The NBA is restarting on July 31 with eight games for 22 of the 30 teams before the playoffs start. Eight games may not seem like that many, but since the teams will be playing lots of games against opponents that are close to them in the standings, they will count for a lot.
The standings will likely change in several different ways before the playoffs begin in August. USAbetting has identified the five most likely changes and I have given my rationale as to why they will happen.
Philadelphia 76ers jump from East’s No. 6 seed to No. 4 seed
The 2019-20 season has not been a pleasant one for the 76ers. They were expected to challenge for the East’s No. 1 seed and win close to 60 games. Instead, they are on a 49-win pace and have just the sixth-best record in the East. Injuries to stars Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and Josh Richardson and the poor integration of free-agent signing Al Horford have all hindered Philly from reaching its potential.
The four-month layoff could be just what the Sixers need to fix what is ailing them, both from a physical and mental standpoint. Their roster has a ton of size, which can be a major difference-maker with teams rediscovering their chemistry and ability to execute their gameplan.
On top of that, the Sixers have the easiest remaining schedule out of the 22 teams that will play in Orlando. Philly is tied with the Indiana Pacers right now and is just two games behind the Miami Heat. I have a strong feeling the Sixers will surge ahead of both teams in the final eight games.
New Orleans Pelicans jump from West’s No. 10 seed to No. 8 seed
If the NBA season had resumed as normal, the Pelicans would have had an extremely easy schedule. That point remains valid under the new format, as New Orleans has the easiest slate of opponents not including the aforementioned 76ers.
Rookie Zion Williamson is impressively the most important player on the Pelicans already, and he will presumably be back at full strength following the knee injury that sidelined him for the first three months of the season. Given his very thick frame combined with his unreal explosiveness, he and the Pelicans have likely spent plenty of time and effort figuring out ways for him to preserve his body for a long career.
New Orleans has outscored opponents by 10.1 points per 100 possessions with Williamson on the floor this season. His strengths mesh very well with his teammates and the squad was looking like a clear playoff team before the season was suspended.
I expect the Pelicans to close the 3.5-game gap between them significantly and the Memphis Grizzlies to set up a play-in situation. In that scenario, New Orleans would have an excellent chance to win two games in a row to overthrow the Grizzlies as the West’s No. 8 seed.
Brooklyn Nets fall from East’s No. 7 seed to No. 8 seed
The Nets were a popular dark horse Finals contender when the NBA initially announced that the season would resume. If injured superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were able to return to action and play close to their normal levels, Brooklyn would be a force.
Reports are now saying, however, that neither Durant nor Irving will play in Orlando. Brooklyn surprisingly fired head coach Kenny Atkinson four days before the season was suspended. Presumably, that decision had a lot to do with catering to the sort of team the Nets want to be next season with Durant and Irving back in the fold. The Nets had actually overachieved with Atkinson leading them this season, so firing him based on this season would have made little sense.
The Brooklyn roster will play its final eight games knowing that its interim coach (Jacque Vaughn) likely won’t be with the team next season and that any momentum it builds will be disrupted when the Nets’ two ball-dominant franchise players and a new head coach return in 2020-21.
The Nets overachieved this season due to their chemistry and great effort on the defensive side of the floor. I don’t see them being motivated enough to hold off the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic, who are just a half-game behind them in the standings.
Portland Trail Blazers & San Antonio Spurs fall from West’s No. 9/12 seeds to No. 11/13
Six of the 13 Western Conference teams making the trip to Orlando are in a position where they are fighting for the No. 8 seed: the Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns.
I would consider four of those teams (Grizzlies, Pelicans, Kings and Suns) as up-and-coming squads that are grateful to have even the opportunity to earn a playoff spot. The other two (Trail Blazers and Spurs) have had disappointing seasons with veteran-laden rosters and may just be looking ahead to next season, which is why I see them falling behind some of the younger, hungrier teams in the bracket.
To be fair, Portland might have a healthier roster than it did before the layoff. But I don’t see the Blazers pushing too hard with its veteran roster just for the chance to lose in the first round to the mighty Los Angeles Lakers. It is worth noting that Portland voted against this return-to-action plan that the league is implementing, signaling that the franchise might just be ready to move on to next season. If Portland struggles early on in the eight-game finish to the regular season, I wouldn’t be surprised if the team’s star players sit out to preserve themselves for the 2020-21 season.
As for the Spurs, the team recently announced that veteran big man LaMarcus Aldridge will not play in Orlando as he recovers from shoulder surgery. San Antonio is not deep in the frontcourt and I suspect the Spurs might use their last eight games to see what they have in their youngsters rather than go all-in at a chance for the postseason.
Utah Jazz fall from West’s No. 4 seed to No. 6 seed
The Jazz were the team that sparked the NBA’s suspension in the first place. All-Stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell were the first two players to test positive for coronavirus, and there were reports that Gobert was being careless about taking precautions to avoid germs spreading prior to his positive test.
That incident was in March, but I do worry a bit about Utah’s chemistry when play resumes. There could be some damaged relationships in the Jazz locker room.
Throw in the fact that the Jazz will be without No. 2 scorer Bojan Bogdanovic (20.2 points per game on a 60.3 true-shooting percentage) due to a wrist injury and I see Utah’s offense struggling too much without its trademark chemistry and spacing. The Jazz are just one game ahead of both the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, and I don’t think they will keep that lead.