So I'm not as bold as Shaq. Sue me.
But I'm certainly not willing to go as far as the Hall of Fame big man did when he proclaimed that the Nets would not only retain their playoff spot but would advance to the second round of the playoffs, be it over the Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors, or whoever ends up standing in their way. They're completely depleted due to injuries and player opt-outs, and their starting five may contain guys that even more-than-casual NBA fans haven't heard of.
There's a difference between boldness and stupidity, and Shaq is really, really toeing the line there, so much so that the other hosts of NBA on TNT exploded with laughter at his prediction.
So while I'm not as bold as Shaq is in his prediction, I looked at the schedule of seeding games and some projected playoff standings to come up with some of my own bold predictions regarding the NBA restart, set to begin on July 30. Unfortunately, I didn't include any predictions regarding the Nets in here, although I really do think Caris LeVert could average 30 points per game. Is that even bold, given the talent that's surrounding him?
In any event, LeVert's production did not make the cut, as it isn't quite relevant to the playoffs as a whole, nor is it relevant to his stock as a potential trade candidate. As WFAN's Steve Lichtenstein laid out, those who are watching LeVert thinking he has something to prove in these playoffs must have missed the past couple years of explosiveness and potential he's showcased. What else does he have to do to show his worth?
I digress. Instead of focusing on players from teams like the Nets, I looked at players and teams who are indeed relevant to the outcome of this likely unforgettable NBA postseason. If even one of these comes true, I'll be pretty happy; they're bold predictions after all. Hopefully, these bold predictions actually have time to play out, as my last set was interrupted with the rest of the NBA season -- though I did foresee J.R. Smith's arrival in Los Angeles.
Gordon Hayward Shines
The spotlight that will shine on the Celtics will largely be taken up by Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker, and rightly so.
Tatum and Brown, with more emphasis on the former, are the core pieces of this franchise, and the team’s success is dictated by how they play. But their performances and production this season have been about as consistent as you can ask for -- they are one of three pairs of teammates in the East who each have 30 or more 20-point games this season, along with the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton and the Sixers’ Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris. They’re going to produce night in and night out, as is expected of them.
Kemba Walker’s spotlight will be a bright one, considering the veteran guard struggled after nagging injuries hampered his playing ability. There’s already been scrutiny on how his time in Orlando has gone so far -- there was concern (perhaps unwarranted) about his absence from practice early on, and he’s reassured the media that he’ll “be back better than ever,” but made sure to clarify that comment with a little “I think” at the end.
But while opposing teams are focusing on Tatum’s stardom and Brown’s right-hand-man abilities, and fans are focusing on whether or not Walker looks as though he’s fully healthy and back to form, Gordon Hayward is going to quietly carry this team through the playoffs. He knows he’s got free agency coming up, and while it’ll be pretty much impossible for him to find a deal that comes near the dollar amount of his player option with Boston, he can certainly increase his value with a strong performance.
He’s played some very mature games against key teams this season, including a 21-point, 10-rebound, seven-assist performance in a victory over the Bucks, and he’s also led a playoff team before. The 2017 Jazz, a No. 5 seed, got past the No. 4 Clippers (albeit with Blake Griffin missing a few games) by riding Hayward’s hot hand. He scored 25 or more points in seven of the 11 postseason games that year.
Hayward was quiet in last season’s playoffs, but there’s no more Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, Marcus Morris or Terry Rozier. He’s going to start, and he’s the most trusty veteran on the squad given his playoff experience and his age, along with Marcus Smart.
Of any team in the East that could spoil the Bucks’ miracle season, I like the Celtics the most. And it could very well come at the hands of Gordon Hayward, seeking to re-emerge as a star and finally rid himself of the demons from his missed shot against Duke in 2010.
New Orleans Pelicans Push Lakers to 7 Games in First Round
The Pelicans are by no means guaranteed a playoff spot, so maybe it would have been more appropriate to boldly predict that they’d make the playoffs in the first place. The Grizzlies are still ahead by a 3.5-game margin, and the Blazers and Kings are tied with the Pelicans for that ninth spot. But I wanted to go further.
For one, the Pelicans’ strength of schedule in the Orlando bubble is the easiest in the entire league. But that’s not the only reason I’d pick them. I’m a big fan of using star power as an indicator of potential playoff success -- another reason why I like the Celtics and their foursome of potential stars --, and of the four aforementioned Western Conference bubble teams, the Pelicans are the team that presents the strongest punch.
The Kings probably sit at the bottom of this starpower ladder. De’Aaron Fox is pretty much already there, but his supporting cast leans more toward the side of “solid” -- Harrison Barnes, Buddy Hield. Nemanja Bjelica, etc. -- rather than “star.” The Grizzlies may become a team full of bonafide stars after a few more years of developing Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson, but I can’t really call any of those guys a “star” yet. The Blazers have two well-established presences in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and Hassan Whiteside can sometimes be on or near that level, but there’s a steep decline after that… sorry, Melo.
So it’s the Pelicans, with should-be Rookie of the Year winner Zion Williamson -- though he’ll lose to Morant by default -- completely tearing up the league alongside Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram, who emerged into a star this year and is still only 22. Lonzo Ball has star moments, as does J.J. Redick, and the blend of outrageous upside and trusty experience makes this team my pick to capture that playoff spot.
And for all the above reasons, I think the Pelicans can further that success and momentum into their playoff series with the Lakers, who is almost a lock to stay as the No. 1 seed. The Lakers have star power bursting from the seams with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but a couple key missing pieces, including Avery Bradley, and a bit of vengeance from Ball and Josh Hart could see the Pelicans give LA a run for their money.
Or maybe it’s just wishful thinking… I’d do anything to see Zion and LeBron go head-to-head, like they did on March 1, for as long as possible.
Philadelphia 76ers Go Undefeated in Seeding Games
I’m scared to make this prediction for a few reasons, given that the Sixers are probably going to be shuffling their lineup around during these seeding games to find the best formula and there are still some health questions that are unanswered. But the thing that scares me most is that the very first opponent in the Sixers’ seeding games, the Indiana Pacers, is probably the team that has the best chance of beating the Sixers in these circumstances.
If the Sixers lose the very first of their eight seeding games, then this clearly doesn’t make for a very good prediction. But the hope is that Victor Oladipo stays true to his word from earlier in the year when he opted out of the league restart, which would make this game much more winnable. The Sixers were 1-2 against Indiana in the regular season, though both of those losses came without the services of Joel Embiid.
Should Philly come out on top in that game on August 1, they have relatively easy games against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic to finish out the week. The Trail Blazers are next and can give any team trouble, but an Embiid-less Sixers team pulled out a victory earlier in the season thanks to Furkan Korkmaz’s heroics. The Sixers also have the goods to prevent Lillard and McCollum from going off.
The Suns, who are next, will likely be out of the race at that point and won’t have much to play for, and are a far worse team than Philadelphia, anyway. The Raptors and Rockets end the stretch, but after a six-game winning streak and the new-found chemistry firing on all cylinders for Brett Brown -- who may be coaching for his job -- the Sixers could take off and prove right those who are calling them one of the most dangerous teams entering the bubble.
Mavericks Upset First Round Opponent (unless it’s the Clippers)
It didn’t take long for Luka Doncic to turn the Mavericks into a playoff team, and having Kristaps Porzingis by his side certainly didn’t hurt. It’s especially nice that Porzingis has by now settled into his big man role in Dallas, as Willie Cauley-Stein has opted out of the season for the expected birth of his child and Dwight Powell remains injured. Jalen Brunson and Courtney Lee join the players who will not take part in the season restart.
But despite those losses, the Mavericks have an arsenal of talent which is capable of providing a barrage of scoring, inside and out, and causing matchup problems. Doncic, who should now be fully healthy, and Porzingis are both practically matchup-proof. The outside scoring is lethal, with the likes of J.J. Barea, Seth Curry, Tim Hardaway Jr., Maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney-Smith all more than capable of knocking down the open three. Delon Wright is a versatile bench weapon. You have to respect any team with the hulking Boban Marjanovic as a backup option.
If the standings remain the same, the Mavericks will battle the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs. I really can’t see them knocking off Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and company from the No. 2 seed, and it seems likely that their playoff road would end there.
However, if the seeding games cause a shakeup in the standings, which very well may be the case, I like the Mavericks over several of their Western Conference foes. They boast the third-best net rating in the West, trailing only the two LA teams, and have been dealing with Doncic, Powell and other injured players the whole year. They don’t have to deal with as many new problems entering the bubble as some other teams they’re competing with, like the Rockets (lost some very bad games before the season was postponed), the Nuggets (is skinny Jokic a good thing?) and the Jazz (potential chemistry problems).
Should Dallas be matched up against these teams, their high-powered offense, their underdog mentality and their matchup-proof stars could lead them to an upset.
Rockets Lose First Round of Playoffs
I didn’t like that skid at the end of the regular season where the Rockets lost to the Knicks, the Clippers, the Hornets and the Magic before finally finding their footing against the all-powerful Timberwolves. Though they’re viewed by many as a team who will benefit from the hiatus and the bubble practices so that they can work out the kinks in their system, they still won’t have a tested, proven system in action when the season starts up.
It won’t be easy to get that new-and-improved game plan going, either. They have a tough road out of the gate against the Mavericks, the Bucks and the Lakers within their first four games of the season resuming, so that losing skid can be expected to continue. Games against the Blazers, the 76ers, the Pacers and even the Spurs -- never count out Gregg Popovich, especially against a team undergoing strategic overhaul -- could also give them trouble.
And because I think the Mavericks are going to play so well, it only makes sense that I expect the Rockets to drop below them in the standings and occupy that seventh seed when it’s all said and done, though the West is so tightly competitive that the Jazz or Thunder could just as well end up in that slot. If the Rockets face the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs? Uh oh.
Now, they did beat the Clippers twice this year, but those games aren’t without exceptions. One of them came without Paul George. And the other came with Clint Capela’s +27 +/- score, thanks to solid offensive and impeccable post defense, leading the way. Clint Capela certainly will not be sitting out, and Clint Capela’s trade to the Hawks ignited the Rockets’ small-ball plan.
Maybe Mike D’Antoni’s bubble practices and workouts have allowed him to refine his strategy and the Rockets will stun the rest of the West with their fast-paced, high-scoring ways. But I find it much more likely that the lack of proven success in this new system comes back to hurt the Rockets’ chances going forward in the 2020 season.