If everything goes well in the world over the next three weeks (a pretty enormous “if”), the NBA is due to return to our TV screens at the end of July. It’s been an interminable 141-days since the league came to a screeching halt thanks to coronavirus, but we’ll finally get to see 22 teams duking it out as they try and snatch one of the strangest championships of all time.
As the basketball world tries to get its head around the idea of the season resuming, we thought it’d be a good to take a look at the three most fascinating teams heading in to the bubble. Now, when you don’t have basketball to occupy your time for nearly four months every team in the league looks interesting, but these three teams just have something different about them.
It’s not as if the 76ers needed Joel Embiid rocking up to Orlando in a full hazmat suit to solidify their status as the league’s most interesting team, but it didn’t hurt.
Embiid has been vocal in his concern about the league’s attempt to restart under the bubble. There was some feeling among pundits that he might be one of those to choose not to go to Orlando, but in the end Philadelphia’s star big man evidently decided he’d participate.
The reason why is obvious. Embiid – and his franchise – believes that their time to win a championship is right now. After a torrid decade – filled with tanking, front office disasters and traumatising bounces of the ball – the 76ers have never been better placed to fulfil the dreams- nay, expectations – of a rabid fanbase.
“I want to represent my city,” Embiid told reporters this week. “I’ve been here too long, and this is my opportunity. I feel like we have a great chance. I believe we have a great chance of winning this championship.”
Ironically, no team in the league has received as much benefit out of this enforced layoff as the Sixers have. On the injury front, Ben Simmons’ back injury is now fully recovered, with his nerves (by all accounts) fully healed and the muscles in his back bulked up appropriately. Embiid himself has rehabbed a shoulder niggle, with Brett Brown refreshingly raving about his center’s fitness levels.
It cannot be underemphasized how huge it is for the Sixers that their two best players – arguably two of the top-10 players in the league – are fit, healthy and happy.
On paper as well the situation looks much better than it did four months ago. The Sixers have the second-easiest schedule in the seeding stage of the bubble competition, which – in theory – should help them jump an Oladipo-less Pacers team in the race for the sixth seed. While the lack of home ground advantage isn’t ideal for a 29-2 home team, it certainly looks a bit better when you consider that the Sixers were 10-24 on the road; by far the worst for any playoff team.
Al Horford as well is a big factor, and by all accounts – particularly his own – the 34-year-old center is in infinitely better shape now than he was four months ago. “I probably wasn’t where I wanted to be. I’m not going to make any excuses. But right now, I’m in a much better place. The time off for me was beneficial,” Horford said recently.
If Horford is refreshed, providing another option on defense (e.g. vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo) and hitting mid-range jumpers and the occasional three, that’s enormous for Philadelphia’s set-ups on offense and defense.
There are a number of questions which still need to be answered about the Sixers. Will Horford return to the bench, as he did after the All-Star break? Can Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson live up to anywhere near the expectations placed on them? Can Shake Milton be a reliable contributor? Will Furkan Korkmaz and Matisse Thybulle continue to emerge as complementary wings. Most importantly, though, the real question is, when it’s crunch time, what is Philly’s lineup and who has the ball in their hands?
If Embiid can live up to his legendary trash talk, the answer should be obvious. Unfortunately, though, it still isn’t.
No team has gone through a bigger lineup shakeup over the last four months than the Trailblazers, who suddenly find themselves with an embarrassment of riches in some areas and a complete dearth in others.
The Blazers will regain Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins from injury, who haven’t been seen on NBA floors for 15 and 8 months respectively. Nurkic had horrific compound fractures to his left tibia and fibula late in 2018-19, while Collins had surgery on a torn labrum.
Both big men say they’re completely healthy, which is an enormous boon for a Blazers team sorely lacking in height and decent play at that position. This is a massive infusion of size and skill, with Nurkic in career-best form and Collins emerging as a legitimate big man in the NBA. Last season, Collins was one of only 11 players to take at least 100 threes, hit at least a third of them, and block more than 3 percent of opponents’ shots
The Blazers also have Hassan Whiteside waiting in the wings. The much-maligned former Heat big man is averaging a career-best 16.3 points per game on 61.8 percent shooting, and for all his foibles the Blazers remain a better team with him on the floor than off it.
Unfortunately, though, there’s not a lot of wing depth to play with. Trevor Ariza’s decision to sit out the restart is disastrous, with Rodney Hood on the sidelines with a ruptured Achilles tendon and various others – Mo Harkless, Jake Layman etc. – absent after free agency.
Without those guys, Terry Stotts will now have to call upon guys like Carmelo Anthony, Nassir Little, Gary Trent Jr. and Nassir Little for big time minutes on the wing, which is, uhhh, not ideal.
That being said, Nurkic and Collins are huge ins and Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have enough star power to force this team over the line. They’re a huge chance of holding off the Pelicans, Suns, Spurs and Kings to force a play-in tournament with the Grizzlies.
Last, but certainly not least, the Denver Nuggets.
The intrigue in Denver revolves around one thing; Skinny Nikola Jokic. Jokic is recovering from the coronavirus, and was reportedly asymptomatic. Mike Malone says his All-Star center “feels great”, but no one in Denver has seen Jokic since his positive test.
Jokic shed a TONNE of weight during quarantine, which has divided pundits. On the one hand, Jokic thrives in the low post and may well have sacrificed too much bulk to remain a bulldozer in that area of the floor.
On the other hand, his stamina, agility and flexibility will likely have improved out of sight. Jokic was a dominant force in the 2019 playoffs, averaging 25.1 points on .596 true shooting while using 26.6 percent of Denver’s offensive possessions. He also played over 40 minutes per night.
The real question is where the help comes from. A lot is going to depend on Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, which is a scary prospect for many Nuggets fans. Harris has looked better on offense in recent times – he shot 51.5 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from 3-point range over his final 12 games – and is an elite defender.
However, if he continues to be as inconsistent as normal he’s going to be a liability. The same goes for Murray.
The Nuggets are in this weird middle ground where they look like contenders, but are also capable of losing to anyone. They’re 14-8 against top-10 offenses, 12-8 against top-10 defenses, 7-4 against teams in the top 10 on both ends, and yet they also look like they’re lacking one or two major pieces.
Michael Porter Jr. embodies the team; talented, exciting but inconsistent.
We can’t wait to see how it all unfolds.
Written and produced by SportsTips.com
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