August 5th , 2020
By: Sam Crickey & Mishal Goel
The Elite Three
Why they will be NBA Champions: This team is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can both shoulder the offensive load and guard any given team’s number one scoring threat. Leonard was the number one option on last year’s Raptors squad, who managed to win the championship in large part to his clutch scoring. Grouped with elite defender Patrick Beverly and the league’s best 6th man in Lou Williams, they will be extremely formidable in their championship pursuit.
Why they won’t: The Clippers lack elite defense at the center position. While Montrez Harrell is solid, his lack of height will make him struggle against the elite bigs of the top teams such as Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Paul George’s talent is undeniable; however, he has failed to ever make it to the finals in his career. His Pacers teams get a pass as they had to go through the Heatles squads of the early 2010s; however, after being traded to Oklahoma City, George struggled in the postseason, failing to win even one series in his two years there. In addition to this, neither Leonard nor George are quite on the level of LeBron James, meaning the Lakers will be a huge obstacle for them to climb in a seven game series.
Why they will be NBA Champions: One man. Lebron James. We all know how good he is and pairing him up with Anthony Davis is a match made in heaven. James is also leading the league in assists this season and he has good shooters around him in Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. This gives him better motivation to kick the ball out if the defenders close on him while he’s driving. The Lakers traded 3 very good pieces for AD and his production has not disappointed. AD can easily go for 30 on any given night and is leading the team in most statistical categories. This one-two punch, along with the role players, are playing great on both sides of the floor and can match up well with any team in the West or coming out of the East.
Why they won’t: The Lakers took a defensive hit when they lost their best guard defender in Avery Bradley. Bradley would usually guard the other teams best 1 or 2 guard, while Green would guard the other. This defensive duo helped lead the Lakers to a top 5 defense in the league. Now KCP, who is a capable defender, but not as good, takes the spot of Bradley. The Lakers lack star power coming off the bench. You have a good 6th man in Kuzma, but when you’re 7th man is Alex “AC Fresh” Caruso, you’re kind of in trouble. Sure Caruso is a good player, but he doesn’t have the flashy scoring or play making skills that other elite team’s benches have. Going further into the depth chart, you have Waiters, JR Smith, and Markieff Morris. The only player that has shown any production in his minutes is Waiters, who has been playing well. The Lakers will need someone off of the bench unit to be able to produce solid minutes to have a chance.
Why they will be NBA Champions: The Bucks are the best regular season team in the league this season. They have the MVP in Giannis and a great starting 5. Every member of the starting 5 is a certified bucket and can drop 20+ on any given night. George Hill being the 6th man helps this team significantly. It provides the 2nd unit with a point guard that should be a starter in this league, and another player who can score double digits any night. On the defensive end, the Bucks have a top 5 defense. Giannis, who is most likely going to be the defensive player of the year, and Brook Lopez have been great defending opposing teams bigs, while Bledsoe has been phenomenal defending guards.
Why they won’t: In a season where you only need 2 “superstars” to have a shot at the championship, the Bucks only have one. Yeah Kris Middleton is a star, but he is not a superstar. Plus, he has yet to show his potential in previous playoff games and performs very poorly. In addition, after George Hill, the bench unit isn’t that great. They have DiVincenzo and Connaughton, but they are both averaging less than 10 PPG and that will need to increase to have a shot against elite 2nd units (i.e. Clippers if they meet in the Finals).
The Championship Hopefuls
Why they will be NBA Champions: Everything clicks. The big three of Tatum, Brown, and Walker all hit their respective offensive and defensive ceilings; Tatum becomes a closeout superstar, Brown guards positions 1-4 while scoring 15-20 points per night, and Walker does it all on offense and provides clutch baskets in crunch time. Gordon Hayward finally shows that he is back to pre injury form and able to turn a solid bench unit into a great one. The Celtics are in great shape to make the NBA finals with only a few teams that will really challenge them, but whatever team makes it out of the West will be an extremely tough ask for Boston even at their peak.
Why they won’t: They lack a true superstar to turn to at the end of close playoff games. Jayson Tatum definitely has the potential to become that player, but I don’t think he is quite ready for that responsibility yet. “Cardiac Kemba” was known for his elite closeout ability at UCONN, but it’s been ten years since then and he hasn’t been on a championship contender level NBA team until now. This team projects similarly to the good, not great Raptors teams before Kawhi Leonard that could not get past teams with more star power. This is also another team who lacks top level play out of it’s bigs and will have issues with Joel Embiid and Giannis in later rounds.
Why they will be NBA Champions: The Houston Rockets have the third best shot to make it out of the West in my opinion, after both L.A. squads, due to their incredibly high scoring ceiling. Many laughed at the pairing of James Harden and Russell Westbrook pairing at the beginning of the season due to each player’s tendency to be extremely ball dominant. After a slow start, the team really found their footing when they began to use Westbrook as their focal point instead of Harden. They traded away Clint Capela for Robert Covington leaving them with very little in the center department, using lineups mostly comprised of 3&D wings. Thus allowing Westbrook to play with four shooters where he does a lot more penetrating and dishing compared to jump shots.The next evolution in “Morey Ball,” these lineups without a true big are very interesting and could be the push the Harden led Rockets need to get their first NBA title. Harden is possibly in his best form ever and can prove that he can be the guy on a championship team.
Why they won’t: Experimentation can breed issues, especially when your experiment is a gimmicky type of offense. PJ Tucker and Robert Covington have shown they can guard elite bigs, but will they be able to hold up over the course of the long haul of a 20 plus game playoffs? In addition, a team built entirely on shooting can go cold. This is the same organization that missed 27 three pointers in game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals and lost to the KD-less Warriors in back to back postseasons. I believe this team will hold up and will compete for the championship, but precedent is not on this team’s side.
Why they will win the NBA Championship: As Lebron said, “They won the championship for a reason […] It wasn’t just all solely because of Kawhi Leonard.” They retained 3 out of 5 starters, but lost 2 of their best defenders in Kawhi and Danny Green. Despite this, the Raptors are ranked in the top 5 defensively. The Raptors have a good starting 5 and a good 6th man big in Ibaka or Gasol, depending on the game. The Raptors, with excellent defense and coaching, could take any team in a playoff series.
Why they won’t win the NBA Championship: They lack the fire power to compete with high powered offenses like the Celtics, Heat, or Bucks. Although they have a good starting 5, they lack enough depth scoring. Ibaka and Gasol are defensive players and won’t score more than 20 a night. So where on the bench will scoring come from? No where. There is a reason why they are ranked 12th in offensive rating. Sure they can defend well, but if a team is scoring at will, the Raptors will not be able to keep up.
Why they will win the NBA Championship: I think we all witnessed the all big line up and the emergence of Bol Bol during the NBA Restart scrimmage games. If Bol Bol was to play at that high level, the Nuggets will be unstoppable. You pair the best passing big (Jokic) with a big that can do it all (Bol Bol), a deadly combo is created. But, I doubt he will play at that high of a level or get enough minutes. The Nuggets have Murray and Jokic who are both really good offensive players and can score at a high clip. Michael Porter Jr. can get hot (see Nuggets vs. Thunder) and can easily go for 20+ on a good night. The rest of the starting 5 usually drop double digits as the Nuggets have an elite offense.
Why they won’t: Defense. The Nuggets are a bottom half defensive team. Jokic is a terrible defender. He and the rest of the Nuggets bigs will struggle against good bigs in the West (AD, Harrel, Porzingis, or Nurkic) or the winner of the East (Giannis, Embiid, or Bam). The Nuggets are the opposite of the Raptors, they can score decently well, but won’t be able to stop other teams at a decent enough rate to win a best of 7 game series.
The Dark Horses
Why they will win the NBA Championship: The Miami Heat is a really deep team. Jimmy Butler has been playing high level, scrappy basketball. Bam Adebayo and Kendrick Nunn have been surprises and have been rising to star potential. Duncan Robinson is super splashy and has been shooting lights out. The Heat’s starting PF isn’t always consistent, but Derrick Jones, Jae Crowder, Meyers Leonard, and Kelly Olynyk can all score double digits. Even coming off the bench, any one of these players can score 10+. The 6th man is Goran Dragic, who should be a starting PG in the league and has been averaging 15+ points as a starter or coming off the bench. Tyler Herro has one of the prettiest shots in the game, and his 3 point shooting percentage shows. Finally, Iguodala provides veteran leadership and is another capable shooter and play maker. The Heat have fire power all the way from 1 to 10 on the depth chart.
Why they won’t win: The Heat’s defense is sub-par. Although Jimmy plays scrappy defense, he is rated 69th in general defense. Bam and Robinson are higher at 44 and 45, respectively. The rest of the team is ranked over 100. A team with a great big, such as the Bucks or the Raptors (Pascal Siakam) would be able to score at a high clip. Also, a team with an elite PG and SG will be hard to stop because Duncan Robinson can’t guard both of them at the same time. Although the Heat can light it up, they might not be able to defend at a better rate than they score in a 7 game series.
Why they will win the NBA Championship: If there’s any team that represents untapped potential the most, it’s the 76ers. This team is stacked with talent and should be able to beat anyone and be a favorite to make it out of the East. Embiid and Simmons are both extremely talented superstars and could each easily lead a team to the 2nd round in the East as the sole star. Tobias Harris should be a perfect complimentary third star, and there are very few teams with better “big 3s.” If they can figure out their spacing issues and use that amazing team defense effectively, this team has a great chance to make it out of the East.
Why they won’t: Despite this team’s overload of talent, they are only the 6 seed in the East at the time of this post. Why is that? Spacing, lineups, and chemistry. A starting 5 of Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Al Horford, and Josh Richardson cannot compete in the modern pace and space era. Harris and Richardson are competent three point shooters, but having three guys that get most of their points on the interior does not bode well against teams like the Heat, Raptors, or Bucks. The solution is to spread their minutes out to keep them off the floor together; however, that is very hard to do when your two best players are among your three best interior scorers. Brett Brown needs to make lineup adjustments and find one that truly clicks, otherwise this team could end up bombing out early.
Why they will win the NBA Championship: The Dallas Mavericks are, in my opinion, the longest shot of any team that does have a chance to win it all. If the stars align, they could be the lowest seeded team to ever win the NBA Finals. This team has star power that can match any team in the league and is extremely deep. Luka Doncic has blossomed into an MVP candidate and there are only a couple teams that can say they have a better number two option than Kristaps Porzingis. The Mavs are on pace to be the highest scoring team of all time and have great firepower with Tim Hardaway Jr., Seth Curry, and Boban Marjanovic. They can outscore and outplay any top team in the West and can easily hold their own in a seven game series against either L.A. team. Whoever ends up as the two seed should be very worried, this is one of the best seven seeded teams ever.
Why they won’t: This Mavericks team has one crucial achilles heel; clutch time. They have blown eighteen leads of ten points or greater in the fourth quarter this year, and the bubble does not seem to be changing that after two excruciating losses to the Rockets and the lowly Suns. Doncic in particular has been brutally bad late in games, shooting below 35% from the field and just 17% from 3 in the fourth quarter this year. Late game mistakes are par for a team with inexperienced stars, but they’ll have to be much better in crunch time if they want to shock the world and be the lowest seeded champion in NBA history.
Portland Trail Blazers
Why they can win a series: This team is finally healthy and is rocking one of the best starting 5s in the league. You have Dame Lillard, who is a bonafide superstar, with CJ McCollum as his running mate. When Dame is on the bench, CJ plays point guard as well as the best of them. Then you got skinny Melo, who isn’t as good as he once was, but he is still a bucket. Your two big men are finally healthy in Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic. Both of these players are playing like they haven’t missed a beat and Nurkic’s connection with Lillard is still there. The Trail Blazers definitely have more than enough fire power to upset the Lakers in the first round (if they make it).
Why they won’t: After the starting 5, there really isn’t another player who can score. Hassan Whiteside is on the tail end of his career. Their best 6th man got injured early on in the season. If Rodney Hood wasn’t hurt, he could have supplied some additional scoring off the bench. Although this team has the star power offensively, they struggle defensively. Dame and CJ are not great defenders, and Melo is Melo. They will struggle against teams that have good guards and in a potential 1st round match up with the Lakers, they would struggle to guard AD and especially Lebron.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Why they can win a series: The Thunder are easily the surprise team of the season. After losing their 2 superstars in PG13 and Westbrook, they were projected to be a lottery team. However, the emergence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander squashed that projection. Surprisingly, the Thunder have one of the best death line-ups with CP3, Dennis Schroder and Gilgeous-Alexander. These 3 guards can dish the ball or score at a high rate. A front court of Gallinari and Adams produces more 3 point shooting and dunks/rebounds, respectively. The Thunder have been competing with and beating some of the best teams in the West this season with the 3 headed monster.
Why they‘ll be bounced in the first round: Yeah they have a 3 headed monster, but once again, in this season, you need at least 2 superstars to compete. The Thunder do not have enough reliable scoring options besides these 3 players and in a 7 game series, I don’t see them being able to score at the same rate as other superstar loaded teams. Also, this team lacks defensively and will struggle to guard elite players.
Why they will win a series: The Bojan Bogdanovic-less Utah Jazz are going to struggle in the NBA Restart without their elite three point shooter, but are more than capable of winning a series given the right matchup. The elite defense of Rudy Gobert cannot be overstated, there are very few players in the league as good as him on that side of the ball, making the interior incredibly hard to attack while he’s on the floor. Donovan Mitchell’s scoring has steadily improved and if he can take over in a few games, they could certainly sneak into the 2nd round.
Why they’ll be bounced in the first round: While Mitchell and Gobert are a nice pair of stars to have, they cannot compete offensively with “big 2s” of the truly elite Western teams and their great defense is not so great that it can completely take over enroute to multiple series wins. Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson have been underwhelming in the point guard position so far this year and don’t have much time to readjust. Conley has made some improvements lately, but Clarkson just had a dismal game against the Lakers. With a middling offense and an elite, but not game breaking defense, the Jazz project to be a first round exit just like last year.
Will Compete in the 1st Round
Why they will be competitive: I think we all just saw what TJ Warren just did to the 76ers. Warren isn’t going to drop 50 every night, but if he drops around 25 a night, a 2nd round exit is more likely to occur. Warren followed his career night with 34 against the Wizards. The Pacers definitely do not lack other scoring options with Oladipo, Turner, and Brogden. If Oladipo can return to pre-injury form, this team can compete with all of the teams in the East, besides the Bucks.
Why they will get bounced early: They lost their best player for the rest of the season. Domantas Sabonis left the bubble to treat his foot injury and there is no guarantee he will return. That leaves Myles Turner as the only quality big. Also, there was speculation that Oladipo would sit since Sabonis is out, but Oladipo has confirmed he will play. Despite this good news, the Pacers still lost their All Star big man and will now need to rely on a bad bench unit, a recovering Oladipo, and other unproven starters.
Why they will be competitive: The Grizzlies have really good young talent. Ja Morant is going to be Rookie of the Year and Brandon Clarke is also in the running. They also have Jaren Jackson Jr., one of the best young bigs in the game. Dillon Brooks is having himself a nice season. Valanciunas is a good center that is able to spread the floor with his 3 point shooting abilities. Ja, JJJ, and Clarke all have the potential to score 20-30 points on a given night, so this team could win a playoff game or two. UPDATE: Jaren Jackson Jr. is out for the season with a torn meniscus.
Why they will get bounced early: Besides the players listed prior, this team doesn’t have other scoring options. They lack a superstar in this superstar driven league and the absence of a quality defensive big man will make them struggle to guard AD, Jokic, etc. They rank in the lower half of the bubble teams in defense and their offensive abilities will not be good enough to make up for their sub-par defense.
Why they will be competitive: The Magic just suffered a crucial blow, losing young defensive star Jonathan Isaac for the foreseeable future with a torn ACL. In spite of this, the Magic should still be able to compete with the one seed Bucks or two seed Raptors as they have a pretty solid roster and interesting young talent. Led by Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon, the Magic are deep from top to bottom defensively and have some above average scoring options. Markelle Fultz should be playing starter minutes and should be continuing to improve while getting some great playoff experience.
Why they will get bounced early: Simply put, the Magic are not good enough to give the elite Milwaukee Bucks or the Toronto Raptors a run for their money, especially without Jonathan Isaac to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo or Pascal Siakam. They are a team that will be seeing what they have in young and fringe guys, and will look towards next season.
New Orleans Pelicans
Why they will be competitive: Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson have the potential to be an incredible superstar pairing in a couple years, and are already proving just how good they are on the offensive end. The Pelicans have a tough road to the playoffs, but alongside Portland, hold the best chance to unseat the Grizzlies from their 8th seed position. Their backcourt is very good defensively and Ball’s dimes are elite. JJ Redick’s shooting off the bench will also be very key in them getting up to the play in game.
Why they won’t: Inefficient shooting, turnovers, and mental mistakes seem to plague this Pelicans roster. Lonzo Ball, in particular, has been brutal thus far from the field as his three ball has not been falling. Williamson also appears to be a little out of shape and has been playing limited minutes so far in the restart, in spite of their must win mentality. This young team has some growing up to do if they want to sneak into the 8 seed.
San Antonio Spurs
Why they can’t compete: Seeing a Greg Poppovich team being terrible is huge news. His teams have made the playoffs for 22 consecutive years. However, ever since Manu, Tony, and Tim all retired and Kawhi got traded, this team hasn’t had enough fire power to compete in the West. Sure they made the playoffs last season, but this year’s West is incredibly deep and DeRozan is not enough to produce a team that can make the playoffs or compete for the 9th seed for the play-in game(s).
Why they can’t compete: Caris LaVert is their best player. I’m a huge Caris fan, but he should not be the best player on any team. I guess that’s what happens when most of the starting 5 decides they don’t want to play in Orlando. Yeah they will make the playoffs because the Wizards won’t be within 4 games of them, but they will easily get bounced out by the Bucks or the Raptors in the 1st round.
Why they can’t compete: The Wizards have no John Wall, no Bradley Beal, and no Davis Bertans. Without your three best players, there is simply no way you will be winning many games. The Wizards will be using the bubble to get their young players significant minutes, and to see what they have with fringe guys. Look for Rui Hachimura and Troy Brown Jr. to lead this team, but don’t look for many wins.
Why they can’t compete: The Suns have a roster that would probably be playoff caliber in the Eastern Conference, but in an incredibly tough West, they find themselves with a very tough climb to force their way into the ninth seed. Booker, Ayton, and Bridges are a great core to have for a rising team, but as of right now, it seems like they’re at least a year away.
Why they can’t compete: Forever mired in the fact that they are the team who passed up on Luka Doncic, the Kings roster is probably the worst in the West. De’Aaron Fox is a great piece, but Marvin Bagley’s struggles and Buddy Hield’s shooting woes prove this team to be very lackluster. Enjoy De’Aaron’s flash, but don’t expect much from Sacramento.