trail Blazers
Trevor Ariza has opted out of the Disney bubble due to a custody battle involving his 12-year-old son, and Portland faces the 5th most difficult schedule moving forward without its starting Small Forward. The Trail Blazers will return Jusuf Nurkić and Zach Collins to their front court. But as a team that struggles away from home (Portland wins 23.8% less outside of the Moda Center), Damian Lillard and company face an uphill battle in Orlando.
The Orlando Magic won't have a true home court advantage at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, but they may not need one to make the Playoffs for the second year in a row. With one of the NBA's easiest remaining schedules, it's hard to imagine Aaron Gordan and company failing to top Brooklyn for the 7th seed. If they do, they can avoid a first round matchup with Milwaukee and increase their odds of advancing to the second round.
There was a time when Nets fans imagined Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving taking the court for the first time together during the NBA restart. That would have added quite a bit of drama in the Eastern Conference as a healthy Brooklyn would provide a formidable challenge for top seeds like Milwaukee, Toronto, and Boston... especially on a neutral court. However, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will not play in the Disney World bubble this Summer. In fact, the Nets will take the court with a handful of G League players as 6 other players will miss basketball's return as well. Interim Head Coach Jacque Vaughn deserves the full time position if he holds on to the 7th seed with this group.
Victor Oladipo may have benefited from the break more than any other NBA player. After missing the majority of the 2019-2020 season and never quite returning to form, basketball's hiatus has provided Oladipo with more time to regain his status as one of the league's premiere slashing scorers. The Pacers sit 2 games behind the Heat in the East and will benefit from Miami's relative weakness away from home (42% win percentage vs 54.5%) as well as the fact that the Heat face the 2nd toughest remaining schedule in the NBA.
Bradley Beal has opted out of the tournament due to his shoulder injury, and David Bertans has followed suit due to his upcoming free agency. This leaves Rui Hachimura (13.4 ppg) as the number one option for a team facing one of the NBA's 10 hardest remaining schedules. Oh, and the Wizards only won a quarter of their games outside the Verizon Center during the regular season.
- Doug Battle, Co-Host of Fanalytics