The NBA continues to evaluate contingencies for a potential return to play, and it seems as though few ideas are truly off the table for Adam Silver and Co. The league could hold a quarantined playoffs in Las Vegas or Orlando, and the postseason could be trimmed in order to finish the 2019-20 season by Labor Day.
A quarantined playoffs would likely impact all teams in the same way. Each player would be in a controlled environment, eliminating a leg up for any team in the postseason. An alteration of the playoff format would be far different. Some teams would thrive in a trimmed setting, while others would likely face a steep advantage. So who would benefit and who would be hurt by an altered playoff schedule? Let’s sift through the leading candidates.
The Rockets have been the NBA’s premier Jekyll and Hyde team this season, as evidenced by their close to the season before the league’s coronavirus suspension. Houston won seven straight from Feb. 11 to Feb. 29, then dropped four of five games in March (including losses to Charlotte, Orlando and New York). Such volatility dropped the Rockets to No. 6 in the Western Conference, and the Houston would likely be plagued by their bouts of inconsistency in the postseason. But in a shortened playoffs, all bets are off. And the Rockets certainly have the talent to outplay anyone in the league on a given night.
James Harden has shown the ability to outgun any team in the league, including the peak Warriors. Russell Westbrook can be a similar force of nature, and his play has stabilized in a major way since the calendar turned to 2020. The top two duos in the league are likely in Los Angeles, but Houston isn’t far behind, especially when its two stars are at their peak. The Rockets defeated both the Lakers and Clippers in 2019-20. They won in Boston and in Toronto. Harden’s crew is geared to thrive in a single-elimination tournament. They still shouldn’t be discounted in any form of a shortened postseason.
Dallas is likely a couple of years away from truly contending for the Western Conference crown, and a round one exit is likely if the current bracket holds. Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers are still arguably the top team in the West. They’re not dropping a seven-game series against Dallas.
The length of a series may not matter against the Clippers, but Dallas could threaten any non-Los Angeles team in a shortened matchup. Luka Doncic has shown the ability to take over a matchup despite his relative inexperience, and a 30-point explosion from Kristaps Porzingis is always in sight. Dallas doesn’t have a third star. Their rotation is solid, albeit not superb. Still, facing the Mavericks’ two stars isn’t an inviting proposition. In a three-game series or single-elimination matchup, the Mavericks could certainly swing an upset.
Perhaps we have conditioning questions about Joel Embiid, but the Sixers’ firepower makes them legitimately dangerous in a short series, regardless of opponent. Philadelphia’s young center can take over a contest with a 40-point effort, and never discount the chance of a dominant night from Ben Simmons as the Nets learned in the 2019 playoffs. Brett Brown’s squad is quite dangerous against any team in a three or five game series. They’re downright terrifying in a single-elimination matchup.
Toronto head coach Nick Nurse was masterful in the 2019 postseason, morphing Toronto’s rotation and strategy depending on the opponent. The Raptors sagged off Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Eastern Conference finals then smothered Stephen Curry in the Finals, a credit to Nurse’s malleability and attention to detail. The more information Nurse gets, the more he adjusts. A shortened slate of series’ would mitigate Toronto’s advantage.
There’s also the matter of the Raptors’ playoff history. Toronto has been dreadful in Game 1’s in recent seasons, and Nurse’s squad even dropped Game 1 to the Magic in the first round of the 2019 playoffs. Perhaps the trend is more of a coincidence than anything. But with a slate of youngsters on the roster–led by Pascal Siakam–the longer the series the better.
The Pacers are no strangers to the postseason over the last half decade, and Nate McMillan deserves serious credit for keeping Indiana in the playoffs despite missing Victor Oladipo for much of 2019-20. But another round one exit is likely in store, especially with a shortened postseason. Oladipo played just 13 games in 2019-20, and he was still finding his legs as a scorer before the league’s coronavirus suspension. It’s hard to see Oladipo carrying Indiana to a round one victory in 2019-20, even if he had a full seven-game series. If playoff series are cut to five games or three games, the Pacers will likely face a quick exit.
Los Angeles Lakers
It’s doubtful LeBron James and the Lakers need any runway before the postseason. James is a maniacal offseason worker, and Los Angeles’ cast of veterans should be ready to go from the first game of the playoffs. But while the Lakers won’t face the same problems as our two aforementioned squads, anything less than a seven-game series isn’t exactly preferable for James and Co.
LeBron’s Lakers have been the Western Conference’s best team this season, and in spurts, they’ve looked head and shoulders above the competition. A seven-game series allows Los Angeles plenty of time to flex its muscles, even if it drops Game 1 or Game 2. Shorten a series to three or five games, and a fluky loss or two can put the Lakers in serious danger. The cream always rises to the top in a long series. If we see an abbreviated postseason, top teams like the Lakers could be in a danger of a serious upset.