*Cover Photo Credit: Forbes, Chris Graythen/Getty Images
On March 11, Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 before tip-off between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder. Because of this incident, the NBA suspended the season. For fans like me, this felt like a death sentence—no more basketball. Would it ever return?
On June 5, the NBA's Players Association approved a proposal to resume the season on July 31 in Orlando, Florida. New play will include nine Eastern Conference and thirteen Western Conference teams who are either six games back from the eighth seed or had the top records in the conference.
From the proposal, the playing format will go as follows:
- "Regular Season" - Each team will play 8 games (picked from remaining regular season schedule)
- Play-In Tournament - If the 9th seed is four or less games from the 8th seed, the two teams will play in a two game series where the 9th seed must win both games in order to take over the 8th seed's position. If the 9th seed is more than four games behind, the 8th seed retains their position for the playoffs
- Playoffs - Regular best of seven series will take place between the traditional seeds
Photo Credit: ESPN Wide World of Sports
With this new playoff format, stakes are high, and fringe teams are given new hope to compete for the title. Out of those left, which ones will make it into the playoff tournament? In this article, I am going to share my predictions on which teams will take the last available spots and which will be dark horses going to Orlando.
The seventh and eighth seeded spots are still up for grabs in this competitive conference. Out of the seven teams vying for these spots, I think two will convincingly take them.
Seventh Seed - Dallas Mavericks
Before Luka Doncic was drafted, I felt like he was not given the respect he deserved at the time. The media seemed to be hyped about Trae Young, and while they were not necessarily negative on Doncic, I felt like people still saw him as one of "those" high-drafted, big European busts. I don't think Trae Young is a bad player, but before he was drafted, he only played one season in the NCAA and his Oklahoma team got bounced in the first round of that year's tournament. Doncic on the other hand was playing in the second best basketball league in the world...and dominating.
During his time in the Euroleague, he won its MVP award at 19, the youngest ever, was named to the all-decade team, and won a league championship. He played against former and future NBA starters. He even won gold with Slovenia in the 2017 Eurobasket Tournament (the country's first) with victories over Kristaps Porzingis' Latvia, Evan Fournier's France, Spain's team with six active NBA players at the time, and Bogdan Bogdanovic's Serbia. I watched him play in those games, and was hooked that he was going to be the best talent in his draft class.
Luka has proven that he is an NBA star and can lead a team to wins. He has won before and he will win again this year to give his team a shot at the NBA's championship. In order for them to get knocked out, the Mavericks would need to lose almost all of their regular season games. However, with Luka, Porzingis, and the legend that is playoff Boban, they will lock up the seventh seed and make it impossible for the team to lose all their games.
Photo Credit: CBS Sports
Eighth Seed - New Orleans Pelicans
Before the season, I was not confident that Zion Williamson was going to be a difference maker in his rookie year. Sure, he was athletic for his size, bulldozed over people, and seemed to put cracks in the backboard every time he went up for a dunk, but that was in college. I doubted it would translate very well into the NBA.
I was wrong. The Pelicans were awful before Zion came around. With Zion, they have played at a winning record of 11-9—much better than having 11 more losses than wins without him.
Some of you may be thinking that this is a ludicrous pick, especially since the Grizzlies have been playing at a higher level than the previous season with their rookie Ja Morant, or because the Trail Blazers went to the 2019 Western Conference. Here is my defense.
In both games the Grizzlies have played against the Pelicans this year, the Grizzlies lost by a margin of more than 10 points. One game, the Pelicans did not have Zion, while the other was with him; the Grizzlies got slaughtered by 28 points. I just think with the Pelicans' supporting cast, they have better match ups. Lonzo Ball is a great defender, and can guard Ja Morant. While Jonas Valanciunas has a slight edge over Derrick Favors, Brandon Ingram has the major offensive edge over Kyle Anderson as Ingram was selected to be an All-Star in 2020. Dillon Brooks has height, but Jrue Holiday is also the better offensive and defensive player. I also think Jaren Jackson Jr., while playing great, is not going to be a match for Zion. The two have yet to face each other, but I think the edge goes to Zion due to his better scoring ability and size.
I believe the Grizzlies will initially be the eighth seed, with the Pelicans making the ninth seed. With these match ups though, I could see the Pelicans taking two from Memphis to head into the playoffs.
Photo Credit: Forbes, Chris Graythen/Getty Images
The only other team that I think would stand in the Pelicans way is the Portland Trail Blazers. Seeing how dysfunctional their team has been this year after a trip to the Western Conference Finals, I just do not see them blending together after being apart during COVID-19. The Pelicans found some chemistry during the season, while the Trail Blazers have just been hanging on. I wish the Blazers would figure it out, as I like their team and players, but I don't think this is their year.
All-in-all, the Pelicans have the best chance at taking the eighth seed heading into the playoff tournament.
Dark Horse - Sacramento Kings
This team was my Western Conference surprise team last season. They were fast, fun, competitive, and I loved watching them. While their biggest stars Buddy Hield and De'Araron Fox are not as good as other conference stars, they have a good supporting cast around them. Six other players on the team average more than 10 points including Jabari Parker who only played one game before being injured after his trade from the Hawks.
The Kings were also playing well before the virus hit. They had the best winning percentage in the final month of play than any other fringe Western Conference playoff team including the Mavericks. They are also 8-9 against fringe teams this season showing that they can hang around with their competitors.
While the Kings have looked good, the only question for them to make it into the playoffs is, can they get and stay healthy? Will Marvin Bagley or Jabari Parker return after this long rest time? While I believe Bagley is more of an impact player for the team, Parker is still a good offensive weapon that can come off the bench and provide some scoring.
For now, it is unlikely for them to make the eighth seed, but the Kings are my dark horse in a loaded Western Conference.
Just like the West, the Eastern Conference has its seventh and eight seeds up for grabs. However, only three Eastern teams are competing for these spots. This race is kind of bland compared to the West's, but I still think we should see who takes the final seeds.
Seventh Seed - Brooklyn Nets
Kevin Durant has stated that he won't play when the season returns. Kyrie Irving has been injured on and off. Does this sink the Nets out of the playoffs? Absolutely not.
By and large, the Nets have been the same team since their playoff run last year. Even with splashy additions like Durant, Irving, and Deandre Jordan, this team only really got rid of some of their role players, veterans, and D'Angelo Russell and added role players, veterans, and half of Irving to replace Russell. I think the core of the team in Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, and Jarrett Allen are young and good. With their solid veterans, this core should retain this spot, as I have more faith in them than the Magic.
While many think that Kyrie's absence could hinder the group from holding the spot, the Nets actually play better basketball without him than with him (8-12 record with and 22-22 record without). With this factor in mind, I think they will be fine.
Eighth Seed - Orlando Magic
The Magic are like the Nets—new roster additions, but the same overall team quality.
This same team was seventh in the Eastern Conference in 2018-2019, and while they are a tick down in this year's seeding, I believe they have the experience and core to make it back to the playoffs. Compared to the Wizards, they are a better all-around team with good starters like Markelle Fultz, Nikola Vucevic, and Evan Fournier. The Magic's bench may be lacking, but they have swept the Wizards in their season series (4-0). I think the Wizards are strong enough to force a play-in tournament, but too weak to take two straight games against this team.
Dark Horse - Washington Wizards
This is the nicest gesture I can give the Wizards. They only qualify as a Dark Horse because they were the third and final team competing for one of these playoff spots. Gone are the days when the Wizards pushed great Celtics teams to the brink for the Eastern Conference Finals. Gone are the days when they consistently won more than 40 games. All they have left this season is star Bradley Beal.
Beal makes this team a dark horse though. He has scored 40+ points in a single game 10 times this season. At one point, he had back-to-back 50 point games. I think that if the Wizards force a play-in game with the eighth seed, Beal has the chance to be dominant and drag the Wizards into the playoffs.
Photo Credit: Bullets Forever
Do I think this will happen? Probably not. The Wizards have never beaten the Magic this season, and lost by a combined score of 55 points in their final two match ups. If the Wizards even have a chance at getting in, they should hope that Brooklyn takes the eighth spot. Washington has beaten Brooklyn both times this season, so playing them would increase their chances.
We will see if the Wizards can pull off some extra magic to make it in.
On To July 31
The NBA is back, and fringe teams still have a shot making this year's playoffs. In the Western Conference, I believe that the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans will take the final two playoff spots. The Sacramento Kings are a dark horse team who can make a surprise grab at the eighth seed.
In the Eastern Conference, I believe the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic will take the final two spots. The Wizards are somewhat of a dark horse, but I don't think they have a good chance to grab a playoff spot.
While the Western Conference will be more competitive, both conferences will give us plenty of basketball to watch again. With an NBA Title on the line, which teams will come out hot after a long break?