Calling any prediction "bold" in light of unprecedented circumstances surrounding the 2020 NBA playoffs seems a bit extreme. This has never happened before. It stands to reason that other unpredictable outcomes will follow. Would it be so crazy if, say, the Raptors got hot and repeated as champions? Or if the Lakers got knocked off in the second round? There's a certain futility to predicting such a new brand of unpredictability. Things are going to be different, but we have no idea in what ways.
Instead, consider these predictions ambitious. They are logical but perhaps extreme endpoints to trends that either existed before the COVID-19 pandemic or sprouted up afterward. In all, they cover the bulk of what can be expected to happen in Orlando.
1. The Lakers will sweep whoever winds up as West's No. 8 seed
The biggest story of the seeding games is also the least important. Whether it's the Grizzlies, Pelicans or Trail Blazers hardly matters in the short term. Not one of them is equipped to remotely challenge the Lakers in a seven-game series.
The Lakers swept the Pelicans in the regular season. Zion Williamson only played in two of those games, but Anthony Davis sat out their last matchup. It didn't matter. For all of the hype surrounding Williamson's return, the Pelicans went only 10-9 with him on the floor. They have nobody to defend LeBron James -- who shot 58 percent against them in those four games.
Portland has the same problem, but to a more extreme degree. At least Brandon Ingram is roughly James' size and can hang with him athletically. The Blazers have no such wing. Carmelo Anthony has been starting at small forward during Portland's scrimmages. That's not exactly a solution to the LeBron problem. Memphis, whom the Lakers beat three times during the season, has the same issue without Justise Winslow.
The widespread desire to see Zion play in big games, and Damian Lillard return to the postseason stage he so dominated a year ago, has blinded people to the reality of the gap between any prospective No. 8 seed in the West and the dominant Lakers. Yes, the Blazers will be better with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back in the fold, and yes, the Pelicans have had one of the NBA's best starting lineups since Williamson returned. But those teams have critical weaknesses that the Lakers don't. Reaching the playoffs in itself is meaningful, especially for younger teams, but all of the discussion surrounding who will take the final spot in the West really boils down to who is going to get slaughtered by the Lakers.
2. Ayton will be the breakout lottery player of the bubble
No. 1 overall picks rarely struggle for press clippings, but the ascension of a certain point guard in Dallas has marred the otherwise stellar sophomore season of a center whose only crime is not being Luka Doncic. Largely unnoticed, Deandre Ayton's final stretch before the coronavirus paused the NBA season suggests that Phoenix's center won't have to live in anonymity much longer.
The version of the Suns' starting lineup that includes Ayton has roasted opponents by over 20 points per 100 possessions, better even than Milwaukee's vaunted starting five. His 12.2 rebounds per game as a starter surpass Joel Embiid's second season and any Anthony Davis season. His scoring numbers were even better. As a starter, he shot 55.3 percent from the field on 15.9 attempts per game. Four players have matched that over a full season this century: Amar'e Stoudemire, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal.
Ayton has invited such lofty comparisons. He invoked Kobe Bryant and Shaq as the model for his partnership with Devin Booker before getting drafted. I can assure you, Shaq never ran the floor like this on defense:
He wasn't switching onto the perimeter like this either:
There are still dents to buff out. Most second-year big men don't know what they're doing in pick-and-roll. He never gets to the foul line. But nearly everything the Suns saw when they drafted Ayton No. 1 overall was on display in those final weeks before the hiatus. He even made a 3 in a scrimmage.
Phoenix isn't making the playoffs. It would have to make up 2 1/2 games on four different teams in only an eight-game span, and then the Suns would have to beat Memphis twice as the cherry on top. Likelier, they do their duty as a league partner for a few weeks, make some television revenue, and go home encouraged that their future is secure behind the Ayton-Booker core. The schedule will be their friend in that regard. Washington is the perfect opening night patsy. Indiana (Domantas Sabonis) and the Clippers (Montrezl Harrell) could be without key centers. Ayton will get marquee matchups with Embiid and Bam Adebayo to prove himself as well. Eventually, we'll move on to the teams and players the bubble was designed to accommodate. Doncic could have months to build his legend. But for a few weeks in August, Ayton will have his chance to prove to a captive audience that he's more than just the guy Phoenix took instead of Luka.
3. OKC will win its first-round series no matter the opponent
The Oklahoma City Thunder don't look the part of playoff spoiler. They lack the mathematical advantage Houston's shooting grants it or the abundance of young talent ready to buoy Dallas and Denver when the time is right. Their contention is purely accidental. As recently as February they were trying to trade their third-best player. In a forward-obsessed NBA, they live and die by three point guards. They shouldn't be here. But they are, and by many statistical markers, the Thunder are the Western Conference team best equipped for playoff basketball besides the two behemoths from L.A.
After starting 5-10, the Thunder are 35-14 since Nov. 23. That's roughly equivalent to the Toronto Raptors' full-season winning percentage, and aside from the Lakers and Clippers, their net rating in that span trails only Dallas. The Mavericks, like the majority of the conference, are wading through injuries and coronavirus fallout. Jalen Brunson and Dwight Powell are out. Houston's two stars were delayed in their arrival to Disney. Utah doesn't have Bojan Bogdanovic. The Nuggets don't have any guards.
While other teams weaken, the Thunder are getting stronger. Andre Roberson, absent since early 2018, has played in scrimmages. A healthy version of him solves Oklahoma City's problems defending bigger wings. Among that group, only Luka Doncic posed a problem on that front anyway. Some of them have one very good defensive guard; none have three. Chris Paul would love nothing more than a grudge match against the Rockets and their all-offense backcourt.
Playoff basketball, particularly between teams relatively close in merit as the middle of the Western Conference is, typically come down to fourth quarters. The Thunder outscore opponents by 30.2 points per 100 possessions in clutch situations, the highest figure since the 73-win Golden State Warriors of the 2015-16 season. The only team that has come close since? Paul's 2017-18 Rockets. Assuming whistles for Doncic and James Harden dry up in the playoffs as has historically been the case, there is not a steadier supply of late-game offense out of this group than Paul's mid-range jumpers.
If Oklahoma City's resume came from a team with loftier preseason expectations or a more traditional roster, it might have an easier time garnering support as the third-best team in the Western Conference. There has never been a better year for an upstart to emerge than this one. The window dressing of the playoffs is gone. There isn't even home-court advantage anymore. Good luck beating the team that never loses close games four times out of seven.
4. The 76ers will play well enough to keep their core together ... the Rockets will not
They're opposite sides of the same coin. Both unorthodox, but in very different ways. Philadelphia has for years clung to a past devoid of 3-pointers and pick-and-rolls. Houston used the trade deadline to skip ahead to a center-less future the rest of the NBA may not be ready for. Both have coaches on the hot seat and roster questions looming. Deep playoff runs may be all that keeps either together.
The 76ers have kowtowed to an extent. The Shake Milton version of the starting lineup almost makes sense. Functionally, it's a two-big unit with a forward doing the bulk of the playmaking and the guards existing primarily to shoot. That sounds an awful lot like the Lakers, who don't have to shuffle their starting five twice a week. Al Horford for Milton is a downgrade defensively, but Milton is 6-5 and has a 7-foot wingspan. The length that terrified Toronto a year ago is still there. A bit of defense seems a small price to pay for the sort of offensive clarity they've lacked since drafting Ben Simmons. Besides, there's only so far a unit can fall when it has two of the 10 best defenders in basketball.
There are a lot of "ifs" involved here, but most of them are fairly safe. Milton isn't going to match the 52 percent mark on 3s he hit in his final 17 games, but he shot 43 percent in college and has always made his free throws. At the very least, he's a valuable shooter than can run some pick-and-roll. Embiid isn't going to defend Giannis as well as he did on Christmas, but Philly has so many options to throw at him that he won't have to. Horford has defended him credibly in the past. Simmons certainly has the physical dimensions and the skill. Milwaukee is going to be favored in every Eastern Conference series it plays. The Bucks are the best team that doesn't wear the words "Los Angeles" on their jerseys. But the Sixers are the one team in the East that can match their talent. They just had to align it. Now, it seems they might've. The Bucks are still the right pick to win the conference, but Philly is going to push them further than anyone. If it takes the Bucks to six or seven, firing Brett Brown or tearing apart the roster would be malpractice.
Houston has that same upside. Its talent stacks up favorably with either of the California juggernauts, and the Rockets acquitted themselves well in their dress rehearsal against the Lakers. The variance inherent in their "3s and layups only" style makes them classic giant slayers.
And that's going to be their undoing, because as high as small-ball pushes their upside, it similarly lowers their floor. Relying so heavily on shooting luck made sense in the Rockets' last incarnation. They were so much better than every team besides the Warriors that their margin for error was vast. They needed to win the variance game four times to slay Golden State. This time around, they need to win four series that way. They're as likely to lose in the first round as they are to upset anyone in the field. It all comes down to luck that probably won't sustain across four rounds.
Dedicating so much to shooting was their only move with Russell Westbrook in tow. He clogged their spacing to a degree that no other roster construction was viable. But for all Westbrook gives Houston in its driver-friendly ecosystem, it just doesn't match the offensive optionality Chris Paul gave it in the playoffs. Had he played in Game 7 against the 2018 Warriors, the Rockets would very likely have a championship right now, not necessarily because he would have prevented an 0-for-27 stretch from behind the arc, but because he would have stemmed the tide with enough mid-range daggers to win the game for Houston anyway. Westbrook offers no such alternative. They live by his drives and everyone else's 3s. Over four rounds, they are going to die by those shots.
And that raises some very uncomfortable questions about Houston's future. All reporting suggests that a deep playoff run is all that can save Mike D'Antoni's job. Some have even suggested he'd need to reach the Finals. Odds are, a new coach would want to revert to something resembling normalcy and at least start a center.
Just as precarious is their financial situation. Tilman Fertitta bought the Rockets largely with debt, purchasing a $2.2 billion franchise with less than $300 million in cash on hand. His wealth comes from restaurants, not a great business to be in during a pandemic that has kept everyone at home for months. Unsurprisingly, he was the first owner to sue his insurer over denial of his business interruption claim. This is an owner who was jumping through hoops to get under the luxury tax before the coronavirus. Everything he's done as owner of the Rockets suggests that financial stability will take priority over contention.
He owes his five best players alone almost $119 million next season. Westbrook's contract and unique skill set make him virtually untradable. Houston would revolt if Harden was traded. P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington are on such valuable deals that trading either would be pointless. That leaves Eric Gordon, who hasn't even started the four-year extension he signed last offseason, as the obvious cap dump candidate. Good luck finding a taker for a 32-year-old shooting guard that just shot 37 percent from the field.
It would be ironic if it wasn't so sad. For once, the math doesn't favor the Rockets, and it could cost fans around the league the chance to watch a truly unique roster for the next several years.
5. The Clippers will win the NBA title without playing a Game 7
The majority of the NBA hardly bears mentioning in the presence of the nearly flawless Clippers. Lineups featuring both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have dominated on both sides of the ball. On the rare occasions in which they've had their entire roster available, the Clippers have been dominant. They stomped the Rockets, Nuggets and Thunder in the final two weeks before the shutdown. Even their perceived weaknesses largely haven't played out on the floor. The Clippers are too small? Then how do they allow the seventh-fewest shots within three feet of the rim in the NBA? How are they fourth in the NBA in rebounding rate? Finding evidence to support any blemish besides "they haven't played together much" is extremely difficult. They're going to breeze through the first two rounds. The Bucks and Lakers are the only teams capable of pushing them.
Giannis Antetokounmpo's meltdown against Leonard a year ago has been well documented, and to his credit, he's improved in areas that will prove essential in a possible rematch. He's taking a career-high 2.1 clutch shots per game and maintaining a relatively efficient 51.4 field goal percentage in those moments. He's developed a nice little turnaround jumper as an answer to defenses walling off the rim.
The overall results, though, have been pedestrian. Giannis is still a largely underwhelming scorer outside of the paint. The Bucks are ranked only 12th in clutch offense. Ironically, Milwaukee's blowout win over the healthy Clippers in December was a tad disappointing. Both teams could've used a regular-season look at the other in a clutch setting, but Milwaukee needed it far more after last year's Eastern Conference finals. At this point, it's a matter of evidence. Superstars usually don't struggle in the playoffs forever. Giannis is probably going to get over the issues Kawhi exploited a year ago. But until he actually does it, it would be irresponsible to assume he will against the same player that humiliated him a year ago. Both have better teams this time around, but without any significant new evidence, picking Leonard to win by the same six-game length is the sensible choice.
The Lakers have no such burden of proof. They have the only playoff killer in the NBA on Leonard's level. If LeBron goes nuclear as he has in the past, none of this matters. The best version of him, with this Lakers roster, wins the championship. That player might still be in there. At 35, it's OK to question whether or not he's still capable of the 34-9-9 clinic he gave in 2018. Leonard has won their head-to-head matchups decisively this season, but LeBron isn't the problem. The Lakers are. They can't get out of their own way.
A year ago, Steve Kerr made an aggressive and somewhat surprising move in Golden State's second-round series against the Houston Rockets. He started his Death Lineup in Game 1, skipping all of the foreplay that tends to permeate the early games of playoff series. That move was a declaration. Beating a team as good as the Rockets was going to take everything the Warriors had. They couldn't afford to dilly dally for a game or two pretending that any other lineup gave them a better chance. They threw out the kitchen sink from the start. It worked. They won the series and the West. It's the sort of move elite coaches make. They don't waste minutes on pretense.
The Lakers have done so all season. They've acquiesced to Anthony Davis' desire to play power forward rather than center despite outscoring opponents by nearly 16 points per 100 possessions when James and Davis play without another big man. They've kept Rajon Rondo in the rotation despite being over eight points per 100 possessions better without him in the name of maintaining harmony in a locker room that loves him. They've weakened themselves somewhat intentionally in a way that, sadly, Frank Vogel has a history of doing. He stuck with an all-bench unit that had struggled all year in a critical Game 5 in 2016 against the Toronto Raptors. His Pacers were outscored 25-9 in the fourth quarter of that game, thanks largely to how long Vogel kept it on the floor. In 2013, he got too cute and took his All-Defense center Roy Hibbert out of the game on the final play of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals. LeBron breezed into a layup with no rim protection. His history of playoff lineup management is questionable to say the least.
The best version of the Lakers, the one that plays Davis at center, trims the rotation down to seven or eight non-Rondo players and prioritized spacing around the James-Davis pick-and-roll, could probably play the Clippers evenly. But if Vogel's history is any indication, that version of the Lakers might not come out until it is absolutely necessary, and by that point, it's too late. The Lakers can't afford to sacrifice minutes or games in a series so close. Doc Rivers certainly won't.
Maybe a scare earlier in the playoffs pushes the Lakers into desperation mode early. Maybe it takes moving Davis to center to beat Houston, and maybe Rondo struggles enough upon his return from injury to lose his rotation spot. But by the same "prove it" token by which Giannis gets judged for his playoff performance, so too must Vogel. There is little evidence suggesting that the best version of the Lakers will be present for all seven games against the Clippers, and if it isn't, there aren't going to be seven games against the Clippers.