By Saransh Sharma, Nikhil Pradeep and Anish Dhondi
The NBA had just last week announced their full plan for their season’s return with a ‘bubble’ format in Orlando, with just 22 of the 30 teams being invited to come back, and many different rules and regulations to keep players and their families safe and healthy have been put in place, and we detailed our biggest storylines for the remainder of the season. We now jump into Part 2 of ‘The NBA Returns’ series to bring you our predictions for the 8-seed in each conference, and how we think each team will fare in their remaining 8 games of their season. Using NBC Sports’ predictions for who each team will face, here are our predictions for which teams will make the playoffs, and which teams will be sent home quickly from Orlando:
Anish’s Predictions for: Memphis, Portland, New Orleans
Memphis Grizzlies: #8 Seed, Western Conference (32-33)
Projected Opponents: Trail Blazers, Jazz, Spurs, Thunder, Bucks, Pelicans, Pelicans, Celtics
Memphis currently holds the 8th seed and will be fighting to keep their spot in the playoffs. Not many people expected this grizzlies team to perform this well with the departure of Mike Conley. Their roster is young and doesn’t have much playoff experience. Their schedule appears relatively easy in comparison to the other teams fighting for a playoff spot so they should have a good chance in maintaining their position. Led by the athletic duo of Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. this Grizzlies team can be a force in the future but I don’t believe they have the experience to perform under the pressure of the playoffs and could see them falling down a couple places.
Portland Trail Blazers: #9 Seed, Western Conference (29-37), 2.5GB of Memphis
Projected Opponents: Grizzlies, Rockets, Mavericks, 76ers, Celtics, Nets, Lakers, (Heat or Magic)
As many of the teams benefited from this playoff format, the Blazers were not among them. Their current schedule to have a shot of the playoffs is harder than the schedule they had remaining for the regular season. This means because of the pandemic they’re forced to unnecessarily play harder teams in the fight for a playoff spot. These 8 games are basically like the playoffs if the Blazers want a shot and star Damian Lillard needs to be at the top of his game to lead them to victories. When the team needs him the most, Damian Lillard has been known to be one of the clutchest NBA players in the league, this playoff format with the pressure of make-or-miss for the playoffs puts all eyes on Lillard to carry this team. However, as much as Lillard can go off, he must have the help of his supporting cast and co-star CJ McCollum to provide consistent help. Jusuf Nurkic is also expecting a return after going down last season with a brutal injury. I can see this Blazers team making a push to play into the playoffs even with a tough schedule.
New Orleans Pelicans: #10 Seed, Western Conference (28-36), 3.5GB of Memphis
Projected Opponents: Kings, Jazz, Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, Kings, Grizzlies, Magic
The pelicans were a dark horse team that none really expected to perform this well. With the emergence of Ingram’s recent performance, Jrue Holiday’s consistency, and the most popular rookie in years, Zion Williamson, the Pelicans can squeeze their way into a potential spot. When it comes to viewership, Zion is near the top and generates mass amounts of revenue for his popularity. His electrifying play for a rookie is something we haven’t seen in years and hopefully it gives the Pelicans enough momentum. However, I see the Pelicans and the Grizzlies as a toss up for the playoff chances. Both teams lack the experience of the pressured setting because they’re filled with young talent. If these teams had the same record I would give the Pelicans a slight advantage with the leadership of Jrue Holiday and his performance in past playoff appearances, however because they are 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies it may be difficult to secure a chance for the playoffs.
Saransh’s Predictions for: Sacramento, San Antonio, Phoenix
Sacramento Kings: #11 Seed, Western Conference (28-36), 3.5GB of Memphis
Remaining Teams to Play: Pelicans (x2), Nets, Mavericks, Rockets, Magic, Pacers, Spurs
For every team currently not in the playoffs in the Western Conference, so below Memphis, they have a bit of a mountain to climb, with Sacramento being tied in record with New Orleans. Sacramento’s schedule, however, gives them a favorable shot to at least get up to the 9-seed and force a play-in with Memphis, as they do not really play any elite teams aside from Houston. Getting New Orleans twice is key in helping them move up the standings, as winning both is their best way to get a leg-up on them in the standings, and with all the games at neutral sites, anything can happen.
The ease of opponents, along with the experience of Sacramento, will propel them to the 9-seed and force them into a play-in with Portland, a very even match, although the advantage goes slightly to Portland, due to having Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum’s scoring to aid them, something that will be hard for De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield to match. Getting Jusuf Nurkic back at Center/Power Forward is huge for the Blazers as well, as his lateral quickness and shot-blocking will be used effectively to slow down Marvin Bagley in the pick-and-roll, making this exclusively a backcourt-driven series. As much as I would love to see Sacramento back in the playoffs and into their glory days again, the uphill battle might be too much, as their time will run out in the playoff play-in.
San Antonio Spurs, #12 Seed, Western Conference (27-36), 4GB of Memphis
Remaining Teams to Play: Nuggets, Grizzlies, Pelicans, Jazz (x2), Nuggets, Kings, 76ers
With LaMarcus Aldridge deciding to undergo his right shoulder surgery now and skip Orlando, rather than go play and then opt for surgery, San Antonio’s record (tied) of 22-straight seasons of making the playoffs is now in jeopardy for the first time in this 22-season stretch. It almost seems unreal to think we could see a playoffs without San Antonio for as long as Gregg Popovich is coaching, the same way it was to see LeBron not be in the NBA Finals after 8 consecutive appearances (his injury did hold him back for almost half the season, but the Lakers simply did not have the talent anyways to surround LeBron with). Simply put, San Antonio simply does not have the talent that they would normally have due to injuries, to be able to compete for the 8-seed.
So, for the first time in forever (literally, and also a ‘Frozen’ reference), there actually will be an offseason where San Antonio will have a lottery pick in the NBA Draft (currently projected to have the #11 pick in the draft), and could have a ton of cap space with DeMar Derozan’s impending free agency upcoming, and him not returning, as his massive contract and age would not fit the team’s direction. I think San Antonio will look to go for Saddiq Bey in the draft at Small Forward, therefore solidifying Derrick White and Dejounte Murray as their backcourt of the future. This trip to Orlando is all about finding out who will be in San Antonio for the long-run, and who will be playing elsewhere.
Phoenix Suns, #13 Seed, Western Conference (26-39), 6GB of Memphis
Remaining Teams to Play: Mavericks (x2), Clippers, Pacers, 76ers, Heat, Wizards, Thunder
The team with the longest playoff drought currently is Phoenix, as they have not made the playoffs since their Western Conference Finals appearance in 2010, back when they had Steve Nash, Amar’e Stoudamire, Grant Hill and Jason Richardson as the centerpieces of their star-studded squad, but were dethroned by Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum of the Lakers in 6 games. Since then, they constantly end up picking in the lottery, and they have landed stars like Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton, and busts like Dragan Bender and Cameron Johnson. So all in all, Phoenix has just been an outlandish, inconsistent team on paper, but consistent in terms of losing games and missing the playoffs. However, with the acquisitions of Kelly Oubre Jr., Dario Saric, and Ricky Rubio, the team added much needed veteran players to a bizarrely young team.
Things went very well this season to start, in fact, at one point Phoenix was one of the best teams in the league, but then DeAndre Ayton tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, missed 25 games, and since then have settled for mediocrity, but still currently consistent with the whole ‘miss-the-playoffs’ bill. Either way, this team is now healthy and will be well-rested, and can show their potential. I fully expect this team to play their fast-paced, inside-out, pace and space game on offense, but still have their usual struggles on defense, preventing them from winning games, such as games against teams like OKC, Philly, and Indiana. This team will come close, but teams like Sacramento and Portland will make it tough for Phoenix to climb their way into the playoffs, as record-wise, they were lucky to have an invitation to Orlando. Talent-wise, this team has a great core that with the proper development and scheming from their coaching staff over their trip to Orlando and this up coming offseason, can change Phoenix from a young and hopeful, to a gritty, tough-minded team that no one wants to play in the playoffs.
Nikhil’s Predictions: Orlando, Brooklyn, Washington
Brooklyn Nets, #7 Seed, Eastern Conference:
Remaining Schedule: Clippers (x2), Kings, Wizards, Celtics, Magic (x2), Trail Blazers
The Brooklyn Nets have largely underwhelmed this season, and the mid-season injuries to Kyrie Irving and others clearly have not helped their case of being future contenders in the Eastern Conference. That being said, they have been blessed with a current Eastern Conference which is weak in every aspect of the word, and have found themselves in a fairly beneficial position in 7th place. Even with the injury to their starting point guard, and the controversy he has been stirring in recent weeks in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, the Nets are adequately equipped to make the playoffs. Mainstays like Deandre Jordan, Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, and a very capable supporting cast can easily propel this team forward, and given that their schedule is easier compared to the Wizards’, they have very high chances to make the playoffs. In comparison to Orlando, the teams are very similar in roster depth and star power given that Irving and Durant are both out for the Nets, so expect these two teams to be very similar in record once the ‘regular season’ games are over. I’m predicting the Nets to finish 8th in the conference solely based on Orlando’s comparatively easier schedule. This will end up in an unfavorable draw with the Bucks come playoff time.
Orlando Magic, #8 Seed, Eastern Conference, 0.5GB of Brooklyn:
Remaining Schedule: Pacers, Kings, Nets (x2), Pelicans, 76ers, Raptors, Lakers or Trail Blazers (not yet decided)
The Magic have found themselves in nearly an identical situation as the Nets, minus the starpower and controversy. Orlando has over the years become a rather mundane destination for players, and honestly is one of the more forgettable teams in the league. But make no mistake, this team is a viable playoff squad, and outclasses a good amount of teams within the Eastern Conference. Players like Evan Fournier, DJ Augustin, and Jonathan Isaac provide the foundation for a quality squad, and to top it off, Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic give the team that firepower to put them over the edge. Again, given their rather easy schedule, compared to the Nets and Wizards, they are a very strong contender to make the playoff picture, and in my opinion, will get the 7th seed over the Nets. The fact of the matter is that Orlando avoids playing stronger teams like Boston and the Clippers, and instead plays the likes of Indiana and New Orleans. Because of this, I believe they will finish in 7th after the regular season games finish, and draw a matchup with either Toronto or Boston, depending on how things shake up.
Washington Wizards, #9 Seed, Eastern Conference, 5.5GB of Orlando:
Remaining Schedule: Celtics (x2), Thunder, 76ers, Nets, Bucks, Suns, Bucks
Let’s be very clear right of the bat, the Wizards need MULTIPLE miracles to make the playoffs. Make no mistake, Bradley Beal and company have a very nice team put together: the likes of Davis Bertans, Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown Jr combining forces causes this team to be very dangerous when slept on. Combine this with the uber-underrated Beal and his offensive ability, and you have a very deadly squad. The issue that has plagued this team for many of the past years however, is their inability to get stops on the defensive end. Year after year, contest after contest, the Wizards manage to put up points very nicely, but throw away opportunities so often with lackluster focus and inability to make crucial stops. This does not seem likely to change when going into the modified NBA season this year, and given that their schedule is filled with matchups against offensive-minded power teams like Milwaukee and Boston (both of which they play TWICE), the playoffs seem bleak. Expect them to finish 9th outside of the postseason picture, and far enough record wise to wear a 8th and 9th seed with the predicted Brooklyn Nets would not be necessary.
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