Want more basketball in your inbox? Sign up for Marc Stein’s weekly N.B.A. newsletter here.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Los Angeles Lakers will play their first playoff game in seven years Tuesday night — at a centralized N.B.A. site in the middle of August.
This Newsletter Tuesday, in other words, is a special occasion.
It was under these auspices that I decided to break from my recent once-a-season tradition to convene what is known as the Committee (of One) and assemble an emergency edition of my power rankings to assess the 16 teams that, after spending some 40 days in the N.B.A. bubble, have advanced to the playoffs.
The higher-seeded team won each of Monday’s first four playoff games, but many N.B.A. experts believe the 2020 postseason will be more unpredictable than ever because home-court advantage and the usual rigors of travel have been deleted from the equation. Everyone is playing and living at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., with only a few hundred virtual fans admitted to the games.
“I hate giving predictions, but especially in this scenario, where literally anybody could get upset,” Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors told me last week when I asked him for his N.B.A. finals picks. “I’m prepared for anything as a quote-unquote fan.”
As a reminder: The Committee computes the order by weighing what is happening in the present alongside each team’s big-picture outlook — guided to some degree by subjectivity and whimsy.
Teams were ranked ahead of Tuesday’s play, before East-leading Milwaukee’s chastening Game 1 loss to the short-handed Orlando Magic.
1. TORONTO RAPTORS
The Raptors did not quite match the unbeaten Phoenix Suns in the seeding games, but they looked more playoff-ready, at 7-1, than anyone else in the bubble. The Raptors also recorded more wins this season than the Clippers (53 to 49) even after Kawhi Leonard swapped Canada for Hollywood. Given Toronto’s versatility on defense, its towering confidence after last season’s title run and Coach Nick Nurse’s creativity, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Raptors win the East again — even without Leonard.
2. MILWAUKEE BUCKS
The Bucks have such a favorable first-round matchup against Orlando that it made more sense to laser in on their mental state. Because Milwaukee’s No. 1 seeding in the East was all but assured before the team arrived in Florida, its intermittent focus was an understandable problem. Harder to understand was the impression that Giannis Antetokounmpo’s patience was already wearing thin, as suggested by a scuffle with the Nets’ Donta Hall and a head butt of Washington’s Moritz Wagner. The Bucks will have to spend nearly two more months here to win the franchise’s first championship since 1970-71. They haven’t enjoyed themselves much so far.
3. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS
The Clippers’ ceiling may still be the league’s highest, but it’s rather late and they still haven’t found that peak. More than a year after the acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Coach Doc Rivers still seems to be waiting to have access to his whole roster. Maybe Monday night’s Game 1 win over Dallas was the first step, at last, to putting all those inviting pieces together.
4. LOS ANGELES LAKERS
LeBron James, like Kawhi Leonard, is bidding to become the first superstar to lead three different franchises to an N.B.A. title. Yet it can be argued that the season’s lengthy hiatus hurt LeBron’s Lakers as much as any title contender. This team was rolling when the coronavirus pandemic forced an indefinite shutdown. Now the Lakers face a tricky first-round matchup with Portland amid growing concerns about a lack of perimeter shooting and the defensive void created by Avery Bradley’s absence.
5. DENVER NUGGETS
The Nuggets barely had enough players available to get through a practice in the early stages of the bubble. Now? Denver isn’t completely healthy, but Coach Mike Malone has more options than ever thanks to the emergence of Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol. Although Denver was a worst-in-the-bubble No. 22 in defensive efficiency in its eight seeding games, it sure looks like the West’s most credible contender outside Los Angeles when Jamal Murray closes games alongside Nikola Jokic the way Murray finished off Utah in Game 1.
6. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Even without its best James Harden defender (Luguentz Dort) for Game 1 and possibly longer, Oklahoma City has a real chance to upset Houston in the first round and continue a surge that would see the Thunder at No. 1 if we were ranking this season’s overachievers. Chris Paul predictably gets much of the credit in what has been a turn-back-the-clock season for him at age 35 — and his team got a classic subjective boost here from the Committee in recognition of Paul’s behind-the-scenes work just to make this restart happen.
7. MIAMI HEAT
The Heat are not quite the title contenders that Jimmy Butler has proclaimed them to be — not yet — but the Committee is higher on them than most. Coach Erik Spoelstra has playmakers (Butler, Goran Dragic, Bam Adebayo), shooters (Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro) and a variety of defenders to throw at Indiana’s T.J. Warren (Butler, Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder) — enough across the board to feel good about Miami’s first-round series with the Pacers.
8. BOSTON CELTICS
No one questions Jayson Tatum’s franchise-player viability, and Jaylen Brown continues to impress with both his on-court maturation and his off-court activism. But Boston, with its well-chronicled lack of dependable size, was already sweating its first-round matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers — before Gordon Hayward sprained his ankle Monday night, sidelining him for at least four weeks. The Celtics, who are also managing Kemba Walker’s longstanding knee problem, should find a way past the Ben Simmons-less Sixers, but that’s the most we’re prepared to promise.
9. HOUSTON ROCKETS
There were so many fit questions and so much skepticism when the Rockets acquired Russell Westbrook from Oklahoma City in July 2019. The big mystery now, amazingly, is whether Houston can survive a difficult first-round series against the surprising Thunder without Westbrook, who is out indefinitely with a quadriceps injury. With its ultrasmall lineups, Houston was supposed to be the most feared wild card in the West playoffs, but it may take all of Coach Mike D’Antoni’s tricks just to steer Houston into the second round — amid numerous questions about D’Antoni’s future.
10. INDIANA PACERS
The Suns’ 8-0 run in the bubble prevented the Pacers from getting the shine they deserved. Despite losing the All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis (foot) and coping with the ups and downs of Victor Oladipo’s spotty comeback, Indiana overcame its rebounding issues without Sabonis to go 6-2 and help Coach Nate McMillan secure a one-year contract extension. Best of all is T.J. Warren’s looming best-of-seven showdown with Miami’s Jimmy Butler after Warren averaged a ridiculous 31.0 points per game to finish third in seeding games scoring.
11. UTAH JAZZ
I was a big believer in Utah after the off-season acquisitions of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic — so big that in October I picked the Jazz to reach the Western Conference finals. Sadly, that attempt at bold, out-of-the-box forecasting hasn’t aged well, with Bogdanovic and the key reserve Ed Davis sidelined and Conley most likely out until at least Game 3 after the recent birth of his son. The Jazz face yet another immediate challenge emotionally, knowing they wasted Donovan Mitchell’s 57 points in a crushing Game 1 loss to Denver.
12. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
After what Coach Terry Stotts described as “a nine-game series” just to get a playoff shot at the mighty Lakers, Portland theoretically should have a sharpness edge — at least at the start of the series. The Blazers, though, have considerable defensive issues, and they aren’t the healthiest — CJ McCollum (back) and Zach Collins (ankle) will try to play through injuries. The group also has to be weary after the exertion required to bump Memphis out of the eighth seed. Even with Damian Lillard on its side, Portland has much to overcome to produce the first-round shocker Charles Barkley has been touting on TNT.
13. DALLAS MAVERICKS
The euphoria that the Mavericks undoubtedly felt after reaching the playoffs in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis’s first full season together was surely tempered by the reality of facing the Clippers’ array of top-flight defenders. That, combined with Dallas’s defensive frailties, makes for a brutal Round 1 matchup. Doncic insisted before the series that the Mavericks had “nothing to lose,” but Game 1 played out in agonizing fashion, with Doncic blighting his 42 points with 11 turnovers and Porzingis getting ejected in the third quarter.
14. PHILADELPHIA 76ers
For fans of a certain age, there is still a majesty attached to the mere mention of a Philadelphia vs. Boston playoff series. Yet one suspects that these 76ers are not in much of a mood to romanticize after losing Ben Simmons (knee surgery) indefinitely and a Game 1 fade against the Celtics that highlighted so many of the Sixers’ familiar ills: Joel Embiid either wore down or didn’t see enough of the ball in crunchtime; Al Horford, last summer’s marquee signing, had minimal impact against his former team; and the usual wails about Philadelphia’s lack of perimeter shooting persist. The pressure is on the Sixers — especially Coach Brett Brown.
The Nets lost so many players in the weeks before coming to Florida that they had no shortage of N.B.A. Twitter cynics asking if they should have even bothered showing up to Disney World. Then they went a spunky 5-3 on the way to the playoffs, rallying around the blossoming Caris LeVert and the steady Joe Harris to beat Milwaukee (with Giannis Antetokounmpo in the lineup) and nearly eliminate a desperate Portland. They’ve been a great story here, even if Toronto sweeps the Nets in the first round — especially LeVert and the response Jacque Vaughn is getting from this group as the interim coach.
16. ORLANDO MAGIC
The Magic have been a curiosity for me from the moment they became the first team to arrive on the N.B.A. campus, because they had to travel only about 25 miles. Orlando’s staycation, though, is surely coming to an end soon. Milwaukee has too many weapons, and the Magic’s only realistic defensive counter to Giannis Antetokounmpo — Jonathan Isaac — tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in his second game here. Adding to Orlando’s problems: Aaron Gordon is still recovering from a hamstring injury.
This newsletter is OUR newsletter. So please weigh in with what you’d like to see here. To get your hoops-loving friends and family involved, please forward this email to them so they can jump in the conversation. If you’re not a subscriber, you can sign up here.
Inside the Bubble
A fresh round of highlights and reflections from my fifth full week inside the N.B.A. bubble:
Goodbye to the good seats
Thursday night was emotional.
At least a dozen reporters were at AdventHealth Arena to cover the epic Trail Blazers/Nets game that went down to the last shot and sent the Phoenix Suns home despite their 8-0 record in bubble games.
One reporter — me — signed up to cover the last game at the Visa Athletic Center.
Orlando beat New Orleans in that meaningless game, which nonetheless meant a ton to me because it was my last chance to sit in the glorious courtside seats I’ve been raving about. The N.B.A. will not use the arena for any playoff games.
Last Wednesday, I was also the only reporter to attend the Washington Wizards’ final practice before leaving the bubble. I tweeted a picture of an empty Visa main court, so invitingly peaceful, as the Wizards practiced behind an adjacent curtain.
I know, I know: I am a basketball nerd in the extreme. But I miss that gym so much already. I’ve heard that it’s hard to tell the difference between any of the venues on television, but the convenience of the seating and the interview spaces at Visa will stay with me when I leave here.
A peek inside the Yacht Club
A rule barring the news media from the hotels housing teams was relaxed for one night after five teams left the Yacht Club Resort they shared with the Portland Trail Blazers. The league organized a Saturday evening dinner at the Yacht Club’s Ale & Compass restaurant, which is widely regarded as the signature attraction of the resort.
The Yacht Club, fair or not, got branded as a distinct third choice for teams behind the Gran Destino and the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, largely because hotel assignments were based on the standings in March. But the Blazers have thoroughly embraced the place.
When our two buses full of reporters arrived, Portland’s coaching staff was in the lobby, decompressing after a taut playoff play-in victory over Memphis that secured a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Welcome to the Portland Yacht Club,” Blazers Coach Terry Stotts said as he stood to greet me and my pal Chris Haynes from Yahoo and Turner Sports. Stotts looked quite pleased, but I think we were even happier by night’s end.
It was a real meal in a real restaurant — albeit very socially distanced with no more than two or three of us to a table — and it was scrumptious. (My main course: New York strip steak with truffle fries and a watercress salad after some nice appetizers.)
A new trail
After Game 1 of its series against the Lakers, Portland will move into the Grand Floridian, Disney World’s flagship resort. But who would blame the Blazers for wanting to stay at the Yacht Club after it has treated them so well?
Speaking purely for myself, after getting a glimpse of the Yacht Club’s lobby and its old-world nautical charm, I know I could quite happily stay there.
Just to be clear, though: Portland didn’t have a choice. The Yacht Club is scheduled to reopen to the public on Aug. 24. That’s why all teams from the sub-.500 sextet assigned to the resort knew from the start that they would have to relocate midstream, unappealing as that sounds, if they managed to slip into the playoffs.
We all scream
With no games Sunday night, reporters were greeted by a breathtaking sight: Open for business, without warning, was a full ice cream sundae bar in the meal room for the news media. I feel compelled to disclose that I did have one plain (but satisfying) scoop of chocolate.
You ask; I answer. Every week, I’ll field three questions sent in to email@example.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as your city, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Responses may be condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)
Q: You recently bemoaned the lack of recorded stats to consult on Michael Jordan’s dunk history, but not Wilt Chamberlain’s? — David Machlowitz
Stein: Fair point. Because dunks were not tracked until the later stages of Jordan’s career, starting in the 1997-98 season, we have no true feel for how much dunk damage Chamberlain did each game or each season.
But there are other key statistics that were not recorded in Wilt’s time that would have been even handier to have.
Chamberlain’s last season as an active player, in 1972-73, was the last season that the N.B.A. did not track blocked shots and steals as official statistics. Wilt’s shot-blocking numbers presumably would have been the most prolific in league history.
Q: Can you answer this? Is the N.B.A. declaring division winners? — @TedDibiase77 from Twitter
Stein: The league indeed recognized division winners this season as it would in any other season, even though teams played anywhere from a low of 64 games (Minnesota) to a high of 75 (Dallas).
Your division champions: Toronto (Atlantic), Milwaukee (Central), Miami (Southeast), Houston (Southwest), Denver (Northwest) and the Los Angeles Lakers (Pacific).
Leave it to Tim Reynolds, my pal from The Associated Press, to have looked up that the N.B.A. championship has been won by a division winner in each of the past eight seasons. The last non-division champion to win it all was Dallas in 2011.
Q: I write this as someone much older than you — nothing screams “old man” more than you referring to your “trusty BlackBerry.” — Dan Whalen (Santa Barbara, Calif.)
Stein: Two things, Dan.
1. BlackBerry insults bounce right off me. I love my physical keyboard and will defend the virtues of it all day. There’s a decent chance I will die with a BlackBerry in my hand, so there’s no such thing as a negative connotation, to me, with this phone.
2. I don’t mind being branded as “old.” I was the youngest traveling beat writer in the league (or thereabouts) when I started — so young, at 24, that various Los Angeles Clippers staff members at the time referred to me as “Junior.” I have made it into my 50s and pray that I have the good fortune to keep covering this crazy league for another 27 seasons — or as close as I can get. So I see it as a privilege to make it to “old man” status.
The sample size remains small, but playing without fans has not adversely affected “home” teams in the bubble. They won 49 of the 88 seeding games, for a winning percentage of .556. That falls right in line with the season from October through March, when home teams went 535-436 for a winning percentage of .551.
In the bubble, the “home” designation really only gives teams control of uniform choice and the various acoustical touches in the arena my colleague Scott Cacciola just wrote about. Of course, given the very wide spectrum of approaches teams used during seeding games, tracking this statistic now that the playoffs have begun will be a more worthy exercise.
Zero current N.B.A. players were active in the league in 1997-98 when the San Antonio Spurs began a playoff streak that lasted 22 seasons and finally ended last week. Alvin Gentry, who was fired Saturday by the New Orleans Pelicans, was coaching the Pistons in 1997-98 and, until his New Orleans dismissal, ranked as this season’s only other active coach besides the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich who held an N.B.A. head coaching job when the streak started.
Portland’s Gary Trent Jr. has always been a player of high interest here at Stein Line HQ because I (gulp) covered his father as a Dallas Mavericks beat writer more than 20 years ago. In the bubble, Trent Jr. announced himself to the N.B.A. community at large by more than doubling his pre-bubble scoring average (7.7 points per game) to 16.9 points per game during Portland’s 6-2 run.
There have only been 295 players listed as left-handed shooters in N.B.A. history, according to Stathead. This is the league’s 74th season.
So many of my good southpaw stats over the past few weeks were additionally researched by the Warriors’ tireless Darryl Arata. Among them was the following gem: Four of the 50 lefties in the N.B.A. this season were only 19 years old when the season began: New Orleans’ Zion Williamson, Oklahoma City’s Darius Bazley, Cleveland’s Kevin Porter Jr. and the Knicks’ RJ Barrett. All four players have turned 20 since May.