Now that the NBA’s 88-game comeback schedule is out, we can begin to see different strategies for how each team will attack the “seeding” portion of the resumed season before the playoffs begin.
For teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, LA Clippers, Toronto Raptors, Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics, there is security in the lofty positions earned through the first portion of the season, before the coronavirus forced a suspension in play.
But that doesn’t mean they can shift to cruise control.
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While every team will want to find a good groove immediately -- in an unprecedented format, in a city and environment that will be foreign to all but the hometown Orlando Magic -- certain teams will need to manage things more tightly as the pecking order sorts itself out over the quick two-week sprint to end the regular season.
With home court advantage no longer a factor for any of the 22 teams involved -- not the highest seeds or any of the teams still clinging to the dream -- seeding numbers remain an integral part of the process. Here’s a quick look at what we could see:
Teams with no time to waste
The Nuggets are sitting in the right spot headed to Orlando but they can ill afford to take their final eight games for granted. With Utah, Oklahoma City and Houston trailing them by just 2.5 games in the loss column, the difference between the No. 3 and No. 7 seed in the Western Conference playoff chase is a stumble or two away.
The Mavericks are actually better than their record indicates; they were on the losing end of many close games. But with a healthier group, and the Thunder and Rockets focused on each other, there could be an opening for Luka Doncic and his crew to make a move up and possibly avoid the Clippers in the first round.
Working without second-leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic (wrist surgery) is a big blow for a Jazz team that needs all its offensive firepower to make a deep playoff run. The chemistry between All-Stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert has to be on point from the start. Will it be? We’ll see.
Philadelphia: Easily the most perplexing team in the league before the shutdown, the Sixers have a chance to start healthy and fresh in Orlando. And Tobias Harris isn’t shy about trumpeting the Sixers’ championship aspirations or the fact that the chemistry was way off previously. Reconciling those things is critical immediately, especially for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Oh, and no more road games. Great news for the Sixers, who were 10-24 on the road before the stoppage.
Indiana: First there were injuries, then a significant roster overhaul. And now Malcolm Brogdon has to recover from a positive COVID-19 test. That’s just the latest obstacle for a Pacers team that continues to fly under the radar headed to Orlando. Brogdon and Victor Oladipo have to click from the start. The best part for the Pacers? A head-to-head matchup with the Sixers in the very first game.
Oklahoma City: Chris Paul drove this Thunder team into the mix for a top four seed despite expectations that weren’t anything close externally. Now that the Thunder are in a position to chase that spot, you can expect CP3 to be at his most demanding with so much on the line.
Houston: The Rockets are on even footing in the West with a Thunder team every bit as motivated to prove their critics wrong as James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Mike D’Antoni’s small-ball crew. The shutdown couldn’t have come at a better time for a Rockets team that was running on fumes.
Look over your shoulder
Brooklyn: As expected, the Nets will show up in Orlando without their two biggest stars, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. That doesn’t change the fact that they’re playing to avoid Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in that first-round playoff matchup. The hometown Magic will start in the same space in the standings but the desire to avoid the Bucks is much greater for the crew from Brooklyn, who have no wiggle room.
Orlando: Steve Clifford has to be tired of waiting for the invasion of teams to his team’s stomping grounds. What would normally be seen as an advantage could be anything but if the Magic don’t get off to a good start. Aside from the Lakers, Bucks and Clippers, is there any team with more pressure on them to perform, given the circumstances?
Scrapping and clawing
New Orleans: This 88-game conclusion to the regular season provides everyone with what they wanted most: More Zion Williamson. We'd only seen glimpses and flashes of the Pelicans’ dynamic rookie when the season was interrupted. Now we get to see what a rested, recharged and rejuvenated Zion looks like with a playoff opportunity at stake. The Pelicans had the easiest remaining schedule when the season was suspended and will have the easiest schedule in Orlando. They’re the only team with a cumulative opponent winning percentage below .500, with six of their eight games (each of the last six) against the nine bubble teams that currently have losing records.
Portland: They voted against the 22-team comeback format, but no team stands to gain more after the long layoff than the Blazers. With healthy bodies like Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins added to the core of Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Carmelo Anthony, this could well be the most dangerous team in the entire comeback season.
Memphis: The Grizzlies had the roughest remaining schedule of any team before the shutdown. They were going to have to fend off challengers from every direction to hold onto the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference. Rookie sensation Ja Morant looked to be ready for the fight. But what about now? The Grizzlies’ three most important games are their first three (Trail Blazers, Spurs, Pelicans).
Odds and ends
• The Lakers see the biggest jump in cumulative opponent winning percentage from what they had on their remaining schedule on March 11 (0.471, 18th-toughest among the 22 teams) to the bubble schedule (0.625, 3rd). The next biggest jumps belong to the Heat (from 14th-toughest to 2nd), Raptors (from 7th to 1st), and the Blazers (from 16th to 5th).
• The Wizards are the only team with a lower cumulative opponent winning percentage in the bubble (0.578, 10th toughest) than they had remaining on March 11 (0.583, 1st). Other teams benefiting from new schedule are the Grizzlies (from 2nd-toughest run to 6th), Mavs (4th to 15th) and Nets (8th to 19th).
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