Bring on the games! Seven predictions for NBA restart

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Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go and the NBA is back! Finally.

The players from the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans will kneel around the Black Lives Matters phrase on the court then tip-off the restarted NBA season, maybe with Zion Williamson playing, maybe not. After that appetizer comes the main course, the Lakers vs. Clippers.

You’ve got questions about the return of the NBA season, and we’ve got answers. Or at least predictions. Here are Dan Feldman and my predictions for the restart of the NBA season.

1) WHAT TEAM MAKES A SURPRISING PLAYOFF RUN?

Kurt Helin: Give me the Oklahoma City Thunder. This was a team that was 33-13 from Dec. 1 on with a top-10 offense and defense, before the coronavirus sent the league into hibernation. Chris Paul has been arguably the most clutch player in the league this season, and the three-guard lineup with CP3, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder has been a problem for opponents. I think they advance to the second round, regardless of opponent, and they can push the Los Angeles teams. (Honorable mention to Dallas in this category.)

Dan Feldman: Nobody. I’m picking mostly chalk. But I like the Rockets as a dark horse. They have top talent in James Harden and Russell Westbrook, and supporting players like Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker fit so well. Houston’s small-ball system invites variance, which could lead to upsets.

2) WHAT TEAM IS THE BIGGEST THREAT TO THE BUCKS IN THE EAST?

Kurt Helin: I like playoff teams that have versatility, so I will take the Boston Celtics. Their combination of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward — with Marcus Smart off the bench — makes them a matchup nightmare on offense and a switchable defense. With Kemba Walker at the point (if his left knee doesn’t hold him back) and Brad Stevens drawing up the plays, the Celtics just need good play out of the center position to be a real challenge for the Bucks. That said, they may need Milwaukee to stumble to beat them.

Dan Feldman: Raptors. The Raptors, Celtics, 76ers and Heat all have a chance. Philadelphia has the highest upside – a roster designed not only for the playoffs, but specifically to match up with Milwaukee. Still, I’ll take Toronto, which can also match up with the Bucks but has played at a much higher level throughout the season.

3) WHICH PLAYER NOT IN THE BUBBLE WILL BE THE BIGGEST BLOW TO THEIR TEAM?

Kurt Helin: Avery Bradley of the Lakers. So long as Los Angeles has LeBron James and Anthony Davis, they are title contenders (and Davis is expected to play in the opener after suffering an eye injury). But losing a versatile starting two guard hurts. There are matchups where Bradley may not have played extensive minutes, but against teams with elite wings (the Clippers or Rockets, for example), his defense, three-point shooting, and veteran presence would have helped. Throw in the loss of Rajon Rondo (thumb) and that’s 44 minutes a game of guard rotation that has to be filled.

Dan Feldman: Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic. Though better players will miss the rest of the season, they’re on lesser teams. Bogdanovic was superb for Utah before undergoing season-ending surgery. With him, the Jazz were a fringe championship contender. Without him, they’ll likely lose in the first round. The difference is especially stark considering Donovan Mitchell‘s and Rudy Gobert‘s rift. Winning cures most ills, and losing tends to exacerbate problems.

4) WHICH TEAM IS MOST LIKELY TO GO 0-8?

Kurt Helin: The Washington Wizards. No John Wall, no Bradley Beal, no Davis Bertans. Outside of that, how many Wizards players can you name? This is a 24-40 team without its two best players and questionable motivation to push and stay in the bubble. Don’t be surprised if things fall apart fast for Washington.

Dan Feldman: Suns. I project Phoenix to play at a higher level the rest of the season than the Nets, Wizards and Spurs. The Suns will probably beat Washington in their first seeding game and render this moot. But if not, they have a tough schedule that ends with teams (Thunder, 76ers, Mavericks) likely to be still competing for seeding position. Phoenix could also fall from playoff contention quickly, reducing motivation to compete.

5) WHICH TEAM GETS THE EIGHTH SEED IN THE WEST?

Kurt Helin: The Memphis Grizzlies. Two reasons for this. First, Ja Morant is really good at basketball. Second, the NBA gave advantages to the Grizzlies at the restart — advantages Memphis earned in the first 65 games playing its way into the eighth seed. They have a 3.5 game cushion, outside of a total collapse the Grizzlies will be in a two-game play-in series to make the playoffs. Then Memphis just needs to win one of those two games to advance. Portland and New Orleans have a shot, but Memphis is the favorite to get that spot.

Dan Feldman: Grizzlies. This is math more than confidence in Memphis, though both obviously factor. Up 3.5 games on the chasing pack, the Grizzlies are the most likely team in the race* to clinch a playoff spot in seeding games. The Grizzlies are the most likely team to be involved in a play-in. The Grizzlies are most likely to be in eighth place in a play-in, which would mean needing to win only once before the ninth-place team wins twice. The Trail Blazers and/or Pelicans might play at a higher level than Memphis the rest of the way, but the Grizzlies’ record advantage makes them the safe pick.

*The Mavericks haven’t technically clinched a playoff spot yet. But I don’t consider them in the race. They’re practically a lock.

6) WHO WILL BE THE MVP OF THE BUBBLE?

Kurt Helin: Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers. He showed last season for Toronto that, when healthy and focused, he can raise his game to the highest level of any current player and lead a good team around him to a ring. He is trying to replicate that formula with Los Angeles. Leonard is fully rested and ready to go, and a Clippers team around him that was knicked up is healthy as well. LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo both have a real shot at earning this title as well.

Dan Feldman: Kawhi Leonard. Leonard, LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo are all fine choices. But how could Leonard not get the benefit of the doubt after last year’s championship run with the Raptors? Leonard absolutely can deliver in the biggest moments. He looks even better this season – getting closer to his peak lockdown defense and improving as a passer.

7) WHAT IS YOUR NBA FINALS MATCHUP? WHO WILL BE CROWNED CHAMPION?

Kurt Helin: I’ll take Leonard and his Clippers over the Bucks. If any of the Lakers, Bucks, or Clippers won the title it would not be a surprise — they are all incredibly close — but come the playoffs the teams that win have great versatility and strong play on the wings. That’s the Clippers. They can beat a team playing small or playing big, and the Leonard and Paul George pairing is the best wing combo in the league. The only question for the Clippers is getting everyone healthy and in Orlando, and building enough chemistry.

Dan Feldman: Clippers over Bucks. The Lakers are right in the mix, too. But the Clippers get the edge because their stars (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George) outshine Milwaukee’s (Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton), and their depth/versatility bests the Lakers’ depth/versatility around LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Doc Rivers says he wants Harden to be ‘a scoring Magic Johnson’

Philadelphia 76ers Media Day
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
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We’re not in Houston anymore.

James Harden in Philadelphia will not be chasing scoring titles and dominating the game in quite the same way. Instead, he’s been asked to be more of a facilitator — but not too much of one. Doc Rivers told the team at ESPN’s NBA Today he wants scoring to go with the facilitating. Just like one of the all-time greats.

“I think we’ve talked so much about him being a facilitator… I need him to be James Harden too. If I had to combine, I would say a scoring Magic Johnson, I don’t know, but that’s what I want him to be. I want him to be a James Harden, but in that, I want him to also be the facilitator of this basketball team too. So in a lot of ways, his role is growing bigger for our team, and I just want him to keep thinking, ‘Do both.'”

Just play like Magic, no pressure there. For his career, Magic averaged 19.5 points a game (with four over 20 PPG) with 11.2 assists.

Harden can get close enough to Rivers’ lofty goals to make Philly a real threat, so long as defenders still fear his first step and step back. Harden can get his shot and get to the line, and he’s long been a great passer who has averaged 10.5 assists a game over the past two seasons. Now it’s just a matter of finding the balance of when to set up Joel Embiid, when to turn the offense over to Tyrese Maxey, and when to get his own shot.

Philadelphia is a deep team poised to win a lot of regular season games — the Sixers being the top seed in the East is absolutely in play. The questions Harden — and, to a degree, Embiid — have to answer come in May, when the second round of the playoffs start and Harden has faded while Embiid has had poor injury luck. In a deep East with Milwaukee, Boston, and maybe Miami and Brooklyn in the contender mix, there is no margin for error.

A Magic-like Harden would be a big boost for the Sixers in that setting.

As he chases record, LeBron says he has ‘no relationship’ with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Sacramento Kings v Los Angeles Lakers
Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images
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Later this season, health permitting, LeBron James will pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

Kareem has said LeBron has earned it, but also has called out LeBron on COVID issues (something Abdul-Jabbar apologized for). Have the two legends started to build a relationship as LeBron marches toward the record? Not so much.

“No thoughts, no relationship.”

This question was asked of LeBron days after Abdul-Jabbar slammed former LeBron teammate Kyrie Irving in a Substack newsletter, calling him a “comical buffoon” and saying he is a poor role model. Abdul-Jabbar has been a vocal proponent of getting the vaccine, Irving remains unvaccinated, and LeBron has posted on social media questioning the severity of the virus and the response. Plus, LeBron and Irving are friends, which could have sparked LeBron’s terse response (as could the fact he was ready to get out of the arena after a dull preseason game).

A week earlier at media day, LeBron had been kinder when discussing Abdul-Jabbar and chasing his record.

“And you know, obviously Kareem has had his differences, with some of my views and some of the things that I do. But listen, at the end of the day, to be able to be right in the same breath as a guy to wear the same [Lakers] uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic and Big Game [James Worthy] over there for so many years, especially in the 80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well,” LeBron said. “I think it’s just super duper dope for myself to be even in that conversation.”

Abdul-Jabbar has been more of a public persona in recent years, both around the game of basketball and discussing social justice issues through his writings. The NBA named its new social justice award after him. With that has come new relationships around the league.

One of those is not with LeBron. Will Abdul-Jabbar be in the building when LeBron does break the record?

We’ve got months for this relationship to evolve — if it does — before that big day.

 

Watch Zion Williamson score 13 in return to court for Pelicans

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Zion Williamson is back.

He certainly looked in better shape and flashed his insane explosiveness on his way to 13 points and four rebounds in 15 minutes Tuesday night against the Bulls, his first game after missing all of last season following foot surgery.

There was some rust, and the Pelicans are wisely bringing him along slowly and not breaking out the entire playbook for a preseason game, but in the moments we saw Zion looked like he was all the way back.

The questions now are can he sustain it, and how to the Pelicans mesh him with other scoring options in CJ McCollum and Brandon Ingram.

And maybe we shouldn’t leave rookie Dyson Daniels off that list, he looked good in his first NBA preseason game.

The Pelicans are one of the most intriguing teams this season, a team that made the playoffs last season with a push after McCollum arrived, and now they add the elite interior scoring and athleticism of Zion to Ingram’s outside shot and slashing, not to mention and a solid core of role players. This team has top six potential if it can get stops. But in a deep West, nothing will be easy.

Wembanyama scores 37, Scoot Henderson 28, as both make case to go No.1

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The NBA league office hates tanking — the action, the word, the mere suggestion of it.

But there is going to be some serious tanking in the NBA this season, and anybody who watched the Victor Wembanyama vs. Scoot Henderson game Tuesday (also known as the G-league Ignite vs.  Metropolitans 92 from France) knows exactly why.

What. A. Show.

Victor Wembanyama, the projected No. 1 pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, showed why he is a true 7’4″ unicorn who can do seemingly anything. He finished the game with 37 points, hitting 7-of-11 from 3, with five blocks, showed off some handles and even brought the ball up court a couple of times.

This play sums him up well: at 7’4″ Wembanyama is the ball handler in a pick-and-roll, looks smooth, and when the defender goes under the pick casually drains a 3.

Scoot Henderson, expected to go No.2 in the next draft, flashed his explosive athleticism to the tune of 28 points, nine assists, and five rebounds.

Ja Morant was impressed.

There was a lot for fans, scouts, and GMs to be impressed with.

For all his shooting an offensive game, Wembanyama was just as impressive on defense. His length and mobility forces players to change their driving angles to the rim. He also showed a fearlessness in going after the big block.

Henderson showed high-level athleticism and an ability to get to the rim at will, but he also set up teammates and an improving shot. Henderson is a dynamic athlete and a season playing against the men of the G League is only going to sharpen his skills.

Henderson made his case Tuesday to be the No.1 pick — scouts say he has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone point guard, a top-10 player in the league, and he looked it in this game. He showed no fear, even going at Wembanyama a few times.

However, Wembanyama will go No.1 because he just breaks the mold, there is nobody like him. Anywhere. He looks like a generational talent, even if there is some work to do to realize it. Wembanyama started to show that Tuesday night.

These two teams face off again on Thursday night in Henderson, Nevada.