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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.

No wall for these five NBA rookies as league restart tips-off

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Forget hitting a rookie wall or stumbling into the playoffs exhausted and banged-up.

The NBA’s break because of the coronavirus pandemic gave rookies an offseason within a season. They’ve had the chance to heal up, study film and gain some much-needed pounds to better handle the grueling season in a league filled with savvy veterans.

Some rookies will resume play a bit smarter and stronger, giving them a chance to finish off their debut seasons in style.

“I took the time off really to … focus on my body, do the right things to continue to get better,” said Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, the likely NBA rookie of the year. “Studied a lot of film. Kind of like I had an offseason but still preparing to come back and play.”

Improving during a pandemic had its challenges.

Some rookies filled garages with weights. Those living in apartments or condos had to be very creative to even find a basket to get up shots.

“It was challenging for everyone. No one has ever been through this,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, whose club has three first-round picks in the rotation this season, led by first overall draft choice Zion Williamson.

“The younger players, I think the thing with them is that they tried to stay in shape and tried to keep themselves in a conditioning situation that they felt like, when they came back, they wouldn’t be behind. … We’ll have to see how it works out, but I think those guys did put in work during the hiatus.”

Perfecting 3-point shots were also was a major focus.

Heat guard Tyler Herro spent a day putting together a portable hoop sent to him by teammate Jimmy Butler.

“I definitely put it to use outside getting some shots up,” Herro said. “I’m happy we can finally get back into a gym. Working in the driveway wasn’t necessarily the best time.”

Not all rookies will be playing as the NBA wraps up the season. Coby White and his Chicago Bulls missed the cut to keep playing in Florida. So too did RJ Barrett and the Knicks, and Golden State’s Eric Paschall.

Rookies to watch when the NBA’s resumes its season:

JA MORANT

Morant worked with trainers at his Memphis home and put on 12 pounds of mostly muscle. That’s what the Grizzlies have wanted since the moment they drafted him at No. 2 overall last June behind top pick Zion Williamson.

The point guard also watched a lot of film, looking to improve after averaging 17.6 points a game and 6.9 assists a game.

“He’s a great student of the game,” Grizzlies first-year coach Taylor Jenkins said. “So I think he put a lot of time over the break doing those things, and I think we’re already seeing that right now.”

ZION WILLIAMSON

Williamson’s weight was an issue when he arrived at training camp back in September. Less so now. His extended rehab from knee surgery involved a focus on losing weight and flexibility, and it was apparent he stuck to his new workout regimen during the past few months.

Williamson is listed at 6-foot-6, 285 pounds. The team has declined to specify how much weight he has lost, but teammates noted how much leaner he looked when the Pelicans got back together a few weeks ago.

“He looks amazing. He looks fully healthy. He looks even stronger than he was before, if that’s even possible,” Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball said. “I was happy to see him, happy to see that he’s in shape.”

Williamson’s status when the Pelicans resume play Thursday is unclear because he left the club July 16 to attend to a family medical matter and did not return to the Orlando area until Friday, when he was required to begin a four-day quarantine. The team says he’s tested daily while away should be able to practice by Tuesday night if all goes well during his quarantine.

“I think there are going to be parts of my game that y’all didn’t see before that you all are going to see in the future when we start playing,” Williamson said.

RIU HACHIMURA

The first Japanese-born player drafted in the first round, Hachimura also spent the break getting bigger. The 6-8 Hachimura added about 10 pounds, up from 230. He worked on his 3-point shot and ball handling and now is trying to improve his defensive skills.

The Wizards will need Hachimura more too with Davis Bertans and Bradley Beal opting out of the NBA’s restart. That leaves Hachimura as the Wizards’ leading returning scorer with 13.4 points a game. He also ranked second with six rebounds despite playing only 41 games before the break.

Brandon Clarke

It would be easy to overlook the 6-8 power forward on a Grizzlies’ roster led by Morant and second-year forward Jaren Jackson Jr. But the 21st pick overall last June has played a key role for Memphis and is averaging 12 points and 5.8 points a game.

For Clarke, working on his 3-pointer has been a big key. Jenkins said he and some of his assistants also talked with Clarke a few times each week breaking down on film to help the rookie hone his game.

HEAT’S ROOKIE DUO

Technically a rookie, Kendrick Nunn went from unknown to starting point guard for the Heat, and he could be ready for the seeding games even after missing the first couple weeks of practices at Disney. Only Williamson and Morant score more than Nunn among rookies.

Herro has shown an ability to rise to moments: his pull-up, go-ahead, transition 3-pointer in the final seconds of a win against Philadelphia earlier this season is among Miami’s top highlights of the year. He’s recovered from an ankle injury that cost him 15 games.

He watched video of shooters like Klay Thompson and Ray Allen, focusing on how they catch the ball and shoot during the break.

“I’m excited to get back out there,” Herro said.

Six players to watch during NBA’s restart

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NBA teams recognize that bench strength will likely be more of a factor than usual during this pandemic-delayed title chase in which a positive coronavirus test could sideline an elite player at any moment.

“Depth is going to be at a premium for everyone,” New Orleans Pelicans general manager David Griffin said.

The good news for teams is that league officials said last week that 346 players had been tested on the NBA campus since the last coronavirus results were announced July 13, with no positives. But the reality they also recognize is how a positive test could impact a team’s roster.

Notable players to test positive for the coronavirus before teams left for Disney’s Wide World of Sports include Houston’s Russell Westbrook, Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes and Milwaukee’s Eric Bledsoe, though all of them have since cleared protocols to return to Florida. Washington’s Bradley Beal heads the list of players who have opted out of participating in the restart.

The Brooklyn Nets won’t have Wilson Chandler, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and Taurean Prince for the restart and already were without injured stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

And that doesn’t even account for basketball-related setbacks such as the foot injury Sacramento Kings forward Marvin Bagley sustained in practice to knock him out of the restart.

Because of the more than four-month break between regular-season games, teams are likely to give their starters limited minutes, particularly in the early going.

The increased risk of losing players for an extended period at any time also will require teams to prepare backup plans.

“If you’ve been in the league a long time, you’ve had to deal with one injury, two injuries, three injuries, and the timing of it can be not the best,” Milwaukee Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “You have to find a way to continue to persevere ad work and get better and find ways to advance if it’s the playoffs. We’re in a bubble. It’s unique. It’s different. But there are things that all of us have had to deal with if you’ve been in long playoff runs for a long time.”

Here’s a look at some players who might not be on fans’ radars but could play bigger roles during the restart:

Troy Brown Jr., WASHINGTON WIZARDS

Brown already was averaging 24.9 minutes before the hiatus, but he could turn into even more of a featured performer during the restart with the Wizards missing Beal and Davis Bertans. The 6-foot-6 forward from Oregon has 9.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game.

Alex Caruso, LOS ANGELES LAKERS

Notes: Caruso was averaging 5.4 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 17.8 minutes when the hiatus began. With Avery Bradley opting out of the restart and Rajon Rondo breaking his thumb in practice this month, the 6-foot-5 Caruso should have a greater role in the Lakers’ bench during the restart. The Lakers announced July 13 that Rondo would miss six to eight weeks.

LU DORT, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

The rookie from Arizona State has thrived this season with 6.2 points and 1.9 rebounds per game. Oklahoma City has a 16-5 record in games that Dort has started. Although the potential return of Andre Roberson from a ruptured patellar tendon that has kept him out 2 + years could complicate Dort’s situation, Dennis Schroder expects to leave the bubble temporarily at some point with his wife due to give birth. Dort figures to get more minutes in Schroder’s absence.

George Hill, MILWAUKEE BUCKS

Hill was shooting 48% from 3-point range – well above his career average of 38.5% and light years better than his 2018-19 average of 28% – before the stoppage in play. The 34-year-old guard as well as teammate Donte DiVincenzo could be even bigger factors in the early part of the restart since Bucks teammates Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton have tested positive for coronavirus, though both are now in Florida.

Tyler Johnson, BROOKLYN NETS

Although he just signed with the Nets a month ago, Johnson could have a featured role because of all the players his new team is missing. The 6-foot-4 guard had played in 31 games for Phoenix this season and averaged 5.7 points, 1.7 rebounds and 1.6 assists in 16.6 minutes before getting waived in February. He posted double-figure scoring averages three straight seasons from 2016-17 to 2018-19.

Gary Trent Jr., PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

Trent showed flashes of his potential in the month prior to the pandemic, as he scored 22 against Miami on Feb. 9, 20 against Indiana on Feb. 27 and 24 against Orlando on March 2. The 6-5 guard has averaged 7.7 points and 20 minutes but likely will get more playing time now that teammate Trevor Ariza has opted out of the restart.

Close to home but so far away: NBA restart a strange experience for Magic

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The NBA restart has elements of strangeness for every team.

For the Orlando Magic, it’s most peculiar.

When they turn on the televisions in their rooms at Walt Disney World, they can watch their local newscasts. They’re only a few miles from their respective homes. And yet the Magic, like everyone else at the restart, are not able to see their families or friends for the next few weeks at least.

“I really don’t know what impact that will have, the fact that we’re local and we’re a half-hour drive from most of our homes,” Magic President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. “I honestly don’t know. Maybe that’ll help. Maybe it’ll be more distracting. I really don’t know.”

They’re about to find out.

Orlando is one of three teams competing for the last two Eastern Conference playoff spots and, on paper, figure to have a pretty strong chance. The Magic are a half-game behind No. 7 Brooklyn and 5-1/2 games clear of No. 9 Washington. If the Magic finish eighth and the ninth-place team is within four games of them when the seeding matchups end, they’ll go into a play-in series.

But Brooklyn’s roster has been decimated – there’s no five-man combination of Nets players at Disney that have played together for even five minutes this season – and Washington’s hopes of a playoff rally took a huge hit when Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans, its two leading scorers, decided not to play in the restart.

“We have a chance obviously to get back into playoffs for the second year in a row, which would be a good accomplishment for us,” Magic coach Steve Clifford said. “And then I think that they want to get playing in a way that we can be a factor once the playoffs begin.”

Walt Disney World is about 20 miles away from Orlando’s arena, and it’s not like being at Disney is a foreign concept for the Magic. Disney has been a jersey sponsor for the Magic, and the franchise held training camps on the campus in 1997 and 2003.

The big question for the Magic is whether Jonathan Isaac, who hurt his left knee (a nasty sprain and bone bruise, though he didn’t require surgery) on Jan. 1, could return at some point during the seeding games or for the playoffs if Orlando gets there. Isaac does a little of everything for the Magic, especially on the defensive end.

The Magic have other players to watch.

Nikola Vucevic is Orlando’s best player and Evan Fournier is wildly underrated, but Terrence Ross might be the key to how far the Magic go this season. In the 10 games after the All-Star break, Ross was Orlando’s leading scorer at 22.2 points per game despite coming off the bench in all those contests. The Magic are 18-12 this season when Ross scores 15 or more points; they’re 11-22 when he scores 14 or less.

Report: Pacers star Victor Oladipo’s remaining salary in dispute

Pacers star Victor Oladipo
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Among the continuing 22 NBA teams, players not playing in the resumption at Disney World essentially fall into two categories:

Pacers star Victor Oladipo lands in the gray area.

Oladipo, who returned from a year-long absence shortly before the season got suspended in March, said he was sitting out due to elevated risk of injury during a quick buildup. But he also traveled with the team to Orlando and is even practicing so well, Indiana is reportedly becoming increasingly optimistic he’ll play.

Is Oladipo healthy enough to play?

At stake for Oladipo:

  • $2,763,158 if the Pacers get swept in the first round
  • $2,993,421 if they play exactly five playoff games
  • $3,223,684 if they play six or more playoff games

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

The union believes Oladipo, who went to Orlando with the Pacers and then cleared quarantine so he could practice, should be paid his remaining salary, sources said.

The league, largely in an effort to set a precedent in case other players who are deemed healthy want to leave Orlando and no longer play, believes Oladipo has opted out and should not be paid, sources said. His public comments about feeling healthy has only solidified the league’s position on the matter, sources said.

The Pacers support Oladipo’s decision and are willing to pay him the salary whether he plays or not, sources said.

Presumably, if Oladipo plays, he’ll get paid like anyone else playing in the resumption. This controversy lingers only if Oladipo doesn’t play.

It’s unsurprising the Pacers don’t want to pick this fight with their star player, especially as he approaches 2021 free agency. Trying to avoid alienating their own players but not necessarily eager to pay for services not rendered, teams collectively want the league to handle these issues.

If teams had ample discretion, the Wizards might have said Davis Bertans – who chose to sit out – had some lingering injury. NBA players are rarely perfectly healthy. There’s always some physical issue to point to. Bertans will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and they want to re-sign him. What an easy way to build goodwill – and maybe even get a discount on Bertans’ next contract.

Obviously, the league doesn’t want those type of shenanigans. That’s why on outside rulings on players’ health can be important.

Oladipo might not be the only borderline case:

Oladipo’s situation might take care of itself if he decides to play. But the league might inquire more deeply into other situations.