NBA Power Rankings: Orlando season restart edition

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The NBA is back! Probably. There are still a few things to work out, some serious issues to untangle for players such as the impact of a return on the Black Lives Matter movement, and their own health and safety. Still, our NBA Power Rankings are back; this is a basketball-focused look on where the teams stand going into Orlando (or, what the teams not headed to Orlando need to look at).

Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (49-14, Last Week No. 1). LeBron James wants to play and chase a legacy-defining ring in Orlando, and that’s good enough for some other players. They have the best duo in the league with LeBron and Anthony Davis. Just before the NBA shut down the Lakers beat the Buck and Clippers in one week, showing off an impressive defense, and if Los Angeles can get back to defending at that level (and using it to spark some easy transition buckets) they will be tough to beat. You know LeBron is in shape and ready to go.

Clippers small icon 2. Clippers (44-20, LW 2). The Clippers are one of the teams that may benefit from the extended break this season — a healthy and rested Kawhi Leonard should be ready to go in Orlando. The Clippers were just getting healthy and coming on when the season was shut down, and remember this team is 21-5 in games Leonard, Paul George, and Patrick Beverley are healthy and play. Will the relentless pace of games every other day slow down Leonard by the conference finals and Finals?

Bucks small icon 3. Bucks (53-12, LW 3). Giannis Antetokounmpo missed a couple of games with a knee injury right before the league was shut down and would have missed more — maybe opening up the MVP race for LeBron — but now, headed to Orlando, he is 100% and fired up. The lingering question with the Bucks in the playoffs remains: When it gets down to the conference finals and Finals, and another team cuts Antetokounmpo’s easy paths to the rim, can the Bucks go to a “Plan B” and still have enough offense to win games? It’s easy to say “yes” on paper, but they have to prove it (and Mike Budenholzer has to lead the adjustments).

Celtics small icon 4. Celtics (43-21, LW 5). Jayson Tatum broke out as an elite, All-NBA level player in the month of the season. Jaylen Brown was just a step behind him. Pair those two with veteran and scoring machine Kemba Walker and a healthy Gordon Hayward, and that is as athletic, versatile, and switchable 1-4 as there is in the league. Those players, and the Celtics fourth-ranked defense, make them a threat to make the Finals out of the East. The question becomes, are big men Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter, and Robert Williams good enough to hang with the Bucks (and Philly in the first round, if that’s the matchup)? Teams with size will test Boston.

Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (46-18, LW 4). Toronto had the second best defense in the NBA over the course of the season and that can carry them a long way in Orlando, especially when combined with the breakout season of Pascal Siakam. Nick Nurse has done a Coach of the Year job of putting players in positions to succeed. However, the Raptors are 2-7 against other teams who are the top three seeds in either conference – Toronto beat the teams it was supposed to beat, but can it rise up and knock off the best teams in the playoffs without their closer from last season’s championship run?

Rockets small icon 6. Rockets (40-24, LW 9). More than 60 games into the NBA season James Harden looked worn down by the grind and the load put on his shoulders: In his five games played in March before the shut down he averaged 28.2 points a game (down from his 34.4 season average) and his True Shooting Percentage dropped to a league-average 55.3. He looked slower on defense, and he averaged a -10.3 in those games. Video workouts show he has lost weight and comes back rested and ready to run, and there is nobody in the league who can stop his setback. How far Houston can go with their extreme small remains to be seen, but they don’t have another option, and nobody has seen anything quite like it.

Nuggets small icon 7. Nuggets (43-22, LW 8). Skinny Nikola Jokic is real and that should worry the rest of the league — over the final month of the season he was already playing at a “consider me for the bottom of your MVP ballot” level. Denver has depth and versatility (likely enough to hold on to the three seed through the “seeding games”), but whether their pick-and-roll defense is good enough to advance them in the playoffs will be a challenge — every team is going to target Jokic and Jamal Murray in the pick-and-roll.

Heat small icon 8. Heat (41-24, LW 6). Miami added Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder at the trade deadline to join Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic in providing a veteran and winning presence on this team. Even so, how far Miami goes in the playoffs will depend on their young core of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. Can that young group handle the pressure and intensity of the postseason?

Thunder small icon 9. Thunder (40-24, LW 7). Oklahoma City is an interesting chess match on the court in the playoffs. When they go to a three point-guard lineup — Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander — they are +16.2 per 100 possessions in the regular season, but will that hold up against better (and bigger) teams in the playoffs. Surround those three guards with Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams and the Thunder are +29.9 per 100 possessions (in only 177 minutes, but still). However, sub Adams or Gallinari out and the numbers fall of quick (defenses can ignore anyone else in that scenario and focus on the guards). Can Billy Donovan’s best lineups play enough minutes together in the postseason to win a series?

Sixers small icon 10. 76ers (39-26, LW 12). Philadelphia is one of the teams that benefits the most from the coronavirus-forced break — they get a healthy Ben Simmons back from his back issues, and adding an All-Star to the starting lineup makes the team better. The issue remains shooting, which is why it is expected Brett Brown will bring Al Horford off the bench and start Shake Milton with Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, and Joel Embiid — but that five has played zero minutes together this season. Are eight seeding games enough for the Sixers to settle into a rotation that works? If so, this is a dangerous team in the East.

Mavericks small icon 11. Mavericks (40-27, LW 10). Don’t worry about Luka Doncic’s conditioning, he’s fine and will be good to go when play resumes. Dallas would like to get out of the seven seed in the West (and a date with the Clippers in the first round) but while they are just 1.5 games back of Houston and Oklahoma City (the two teams ahead of them), the Mavs have played three more games than either of those teams and lost them all. Dallas needs to get on a run in the seeding games to leapfrog either of them.

Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (39-26, LW 11). Indiana was starting to find a groove as Victor Oladipo worked his way back, they won six of the last seven games he played (but he sat out four games in the middle of that stretch). Combined with Malcolm Brogdon and a top-10 defense, the Pacers will be a tough out in the postseason (even without Jeremy Lamb, who is still out after his torn ACL). However, to win a playoff round would require the All-NBA level Oladipo to show up in Orlando and take over games.

Jazz small icon 13. Jazz (41-23, LW 13). A bigger concern than the Donovan Mitchell/Rudy Gobert issues and its potential impact on team chemistry (league sources say the two have worked things out) is the loss of Bojan Bogdanovic to a wrist injury. He became a critical secondary playmaker and the Jazz offense was 8.5 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the court this season. His loss dampens Utah’s postseason hopes, they will need Mike Conley to quickly find a comfort zone and dominate in the pick-and-roll to have much hope come the postseason, even with Gobert and the Utah defense.

Blazers small icon 14. Trail Blazers (29-37, LW 19). No team benefitted more (not even Philly) from the forced three-month suspension of the league than the Trail Blazers. They return with a fully healthy Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins on their front line, essentially re-uniting the core that won 53 games and made the conference finals the season before. Is that enough to get Portland into the play-in games with Memphis, then beat the Grizzlies two games in a row? Maybe, maybe not, but Portland, led by the clutch shooting of Damian Lillard, has a better shot at that any other team in the West. This restart sets up well for them (they have the winning percentage advantage over New Orleans).

Pelicans small icon 15. Pelicans (28-36, LW 17). The league got what it wanted: Zion Williamson is in the bubble. The Pelicans were playing better basketball than anybody at the bottom of the West the final 10 games before the forced break (a +2.5 net rating) — and they got there because they were playing good defense. If the Pelicans can sustain that defense and mix it with an improving offense this team is a threat to make the playoffs. You know the suits at ESPN/Turner want that Brandon Ingram/Lonzo Ball against LeBron and the Lakers matchup in the first round of the playoffs.

Grizzlies small icon 16. Grizzlies (32-33, LW 15). Memphis earned the right to be the eighth seed in the West and the advantages that come with it thanks to the Rookie of the Year play of Ja Morant. Now they add a healthy Justise Winslow — with a training camp and eight seeding games to work him in — plus a 3.5 games cushion on everyone chasing them. The Grizzlies should hold on to the eighth seed heading into a play-in series. Then they just have to win one of two games — that’s the real test for this young team.

Magic small icon 17. Magic (30-35, LW 14). Orlando’s offense caught fire after the All-Star break, it was the best in the NBA. If they can recapture that fire, then add defensive stopper Jonathon Isaac (injured but working to return, although it’s a long shot), we could see the best of Orlando in, well, Orlando. That may well be enough to vault them past Brooklyn and into the seven seed, avoiding any threat from a play-in series (although it’s hard to imagine Washington catching up enough with Orlando to force those games anyway).

Nets small icon 18. Nets (30-34, LW 16). No Kevin Durant. No Kyrie Irving. And interim coach in Jacque Vaughn and a lot of uncertainty around the roster. That’s a lot of issues for Brooklyn to deal with during the restart. Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and company played good defense this season, they will need to sustain that and find some consistent offense or Orlando will pass them and maybe Washington can even force the play-in games. Brooklyn has some work to do.

Kings small icon 19. Kings (28-36, LW 18). Sacramento was starting to pull itself together before the forced hiatus of the league, with De’Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic sparking an offense that was finding its footing. Add in Marvin Bagley III — who was injured but is expected back — and the Kings have an outside chance to end their 14-year playoff drought if they get hot in Orlando.

Spurs small icon 20. Spurs (27-36, LW 20). LaMarcus Aldridge is out for the restart following shoulder surgery, and that put a dagger in the Spurs chances, which were pretty long before that news. They do have Gregg Popovich as the coach and an interesting young backcourt with Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, but a team that lives and dies on the midrange jumper (especially that of DeMar DeRozan) is not going to get hot enough in the seeding games to climb up into the postseason. Will Popovich realize that and experiment with lineups for next season? Popovich, and a lot of the Spurs staff, have been powerful when speaking on social justice issues in recent weeks.

Suns small icon 21. Suns (26-39, LW 21). Phoenix is expected to have Kelly Oubre Jr. back from injury for this restart. Combine him with Devin Booker, Ricky Rubio, Mikal Bridges, and Deandre Ayton and you have an impressive starting five that has been +20.2 points per 100 possessions (small sample size theater alert here, they haven’t played together much). Even with that group the Suns are not leapfrogging enough teams to get into the playoff mix this season, but it’s a chance for Monty Williams to lay groundwork for next season.

Wizards small icon 22. Wizards (24-40, LW 22). No John Wall. That means Bradley Beal is going to go to Orlando and put up numbers… which is what he did before the break, playing at an All-NBA level, and Washington is still 16 games below .500. Which speaks to this team having the worst defense in the NBA last season. Washington is a long shot even to force play-in games against Orlando or Brooklyn, let alone beat one of those two more talented and better-balanced squads two games in a row to make the playoffs.

Bulls small icon 23. Bulls (22-43, LW 24). How many changes Arturas Karnisovas will make this offseason — with its condensed timeline and likely reduced salary cap — remains to be seen, although Jim Boylen being out as coach is likely the big one. Still, there are a lot of questions. Can Coby White and Zach LaVine form a winning backcourt? Will a new coach use Lauri Markkanen in a better way? What is Wendell Carter Jr.’s role in a new offense? Is Kris Dunn part of the future in Chicago? There is some talent on this roster, and players have improved, but the pieces have yet to get together in a winning way.

24. Timberwolves (19-45, LW 28). D'Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns played just 25 minutes together and that leads to the biggest question for Minnesota going forward: Can those two play good enough pick-and-roll defense to make this a winning team? The offense will be strong, but can this team get stops. Expect Gersson Rosas to be aggressive in looking for shooters and defenders to go around his stars, but there are 29 other teams looking for defenders who can shoot, too.

Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (20-46, LW 29). Coach Lloyd Pierce didn’t get a chance to unleash a Trae Young/Clint Capela pick-and-roll on the world in Orlando, it will have to wait until next season (if Pierce is around next season, that is not a lock by any means). Atlanta needs to improve its ball movement on offense and improve its 28th in the league defense to take a step forward, but they have the talent on the roster to do all of that. Expect a leap from the Hawks next season.

Hornets small icon 26. Hornets (23-42, LW 23). It was fun to watch Devonte' Graham explode on the scene this year and make a run at Most Improved Player, but for my money the biggest question for Charlotte going forward remains: Who is it building this team around? Who is the future star? The team will have another lottery pick this season, and in 2021 should have cap space (once Nicolas Batum comes off the books), but they need to find a cornerstone player now that Kemba Walker is gone.

Knicks small icon 27. Knicks (20-45, LW 25). Leon Rose is running the show and soon Tom Thibodeau will be the head coach (or, maybe Kenny Atkinson, but the smart money is still on Thibs), which means changes are coming to Madison Square Garden. The question is what direction do they go: Build around their young talent such as RJ Barrett, Michell Robinson, and whoever they draft this season; or, use that talent and some money to trade for an established star (or get one in future free agency)? Or maybe they split the difference and try to do a little of both (which sounds very Knicks on the surface). It’s another redo in New York; we’ll see if this one goes better than the previous attempts.

Pistons small icon 28. Pistons (20-45, LW 26). They got out from under the contract of Andre Drummond, and there are some good young players on the roster such as Luke Kennard and Sekou Doumbouya (and Christian Wood, if they can re-sign him). However, Blake Griffin is still an anchor on the books. Derrick Rose may be better as trade bait with his $7.7 million contract. There is still a lot of rebuilding work to be done in Detroit, this process is just getting started.

Cavaliers small icon 29. Cavaliers (19-46, LW 27). Cleveland’s last two top draft picks, Darius Garland and Collin Sexton, have formed a defensive disaster of a backcourt with questions about the offensive upside for either or both (depending upon who you ask). Andre Drummond is on the roster now but his size alone is not going to protect the rim and improve the defense, the Cavaliers need perimeter defenders. And just a lot more talent (hopefully they can pick some up in this year’s draft).

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (15-50 LW 30). The question in the Bay Area is what draft pick do the Warriors end up with — 14% chance of No. 1, but a 48% chance of No. 5 — and what do they do with it. The expectation around the league is they will shop the pick, but in a down draft that may not be enough, so they may just use it to add some young talent. This team will still have Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green next season, and if they can find a role for Andrew Wiggins and get decent center play they become a very dangerous, high seed team again.

Rudy Gobert to replace name on jersey with ‘Equality’ as first social justice messages leak

Jazz center Rudy Gobert
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“Equality” and “Vote” have proven popular among the first social justice messages on the back of NBA player jerseys have been leaked to the public.

The choices of nine NBA players were leaked by Chris Haynes of TNT and Yahoo Sports on Tuesday during Inside the NBA on TNT. Here is the first list:

Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz) – “Equality”
CJ McCollum (Portland Trail Blazers) – “Education Reform”
Jusuf Nurkic (Portland Trail Blazers) – ‘Equality”
Kent Bazemore (Sacramento Kings) – “Education Reform”
Matisse Thybulle (Philadelphia 76ers) – “Vote”
Pat Connaughton (Milwaukee Bucks) – “Equality”
Meyers Leonard (Miami Heat) – “Equality”
Ivica Zubac (Los Angeles Clippers) – “Enough”
Moe Wagner (Wizards) – “Vote”

The NBA is a multi-billion dollar business, so it wanted to allow for social justice messages on jerseys — but not any social justice message. It had to come from a pre-approved list (read: things that felt “safe” and would not offend the core audience). That did not sit well with players, but everyone is headed to Orlando for the restart for financial reasons, so of course this was a business decision. The list of approved messages is:

Black Lives Matter; Say Their Names; Vote; I Can’t Breathe; Justice; Peace; Equality; Freedom; Enough; Power to the People; Justice Now; Say Her Name; Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can); Liberation; See Us; Hear Us; Respect Us; Love Us; Listen; Listen to Us; Stand Up; Ally; Anti-Racist; I Am A Man; Speak Up; How Many More; Group Economics; Education Reform; Mentor.

NBA players will be arriving in Orlando through Thursday as the NBA starts to form its bubble and begin practices.

NBA coaches preach flexibility as first real practices about to begin

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Practice facilities in the NBA have been open for a couple of months, with one major element missing from them.

No team has had an actual practice yet.

Most of the work that has gone on in those buildings during the NBA’s shutdown has been voluntary, and all of it has been of the individual variety – one player working at one basket with one ball. That changes starting Thursday, when the first handful of teams at the Disney complex will be permitted to have full-fledged practices again.

“Every day will be an adventure, a little bit of, `OK, here’s where we are today, this practice will reflect this, tomorrow’s practice might be totally different,”‘ Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “And that’s what makes it interesting. It makes it fun. But it’s a little bit like a training camp. Every year you know you lay out all these grand plans and about the third practice you go, `Ooop, they’re out.”‘

The teams that arrived at Disney on Tuesday, assuming quarantines are completed and other issues haven’t popped up, will likely be permitted to practice sometime Thursday. More teams arrive Wednesday and Thursday, so their first practice sessions, in theory, would be as early as Friday and Saturday respectively.

Teams will be assigned a three-hour window and be able to run practice on a pair of side-by-side courts, with training and weight rooms nearby. Disney staff will clean and disinfect everything after one team leaves, preparing it for the next team to arrive.

“Just like with probably everything the league is doing, I think it’d be wise to have a degree of flexibility sprinkled in with everything that you’re planning, a degree of being able to either back off or turn it up a little bit, either way,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said. “But to be honest with you, that happens a lot even in the normal season. There’s a plan for the first practice and we’ll see how it goes.”

Players haven’t even been allowed to play 1-on-1 yet at team facilities, per the rules of the individual workouts. That all changes at Disney, where teams will be able to practice for about two weeks before a series of three scrimmages begin on July 22.

The season resumes on July 30. Players have said throughout the shutdown that having only three weeks of actual practice to get ready for game action may not be enough – but that’s what the league ultimately decided the schedule would allow.

Most NBA coaches – D’Antoni, Budenholzer, Dallas’ Rick Carlisle and more – are going into this believing that plans have to be flexible.

“It’s not going to be a typical training camp where you jump in on Day One and just go full-bore,” Carlisle said. “Our players have done a great job of working on their individual conditioning with individual workouts with the coaches on the floor on a 1-to-1 basis … so I feel really good about where we’re at. But this is a different situation, it’s a different time, it’s a different set of circumstances.”

Toronto, the reigning NBA champion, has been on the road for a couple of weeks already, getting their individual work in at a pre-camp of sorts in Fort Myers, Florida. The Raptors couldn’t get their pre-Disney work in at home because of travel restrictions that would have applied to players coming into Canada from the U.S.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse said his players haven’t dreaded the 1-on-0 work that they’ve been limited to so far, saying his team has approached these weeks with “great professionalism” and that his plans for Disney are fairly loose right now.

“I don’t really know where we’re at,” Nurse said. “I can see individually. I think we look really good. But, what will that translate to when we get back into, you know, calling plays and running defenses and doing some things? … I know that I’m sensing they really want to play basketball.”

The Los Angeles Lakers arrive at Disney on Thursday, and while coach Frank Vogel isn’t looking forward to weeks and potentially months away from his family, he believes the individual workouts have gotten the Western Conference leaders ready.

He said those solo sessions have been designed in large part to get players back into some sort of practice shape, with the hope of being able to hit the ground running when everyone can finally be together again at Disney.

“We just want it to be as high as possible to minimize risk of injury and just further the conditioning along as much as we can,” Vogel said. “So, guys have been able to work pretty diligently the last few days or so. And, you know, we’re looking forward to wrapping this up and getting on that plane.”

What worries Adam Silver? Positive tests inside NBA bubble

Adam Silver bubble
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Since testing started on June 23, 28 NBA players tested positive for the coronavirus, 8% of the players tested. That and the positive tests of team staff members (10 of them, 1.1% of the people tested) led to seven teams (at least at one point) shutting down their training facilities.

None of that greatly worried NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and league staff.

The company line is this: Positive tests were expected — this many or more — which is why testing began two weeks before teams flew to Florida for the restart. This gave time for players and staff who tested positive to recover and still go to Orlando for the restart if they wished. The league expects a few more positive tests as players arrive in Orlando this week.

So what does worry Adam Silver and league staff? Positive tests once the first round of testing is done in Orlando and the bubble is formed. Silver spoke (virtually) at the Fortune Brainstorm Health Tuesday and was asked what would happen if there was an outbreak among players in the bubble.

“It’s the right question, and I’m not sure yet.” He went on to say: “Certainly, if we had any sort of a significant spread at all within our campus, we would be shut down again.”

“It would be concerning if once [the players] sit through our quarantine period, and then were to test positive, we would know that, in essence, there’s a hole in our bubble,” Silver added. “That our campus is not working in some way.”

That is the nightmare scenario for the NBA: They set up the bubble — essentially trying to keep the rest of Florida and its spiking cases out of the NBA’s campus — and still the virus gets in and spreads. If that happens, even with all the NBA’s protocols and protections, it’s hard to imagine the NBA season finishing.

However, the NBA is confident the bubble will work, that players will follow the rules enough, that it will all come together and work. Plenty of people, players included, have their doubts. But everyone seems willing to give it a shot, and the NBA wants to push through this.

So long as Silver’s nightmare scenario doesn’t unfold.

Rudy Gobert on dynamic with Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell: ‘I’m the a—hole’

Jazz stars Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell
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Rudy Gobert is the Jazz’s best player.

Donovan Mitchell is the Jazz’s biggest star.

That situation naturally creates tension. Gobert and Mitchell testing positive for coronavirus exacerbated it.

Mitchell was upset with Gobert, whose reckless actions made him more likely to contract and spread coronavirus. Now, Mitchell sounds ready to move on.

But other issues remain.

Mitchell quickly became Utah’s go-to offensive player. He’s a sensational scorer with a magnetic personality and electrifying dunks. But he’s still developing as a playmaker, which can frustrate Gobert.

Most famously, Gobert cried when discussing his All-Star snub last year. Gobert plays a complementary style that can be underrated. He’s an elite defender who cleans up for his teammates. On offense, does all the little things – screening, finishing, rebounding. Yet, all that diligent screening isn’t always rewarded with passes when he gets open.

Should Mitchell pass more to Gobert? Yes. But Gobert has also let his effort slip this season when not getting touches, and that’s not the right solution, either.

Gobert, via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“I understand that I’m annoying. I can be very annoying,” said Gobert, adding that he knows Mitchell’s job is difficult as the focal point of defenses. “I think maybe because he was really good really early, I’ve been very demanding and maybe in not always a positive way. Sometimes you don’t realize it.

“Like with me, people can be hard on me and I can handle it, but for some guys, it can become very frustrating. I can understand that 100 percent. Donovan has gotten better every year since he’s gotten here. I think he’s going to keep getting a lot better. It’s pretty much, I’m the a–hole.”

“If I was 12 years old, I wouldn’t want to be watching f—ing Rudy Gobert. I’d want to watch Donovan Mitchell. I wouldn’t want to watch Rudy Gobert get dunks and alter shots. I’d want to watch Donovan Mitchell cross people up and do crazy layups, crazy dunks, of course.

“I totally understand how it works, and I’m fine with it.”

There’s an endearing amount of self-awareness in these quotes.

Gobert and Mitchell have a chance to form a highly successful partnership in Utah. Winning could bond them. On the other hand, losing could push them further apart. Another potential complication: Mitchell – with all his talent and about four years younger than Gobert – will probably soon surpass Gobert as a player. Then what? How will each handle that?

The future is unpredictable, but it’s worth understanding the current relationship between Gobert and Mitchell. To do that, I highly recommend reading MacMahon’s excellent article.