The NBA has announced its return plan, with 22 teams invited to Orlando for eight regular-season games before the 2020 playoffs. The league’s 16 playoff teams will head down to Disney World, joined by the six teams within six games of the No. 8 seed in their respective conference. Only a smattering of contests remain before the playoffs, but for Washington, Portland, New Orleans, Phoenix, Sacramento and San Antonio, the door is cracked to slip into the playoffs. The field hasn’t been set quite yet.
The aforementioned sextet doesn’t even need to snag the No. 8 seed to have a chance at the playoffs. A play-in game (or pair of games if the No. 8 seed loses the first contest) will be held for the No. 8 seed in each conference if the No. 9 seed is within four games of the final playoff spot, adding additional intrigue down the stretch. The NBA is giving non-playoff teams every opportunity imaginable to stage an upset.
So which of the remaining non-playoff teams have the best chance of sprinting into the postseason in August? We at The Crossover assessed each organization’s chances below:
Portland Trail Blazers
It’s been a trying season for Portland, one marred by a rash of injuries and way too much Hassan Whiteside. But the Blazers’ troubles can’t be pinned on Damian Lillard. The five-time All-Star was in the midst of a career-best season before the league’s coronavirus suspension, leading the NBA in minutes while averaging 28.9 points per game. Lillard even has an outside chance at shooting 40% from the three and 90% from the line, a feat only six players in NBA history have accomplished while scoring 25-plus points per game. Lillard ripped off 158 points in a three-game stretch in late January. He’s among the game’s most lethal scorers, and on the right night, he can take down even the league’s top teams. Bet against Lillard at your peril.
Portland also has a potential schedule advantage compared to its Western Conference counterparts. The Blazers won’t have to play the Bucks, Lakers or Clippers before the playoffs, and they face the Jazz without Bojan Bogdanovic. It’s not out of the question for Portland to rip off seven wins in eight games as it rockets up the Western Conference standings. A six-year playoff streak could extend into 2020.
New Orleans Pelicans
Like Portland, the Pelicans sit 3.5 games back of the Grizzlies, making the No. 8 seed a dicey proposition with just eight games to play. But New Orleans could very well snag the No. 9 seed, then dispatch Memphis in back-to-back games to advance to the postseason. If the Pelicans pick up where they left off before the COVID-19 hiatus, they’ll be a downright terrifying opponent to close the season.
New Orleans won eight of its final 13 games before the league’s suspension, beginning to form a true identity with Zion Williamson healthy. The Pelicans sport the league’s No. 2 pace since Feb. 1, and they’re No. 4 in offensive rebounding rate. New Orleans’ collection of forwards pound the glass, aided by Lonzo Ball’s proficiency on the boards. The Pelicans are outsourcing teams by 17 points per 100 possessions when Ball, Williamson and Brandon Ingram share the floor. The figure vaults to plus-21.9 points per 100 possessions when you swap Jrue Holiday for Ingram. If Zion is ready for significant minutes in Orlando, the Blazers and Grizzlies could be in big trouble.
Sacramento is tied with New Orleans and Portland for the No. 9 seed, though it’s tough to see the Kings mounting a similar run to their Western Conference counterparts. They’ve defeated just two teams with a winning record since Jan. 1, and they rank No. 19 in both offensive and defensive rating. There’s minimal postseason experience on the roster save for Harrison Barnes, and the frontcourt is a bit of a defensive disaster. In a vacuum, there’s little hope for Sacramento.
Context could be key for the Kings, though. Sacramento has quite the favorable schedule ahead compared to the rest of the West, avoiding any of the top four teams in either conference. The Kings will face the Pelicans twice along with the Spurs, Magic, Pacers, Rockets, Mavericks and Nets to close the regular season. That’s not exactly a murderers row. De’Aaron Fox could be the best player on the floor in the right matchup, and Buddy Hield’s next eruption is always right around the corner. Don’t place any bets on Sacramento, though its schedule does provide a modicum of hope.
San Antonio Spurs
To be frank, this is more placement out of respect than actual belief in San Antonio’s playoff chances. The Spurs have been a middling (and three-phobic) offense this season, and their defense has slid to No. 25 in the league. Dejounte Murray hasn’t quite made the leap many expected in a young backcourt, and the DeRozan-Aldridge duo isn’t getting any better with age. In a standard close to the season, it would be easy to count San Antonio out.
But are we so sure we should dismiss Gregg Popovich and Co. before the games even begin? Coaching could matter more than ever in the, well, unique circumstances, and San Antonio will face Denver, Utah and New Orleans twice in its final eight games. No detail slips past Popovich. He’s the king of adjustments. If any team will be prepared to play in Orlando, it will be the Spurs.
Needs a Miracle
It’s too bad Phoenix dug itself such a hole early in the season, because the Suns’ roster is legitimately stocked with talent. Devin Booker is one of the NBA’s leading young scorers, and Kelly Oubre was in the midst of a breakout season before the NBA’s suspension. One player to watch when the league returns: Deandre Ayton. The Arizona product feasted beginning in February, showing off his precocious offensive talent with 20.8 points and 12.7 rebounds per game. The Booker-Ayton duo will be truly scary for defenses in the next decade. But entering the season’s resumption 2.5 games back of the No. 9 seed presents an uphill climb. Phoenix will likely need to wait another year to end its decade-long postseason drought.
While the Western Conference teams will be jockeying for position in the NBA’s eight-game sprint, Washington’s postseason blueprint is simple. The Wizards simply need to finish the regular season four-or-fewer games behind the Magic, then beat Orlando in back-to-back contests. On the surface, that formula seems easy to achieve. Bradley Beal would be the best player in a matchup with Orlando, and the Magic aren’t exactly battle tested. But look closer to the schedule, and the Wizards may have a tough time even getting within four games of the Magic.
Washington currently sits five games behind Orlando for the No. 8 seed, and their remaining schedule is punishing. The Wizards have to face Oklahoma City, Milwaukee and Philadelphia in their last eight games, and they have a pair of matchups against the Celtics. There are no easy victories given the league’s 22-team return-to-play format, but Washington’s setup is particularly brutal. It will take a heroic effort from Beal to carry the Wizards to the playoffs.