As the NBA continues to work through the countless steps required before the players can return to action, a late July restart, featuring 22 of the 30 teams, is becoming increasingly likely. A four-month hiatus, just a very brief training camp and the absence of fans in the arena are major variables in the race for the 2019/20 championship, but a wide open playoff picture should add another fun layer.
Looking ahead to 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, we are doing a quick pulse check on those teams that are entering the NBA bubble. We have already walked through the nine Eastern Conference representatives who will be heading to Orlando next month. Now it is time to dissect the 13 Western Conference teams, including the battle royale for the eighth seed.
Record: 28-36, 11th in the Western Conference
Biggest question: With a healthy roster, what will head coach Luke Walton’s rotation look like? The Kings’ depth has not always shone through due to injuries this season, but they should be firing on all cylinders in Orlando. That means Walton will need to figure out frontcourt minutes between Richaun Holmes, Harrison Barnes, Marvin Bagley III, Harry Giles, Nemanja Bjelica and Alex Len. Likewise, in the backcourt, there are tough decisions to be made, as Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic push to start next to De’Aaron Fox. With work to do to snatch the eighth seed away from the Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento need to get their rotation spot on from the start.
X-factor: Giles. While Holmes (shoulder) was sidelined, Giles showcased his athleticism and he was still starting prior to the season being suspended. Minutes might be in short supply, especially if the Kings choose to go small, but Giles could be a useful spark plug to take advantage of heavy-legged opponents. He still needs to refine parts of his game, but the raw skills are eye-catching.
San Antonio Spurs
Record: 27-36, 12th in the Western Conference
Biggest question: Who starts in place of the injured LaMarcus Aldridge? The Spurs went to a smaller starting line-up in some of the games that Aldridge missed this season but, if Jakob Poeltl is healthy, he is the logical pick in the frontcourt next to Trey Lyles. Still, with Poeltl coming off a worrying knee injury. and with spacing issues to navigate, look for San Antonio to finish games with a terrier-like smaller group on the floor. The biggest shift will be the heavier scoring burden on DeMar DeRozan, who can expect his fair share of double teams if he gets on a roll.
X-factor: The Dejounte Murray-Derrick White backcourt. The Spurs have been reluctant to unleash this two-headed monster for extended minutes due to the impact on spacing offensively, but it is a combination that would make life miserable for opposition perimeter scorers. Even if San Antonio only turn to this backcourt when DeRozan is on the bench, it could still be destructive in short spells. With only a slim chance of snatching the eighth seed, now is the perfect time for the Spurs to experiment.
Record: 26-39, 13th in the Western Conference
Biggest question: What upside can the Suns’ young core get from this experience? There was inevitable criticism of the decision to include Phoenix (and the Washington Wizards) in the Orlando bubble, given that they had fallen off the pace for the respective number eight seeds. But this could be a valuable eight-game spell for Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, who will get the chance to expand their on-court connection and taste high stakes NBA action.
X-factor: Mikal Bridges. The Suns are going to give their do-it-all second-year wing all the minutes he can handle (he played 43 minutes against the Portland Trail Blazers in Phoenix’s last game before the hiatus). Their brief stint in Orlando is an opportunity for Bridges to show he is ready to make a mini-leap next season.