This June — *knocks on wood* — we will have NBA playoff basketball. That may be the optimistic scenario (and it may be without fans in the stands), but we here at the NBC NBA page are optimistic people. We want to believe.
If a June postseason comes together, those playoffs will look a lot different from what we would have seen in mid-April — and that was already shaping up as one of the most wide-open, interesting playoffs in a decade.
The whole point of “load management” has been to keep guys healthy for the playoffs. This is government-forced load-management.
“If you give these guys a break going into the playoffs and you build the anticipation of the NBA coming back, you’re giving the best players in the world an extra two, three, four weeks off,” Matt Barnes said on ESPN’s First Take a week ago, at the time underestimating the length of the break.
“The energy in the playoffs is going to be off the charts. It’s going to be the best playoffs we’ve seen because everyone is fully rested and fully healthy.”
Fully healthy could be the key — players who would have been out, or at least slowed, due to injury, could be back at 100 percent. Here is a look at how a late playoff could be changed by health.
• A fully loaded Brooklyn Nets team. At the top of the list of potential game-changers is Kevin Durant. Durant did not set foot on the court for the Nets this season as he recovered from his torn Achilles (suffered in the NBA Finals), but that recovery seems to be going well.
Kevin Durant has progressed to 4-on-4 in his rehab. Here he takes rookie Nic Claxton off the dribble. First time I’ve seen Kevin Durant dunking since his injury.
This confirms that KD is in LA with the Nets for start of their west coast trip.pic.twitter.com/fXUgtkGjVQ
— Billy Reinhardt (@BillyReinhardt) March 10, 2020
Durant would not rule out playing in the Tokyo Olympics this summer, which would have required him on a court starting early July at USA training camp. So if the NBA playoffs get pushed back to a June start and run into August, would Durant suddenly be able to jump in?
Probably not. Durant’s business partner and manager Rich Kleiman was on ESPN radio and said of a return, “Honestly, not very realistic from my standpoint and not even spoken about.” Maybe that’s Durant’s camp keeping expectations down, although it’s more likely the truth and KD will not play until whenever next season starts. It would be asking a lot to have Durant come back, have some of his first games be high-level playoff games, and then have a short turnaround until the next season starts.
Kyrie Irving is the other Brooklyn wild card. He had shoulder surgery in February that was going to end his season, but if he could come back for a playoff push, that might interest Durant. With Durant and Irving, the Nets would be the most dangerous seven seed we’ve ever seen.
But most likely, the Nets stay focused on next season and keep their superstars on the bench in June.
• Ben Simmons returns to a fully healthy 76ers team. Things were falling apart for the 76ers when the season shut down, they had gone 5-5 since the All-Star break with a bottom 10 defense, and both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons had missed time with injuries.
Embiid had returned for the last game before the shutdown when he had 30 points and 14 boards against Detroit. However, a little more rest gets him fully healthy for a postseason run where he will have to play a lot of minutes.
Simmons is dealing with a pinched nerve in his back and the 76ers hoped they could get him back for the playoffs. Now, he could be back and at 100 percent for the playoffs, serving as a needed ball handler and shot creator for Philly.
Is that enough to fix their Island of Misfit Toys roster? Probably not. Brett Brown will pay the price for that. But a fully healthy 76ers team is long, athletic, veteran, and dangerous in a playoff matchup. If Simmons and Embiid are fully healthy, the 76ers are a real threat.
• Malcolm Brogdon could return to the Pacers. Indiana, sitting currently as the five-seed in the East, was already a sneaky-dangerous team who could get to the second round and push a team like the Bucks. They become that much more dangerous with Brogdon back. He likely was out for the season with a torn left rectus femoris (connecting the hip and quad), but if he can return with his 16.3 points and 7.1 assists per game, the Pacers just became a much tougher out.
Add to that the hiatus brings more time for Victor Oladipo to find his legs and his shot, and suddenly Indiana looks a lot more threatening.
• Boston will have a fully healthy Jaylen Brown back. The Celtics would have had Brown back anyway for the postseason, but he had missed games due to a strained right hamstring, and those can linger. Maybe that would not have been an issue in the playoffs, but now there are no worries. With Brown and Jayson Tatum, Boston may be the biggest threat to Milwaukee in the East.
• Orlando could get Jonathon Isaac back. Is this going to win the Magic a playoff series? No. But getting their breakout player back makes the Magic better — and more watchable. Isaac had been out due to a posterior lateral corner injury of his left knee as well as a bone bruise, and he was thought done for the season. Now, he could return. On offense he’s still a work in progress, but he averaged 12 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, both career bests. Isaac is already a game-changer on the defensive end, where he is a long, athletic, switchable defender averaging 2.4 blocks, and 1.6 steals a game. He’s had the kind of season that would get him All-Defensive Team votes, getting that kind of player back helps.
• Memphis will have Justise Winslow, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Brandon Clarke all back and healthy. Much like the note on Orlando above, the fact that these three players will be healthy is not going to lift the eight-seed Grizzlies past LeBron James and the Lakers in the first round. Not a chance. But for a young team looking to build for the future getting their young core — along with a healthy Ja Morant — playoff game experience is a big step forward for them. Plus, it makes that first-round series a little more interesting to watch.
• Portland could have big men Jusuf Nurkick and Zach Collins back, but no postseason to play them in. The Trail Blazers sit as the nine seed in the West, 3.5 games back of Memphis. It is highly unlikely they are going to get to play enough regular season games to catch them and become a genuinely dangerous first-round team (you think the Lakers want to see Damian Lillard in the first round?). But indulge the what-ifs here: What we learned about Portland this season is just how much Nurkic means to the team, now he would be back, with Zach Collins playing either next to him at the four and/or as a backup five, depending upon the situation. Portland would be a lot more dangerous, but we likely don’t get to see that.