The 2019-20 NBA season has been put on ice and may not return at all. If it does get canceled outright, then some teams will be saved from missing the playoffs in disappointing fashion. The San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, the former with a massive playoff streak and the latter coming off a trip to the Western Conference Finals, come to mind. Other teams were making a late charge for the postseason, like the New Orleans Pelicans. As we wait for some clarity on the status of the NBA, let’s look at some of the teams that will be chomping at the bit to get into the playoffs next season … whenever that may be.
The hype for Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson was at max capacity until he injured his knee and sat out basically half the season. Before the NBA suspended its season, Zion was starting and contributing at an elite level. That was unsurprising considering he is viewed as a generational player, but what was not accounted for is how much better he was making his teammates. Since Williamson made his debut January 22, the Pelicans have the seventh-best net rating in the NBA, with only playoff teams ahead of them. New Orleans has the eighth-best defensive rating in the league in that same span. Prior to Williamson taking the floor, the Pelicans were ranked 26th in defensive rating.
Certainly, the big change is not just because Zion is roaming the court. Lonzo Ball made strides as a 3-point shooter, making them at a 38.3% clip on more than six attempts per game. He is already a stout defender and playmaker, making the addition of a consistent long-range shot that much more beneficial. Defenses, which would have normally sagged off Ball in years past, now have to think twice before stepping away from him. That half-second of hesitation is all it takes for some offense to be created.
The biggest change to the Pelicans is Brandon Ingram transforming into an All-Star-caliber scoring option. The 22-year-old is averaging 24.8 points per game. Like Ball, Ingram has taken a massive leap in his 3-point shooting, and not just in percentage, but volume too. Ingram is a free agent after this season, but it is hard to imagine him leaving New Orleans. The core of Williamson, Ball and Ingram is solid, but the rest of the team is well rounded with veterans and underrated players like Jrue Holiday. The Pelicans were pushing for the NBA Playoffs this season and, barring catastrophic injuries, should be doing the same next season.
Defending Trae Young, and Trae Young Defending
I was one of the people who thought that the Atlanta Hawks would make the playoffs this season in the woeful Eastern Conference. That prediction was a common sleeper pick. The Hawks made the kind of jump last season that would have made you think they had another leap coming, considering how young many talented young players they have. Turns out, they have some problems.
One need for Atlanta is a last-resort rim protector, the kind of big who would guard the paint when someone inevitably gets past Trae Young. For context, Young is one of the better offensive players in the league, with the 10th-best offensive rating among guards who have played at least 60 games. Despite that, he is a net negative because of the defensive woes.
The Hawks’ first attempt to mitigate this issue was the trade for Houston Rockets center Clint Capela. While we have not been able to see what Atlanta looks like with Capela on the floor due to an injury, he figures to be a nice rim-running big for Young. That allows John Collins, who is simply not big enough to be a center, to move back to his natural power forward spot. This season, Collins has guarded centers 29.1% of the time and is allowing opponents to shoot 52.6% from the floor. That compares to 42.4% when guarding forwards and 41.3% when going up against guards. The addition of Capela will be fascinating to watch offensively as Young will surely utilize him in the pick and roll plenty, but there are defensive upsides as well.
Unless something drastically changes, Atlanta will need to make sure that any lineup with Young in it will be beefed up defensively. But the gravity he attracts on offense is something the Hawks can work with. Rookies De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish, on paper, represent the type of players Atlanta needs: malleable forwards with defensive potential and offensive capabilities. Reddish, for all his flaws, profiles to be a good defender from a physical standpoint. His issue had been on the offensive side, but Reddish has been more effective since January. He has averaged at least 10 points in each month of 2020 and was averaging 17.5 points per game on 55% shooting in March before the league shut down. At 19 years old, there is plenty of room to grow.
Hunter came out of the draft as a more polished wing, but he has struggled on both sides of the ball this season. The one thing that is compelling for Hunter is the 3-point shot, which he hit at a 35.5% clip this season. It may be a mirage considering his overall shooting percentage is 41%, but it is compelling, nonetheless.
The Eastern Conference is not good, and that will work to Atlanta’s advantage. But they are looking to build around Trae Young and supplement him with defensive protection and potent offensive partners. We will see if this early build translates to the NBA playoffs.
Golden State of Mind
Ignore the cliché title, but I felt the need to include the Warriors on this list. Yes, this season was a wash for the defending Western Conference champions that watched Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson sit on the sideline with an injury.
Golden State has two All-Star-caliber players waiting to come back. They turned Kevin Durant into D’Angelo Russell, who they then turned into Andrew Wiggins and some other stuff. It was not a sexy move, but Golden State clearly did not believe that Russell, who is horrific defensively, would mesh well for next season. Enter Wiggins, who, at least positionally, fits with the Warriors. He, too, is a defensive liability and not a very efficient shooter, but General Manager Bob Myers is banking on the Midas touch he feels the organization possesses. Next to Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green, Wiggins will have some protection around him offensively and defensively.
The wild card is the NBA Draft, which is sitting in limbo after the postponement of the lottery and combine. Golden State is in line to get the No. 1 pick in the (admittedly weak) draft. While some reports have them not willing to shop the pick, especially given that there is not one prospect worth emptying the asset cabinet for, the possibility is out there. Even if the Warriors keep the pick, they could be adding a blue-chip prospect to a star-studded veteran roster. They netted an additional first-round pick in 2021 from the Russell trade as well.
The trade of Russell, whom Golden State vehemently said they would not trade this season, was a defining moment for the continuation of the championship hopes for the organization. The move could blow up in their face. Wiggins has, perhaps, the worst contract in the NBA. Curry and Thompson are coming off major injuries, the former causing irreparable nerve damage. Green is regressing and is no longer the dominant defensive interior facilitator he was during the title runs. If Wiggins does not improve the Warriors or, regrettably, makes the team worse, the outlook is grim. Golden State will likely be right back in the picture for the NBA playoffs just because of talent, but whether they are a legit title contender is still in question.
Hungry Like the Wolf
Boy, what a season for the Minnesota Timberwolves. After starting the season 7-4, they went 10-37.
Ten and thirty-seven.
Granted, Karl-Anthony Towns has battled knee and wrist injuries, and without him, the offense falls off a cliff. Minnesota has a 102.4 offensive rating when Towns sits and a 113.9 rating when he is on the floor. Defensively, things are a different story. The Wolves have a 115.4 defensive rating with Towns on the floor and 107.9 when he is off. No, the Wolves are not better off without him, but the statistics are interesting, nonetheless.
Treading water with Wiggins and Towns, the Timberwolves made a drastic change to their future by trading for Russell. The pairing of Russell and Towns is fun (offensively), young and energetic and gives Minnesota a blueprint for how to fill out the rest of the team. Unfortunately, the two have only played a total of 25 minutes together. Predictably, they are very offensively efficient (119.4 offensive rating) and terribly defensively (139.7 defensive rating). Granted, this is an incredibly small sample size of two players still learning to mesh. But the efficient offense and terrible defense fit the narrative. In order to maximize the pairing and return to the NBA Playoffs, the Wolves need wing defenders in a bad way.
Defensive woes aside, any time you pair two players as gifted offensively as Towns and Russell, there is playoff potential. Russell is a crafty passer and has good enough handles to create space and get to the rim. In a Wolves uniform, he is averaging 6.6 assists per game and could have that number rise a little with a healthy Towns. Minnesota has been searching for a point guard since Sam Cassell, and Russell looks to be the answer.
One move that is flying under the radar is the trade with the Denver Nuggets that netted Minnesota Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, amongst others. In eight games with the Wolves, Beasley has been tremendous and appears to be a good pairing with Russell in the backcourt. He is averaging 20.7 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game while nailing 42.6% of his 3-point attempts. Hernangomez is averaging 12.9 points per game and shooting a scorching 42% on 3s, on a career-high 4.9 attempts. The Wolves acquired both players in the massive 12-team Covington trade, essentially swapping a bunch of bench players in the process.
With a transformed roster, Minnesota will be a fun watch. If you enjoy seeing defensive prowess in action, avert your eyes. But the Wolves should be a very dangerous offensive team.
Blazing an Unknown Trail
I am assuming here that the Portland Trail Blazers are not going to make the playoffs. At the time of this writing, they are 29-37 and 2.5 games out of the playoffs. If the NBA does not return this season, they would be out of the playoffs just one year after making a trip to the conference finals. But they will likely be right back in the postseason next year.
The harsh reality is that the Blazers may have seen the apex of their Damian Lillard/CJ McCollum pairing. The two form a dynamic offensive pairing with plenty of playmaking capabilities that boost the rest of the team around them. The problem is, and has been, the rest of the team around them. Whether it is poor free-agent signings, injuries or simply ineffective play, the players around Lillard and McCollum have let the franchise down.
Jusuf Nurkic coming back to full strength would fill one hole. Prior to suffering a catastrophic leg injury, the 25-year-old was averaging a double-double per game and lifted the Blazers as a team at both ends of the floor. While he was on the court, Portland had a net rating of plus-10.5 compared with minus-2.2 when off. That sort of production is largely irreplaceable, particularly on the defensive end and in the pick and roll.
Getting Zach Collins back will help tremendously too. The young stretch big man only appeared in three games this season but showed some impressive shooting range and defensive capability. The same goes for Rodney Hood, who provides some much-needed wing depth. Anfernee Simons, Nasir Little and Gary Trent are young rotational pieces who will get better with age and experience. Normally, a team with a superstar and a second star would be looking to offload young talent to go into “win-now” mode, but the Blazers cannot afford to do that. Their young players are in the rotation and crucial to the team’s success.
Given the talent on the roster, Portland should be right back in the hunt for the NBA playoffs. But the Western Conference is loaded. The bottom of the conference is thick with potential playoff teams that will be beating each other up to scrape into the postseason. Portland would surely be in the high end of that tier and perhaps into the middle of the conference. It is hard to bet against Lillard, though he was spectacular this season, and it was not looking like enough.
There are a lot of young, talented teams that will be fighting their way into the NBA playoffs next season. A few veteran teams will be out to get back to their winning ways. In both cases, there will be plenty to watch and analyze throughout the season, whenever that my start.