NBA debate: Biggest unknowns, best matchups and the new title chase

The NBA board of governors voted in favor of a 22-team return-to-play proposal on Thursday and the NBPA gave its approval on Friday, setting the resumption of the season in motion. The season will conclude with eight regular-season games per team in Orlando, Florida, with the possibility of a playoff play-in series if a team is within four games of the No. 8 seed.

In the absence of home-court advantage, the remaining regular-season games will be all about potential playoff matchups. While Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans will be competing for the No. 8 seed, Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks will look to improve their playoff seeding.

Our experts break down which teams have the most to play for during the seeding games, the potential play-in matchups they’re most excited for and how the hiatus affects the title chase.

What we know and don’t know about the NBA’s return to play

1. Which unknown in the NBA’s plan are you most looking for an answer to?

Kevin Pelton: None of the other details matter if the league is not able to minimize the entry of the novel coronavirus into the campus and prevent it from spreading, so the full plan on testing and other precautions is by far the most important unknown to me.

Bobby Marks: Is there a plan in place to convert two-way contracts, sign new players and/or expand rosters? Normally, teams have until the last day of the regular season to make those kinds of moves. Remember, the Oklahoma City Thunder‘s Luguentz Dort started the last 21 games and is on a two-way contract.

Andre Snellings: Will there be some kind of home-court advantage? If the NBA takes some of the more extreme suggestions, such as giving a player on the home team an extra foul, it would yield a significant competitive advantage. But without any advantage to play for, there’s less impetus for intense competition in the seeding games.

Nick Friedell: What happens if and when a player contracts the virus? What happens if several players on the same team get it at the same time? The health concerns are far more important than any basketball-related issues. The league and the players want this to work, but what will happen if everything doesn’t go as planned?

Tim Bontemps: What is the league going to do with its rosters? I reported last week that the NBA’s general managers voted overwhelmingly when surveyed by the league to either expand rosters from the beginning or have the ability to make additions if players get sick or injured. Could someone such as DeMarcus Cousins be signed between now and the start of the playoffs?

One other small detail that could become a critical one: How will the league break ties for the eighth and ninth seed in the playoffs? So far, we don’t know. But there’s no question that will be a pressing question for teams hoping to find their way into the postseason in Orlando.

2. Which team with a playoff spot has the most to play for during the seeding games?

Marks: The Mavericks have already exceeded expectations with a 40-27 record. A 6-2 run or better during the eight regular-season games could vault them into the Nos. 4-6 seed range and give them a real chance to advance.

Snellings: The Houston Rockets. The Rockets have a chance to win the whole thing, but if they slide 1½ games back to the No. 7 seed, they could have to face the LA Clippers in the first round, setting up an absurd gauntlet to reach the NBA Finals. Climbing as high as the No. 3 seed could open up a much better path.

Pelton: The Mavericks, who want no part of their current first-round matchup against the Clippers. My simulations using a projected schedule of games for the seeding tournament showed Dallas moving up from No. 7 more than half the time based on their superior rating in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.

Friedell: The Miami Heat. If they can catch the Boston Celtics and grab the No. 3 seed, they could avoid the Milwaukee Bucks until the conference finals. The seeding situation is fluid, but Miami probably would rather face the Indiana Pacers and then the Toronto Raptors in the first two rounds than the Philadelphia 76ers and then the Bucks.

Bontemps: The Mavericks. After putting up a point differential of plus-6.1 during the regular season (sixth best in the NBA, and third best in the West), Dallas has a chance to rise. If the Mavs can contend in the fight for the Nos. 3-6 seeds, I would favor them to win their first playoff series since clinching the title in 2011.

3. Which play-in matchup would you most want to see?

Snellings: The Portland Trail Blazers vs. the New Orleans Pelicans, especially because both teams have the talent to actually compete against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. The Blazers’ core is playoff tested, and if their big men return healthy they have the size to compete with anyone. And who wouldn’t want to see a LeBron James vs. Zion Williamson matchup in the first round?

Bontemps: From a pure entertainment standpoint, it will be hard to resist seeing Ja Morant go up against Zion Williamson. Two childhood friends, who as rookies appear well on their way to stardom, going head-to-head for a chance to make the playoffs? Sign me up for that.

Friedell: Blazers vs. Pelicans would be awesome, but I don’t see the Memphis Grizzlies falling all the way out of the picture, so sign me up for Damian Lillard vs. Ja Morant.

Marks: Grizzlies vs. Pelicans. The two best rookies in Morant and Williamson squaring off for the chance to play the Lakers in Round 1 has tremendous appeal.

Pelton: Grizzlies vs. Pelicans. On top of the rookie matchup, it would also be interesting to see if the Pelicans’ dominance in the two head-to-head meetings so far this season — wins by a combined 38 points — would carry over.

4. Which team not headed to Orlando do you find most interesting this offseason?

Marks: It has to be the Golden State Warriors. Recent title contenders having a guaranteed top-five pick — either to keep or trade for another star — makes the Warriors fascinating.

Pelton: Golden State. The Warriors have important decisions to make regarding their draft pick and the $17.2 million trade exception generated in the Andre Iguodala deal. Will Golden State still be able to spend freely given the possibility that Chase Center will be closed to fans for part or all of the 2020-21 season?

Snellings: I’m taking the Warriors, too. A good offseason and a fully rested core of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green very likely puts them right back in the championship mix for next season.

Friedell: One more reason to pay attention to the Warriors this summer and next season: Andrew Wiggins, who will get a chance to change the narrative surrounding his career while playing with future Hall of Famers. This is a team full of storylines heading into next season.

Bontemps: I will mix things up and pick the Atlanta Hawks. Atlanta became the first team in NBA history to have its top five players in minutes played all be 22 and under (Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and John Collins), per ESPN’s Stats and Information Group, and will have ample cap space this summer, giving the Hawks reasons to be optimistic about next season and beyond. They will be expected to take a significant step forward next season — at minimum vie for a playoff spot.

5. How do the long break and the new setup change your thinking about the NBA title chase?

Pelton: I think there’s more uncertainty about everyone given the uneven ability for players to work on their game and conditioning while quarantining. Ultimately, I think the best teams are still the favorites, with the Bucks hurt slightly by losing home-court advantage and the Clippers as the biggest winners there. The Clippers remain my title pick.

Snellings: Teams with more high-end talent, aging stars and/or injured players seem more likely to contend since they had the opportunity to recover. This should improve the championship odds of teams such as the Lakers, Clippers, Rockets and 76ers at the expense of teams such as the Bucks and Raptors, whose depth and youth were advantages.

Friedell: The Clippers will have a full, healthy roster and the ability to play on a neutral floor throughout the playoffs — not needing to worry about pro-Lakers crowds in a potential conference finals matchup. This is their time to shine, and I believe they will take full advantage of the opportunity.

Bontemps: I think it potentially sets the league up for a hell of a postseason. This is the first time players will be going into the playoffs this fresh in their careers. It will undoubtedly be a strange setup, but this break could wind up allowing for teams to have far more energy than they are used to. And, if they do, the basketball played in Orlando could be at a higher level than people might currently expect.

Marks: This is going to be the most grueling three months that players, team personnel and league officials will go through in their NBA careers. Consider these circumstances: Players have to work themselves back into shape after a three-month layoff, play eight games in a two-week stretch and live in a hotel for up to three months (without much interaction with the outside world). Whichever team wins it all will be a deserving, worthy champion — with no need for an asterisk.

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