With the seedings finalised for the Eastern conference, here are my predictions for the first round.
Zion. That’s it. That’s the storyline.
Annoying tweet structured headline aside, who doesn’t love some Zion? Other than being a great kid who’s taken the NBA in stride all while staying down to earth through teenage fame, Williamson is good at basketball.
Yes, the Pelicans have a 28-36 record and face the difficult objective of reaching the eight seed over the (32-33) Grizzlies and (29-37) Blazers. Playing only 19 games this season, NBA fans have only got a taste of what the 198 cm, 129 kg power forward can do.
And what he can do is impressive.
In those 19 games, Williamson averaged 23.6 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists on 58.9 per cent shooting. The stats don’t matter, Williamson alone is more than enough reason to watch every Pelicans game. Catching half-court lobs and jumping like a pogo stick to get an offensive board, Zion is must-see TV.
With eight games left in the season, the stakes with which the Pelicans will be playing at make it all the more exciting.
Healthy Trailblazers stealing the eight seed
They were Western Conference finals contenders last season, but in 2020 the Trailblazers have been decimated by injury. Despite this, Damian Lillard’s MVP-level numbers of 29/4/8 have held on to the possibility of reaching the eighth seed.
With Jusuf Nurkic returning from injury at the resumption of the season, the Blazers have shifted from being an outside chance of making the playoffs to a team that, if they do make it, will be an annoyingly good eighth seed team for the Lakers to deal with. The Blazers offensive rating with Lillard and no Nurkic on the floor is almost four points worse (115.9 versus 119.2) and their defensive rating is almost six points worse (108.4 versus 114.6) when compared to their stats with Nurkic along with Lillard.
If Nurkic is healthy, Portland is the favourite to get the eight seed and would be the team I would like to see the least if I am the Lakers.
The eastern battle for seeding
Milwaukee is and will stay as first position. Barring an injury to Giannis Antetokounmpo, whoever they play in the first round will lose.
The following five spots, however, are open to change and are very fascinating. Both the Celtics and the Raptors desperately want the second seed. The difference between facing the injury (and pandemic) plagued Brooklyn Nets and the rested, possibly in-form 76ers is a significant one.
An easy sweep or a draining seven-game series can be the difference between a deep playoff run and being too exhausted to beat your second-round opponent. Another factor to watch for is the fact that teams would prefer to not have to face the Bucks until the conference finals if they don’t have to. Nobody wants to battle the reigning (and probably current) MVP until they’re as deep in the playoffs as they can be.
JR Smith and Dion Waiters to the Lakers
Of course, this is mostly for the running joke that has become the Los Angeles Lakers ‘meme squad’. But the addition of Smith and Waiters is one that has a very good risk/reward ratio for the Lakers. What if one of them can’t be the ‘three-and-d’ guard off the bench that the Lakers need?
It’s not great, but it doesn’t lessen their bid for a title. If one of them can come on and defend well while spreading the floor and hitting threes? Perfect. It gives the Lakers exactly what they need and strengthens what is already the first seed in the west.
If JR can be the three-and-d guy while Waiters runs a little bit of the offence with KCP while LeBron James rests? Even better. With the losses of Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo, the Lakers need some guards who can take some valuable minutes and not be a net negative.
In the scrimmages, both Smith and Waiters looked like they could succeed in that job.
Skinny Nikola Jokic?
Am I incredibly bored with the body transformation posts that have been circulating around NBA Twitter for what feels like months? Yes.
Do I think the majority of them are meaningless to success, if not complete tricks of the light? Yes.
Do I think a healthier, fitter, more athletic Nikola Jokic could be the difference between a first-round exit to the Rockets and giving either LA team a difficult second-round Battle? Yes.
We know that the MVP race is a two-man race (with one man being far ahead, three inches taller and Greek) but Jokic is one of the contenders. Whether he’s top five in MVP votes or not, Jokic has put up All-NBA numbers, averaging 20/10/7 on 52 per cent shooting and has led his team to the third seed, only one-and-a-half games behind the Clippers.
The Nuggets could shake up the Western Conference with their playoff performance whether Jokic has transformed his body or not but if Jokic can run easier and for longer? Their chances are only heightened.
Who the hell is playing for the Nets?
Look, I just had to mention the Nets. We know Kevin Durant is out and Kyrie Irving is out with a shoulder injury. Deandre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie and Taurean Prince are out due to COVID-19 and Wilson Chandler has opted out of the NBA bubble.
Only Caris LeVert, Jarret Allen, Joe Harris and Garrett Temple remain in the roster that started the Nets’ season. They have not looked very good in their scrimmage games and I don’t expect them to win many of their eight regular-season games. They are, however, most likely going to be in the playoffs and it will be interesting to see what LeVert can do as the main man.