The NBA continues to take steps in its return plan in Orlando, most recently announcing target dates and health and safety protocols. The advancements have added further unpredictability to a unique 2019-20 NBA season, and with the league aiming to crown a champion, it will be up to the teams to create further surprise on the hardwood.
The remaining 22 teams are not set to report to training camp until late June as the NBA works to return from its COVID-19 suspension—over three months after the season was first halted—but the league’s 22-team format allows the opportunity for sleeper teams to emerge from the group. From the potential for a play-in tournament to well-rested players and the new environment, the stage is set for teams to make the most of the NBA’s remaining games and postseason.
Questions remain for the Walt Disney World bubble—assuming everything takes place as planned, including how the leaders of the East and West in the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers will adapt. In addition, teams without top All-Stars may either struggle with the new format or thrive in it behind players returning to health.
Will the time away from the court put a wedge in certain team’s chemistry? Which players will rise to the challenge after a long layoff? How will the bubble play a factor?
Here are five teams that could be primed to surprise come the season’s start in July.
The Boston Celtics stand at third in the East (43-21), and the team’s defensive efforts give it a top chance at upsetting challengers in the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks.
While the Celtics found success with a top-five offensive (112.9) and defensive (106.8) rating this season, the question remains whether Boston’s top performers can all pick back up where they left off in March. The team relies on its offensive balance, as Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown all averaged over 20 points during the 2019-20 season to lead the team. Other teams will face similar issues in terms of resilience following the layoff, but few rely as much on balance as Boston does in its lineup, which may present a weak point.
Tatum, Walker and Brown had their injury issues during the year but should be well-rested come July. The Celtics were without Walker in the weeks leading up to the hiatus due to a knee injury, so his consistent presence can be a difference-maker for Boston.
Boston has the makings to be a sleeper team in the bubble with its core three at full health, but it will have to rely on finding an offensive rhythm to back up its defensive edge to advance in the East.
NBA players should be returning to the court well-rested following the hiatus, and the Raptors may benefit from a rejuvenated big lineup.
Marc Gasol is one piece who can step up for Toronto when the season resumes. The center struggled during the 2019-20 season, missing 28 games due to a nagging left hamstring injury and averaging 7.6 points and 6.3 rebounds in 27.5 minutes played. During the season’s suspension, though, he seems to have slimmed down and gotten into better shape.
“It’s good. I mean, I’ve seen Marc myself a few times on some Zoom calls and in mostly just his face in there,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said on a conference call last Tuesday. “So I thought he was probably trimming down a little bit. But I think both him and Kyle look good, and I mean most of the guys (have).”
With Gasol fit, and Fred VanVleet well-rested after missing time due to a shoulder injury, the Raptors could opt to take advantage of size in their lineups as the season restarts in Orlando. Challenges persist as to whether the team will be able to find its chemistry on offense, but Toronto’s second-best defensive rating (105.2) shows it has the potential to surprise and carry a punch against top teams in the bubble.
The Denver Nuggets, third in the West (43-22), face a difficult road in finishing atop the conference, and the Orlando bubble may make the quest more difficult.
The team finds much of its success in Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, but Denver will be entering the season’s restart away from the Mile High city. Nuggets players that are accustomed to competing in the difficult atmosphere will now be on equal footing with other teams and without home-court advantage.
The Nuggets can define themselves as a sleeper team if Jokic can continue his stellar season, averaging 20.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game and accounting for 38.2% of his team's assists while on the floor. The center has even slimmed down, with president of basketball operations Tim Connelly calling him “beach ready.”
In addition, the Nuggets will need Murray to play a large factor if it can overcome the Lakers and Clippers. The guard has improved this season with an average of 18.8 points per game, but the Nuggets will need to rely on him as an extra motor in Orlando to be the last team standing in the West.
The Nuggets have an advantage with carrying over the health of its roster from the regular season into Orlando, but time will tell if Murray can be the extra weapon to put the team over the top in the sleeper category.
Portland Trail Blazers
The race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference is a tight one, but the Trail Blazers may have the pieces to be the true sleeper of the group.
At ninth in the West (29-37), Portland will need to rely on the final regular-season games and play-in tournament to get a shot at the postseason in Orlando. The team may benefit most from the season’s hiatus, as it will likely return Jusuf Nurkic to the lineup after the center missed the season due to a broken leg.
Another starter, Zach Collins, will also be available after he played just three games before suffering a shoulder injury. The addition of the two will add needed size to help boost Portland’s lacking defensive rating (114.1) while complimenting Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on offense.
If Portland can grab the No. 8 seed, it is yet to be seen if the team has the potential to make noise in the West. Since Nurkic and Collins have spent little to no time on the roster this season, it may take an extended period for the full squad to form chemistry and navigate the rotation. Certain roles may change, as Carmelo Anthony has filled in well in Collins’ absence—but Portland first must come together to take the final spot from the Memphis Grizzlies.
The 76ers are a true wild card. Can a healthier roster be enough to fix the issues the team ran into during the 2019-20 season?
There is an argument to be made that the 76ers can shock the NBA in Orlando. Ben Simmons is expected to be healthy after dealing with a back injury, while Joel Embiid has had more rest time following his rehabbed shoulder. Both players are expected to be available, but as coach Brett Brown told SI’s Chris Mannix, Simmons is not expected to perform at full speed.
“My opinion, and this is not confirmed yet, is that we are going to be able to inch him back into this,” Brown said. “Is he going to be 100%, I don’t expect that. But I think he is going to be available.”
The 76ers—sixth in the East (39-26)—will have the opportunity to get a leg up on teams with their defensive effort. Teams who rely on shooting may suffer from being out of rhythm following the season’s suspension, giving Philadelphia the potential to take advantage.
Still, the 76ers have their share of factors to solve. First, the team suffered from chemistry issues during the season. Second, the squad ranks 17th in the league in offensive rating (110.4) as currently constructed and needs someone to step up as a shooter.
Philadelphia has the potential to be a sleeper team in Orlando with a healthier roster, but it is yet to be seen if existing chemistry issues will be too much to overcome.