The NBA Returns: What To Watch For – Part 1

By Saransh Sharma, Nikhil Pradeep, and Anish Dhondi

The NBA is officially coming back on July 31st in DisneyWorld with no fans, and we, along with all of you guys reading this, cannot wait for the return. By the time the league would resume, players would have been on a 4-month layoff due to the season being suspended for the Coronavirus. A quick run-through of how the return will work, the NBA has only invited 22 teams to Orlando, with the bottom 2 Western Conference teams (Warriors and Timberwolves) and bottom 6 Eastern Conference teams (Bulls, Pistons, Cavaliers, Hornets, Hawks, and Knicks) being amongst the 8 that were not invited. The top 6 teams in the East have clinched their playoff spots already, and the top 7 have clinched in the West. Each team will play 8 games and they will be played amongst the 22 teams remaining. 

As far as restrictions, the NBA has created a ‘bubble campus’ within Orlando where all the teams, coaches, players, staff, etc. are required to stay, and only 3 family members can be with you, and they almost must be within the ‘bubble’. Along with that, there will be tests every day for COVID-19 for all players, coaches, and staff, and if you are tested positive, you are out for at least 7 days, meaning that in the playoffs, that could be 3-4 games. Also, teams will eat at restaurants together and can only play golf, and the DisneyWorld rides will not be open for families.  

Now that we have given an overview of the regulations, we bring you to the biggest storylines of the return of basketball:

Saransh’s Biggest Storylines

Kyrie and KD Sitting Out

Kevin Durant was injured last year in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Houston Rockets, and then returned for the NBA Finals, where he would end up getting injured yet again, and has not been back on the court since. Despite the recent reports that he is healthy, he will sit out and get ready for a big title push next season, where Kyrie Irving will also be back and healthy. Irving has been injured off-and-on this season, and even though he is healthy as well (probably healthier than Durant considering Durant is still doing his last bits of rehab), he is sitting out as well. This is a big storyline because, for one, they only have a 0.5 game lead on Orlando for the 7th-seed, and a 6-game lead for the 8th-seed. With no superstars, a thin bench, and only 8 games to play, Brooklyn could potentially have to play-in for the 8th-seed to make the playoffs, or even miss them altogether. Second, if they do make the playoffs, they will face either Milwaukee or Toronto (Boston or Miami is possible but unlikely), but whichever team it is, they will easily sweep Brooklyn. Next season is when we will really start talking about them.

The ‘Other’ Contenders: Miami, Houston, and Dallas

All the talk has really been about the LA teams, Boston, Milwaukee, and Toronto matching up in the NBA Finals, and everyone seems to overlook the other true contenders. I’m talking about Miami, Houston, and Dallas, the teams that have been playing ‘in the shadows’, so to speak, yet still getting the job done every single night. Miami and Houston at one point in the season were as high as the 2-seed, and Dallas was the 4th-seed earlier. Now, with them being at 4th, 6th, and 7th, respectively, they face a different battle than expected, but with 8 games left and still a good shot at a higher seed, you never know. The biggest challenger to Milwaukee is Miami, and the biggest challengers to the LA teams are Houston and Dallas (Utah would be in the conversation if Bogdanovic was not injured. He is now out for the season). Miami with their size, balance, and 3-point shooting to match up with the best in the East, Houston with their unique small-ball lineup, and Dallas with Luka, Porzingis, and other upcoming young stars, these teams are going to surprise a lot of people this season and be around as contenders for years to come.

Nikhil’s Biggest Storylines

The Bubble Teams, And The Playoff Implications That Follow

It’s no secret the NBA wants to get as much viewership and as much buzz back into its games, and the best way to do that is to include as many teams as viably possible into its return. The method that the board has settled on is nothing short of complex and mildly confusing, but in many ways addresses all concerns of proper seeding, fair play, and equal opportunity for each ball club. The NBA firstly has invited 22 teams, which are all teams that were in the top 8 in each conference once the season was paused, as well as teams within 6-games of the 8th seed (New Orleans, Portland, San Antonio, Sacramento, and Phoenix in the West, and Washington in the East). These teams will play 8 regular season style, “seeding games” to determine their positions going into the make-shift playoffs. A possible play-in tournament between the No. 8 and No. 9 teams in a conference could be utilized if the ninth seed finishes the regular season within four games of the eighth. In that case, the No. 9 seed would need to beat the No. 8 seed twice to earn the playoff berth, while the No. 8 would need one win from the two potential games. From there, a typical NBA style playoff structure would follow, and a champion will be crowned. It is the battle for the 8th seed, particularly in the West, that catches my eye. As the table stands, Memphis holds the 8th seed, and Portland, New Orleans, and Sacramento are all tied for 9th, with San Antonio and Phoenix not far behind. I expect Portland to walk away as the 8th seed once the whole thing plays out, simply based on their experience, and talent. In all honesty, they should be higher up in the table given that Lillard is a bonafide superstar in this league, and he’s with a surrounding cast including CJ McCollum and Carmelo Anthony. Yes, Ja Morant and Zion Williamson (both of which I will elaborate on in a bit) are very prominent figures in their own right, but the teams they command simply aren’t at the level the Blazers are. I do expect to come down to the wire, possibly with the play-in tournament having to be used as well.

The NBA’s Polarizing Rookies Are Instrumental in the Bounce Back of the League.

The NBA has lost millions due to the pandemic, and since the virus is a worldwide phenomenon, they are losing revenue from everywhere all at the same time. So, in order to bounce back accordingly, the league needs to make every money-making move possible with this return they have in mind. This is definitely part of the reason why more than the standard 16 teams were invited back to the season, by adding the additional six teams, 88 games are effectively injected back into the schedule, and the collective salary reduces loss by $300 million. What is even more of a motivating factor is the massive viewership garnered by Zion Williamson and Ja Morant (Mainly Williamson but i’m trying to be nice). The No. 1 pick in this years draft has carried an insane amount of buzz ever since his high school days, and is a huge money maker for the league. By including New Orleans back into the season, and possibly the playoffs in some capacity, the league effectively boosts their revenue potential, allowing the world to focus once again on Williamson, and the hype to return to the league. Couple this with the lesser but similar effect Morant has had with Memphis, and you have two very prominent incentives for people to start watching again, and get hooked back into the league. By appealing to what the people want to see, the league directly propels themselves back to the position they were in before the pandemic striked.

Anish’s Biggest Storylines

No Home Court Advantage for Players

With this new format being in place teams lack the comparative home court advantage that they would have normally received in the playoffs. Normally a 1st seed team would have the advantage in a series against the 8th seed team, as the first 2 games would be in the 1st seeds court and if it were to extend to a 7 game series the 1st seed would get the extra home game. Now the home court advantage has been eliminated in order to maintain the safety of players. Can you imagine watching an NBA game with no crowd noise? Silence in the background and strictly the sound of the basketball would be a dull game without fan reaction. Ideas have been thrown around as a possibility of the NBA incorporating crowd sound effects from its popular NBA based video game, NBA 2K. Although this sounds strange it may benefit in giving the audience a little more excitement during moments of the game where the crowd would normally get pumped up. Although home court advantage may not seem like a big deal to us, it’s a big deal to the players. Many players thrive in a home court setting with their own fans cheering them on giving them a boost in confidence on the court. An example of this is shown with superstar Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers. This season, Lillard averaged 31.9 PPG when playing on his home court, however that number dropped to 25.9 PPG when playing on an opponent’s court. This is a significant difference for one player and shows the importance of home court advantage which won’t be a factor in the playoffs this year so it’ll be interesting to see how these players perform.

Players Getting Back in Shape

The NBA has been suspended for months and after a couple games it will be the playoffs which is the most important time of year for teams because it’s all of the years work towards winning a championship. Many players however may not be in the same shape as they were prior to the suspension which can be an issue. Without the proper routine and training to get these player’s bodies ready for the rigorous pace of the NBA again, many injuries can occur. It will be interesting to see the difference between all these player’s peak performance during the regular season and the effect quarantine has had on some of their bodies with a lack of going to a gym or being able to consistently work out. Even if players were to be exercising, nothing quite matches the pace of an actual NBA game, so with these players in offseason mode it would be a struggle to quickly get back into shape with no preseason or 82 game ‘warm up’ for the playoffs. Will this affect the favorites for winning the championship this year? And what if a star player was to get Coronavirus or returns back to the game too quickly for his body and gets injured that would have him out for basically the entire playoffs? There are many dangerous factors in opening up this season after a long absence and we’ll see how it turns out.

Links you can use to help educate yourself, donate, sign petitions, and much more for Black Lives Matter and Ending Racism and Social Injustice:

https://www.adhoc.fm/post/black-lives-matter-resources-and-funds/

https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/

https://www.thezoereport.com/p/10-black-lives-matter-organizations-you-can-donate-money-to-right-now-22948855

https://nymag.com/strategist/article/where-to-donate-for-black-lives-matter.html

Who Should Win NBA MVP 2016-17: BEASTBrook, or The Beard?

It has been clear since July 4th, 2016 that Russell Westbrook was going to do something no one else had ever done in the NBA before. That was the day that Kevin Durant, his best friend and teammate, betrayed him, the team, and the city, for the team that prevented them from going to the NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors. This season, the team entered as a possible lottery-draft-pick team, but Westbrook’s record-breaking season has propelled his team into the playoffs, which includes becoming the Triple-Double King. James Harden, on the other hand, has been waiting since last April, as his team failed to make the playoffs as an underwhelming yet star-studded team last year. Harden took it upon himself to be a team-first player and drive his team to the playoffs. Along the way, he has had career high numbers in points, rebounds, and assists. So, who should win the MVP?

Who Will Win and Why?

Westbrook has just been incredible to say the least, and has turned a team that should be in the bottom five in the NBA into a playoff team. While his team may be worse than Harden’s, and the fact that they may not get through the first round, this is an individual award. The numbers do not lie with Westbrook. He has 42 triple-doubles, a record that has been broken after 55 years. He’s averaging 31.9 PPG, 10.7 RPG, and 10.4 APG in just 34.4 minutes on average per game. He has career-high free throw percentages, attempts, and makes (84.5%, 10.5 attempts per game, 8.9 makes per game). He is the only player in NBA history to average 40-12-11 in a 3-game span. He is the only player in NBA history to record at least 100 points, 30 boards, and 30 assists in the first 3 games of the regular season. He is the only player in NBA history to have a triple-double and have a perfect shooting game (field goals and free throws). He is the only player in NBA history with five straight 30-point triple-doubles in a season. He has the record for most points with a triple double in a game with 57. Lastly, he is the second player ever to average a triple-double in a season since Oscar Robertson 55 years back.

Harden doesn’t have any number to compare. Harden is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists (29.2 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 11.2 APG). He has led the team to a top-10 offense in NBA history. He helps his team lead the game in time of possessions with his ability to draw the defense to himself. He assists on 27 points per game, and scores 29 points per game, as he and Isaiah Thomas are going to be the first players to do so. He also has led his team to an NBA record for 3-pointers attempted, and made. In terms of defense, Harden has been better, but he doesn’t really play much defense besides contesting shots, as he contests around 4 more shots than Westbrook. However, Harden has set an NBA record for most turnovers in a season (he broke his own record from last year), and even though his team is more effective, Harden’s Rockets are only 2.7 points better per 100 possessions with Harden on the court, whereas Westbrook’s Thunder are 13.1 points better per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the floor.

Now, after Westbrook broke the record for most triple-doubles in a season, Harden made an interesting comment about MVP. He said “I thought winning is what this is all about,” signifying and pleading his case for MVP. However, while his team is 8 wins better than Westbrook’s Thunder, his comment is incorrect. If it was really ‘all about winning’, then we should be talking about Kevin Durant and Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, or Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics. However, the MVP is the Most Valuable Player award, not most Most Winning Player award. In the end, I believe that Russell Westbrook will win the NBA MVP over James Harden, as Harden really hasn’t done enough as an individual to be great and help his team out.

Harden and Westbrook are meeting in the first round of the NBA playoffs, but I do not believe that the result will determine the outcome of the MVP race at all. Westbrook will play his heart out in the playoffs and dazzle us just like in the regular season (and yes, his triple-doubles will continue). Harden needs to get a 100-point triple-double to win MVP in my opinion, because he is too far behind Westbrook to make his case. Even a 100-point game could be too little, too late, but the Harden vs. Westbrook matchup will be entertaining for sure.

Resources:

All stats and data from FiveThirtyEight, ESPN, Wikipedia, CBS Sports, Slam Online, and the Washington Post.