Teams with the most to gain from a play-in tournament proposal
Three teams that can be surprisingly good if given the chance to return.
Both The NHL and NBA have started making steps toward a return, the NHL has already placed a plan that includes the playoff format and the teams that have already been eliminated. With the NBA expected to follow a similar format, we can possibly see a surprise team that can make a deep playoff run. While it would be a complete shock to see a team that isn’t in the upper echelon of the NBA standings to reach the finals, this could be the year that it happens. Historically, the teams that are in the NBA finals have either the best record or second best record in their own conference (the 2017-2018 Cleveland Cavaliers are the rare exception of the previous decade) and the last time there was a lockout, the Miami Heat played the Oklahoma City Thunder (both second best records in their conferences). However, in 1998-1999 the NBA had their first lockout since 1981 and it’s last until 2010, the NBA finals featured the San Antonio Spurs and the 8th seeded New York Knicks.
With this in mind, it seems more possible this year than any year before to see a team that isn’t in the playoff picture or on the bubble to make noise and a deep playoff run. Here are three teams that I can see making that surprise run if we have a play-in tournament followed by a different but not radical NBA playoffs. I picked teams that are on the border of being eliminated and would be complete and total shocks if they were to make it but regardless let’s look at the teams.
This feels like an obvious pick of a team that can have a major benefit from the long layoff. The Nets headlined last off-season when they signed both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving with the hopes to win a championship next year and not this year. The reason behind next year being the hopeful one was Durant's achilles injury that sidelined him for the entire season.
The achilles injury is assumed to be the death sentence for many athletes and particularly in the sport of basketball. It’s also very likely that the Nets would still be cautious in wanting Durant to return early since the Warriors rushed him back from an injury and it resulted in the achilles injury. This prediction weighs a lot on Durant's health but if Durant can return to the form that made him one of the best players in the league, the nets will instantly become title contenders.
The Nets may have a tough road when the season returns with their record placing them in the middle or end of the middle of the pack. They would likely play in the play-in games if there are any and then go on to play a team like the Raptors or Clippers early on. With a healthy Durant, a Kyrie Irving that wouldn’t need to carry as much weight being the secondary scorer and a deep bench, this Nets team can beat any team in the field. The Nets as a dark horse of course heavily relies on Durant’s health, it’s very likely that Durant will still not see any action even if the playoffs start in July but if Durant can return in full strength, the Nets are the team to look out for.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans are currently on the outside of the playoffs looking in. If the league returns without a play-in tournament, the Pelicans would be eliminated and not part of this discussion. If there is a play-in tournament, we can expect the Pelicans to be part of it with a record that is tied with the Sacramento Kings and the TrailBlazers for the ninth best record (the Blazers have two more games played than the Pelicans but are in a virtual tie). The Pelicans can be argued as the team to watch if there is a play-in tournament with none of the top teams wanting to face them.
The Pelicans were at the bottom of the Western conference for most of the season but have been one of the hottest teams since February. This surge can be credited to the most hyped rookie since LeBron James in Zion Williamson. Zion Williamson wasn’t able to play in the early part of the season since he was injured, when Zion finally played, it was clear that he would live up to the hype. Now the Pelicans didn’t win every game that Zion played in but they have looked significantly better since his return and their record doesn’t reflect their roster. The Pelicans give Zion Williamson a young supporting cast that includes Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, both are only getting better in their early careers. It’s also possible that the Pelicans rushed Zion Williamson back and he wasn’t playing fully healthy, with the long break we can possibly see a better Zion Williamson and a better Pelicans team.
I might be hyping Williamson a bit too much, after all, he only turns 20 in July. It’s also more likely that the Pelicans are still a year if not two away from being a real championship contender. The Pelicans are one of the more intriguing teams in the field and if they are able to continue their season, they can give even the Lakers or Bucks some tough competition.
Damian Lillard was one of the vocal stars to argue for a play-in tournament. If the league grants him this wish, him and the Blazers might be the team to take advantage of it. The Blazers have been in the playoffs for the past few seasons and have had varying degrees of success. While the Blazers are generally eliminated by the top teams in the West in either the first or second round, it’s easy to forget that they were in the Western conference finals last season. Granted, last season the West had numerous underachievers and the Blazers took advantage of some teams failing to meet expectations, including a Denver Nuggets team that was favored to win the series losing back-to-back games. The West also got better this season with Anthony Davis joining LeBron in L.A. (Lakers) and Kahwi teaming up with Paul George in L.A. (Clippers). The Blazers are a dark horse team because they have been in the playoffs before and they have seen these teams already, they can play the Nuggets again and we wouldn’t underestimate the Blazers in that kind of series. The Blazers are also one of the teams in the field that are one of the deadliest from the three-point play, the Blazers in any given series can catch fire and pull an upset and with all the craziness that has happened this season, this could be Portland's years to pull off some upsets and possibly reach the finals.