As the NBA restarts tonight in the Orlando bubble, let’s take a look at where things stand and what to watch for.
Battle of LA- When the NBA shut down back in March the Lakers stood atop the Western Conference standings with a record of 49-14. The Purple and Gold enter the bubble without Avery Bradley after he opted out due to COVID concerns. As a replacement, the Lakers signed JR Smith. On top of that, the Lakers will be without Rajon Rondo, who will miss 6-8 weeks after undergoing thumb surgery. However, according to Lakers head coach Frank Vogel, the hope is that Rondo will be able to return in the first or second round of the playoffs.
The Clippers come into the bubble sitting in the second seed in the West with a a 44-20 record sitting 5.5 games behind the Lakers. The Clippers have owned the season series versus the Lakers winning two out of three. Both the Lakers and Clippers are the two teams that were expected to meet in the Western Conference Finals in the beginning of the season. While we are now under different circmstances, I still believe that the battle of LA will ultimately take place in the Western Conference Finals in Orlando. While you should never count out LeBron James, I still believe that the Clippers have the edge over the Purple and Gold due to their ample amount of depth and having a two-time finals MVP on their roster in Kawhi Leonard. This bubble situation especially helps the Clippers more than the Lakers considering that players could still test positive for COVID, which would result in them missing time. While the Lakers have a better duo in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, they don’t have nearly enough depth, which is key in the NBA , especially now. Finally, to put the cherry on top, as NBA.com shows the Lakers are a plus-8.1 points with LeBron on the floor and a minus-0.1 with him off the floor. This shows that the Lakers cannot afford to have LeBron on the bench during games. It will take a toll physically on his body if he has to carry this Lakers team to the promised land. While he was able to carry the Cavs to the Finals by himself, he was playing against much weaker competition in the Eastern Conference with no team that had nearly as much depth as the Clippers do. In the end, I still see the Clippers representing the West in the Finals.
Milwaukee Bucks- The Bucks stood atop the eastern conference with a 53-12 record. Milwaukee has been led this whole season by Giannis Anteokounmpo who might be on his way to winning back to back MVPs. While the Bucks were dominant at home (28-3), this also remains true on the road as they were 25-9. Even though there is no home court advantage this postseason, it won’t affect Milwaukee either way which is why with Giannis and some help off the bench from Eric Bledose, Brook Lopez, and Kyle Korver, the Bucks are the favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference.
Toronto Raptors- The Raptors came into this season that was thought of to be rebuilding after losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency. However, they have done the complete opposite as they find themselves in the second seed in the east at 46-18 thanks to a resurgent Pascal Siakum who is in the conversation for most improved player of the year, Marc Gasol Fred Van Vleet, Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka could give Milwaukee a run for their money in the Eastern Conference Finals considering that they can match up with the Bucks up front. This is how you can catch Milwaukee off guard ,which is by matching up length with them, which Toronto can do with Gasol.
Philadelphia 76ers- The Sixers have been the most inconsistent team all season as they find themselves in the sixth seed in the east as they had championship expectations coming into this season. Even though Philadelphia has been almost unbeatable at home (29-2), they are a terrible team on the road as they are 10-24 away from Philadelphia. None of that will matter though as both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid will be back and fully healthy to play. Although, it is worth noting that the Sixers played better while Embiid was out duirng the season due to an injury. Head coach Brett Brown has moved Simmons out of the full time point guard slot to the power forward position which will take away his eye opening weakness of shooting from behind the arc. This will also open the door for Shake Milton who played well when Simmons went down with an injury and shot 45% from three this season. However, this will not put Simmons on the bench as he will still be able to bring up the ball in transition similarly to Draymond Green in Golden State. While the Sixers will have a new look on the offensive side of the ball, if the Sixers are unable to avdance far in the playoffs Brett Brown is likely to be let go. While not all of the rosters he has been given were great, he will have run his course in Philadelphia after spending seven years in The City of Brotherly Love and consistenly failing to advance deeper in the playoffs.
Houston Rockets- The Rockets find themselves in the sixth seed in the west with a record of 40-24. Houston will likely find themselves once again unable to reach the Finals as they traded center Clint Cappella to Atlanta at the trade deadline to go to a small ball lineup. As a result of this, the Rockets have been dominated on the glass in offensive second chance points and defensive rebounding. If the Rockets are unable to get to the Finals after trading for Russell Westrbook this past offseason to pair with James Harden, considering that head coach Mike D’Antoni is in the last year of his contract it is expected that the Rockets could be looking for a new coach.
New Orleans Pelicans- When the season shut down the Pelicans found themselves outside of the playoffs in the Western Conference and were not expected to make it considering that Zion Williamson was out for most of the season. However, New Orleans now finds themselves playing in the eight regular season games to try to sneak in as the eighth seed in the Western Conference. If the Pelicans are able to find a way to sneak in, it may give the NBA fans what they all want to see – Zion vs LeBron in the first round of the playoffs.
Utah Jazz- The Jazz find themselves in the four seed in the Western Conference with a record of 41-23. The big question surrounding Utah is wether Donavon Mitchell and Rudy Gobert will be able to fix their relationship on the court after Gobert foolishly touched a microphone after a press conference while COVID was in the air. This ultimately resulted in him spreading the virus to Mitchell which reportledly resulted in their relationship becoming unsalvageable. While they both claim that they talked it out and are ok now, there is a difference between talking the talk and walking the walk.
In the end, I believe that the Finals will be the LA Clippers vs the Milwaukee Bucks. I still favor the Clippers considering their loaded depth and having ownership of Kawhi Leonard, a two-time finals MVP. While Giannis is special, he is still young and hasn’t showed me yet if he can come up in clutch situations in the playoffs.