As the NBA's return to play draws near, Alex Barutha and Nick Whalen explore one major question facing each of the 22 teams heading to Orlando.
New Orleans Pelicans
How much does the layoff affect Zion?
When we last saw the No. 1 pick in the 2019 Draft, he had just completed a 15-game stretch with averages of 25.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.3 assists in just 31.2 minutes. Williamson had at least 20 points in 14 of those games, and his energy was starting to translate to the defensive end. While he wasn't going to catch Ja Morant for Rookie of the Year, Williamson was firmly on the map as a top-five NBA attraction.
Nearly five months later, can Williamson, who sat out the first three months of the season, pick up where he left off? If the Pelicans are to catch the Grizzlies and hold of the recharged Trail Blazers, they'll need Williamson to do just that – and perhaps even more. In 19 games with Williamson in the lineup, New Orleans went just 10-9. That was better than the Pelicans' winning percentage without him, but barely staying above .500 likely won't be enough to break through in Orlando.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Can the Thunder recapture their second-half momentum?
On Jan. 17, the Thunder lost at home to Miami to fall to 23-19. In their final game before the shutdown, they came from behind to win in Boston, pushing their record to 40-24. During that 22-game stretch, OKC had two separate five-game winning streaks and a four-game winning streak, while the victory over Boston was the Thunder's third straight heading into the layoff.
No matter how this season turned out, it was expected to be a culture reset for a franchise that had waved goodbye to its most iconic and beloved player. But the whatever happens happens attitude quickly shifted toward real expectations with a rejuvenated Chris Paul spearheading a guard trio that's been among the best in the league. The Thunder could've traded Danilo Gallinari at the deadline and added to their war chest of future assets, but they held on to the free-agent-to-be, who's having one of the best seasons of his career.
At the end of the day, if the Thunder are washed out in Round 1, it won't be a major disappointment. With the assets accumulated in the Paul George and Russell Westbrook deals, Sam Presti's eye has no choice but to be focused on the future. But with Paul, Gallinari, Steven Adams, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder all playing at high levels, there's no reason OKC shouldn't expect to win a playoff series – especially if it can usurp Utah for a top-four seed.
Should the 76ers be considered a title contender?
Prior to the start of the season, the 76ers were given an over/under of 54.5 and the fifth-highest title odds. At the season's suspension, Philadelphia was 39-26, ranking sixth in the Eastern Conference. Many of the struggles occurred on the road, with the 76ers posting a -5.6 point differential away from Philly.
Joel Embiid also only appeared in 44 games, playing the sixth-most minutes on the team (fewer than Furkan Korkmaz). It's difficult to overstate how important he is to the team, and how much the Sixers struggle without him. His +4.9 point differential is in the 80th percentile for all players, and lineups with Embiid are +5.6, which is in the 81st percentile. So is a 39-26 record actually a disappointment when their best player has missed 21 games?
Not only did the suspended season give Embiid time to rest his body for the postseason, it did the same for Al Horford, who's 33 years old and was underperforming, and Ben Simmons, who was dealing with a back injury. While Embiid and Simmons may not fit perfectly together, the 76ers, from a talent perspective, might have the most talented five-man lineup in the league. We saw how close they came last season to making the Eastern Conference Finals. It shouldn't surprise us if they make it that far, or father, again. Also, against both Los Angeles teams, the 76ers are 2-2 with a +5 point advantage.
Can the Magic dodge the Bucks?
Currently sitting in eighth, the Magic are just a half-game behind Brooklyn for the No. 7 seed in the East. Climbing any higher is impossible, but Orlando should be doing all that it can to avoid what would be a definite steamrolling by Milwaukee in Round 1. Chances are, a matchup with the Raptors would entail a similar fate, but if Orlando's goal is to build some positive momentum for next season, they have a better chance to do that against Toronto, where they improbably stole Game 1 a year ago.
Outside of prolonging death as long as they can, the Magic should hope to see some growth from Markelle Fultz and Aaron Gordon. The most promising piece of their young core, Jonathan Isaac, likely won't be available, so it'll be up to Fultz and Gordon to supplement the more dependable production from Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier.
Fultz still has some major flaws, but he quietly put together a decent third season, shooting 47 percent from the field and 72 percent at the line on his way to 12.1 points and 5.2 assists per game. Three-point shooting remains a significant concern, but Fultz hasn't lost his feel for the game, and he's been a better defender than most give him credit for.
Do they stand to benefit the least of any bubble team?
The Suns are the lowest-seeded team involved in the resumption of the season. Phoenix is 13th in the Western Conference with a record of 26-39, quite far behind the eighth-place Grizzlies, who are 32-33.
Only a miracle would see Phoenix make the postseason, and the team doesn't really have a traditional "young core" to develop. Devin Booker is already an All-Star, Deandre Ayton is already a walking 20-and-10, and Kelly Oubre isn't playing due to injury. That's not to say nobody on the team will gain valuable experience – Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson come to mind – but this is already a pretty established roster.
All things considered, it feels like the Suns are in Orlando not because they actually stand a chance at making the playoffs, but because they were competitive enough to cross an arbitrary threshold. It will be nice to see Booker and Ayton play basketball again, but it doesn't ultimately seem like much will come from it.
Portland Trail Blazers
Nurkic will be seeing his first action of the year when things resume in Orlando, and Collins will be seeing his first action since he injured his shoulder during the third game of the season. Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony have done a solid job of eating frontcourt minutes, and with Whiteside playing especially well.
Nurkic was arguably the Blazers' second-best player last season, holding a +12.0 net rating (96th percentile) and averaging 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.0 steals. Collins wasn't nearly as effective, but still averaged 9.0 points (42.9 percent from three), 4.0 rebounds and 0.7 blocks in 28.7 minutes. He provides an interesting three-and-D option in a very different vein than Melo, and he's always an option as a stretch five.
Whiteside and Nurkic give the Blazers the best center rotation of any team in the NBA, and it could help them dominate inside. Coupling that with having either one of Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum on the court at all times also allows Portland to run never-ending effective pick-and-rolls, potentially leading to easy buckets in the paint or kicks to open shooters. The Blazers have some work to do in terms of reaching the eighth seed, but they have the personnel to make a serious run.
Can the Kings be the surprise team of Orlando?
Nearly all of the talk surrounding the sprint to the finish for the eighth seed in the West has revolved around Memphis, New Orleans and Portland. No one is talking about the third team sitting 3.5 games back of the Grizzlies heading into Orlando. To be fair, the Kings don't have Damian Lillard or Zion Williamson or Ja Morant, but their record suggests they should at least be a part of the conversation.
Would I pick the Kings, who haven't strung together more than three wins a row all season, to catch Memphis and ultimately win a play-in series? I can't say I would. But with a dynamic backcourt and a healthy Richaun Holmes, there's no reason Sacramento can't at least make things interesting.
Prior to a shoulder injury that shelved him for two months, Holmes was one of the league's most efficient big men. He returned on a limited basis for the final two games before the shutdown and should be well past the injury come August.
The major wild card is Marvin Bagley, who hasn't played in an NBA game since Jan. 20. There have been suspiciously few updates on Bagley's status in the weeks and months since, but if he's ultimately cleared to play, he'll add scoring and rebounding to a frontcourt that's heavily dependent on Harrison Barnes and Nemanja Bjelica.
Will Bradley Beal play a full eight games?
Expectations for the Wizards are justifiably low, but they'll arrive in Orlando just 5.5 games behind the Magic for the eighth seed in the East. During the eight-game regular season, all Washington has to do is pull with 4.0 games of Orlando – or Brooklyn, which is only a half-game up on the Magic – to trigger a "tournament" for the final playoff spot. Washington will still be down John Wall, and Davis Bertans also will not play, but Orlando and Brooklyn aren't exactly the 2017 Warriors. All I'm saying is the Wizards can't be counted out just yet.
Now, with that said, let's say Washington drops its first two or three games when the regular season resumes. Does Beal sit out the rest of the way? Would his minutes be limited? For the average viewer, it probably doesn't matter, but Beal's status will undoubtedly carry major fantasy ramifications. In 57 regular season games, Beal averaged 30.5 points, 6.1 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.2 steals – all while facing the undivided attention of opposing defenses for 36 minutes a night.
If you're drafting for a playoff league, it's worth considering the hit Beal's value might take. The same goes for players like Devin Booker and DeMar DeRozan who could find themselves in similar positions.