Timberwolves

5 Things To Watch As the NBA Starts Back Up In the Bubble

Photo credit: Derick E. Hingle (USA TODAY Sports)

The NBA season is set to tip back off in Orlando later this month.

We’ll see what happens between now and then. We’ve already seen two MLS teams drop out of its “MLS Is Back” tournament due to COVID-19 concerns.

As I’m writing this, Russell Westbrook just announced he’s tested positive.

On Saturday, Florida reported 15,299 new positives tests — a state record. This doesn’t scream optimism, but the hope is that life in the bubble will be able to stiff-arm the virus.

We’ll see about that.

As far as basketball is concerned, there are plenty of storylines to watch in the final eight games of the regular season. Some teams, like the Nuggets, Mavericks and 76ers, have quite the incentive to perform well. Other teams like that Wizards and Suns, probably shouldn’t have been invited to Orlando in the first place.

Here are five storylines to watch as the NBA’s regular season wraps up:

Will The Timberwolves Have Two First-Round Picks?

The Timberwolves acquired the Nets’ lottery-protected first-round pick from the Hawks in a four-team trade that ended up sending Robert Covington to Houston.

Will the Wolves get to keep that pick? The Nets will be without Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Deron Williams, Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Kerry Kittles and Taurean Prince. But wait! Is that . . . Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley here to save the day?!

The Nets are currently in seventh place in the East, six games up on the ninth-placed Wizards. If the Wizards happen to gain two games on the Nets in the final eight games, they will force a play-in tournament (this is assuming that the Magic — who are a half-game behind the Nets — leapfrog the Nets in the standings).

This would be a great opportunity for the Wizards, but Washington will be without Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans.

Even if the Nets win just one out of eight games, the Wizards would still have to win three and beat the Nets twice to get to the playoffs. I’d bet the Wolves will keep this pick, which should land 15th overall. While it’s a weak draft, two first-round picks (with a potential No. 1 pick) are better than none.

Will Any Players Leave Voluntarily?

This is just a random thought of mine, but what happens when a team like the Suns start play in the bubble 0-4? What happens when the Pacers, who are without Victor Oladipo, fall behind 0-2 in the first round of the playoffs? Will we see players voluntarily take themselves out of the bubble to be back with their families sooner rather than later?

It seems possible. The players would be forfeiting some money, sure, but I think this is a sneaky storyline to watch.

It reminds me a bit of Summer League. The first five days of Summer League are awesome. Everyone is excited to be there and see a bunch of people they haven’t seen in a while. The last 10 days are less exciting. Players leave. Everyone is hungover and hot. All of my money is gone.

There will be a different vibe in Orlando (less hangover, more money), but after the initial week or two rush is gone, I could see players taking themselves out of the bubble.

What Will A Play-In Tournament Look Like?

The NBA had a huge opportunity to switch up the playoff format in the bubble. Obviously, it would be for circumstances that we hope we never see again, but Adam Silver had an excuse to throw something progressive and innovative at NBA fans.

And well, the results were underwhelming. We could have seen a format that looked like the World Cup (my personal favorite). We could have had seeding 1-16 with mixed conferences. Instead, we will have to settle for the play-in tournament which really isn’t a tournament at all.

If the ninth seed in the a conference is four games or less behind the eighth seed, the two teams will face each other. If the ninth seed can win two-straight games, it will head to the postseason.

The goal is to replicate the fun we saw from the Timberwolves and Nuggets back in 2018. And I can assure you, it was plenty of fun even if it was just to get destroyed by the Rockets in the next round.

I think this is a fun idea, but it feels like there were better options on the table. Then again, teams voted 29-1 in favor of this deal so maybe I’m the dumb one here.

It’s unlikely we’ll have a play-in tournament in the East, but the West is wide open. It will be the Grizzlies vs. someone. The Blazers, Pelicans and Kings are all 3.5 games back. We can probably write off the Spurs (4.0 games back) without LaMarcus Aldridge. The Suns, again, shouldn’t even have been invited.

The fan-favorite matchup would be to see Zion Williamson go up against Ja Morant, and that’s probably the most-likely scenario considering the Pelicans’ schedule.

New Orleans is set to face the Jazz, Clippers, Grizzlies, Kings, Wizards, Spurs, Kings and Magic.

The play-in tournament isn’t really a tournament at all. It’s just a two-game series in which the lower seeded team can’t lose. Regardless, it will be must-see TV, especially if we get to that second game.

There’s Plenty To Play For

Besides the teams fighting for a spot in a play-in tournament, there is a lot to play for as far as seeding goes.

In the East, the top-three of Milwaukee, Toronto and Boston is probably set. But the Heat are just two games ahead of the Pacers and 76ers for the fourth seed.

With Ben Simmons coming back fully healthy from a back injury, the 76ers are a dangerous team and one that wants to avoid a first-round matchup with the Celtics. Nobody is expecting much out of the Pacers, especially now without Oladipo. The Heat and Pacers face off twice in the final three games of the regular season, which could mean a great deal.

Meanwhile in the West, the Lakers have the first spot clinched. The Clippers hold a 1.5-game lead over the third-placed Nuggets, but the difference between the Nuggets and the sixth-seeded Rockets is just 2.5 games. That’s a lot of ground to cover in just eight games, but who knows? It also means we’ll see plenty of positioning between the Jazz, Thunder and Rockets from the fourth to sixth seeds.

In the East, the difference between the third and fourth seed is the difference between playing the Bucks or Raptors in the second round, which is significant.

In the West, it’s not as much as a difference with both the Lakers and Clippers at the top. But still, for a team like the undersized Rockets, it’s probably better to stick at the sixth seed and potentially face off against the Clippers in the second round rather than jump to the fourth and have to go up against Anthony Davis and the Lakers.

The hope is in the final two or three games of the regular season, we’ll see teams jockeying for playoff position. Especially with homecourt advantage not being a factor, we could see teams position themselves for their best possible path at a deep run in the playoffs.

We Should See Some Juicy First-Round Matchups

I would have preferred to see a mixed West and East playoff picture. This championship is going to be looked at differently regardless. Why not just blow the whole thing up?

Even without that, we are going to have some pretty fun first-round matchups. In the East, we could see the Celtics take on the Heat or the 76ers. Or, we could see Philadelphia and Miami face off.

In the West, we’re likely to see a first-round matchup of LeBron and the Lakers against Ja’s Grizzlies or Zion’s Pelicans.

We could see the Clippers go up against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks or James Harden and the Rockets. Or, what about a Clippers vs. Chris Paul matchup? And if the standings stick, we’ll see a Nuggets vs. Rockets first-round matchup. All of those would be awesome.

There are a handful of teams in Orlando that Silver regrets inviting. Once you get beyond that, though, there’s so much to be excited for with the NBA’s restart.

Now, the hope is that everyone can remain smart and healthy so we’re able to get there.

Wear a mask!

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