Kyrie Irving has made headlines for a lot of reasons over the past year, but in the last few weeks is where he's looked closest to making the decision to never play basketball again. First were the rumors that if traded, he would simply retire. Then came the news that he would not be taking on the vaccine, even if...
Five Things That Shouldn’t Surprise You With the NBA Restart
By: Khaqan Khan
We made it baby! After 5-months of hiatus and a week of scrimmages, the NBA is officially back. In impressive manner, Adam silver and the league have figured out a way to resume play with minimal risk. Is the bubble system perfect? No, but the NBA has reported zero new cases for the last few days. While we shouldn't forget that the pandemic is still going on, and a lot of people are dealing with it on a daily basis, it is encouraging to see something we love come back showing that we can overcome this virus if we work together. Before the Pelicans and the Jazz warm us up for the clash between the Lakers and the Clippers, let's go through things that shouldn't surprise you if they happen:
1. If the Toronto Raptors are back in the Finals
Last year, Kawhi Leonard established the identity for the Raptors that propelled them into the finals after an intense 7-game series with the 76ers, and a 0-2 comeback against the favored Bucks. The rest is history, the Raptors took care of a depleted Warriors team and were crowned NBA Champions with Kawhi Leonard winning Finals MVP.
For them to go back to the finals to defend their title with their best player gone, who is also a top 5 player in the league, is impressive, to say the least, but not inconceivable. Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell have both elevated their games to make up for production lost from Kawhi on the offensive front. Their defense has not lost a step with OG Anunoby coming back from injury, along with the flexibility that the additions of Rondae Hollis Jefferson, Chris Boucher, and hidden gem Terrence Davis provide. Protected by the backline of savvy Marc Gasol and the imposing Serge Ibaka, the Raptors have retained their biggest strength from last year, where they could put out lineups with multiple players that could consistently get their own shot. On top of the battle-tested confidence gained from last season's run and the "people are forgetting about us" mentality, the Raptors will not be afraid of any matchup in the playoffs. Their flexibility matched with their creativity and confidence makes them a viable candidate for an unexpected two-peat.
2. The Oklahoma City Thunder make a strong playoff push
One of the more pleasant surprises this year was the emergence of the new-look Thunder led by presumedly buffer-trade asset Chris Paul and budding star Shai Gorgeous-Alexander. Currently, the 5th seed, everyone assumed after they traded away franchise cornerstone Russell Westbrook, that this was the year to rebuild. Instead, Sam Presti and the Thunder assessed the situation and realized adding CP3, Danillo Gallinari, and SGA to a competent core of Steven Adams, Nerlens Noel, and Dennis Schroeder could be a competitive team. Besides, it's not like they need any more first-round picks. Billy Donovan has converted naysayers into believers while keeping the strong defensive identity last year despite losing Paul George and Jeremi Grant and deploying a deadly 3-guard lineup of Paul, Schroeder, and Gilgeous-Alexander. With their 3-guard lineup paired with a healthy Adams and Gallinari, the Thunder have five players that can hold up on defense and can each score 20 points on a night to night basis. Though they do not have a legit #3, they at least have five different athletic options that each bring their own strong niche, most notably Andre Roberson, who just made his return from a 2-year absence due to injury. We will have to see how game-ready Roberson actually is, but his play throughout the scrimmages lead me to believe he can a be X factor many people are overlooking. Before his injury in 2018, Roberson was a 1st team all-defensive talent who could guard the other team's best wing player. Having clinched a playoff spot, there is a good chance the Thunder might face either the Rockets or Jazz in the first round, having multiple bodies to throw at someone like James Harden between Roberson, Terrence Ferguson, and the emerging Lou Dort (who is built like a running back), will go a long way in helping OKC's chances of making it to the second round or maybe even the conference finals.
3. If the Trail Blazers flame out
Many people have spoken about how the dark-horse Trail Blazers can give the Lakers a run for their money. Yes, any team with a locked-in backcourt like the one in Portland will have a fighters chance, and this team with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins is a different team than the one that was slated to miss the playoffs before the hiatus began. However, the Trail Blazers are three games behind the 8th spot Grizzlies and have a difficult eight games especially when you compare their schedule to the Grizzlies and the Pelicans. This team tends to rely too much on jump shooting to bail them out of their lackluster defense. Hopefully, Nurkic can add options on offense and shore up the defense, but that seems like a lot to ask of a player that hasn't played all year within eight games before the playoffs start. This is not the year for the Trail Blazers. Perhaps this team peaked last year?
4. Shooting numbers go up across the league
Gone are crazy fans trying to throw players off their games. Gone are dozens of sideline cameramen and women waiting to meet the players at the baseline. Gone are the distracting stimuli of the arena trying to keep their home fans engaged and entertained. The players are back in their natural element. The bubble courts are closer to the gyms and environments reminiscent of the gyms and environments where the players fell in love with the game of basketball. Their high school gyms, running pick up at the local YMCA or Lifetime, and practice courts where players spend most of their time than actual games in the arena. Players also do not have to worry about switching time zones and traveling between games. We all know the stars are going to show, but do not be surprised if the role players are more consistent in a more neutral and consistent environment. This is the perfect space for someone like Ben Simmons to attempt more threes without the pressure of the Philly crowd behind him.
Also worth mentioning, Terrence Ross said, "the depth perception in these gyms are perfect, don't let shooters get hot." We already saw Duncan Robinson get hot during one of the scrimmages making four threes in a row. I imagine a lot of players that would have struggled in hostile playoff environments over preform in this environment. Which should make the fans happy with more competitive games, and the league proud to put out an attractive product.
5. The next big thing finds its roots in Orlando
Sorry Magic fans, I am not talking about you. I am talking about the entire league being in the same location for a few months. Insiders and people close to players always pointed towards all-star breaks, Olympic, and FIBA tournaments as places players convene about potentially joining forces. Remember how buddy-buddy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were during all-star last year. By then, we were already aware of their friendship, but it goes to show when guys are around each other, plans begin to emerge. New ideas of new combinations emerge. Think of it as a networking event for the NBA. You can even point to the '08 Olympics where Jason Kidd and LeBron James looked like perfect teammates playing together. No surprise Jason Kidd is currently on the Lakers coaching staff.
⁃ But It is not just the players that are taking advantage of this opportunity. Coaching staff and executives will also take part in this fine networking opportunity. Not only are jobs being discussed, but also trade packages. Do not be surprised if the next twitter breaking blockbuster deal finds its roots in Orlando.
Bonus: 5 players to watch out for
⁃ Mikel Bridges emerging as a key player in the Sun's Future
⁃ Bam Adebayo is the Heat's most valuable player.
⁃ Next generation of versatile power forwards: Grant Williams on the Celtics and Brandon Clarke on the Grizzles
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