As the NBA moves towards a late-July restart, this week the Toronto Raptors became the first team to arrive in the Orlando hub that will host the abridged finale to the regular season – eight games for each team plus the potential for a play-in tournament for the eighth seeds – and then the usual playoff format.
Make no mistake, the 2019/20 NBA championship race is wide open. A four-month hiatus, just a very brief training camp and the absence of fans in the arena feels like the recipe for some edge-of-your-seat surprises. As we get closer to July, we are doing a quick pulse check on those teams entering the NBA bubble.
Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 49-14, first in the Western Conference
Biggest question: Will Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard join the Lakers in Orlando (and, either way, will it impact team chemistry)? Bradley and Howard have reportedly been two of the more vocal presences in discussions over whether to sit out the rest of the season to protest social injustice. While it is indisputable that they have every right to do so, their absence would prompt significant tweaks in head coach Frank Vogel’s rotation. Bradley’s perimeter defense takes the strain off LeBron James, while Howard’s rebounding and rim protection relieves some of Anthony Davis’ heavy lifting. Based on the weeks prior to the NBA stoppage, the Lakers looked like the best team in the NBA. At full strength, they would remain marginal title favourites, assuming all those who gather in Orlando can get on the same page.
X-factor: Alex Caruso. Caruso has impressed off the bench this year (18 minutes a game) and could be in line for some extra playing time, even if all of the Lakers report for the season restart. He understands his role and stays within it. At 6”5, he has the length to bother opposition point guards and has emerged as a solid defender. If he can nudge his three-point percentage closer to 40%, Caruso could see more playoff minutes than anyone would have imagined back in October.
Record: 44-20, second in the Western Conference
Biggest question: What is the Clippers’ best crunch-time line-up? Head coach Doc Rivers has the luxury of one of the league’s deepest benches, but that also brings conundrums when it comes to the final five minutes of tight playoff games. If the Clippers play Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell next to the superstar duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, that leaves Patrick Beverley, Landry Shamet, Marcus Morris and Ivica Zubac fighting for the final spot. While the answer may depend on matchups, it would help LA to have some continuity with their first choice closing line-up. Injuries and rest have hampered the Clippers’ on-court chemistry all year and time is running out to solidify the kind of innate understanding necessary to withstand postseason adversity.
X-factor: Morris. His size and fearlessness make him a valuable defender in more physical postseason matchups, and he knows all about facing LeBron James in the playoffs. Though his tendency to look for his own shot has the potential to throw the Clippers off track if it takes the ball away from Leonard and George, Rivers will likely roll the dice on that shot selection if Morris keeps making over 40% of his triples.