The NBA and its players association continue to move toward a late July return to the 2019-20 season, despite serious concerns from a faction of players ranging from the health threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic to the optics of playing amid the current social justice movement. Who exactly shows up to the Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., remains a pressing question.
The pressure on players who are skeptical about playing is undoubtedly immense from the superstars who formed a united front in their desire to return to the organizations that will not pay players that fail to report, and the fans who will be watching by the millions at home. Serious ethical issues are at play for the NBA.
COVID-19 will loom over the Orlando bubble, especially since cases have begun to spike again since the area began reopening its economy. Optimists will hope the NBA’s testing policy and health precautions in a quarantined location will allow the league to run smoothly without incident. Let us attempt to live in that bubble for a moment and look on the bright side of a four-month hiatus — the ability for injured players to restore their health in preparation for the restart of the season, assuming they assume another health risk.
In my own effort to return to normalcy, here is an old-school attempt at an actual basketball blog: Power ranking which teams benefited most from a health standpoint during the shutdown, in reverse order.
22. Utah Jazz
Bojan Bogdanovic played the last 62 straight games for the Jazz, and yet two months into the shutdown he underwent season-ending surgery on his shooting wrist, reportedly re-aggravating an injury he initially suffered in late December. He had averaged 19.7 points on 46/40/92 shooting splits since the calendar turned to 2020. His absence puts a greater onus on Joe Ingles and Utah’s already shallow reserve unit.
Meanwhile, it was Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s positive coronavirus test on March 11 that ultimately put the season on hold, and teammate Donovan Mitchell also tested positive the next day. Gobert’s brazen approach to COVID-19 reportedly caused a rift between the two All-Stars, and while indications are that a relationship once considered “unsalvageable” has improved of late, chemistry will be key inside the bubble.
The Spurs quietly announced last Monday that seven-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge underwent season-ending shoulder surgery ... back on April 24. He scored 24 points in San Antonio’s final game before the hiatus after missing the previous six games with the shoulder injury. The news came with the Spurs one of five Western Conference teams invited to challenge the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth seed in Orlando.
In an early April Twitter Q&A, Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said the possibility of John Wall returning this season “is just not feasible,” given the All-Star point guard’s lack of conditioning from being sidelined by a February 2019 Achilles injury. Wall confirmed Sheppard’s declaration a week later. Wizards teammate Isaac Bonga recently revealed how “crazy good” Wall looked in scrimmages before the break, and Wall dubbed himself “110 percent” recovered at the end of May, but he still plans to sit this season out.
The Wizards can force the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic into a play-in series if they can shave two games off their deficit over the final eight regular-season contests. I am not sure it is more disheartening that Wall is still incapable of contributing 16 months removed from injury, or that he is so close to doing so and cannot.
19. Brooklyn Nets
Still recovering from the Achilles injury he suffered in the 2019 Finals, Kevin Durant has yet to play for the Nets, and Kyrie Irving underwent shoulder surgery in early March. Their seasons were written off long ago, as were the Nets, but the four-month hiatus at least opened a door to the possibility that both could return in Orlando. They will not. Durant told ESPN’s “The Undefeated” last week, “My season is over,” and Irving reportedly told his peers the same on a recent conference with the National Basketball Players Association.
18. Dallas Mavericks
Dwight Powell ruptured his Achilles in late January, an underrated loss for the Mavericks. He is a smart and talented player who made his impact off the ball on a team that allocated most of its possessions to Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Dallas was never better this season than when Powell was on the floor, outscoring opponents by 8.9 points per 100 possessions. He will not play until the 2020-21 season.
There was an outside chance that backup point guard Jalen Brunson — another unheralded and heady two-way contributor — could return from mid-March shoulder surgery, but Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle also ruled him out for the remainder of the season in a radio interview this week. The Mavs had already lost their grip on a top-four playoff seed, but they are in no danger of falling lower than their current No. 7 spot. That means a first-round date with the Los Angeles Clippers, without two key depth contributors.
17. Orlando Magic
Jonathan Isaac suffered a severely sprained knee on New Year’s Day, and days later Al-Farouq Aminu underwent meniscus surgery. The loss of both was crippling to Orlando’s chances of handling Giannis Antetokounmpo in a potential first-round series with the Milwaukee Bucks, but the shutdown allows for one or both to possibly return. Neither Isaac nor Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman ruled out the possibility in recent interviews, but Weltman sounded skeptical at best about either playing.
On the bright side, sharpshooting guard Evan Fournier is reportedly fully recovered from the sprained right elbow that kept him from the final three games before the hiatus and will be ready to go in late July.
16. Houston Rockets
Part of Houston’s rocky season can be attributed to Eric Gordon’s ineffectiveness. The career 37 percent 3-point shooter is converting at his worst clip since 2013, when he was still recovering from a knee surgery. A second knee surgery this past summer led to a similarly slow comeback, but he has reportedly lost 12 pounds in an effort to ease the burden on his knees, and his production might increase as a result.
Likewise, Russell Westbrook was resting for one half of every back-to-back this season after undergoing his own offseason knee procedure, and P.J. Tucker was playing through nerve damage in his shoulder. The rest should do them good, especially Tucker, who has carried an added burden as an undersized center.
15. Denver Nuggets
Nuggets coach Mike Malone has said promising rookie Michael Porter Jr.’s limited minutes have not resulted from any restriction due to the back injury that kept him out all of last season or the ankle injury that cost him several weeks this season, but hopefully some trust was built between the two on hiatus.
As for Nikola Jokic, who entered this season wildly out of shape, leading to fears he might again show up poorly conditioned for the stretch run, he looks to have lost considerable weight over the break. Denver president of basketball operations Tim Connelly went so far as to dub Jokic “beach ready” for Orlando.
14. Oklahoma City Thunder
Andre Roberson, the defensive ace who has not played since suffering a knee injury in January 2018, is finally healthy enough to return following several setbacks over the past 28 months. The Thunder will give him every opportunity to contribute to their playoff upset chances, but must first see how he equips himself in the weeks leading up to live action. “We’re certainly hopeful,” OKC general manager Sam Presti told reporters on conference call this week, via The Oklahoman, “but we’ve gotta cross that next bridge.”
13. Indiana Pacers
All-Star guard Victor Oladipo played fewer than 400 minutes in the 13 games since he returned from his yearlong knee recovery, showing the best glimpse of his old self in his final game before the break (27 points on 16 shots in 29 minutes). His backcourt mate, Malcolm Brogdon, who performed admirably as the lead facilitator in Oladipo’s stead, has declared himself “100 percent” recovered from a hip injury that cost him the final three games before the shutdown. The rest should do wonders for Indiana’s guard duo.
Unfortunately, Jeremy Lamb will not join them as a potent scoring backup. He suffered a severe left knee injury, including a torn ACL, at the end of February, and he will not be available to return until next season.
12. New Orleans Pelicans
Rookie Nickeil Alexander-Walker has not played since mid-February because of a wrist fracture that fortunately did not require surgery. It did require a cast that was removed in April, clearing him for a potential return.
Of more pressing concern is the left hamstring strain J.J. Redick experienced in early March. He is reportedly ready for the Pelicans’ pursuit of the eighth seed. Keep in mind he has never missed the playoffs.
Of greatest concern, though, is the conditioning of Zion Williamson. The No. 1 overall pick missed the first three months of the season, returning to make a paradigm-shifting impact for New Orleans in 19 games before the shutdown. He is the league’s second-heaviest player, and his explosiveness places an extraordinary amount of torque on his body, and four months away from the game is somewhat concerning.
11. Sacramento Kings
Marvin Bagley III, the second overall pick in the 2018 draft, missed nearly two months with a broken right thumb suffered in Sacramento’s season opener. He returned for 13 games in December before going down with a left foot injury. After a four-game stint in mid-January, Bagley suffered soreness in the same foot and has not played since. The Kings are counting on their rested big man to contribute to their playoff chase.
10. Phoenix Suns
Suns owner Robert Sarver expressed optimism that Kelly Oubre Jr. will return from his March 3 meniscus surgery when the season reopens in Orlando, and Oubre all but confirmed that expectation in a recent interview. Starting center Deandre Ayton’s ankles, which have plagued him since the end of last season and cost him his last three games, should be healthy enough for the Suns to make an unlikely playoff push.
9. Toronto Raptors
All but two members of the Raptors’ 10-man rotation have missed significant time this season, which makes their pursuit of a No. 2 seed all the more impressive. The rest should do them good, particularly Fred VanVleet, whose shoulder injury sidelined him since Feb. 25 after earlier knee and hamstring problems.
Marc Gasol had also battled a hamstring issue all season following his taxing 2019 title runs in both the NBA and World Cup, and the 36-year-old has lost weight during the quarantine, coach Nick Nurse revealed.
8. Miami Heat
Every team benefits from time off to help heal the sort of nagging injuries that arise months into a long season, and the Heat are no different. Jimmy Butler missed the final game before the break with a toe injury that promised to linger without rest. Tyler Herro had just returned from an ankle injury that cost him almost the entirety of February, and Meyers Leonard still had not played since his ankle injury on Feb. 3. The Heat expect to have their full complement of players when they resume play as a fourth seed.
7. Los Angeles Clippers
Kawhi Leonard missed almost the entirety of the 2017-18 season with his quadriceps tendinopathy, played through it on a taxing 2019 playoff run and continued to rest for back-to-backs throughout this season. Likewise, his All-Star wing partner, Paul George, returned from dueling offseason shoulder surgeries 12 games into this season, missed another 10 games with a hamstring injury in January and played on a minutes restriction for much of the season. A bonus offseason should nothing but good things for both ailing stars.
6. Boston Celtics
Kemba Walker was resting what may be a chronic left knee issue in the weeks leading up to the hiatus, getting it drained and receiving an injection to reduce swelling, but he says it “is doing well.” The foot injury Gordon Hayward suffered at the start of the 2018-19 season still flared up throughout this season, costing him games in December and February, but he says it “feels good” with rest. He had also just returned from a knee bruise before the break. And Jaylen Brown reportedly has no lingering effects from the hamstring injury that cost him the final four games before the shutdown. All three are vital to Boston’s success.
5. Los Angeles Lakers
Earlier this season, Anthony Davis addressed the lingering shoulder problems that have plagued him since well before he arrived in Los Angeles, conceding, “There’s never a play I don’t feel it.” He was still playing through it in February, when his shoulder remained on the injury report, but the break forced him into rest.
Of more pressing concern in a broader context, Lakers starting center JaVale McGee suffers from asthma and experienced a bout with pneumonia last year, either of which could be of grave concern during the coronavirus pandemic. However, McGee recently shrugged off concerns and expressed his desire to play.
4. Milwaukee Bucks
MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo emerged from an injury scare with a minor knee sprain just before the shutdown. He missed the final two games before the suspension of the season, leading to Milwaukee’s first consecutive losses. Antetokounmpo expects to be fully healthy in preparation of leading a No. 1 seed.
3. Memphis Grizzlies
Neither Jaren Jackson Jr. nor Brandon Clarke have played since late February, respectively battling quad and knee injuries, but both were already nearing a return when the season was suspended. Same goes for Justise Winslow, whose back injury cost him all but one game since early December and who was dealt to the Grizzlies at the February deadline. Grayson Allen also has an outside shot of returning from what was thought to be a season-ending hip injury. Any and all of them could help Memphis keep the eighth seed.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
The oft-injured and condition-challenged Joel Embiid returned from a two-week absence to play 27 minutes on his rehabbed shoulder in a win entering the hiatus. He had previously missed time due to ankle, hip, knee and hand injuries, limiting his minutes average to 30 per game. Likewise, Ben Simmons was ruled out for at least another three weeks on the day the season shut down because of a back injury.
Both are expected to be healthy for what they hope will be a title pursuit in Orlando. Whether that will solve the chemistry woes that plagued the sixth-seed Sixers when they last shared the court is another issue.
1. Portland Trail Blazers
No team will receive a greater boost than the Blazers, who have gone the entire season without starting center Jusuf Nurkic, who broke his leg at the end of last season, and all but three games without starting power forward Zach Collins, who suffered a severe shoulder injury at the start of this season. Starting wing Rodney Hood will not be back from the season-ending Achilles injury he suffered in early December, but both Nurkic and Collins are expected to be in the lineup for the defending Western Conference finalists.
That is beyond welcome news for a Blazers team currently in position to challenge Memphis for the eighth and final playoff seed. The hiatus may well mean the difference between a lottery spot and Portland’s seventh straight playoff appearance, which is a whole different sliding-doors scenario for another day.
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