The NBA’s restart is in full-swing in Orlando with teams practicing and testing out their bubble privileges. We’ve had Rondo comparing a Disney Hotel to a Motel 6 and then possibly suffering a serious hand injury, Dwight Howard was the only person who showed up to a DJ party, Richaun Holmes and Bruno Caboclo had to go back into quarantine after accidentally breaking the isolation rules, and the first few days of food were posted everywhere. All-in-all, it’s gone about as expected so far. Within the next couple weeks teams will begin scrimmaging and then the games will begin, so the light at the end of the tunnel is as close as ever before. Talks of asterisks on the championship have already begun, but the top teams on both sides feel they have a chance to sneak in and grab a trophy no matter the circumstances. Near the bottom of the current playoff bracket, however, things don’t look quite as cheery. Let's break down the keys to the restart for the seven-seeds, the Dallas Mavericks and Brooklyn Nets, and the six-seeds, the Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers.
Dallas Mavericks: At the beginning of the season, the Mavericks were expected to be a middle of the road team fighting for a playoff spot. That assumption turned out to be pretty spot-on as Dallas played to a 40-27 record, and should secure their spot in the postseason with a couple wins in the restart. Rick Carlisle showed why he is one of the best coaches in the history of the sport with his handling of a seemingly top-heavy roster, resulting in one of the best offenses in the NBA. First in OffRating and third in PPG, Dallas lights up scoreboards night in and night out. A mediocre defense left a little to be desired, but in the playoffs being able to consistently score is a major advantage. Role players like Dorian Finney-Smith, Seth Curry, Dwight Powell (pre-achilles injury) and Maxi Kleber were having career seasons, and Tim Hardaway Jr. was showing he may have finally put it all together after 6 seasons, but the two biggest factors in the Mavs success were their two biggest stars, Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic.
Fans, players, coaches, and executives have been waiting for Porzingis to turn into the unstoppable force that has been shown in flashes since his rookie season with the Knicks. At 7’3”, athletic, and with an unblockable jumpshot, the Unicorn was supposed to learn the American game and then become Toni Kukoc 2.0. While Porzingis has not been a disappointment in his young career (he was an all-star in 2017-18 with the Knicks), he has never truly taken the next step as he battled injuries, but this year he averaged 19.2ppg and 9.5rpg in 51 games. Solid numbers, but not the eye-popping averages that we expected by this point in his development. On the other hand, Luka has jumped into the category of elite players in just his second year. With a 28.7ppg/9.3rpg/8.7apg statline and consistent MVP buzz (he won’t win, but there was still talk), the wonder-kid from Slovenia has proven the hype was incredibly warranted. If he can become a more efficient shooter from deep, we’re looking at the best ball-handler in the league in the near-future.
Key to the Restart: Keep the scoring high. It’s what Dallas does best, so might as well ride it out. If nothing changes in the seeding (and it absolutely could in the West), the Mavs would play the Clippers in the first round, which would be one of the more entertaining first-round series. While Dallas has been good this season, they lack playoff experience with most of their key players, so filling up the scoreboard is going to be a necessity to try and sneak past the powerhouse Clips.
Brooklyn Nets: No team has had a more unfortunate lead-up to the restart than the Nets. After going 30-34 during the season, it was expected there would be some changes in the off-season, but things went absolutely off the rails. Head coach Kenny Atkinson was fired, Kevin Durant reiterated he wouldn’t play, Kyrie Irving got shoulder surgery which ruled him out, Wilson Chandler opted out, and DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Taurean Prince all tested positive and removed themselves from the restart. This roster looks totally different than it did before the suspension of the season, and significantly worse as well. Brooklyn’s front office was scrambling to find players to simply have enough bodies to play the games, and guys like Jamal Crawford, Justin Anderson, Tyler Johnson, and even Michael Beasley could be getting some minutes for the Nets. Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen will be leading the team as a brand new group tries to figure it out.
Even with the disastrous beginning, the Nets should still end up in the playoffs. The Wizards are playing without Bradley Beal, which makes them the only team with a roster arguably worse than Brooklyn, and they would need to go essentially 8-0 to sneak into the eighth seed. However, the Nets slipping down to the eight seed is incredibly possible and should be expected. Only a half game above the Magic, it’s going to be a major struggle to hold the seventh-seed and try to avoid the Bucks in the first round. If every player on the roster was healthy and able to play, the Nets would be a very scary team at any time, but with the current available team expectations are incredibly low.
Key to the Restart: See if anyone is worth keeping. They’re not going to win a playoff series. Winning more than 3 games in the restart looks unlikely. Best case scenario for the Nets is one of the random signees from the restart fits in and is willing to play for cheap next season. Most likely none of them will play at that level, but it would be a welcome surprise for Nets fans. Next season should be a different story in Brooklyn.
Houston Rockets: With how well the Rockets played in stretches this season, it is wild that they ended up at the sixth seed. At times they looked like a top three team in the West, but they were streaky and at 40-24 they find themselves in the back-half of the playoff picture. With a spot in the postseason clinched, the restart games were supposed to be a chance for Houston to move up a seed or two, but the recent news that Russell Westbrook tested positive was a blow for fans. Along with that, James Harden still hasn’t shown up for the restart either, most likely because he was around Westbrook. Houston is understandably worried. However, neither player ruled themselves out from the restart and there is still over two weeks until games start, more than enough time for Westbrook to pass the quarantine regulations in place by the NBA. Head coach Mike D’Antoni making the trip was a nice surprise after some speculation he would not, so it’s not all doom and gloom for the Rockets quite yet.
The biggest storyline for Houston all year will continue into the restart, that being the new-look offense of total small ball. PJ Tucker proved he can guard opposing bigs well enough to sacrifice the size and the ultimate game of Moreyball showed signs of success. Granted, this was when Russ and Harden were at full-strength and were both pouring in around 30ppg, but if any offense will avoid rust it should be this one. Even though it relies a lot on shooting, it is mostly about spacing and ball movement, something this roster is designed to execute very well. Assuming the Rockets can hold off the Mavs and keep the six-seed, they would play the Denver Nuggets in the first-round, a team that relies heavily on the play from their bigs. It will be two very different styles going head-to-head, but that is the match-up Houston wants.
Key to the Restart: How much can James Harden and Russell Westbrook play? Without the engine the car can’t go. If those two are out any longer than the first couple games, things could head south for the Rockets very fast. The rest of the roster is built to exist around these two, so if even one of them is out for an extended period of time the Rockets begin to fall apart. This is all speculation because as of right now Harden has not tested positive and is expected to join the team very soon, and if they can both play Houston is a scary six-seed.
Philadelphia 76ers: After taking the eventual champion Toronto Raptors to seven games in the second-round last season, the 76ers were a popular pick for a top-3 seed in the East. Instead, they went 39-26 including a 5-5 stretch after the all-star break with losses to Cleveland and Golden State (yikes). It’s not that the Sixers have been bad, they just haven’t really been that great either. Joel Embiid missing over twenty games didn’t help, but even when he was healthy they never looked complete. As unique a talent as Ben Simmons is, his lack of shooting prowess is a major wrench in the offensive wheel for Philly. Tobias Harris is quietly having a really strong season, and young guys like Shake Milton, Furkan Korkmaz, and Matisse Thybulle have looked like useful pieces, but the Al Horford experiment was just so bad and Josh Richardson has been mediocre when he played. The talent is there, the execution has been iffy.
Even with everything that has gone so poorly, Philly still isn’t in a horrible spot for the restart. With a fully healthy roster and no one opting out, they actually have one of the most complete squads for when games begin again which will be a major key to getting back into the swing of things. Just like the Rockets they have clinched their spot, and falling any lower than the six-seed looks very unlikely, so if nothing changes they would play Boston in the first round. Despite the Celtics-Sixers rivalry not being what it once was, it still has some energy behind it and would be an interesting match-up, but Brett Brown absolutely wants to break the current tie with the Pacers and move up to play the Heat instead.
Key to the Restart: Let the stars shine. This could be Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons’s chance to prove a lot of people wrong. With every team slightly out of whack, which is how the Sixers operate all the time, Philly needs to take advantage of the chaos and watch their lead guys do their thing. Embiid needs 20 shots a game and Simmons should be bum-rushing the basket and dishing out double digit assists with no issues. Run in transition, lock down on defense (as they can, 6th best DefRating in the league), and let the big dogs eat.