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Chicago Bulls 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

Did the Chicago Bulls do enough this offseason to turn the corner in a now wide-open Eastern Conference? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Chicago Bulls in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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Is optimism even possible following a 22-win season? A 5-19 start, a head coach firing in December and another missed postseason a year later, Chicago once again has a reason for hope.

After drafting exciting rookies and signing established veterans, the Chicago Bulls are looking to regain relevancy in the Eastern Conference through a stable core bolstered by a pair of potential first-time All-Stars. It may not translate to team accomplishment just yet but, for the first time in a while, there is a real path to success in the Windy City.

Basketball Insiders began their yearly, substantial team previews, so if you’re looking for your favorite franchise — it’s almost certainly coming down the pipeline this month. But until then, we look at if Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine are enough to get the Bulls back in the playoff hunt or if they’re doomed to another lottery-bound season for now.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Baby Bulls might be one of those teams that give the opposition headaches this year. They’re returning the majority of their pieces and have added multiple solid pieces in the offseason with Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky. Granted he stays healthy, Lauri Markkanen may be poised for a potential Most Improved Player award. We know how solid Otto Porter Jr. is, and Zach LaVine can score the ball with the best of them. Bringing Coby White into the fold as the franchise’s point guard of the future on top of all of this should make Chicago a fun watch. We’ll see if head coach Jim Boylen can round up his guys and take a step forward.

4th Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

The Bulls enter the 2019-20 season with a lot to look forward to. There is a good amount of young talent in Chicago: Coby White will immediately be the most talented point guard in Chicago since pre-injury Derrick Rose, Wendell Carter Jr. should improve on an underrated rookie campaign and Thaddeus Young and Otto Porter Jr. will help carry the load for the Bulls in terms of leadership and production. And, of course, there’s Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, on whom their success will hinge. If the duo makes additional strides this season, the Bulls could leapfrog the Detroit Pistons for third place in the Central Division. This season is probably a little early in their development for it, however, the Bulls are headed in the right direction and should get a taste of the playoffs soon – but not this season. Sit back and enjoy the ride, Chicago.

4th place – Central Division

– Drew Maresca

The Bulls actually have a nice young nucleus in place. Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen are budding stars. After the midseason trade, Otto Porter Jr. put up career numbers, while Wendell Carter Jr. was solid as a rookie before his injury. Chicago also lacked a real point guard, and they’re hoping that Coby White can develop into one. While also not a true point guard, White did display some nice playmaking ability during the summer exhibitions —  better, the Bulls can afford to wait for him to develop. Depending on how these players perform, it’s not at all far-fetched to see the Bulls possibly fighting for perhaps the eighth seed, if all goes right.

4th Place – Central Division

– David Yapkowitz

I give the Chicago Bulls a lot of credit for their work this offseason. For years, the Bulls seemed more concerned with qualifying for a bottom-four seed playoff position than constructing a team that could actually contend for a title. Coby White falling to seventh is more fortunate than anything else, but it’s a nice result regardless for the Bulls, who were in desperate need for a long-term answer at point guard. I also like the signing of Thaddeus Young and sign-and-trade for Tomas Satoransky, who could be a nice placeholder at point guard while White develops. Drafting Daniel Gafford in the second round was another solid move, especially considering that Robin Lopez left the team in free agency. Adding White and Gafford to a core featuring Otto Porter Jr., Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Denzel Valentine and Chandler Hutchison is a solid outcome for the Bulls, who suddenly have a path to building a future contender.

4th Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Bulls have had enough swings at the NBA Draft pinata, they have got to come out of one of them with the gem. Is that gem Coby White? There is so much young talent in Chicago right now that it’s hard not to be optimistic that one of those guys turns into a real star, and that might be all Chicago needs to jump out of the basement. If not, the Bulls might have the best collection of trade chips in the NBA if a major star player hits the market. The Bulls sniffed at Anthony Davis this past summer but were unwilling to meet the asking price, that could change if the current bunch of youth doesn’t turn the corner. The Bulls could be the sneaky play to be in the hunt for the eighth seed in the East. Last year it was Orlando that turned the corner — this time, it could be Chicago.

4th Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Bulls used their cap room to bring in players like Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky, joining the team’s core of Otto Porter Jr., Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen. Porter has a player option for the 2020-21 season at $28.5 million, but he doesn’t have to decide on it until next June. That’s probably too large an amount for him to turn down, but that’s certainly a key decision point in Chicago’s future planning.

Without Porter, the team could have up to $33.7 million in cap space next summer. Otherwise, the team will probably be over the cap, barring trade. The team also has Kris Dunn going into the final year of his contract. Both Denzel Washington and Dunn are eligible for extensions before the start of the season, but neither seems likely. The Bulls will presumably pick up the team options for Wendell Carter Jr., Chandler Hutchison and Markkanen before November.

By acquiring Satoransky via sign and trade from the Washington Wizards, the Bulls are hard-capped at $138.9 million, well above their team payroll of roughly $114 million.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Zach LaVine

Let’s not overthink this – Lauri Markkanen may be Chicago’s best player, but Zach LaVine has earned the title of top offensive player to this point. Last season, LaVine averaged 23.7 points on 18 shot attempts per game. He finished with a true shooting percentage of .574, barely missing his career-high despite shooting at a higher rate and with more field goals going unassisted. He carried the offense for long stretches last year, posting the seventh-highest usage in the league. Plus, forced into a playmaking role, LaVine showed an improved ability to create for teammates with a 22.5 percent assist rate, putting him in the 95th percentile in the NBA, per Cleaning The Glass.

The only thing that held LaVine back last season — similar to much of the Bulls — was injury. LaVine has played 87 games in two years since being traded as part of the Jimmy Butler deal and only reached 47 games in Minnesota the season before that. The good news is that, although he’s entering his sixth year in the NBA, LaVine is still only 24. With good health this season, LaVine could be looking at his first All-Star bid – and many more in the seasons ahead.

Top Defensive Player: Wendell Carter Jr.

Just as we predicted last year, Wendell Carter Jr. was and is the best defensive player in Chicago. Carter led the team in blocks per game at 1.3 and block rate at 4.5 percent. He had the highest defensive box plus-minus and was one of the few players with a positive impact despite his status as a rookie. Carter also rebounded the ball well, posting seven double-doubles in his shortened rookie season and averaging right at ten rebounds per game per 36 minutes.

Carter has been compared to Al Horford, and he showed flashes of that defensive flexibility last season. Carter was able to fit well next to the 7-foot Lauri Markkanen because of his fairly solid ability to guard smaller, quicker players. This becomes all the more important down the road, where playoff games can be won and lost on a big’s ability to contain guards. Of course, Horford has been doing this for years. If last season’s small sample size was any indication, Carter could be well on his way.

Top Playmaker: Tomas Satoransky

Stepping in for the injured John Wall, Tomas Satoransky enjoyed a 3.33/1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season. He averaged five assists per game in only 27 minutes every night. Even better, he did so with a low usage rate of only 14.1 percent, meaning that Satoransky was a capable playmaker without having the ball as often as many point guards.

Last week, Basketball Insiders touched on Satoransky’s knack for using pace to open up opportunities for himself and others. His ability to seamlessness blend into an offense, while still being assertive and putting his teammates in spots they can succeed, bodes well for the inexperienced Bulls this year. But Satoransky can be a leading man too – he’s currently averaging 15.2 points, 7.4 assists, and 6.0 rebounds per game for the Czech Republic in the FIBA World Cup.

Top Clutch Player: Zach LaVine

This is another tough one, but we’re going to give the edge to LaVine over Markkanen here as well. Clutch situations are defined as the last five minutes of games separated by five points or less. LaVine played 36 more clutch minutes than Markkanen, scored 1.3 more points per clutch situation and scored 39.6 percent of Chicago’s points in crunch time compared to Markkanen’s 22 percent.

Throwing out small sample sizes, LaVine trailed only James Harden, Donovan Mitchell, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Devin Booker and Kawhi Leonard in clutch usage, per NBA.com.

LaVine also gets a small advantage because of his ability to handle the ball and attack the rim late in games. There is no better example of this than Mar. 6, when he capped off a 39-point night with a layup with 1.6 seconds remaining to beat Philadelphia.

Markkanen will surely get his chances in clutch situations now that he’s back and healthy. In fact, the Bulls’ best option in these situations will likely be a pick and roll between LaVine and the Finish standout. But, for the time being, LaVine is Chicago’s top clutch performer.

The Unheralded Player: Shaquille Harrison

Second on the team in defensive box plus-minus and first in defensive win shares, Shaquille Harrison is an important rotation player that is often forgotten. Per Cleaning The Glass, Harrison is in the 98th percentile in steal rate at 2.7 percent, tied with Jimmy Butler and ahead of Kawhi Leonard.

Via NBA.com, Harrison was fourth in the entire NBA last season in steals and deflections per 36 minutes and tied for first in loose balls recovered. He was fantastic defensively and thrived under Boylen, who increased Harrison’s minutes to around 20 per game after taking over in December.

For a team that finished 25th in defensive rating and 28th in defensive efficiency last season, Harrison was a sparkplug and the team’s best defender, routinely putting pressure on opposing guards all over the court.

The Bulls added Satoransky and rookie Coby White, plus retained LaVine, Denzel Valentine and Ryan Arcidiacono in the backcourt. Still, there is a reason they brought back Shaq Harrison as well.

Best New Addition: Thaddeus Young/Otto Porter Jr.

Is this cheating? Yes, because Otto Porter Jr. arrived last year. However, he only played 15 games – and what an impressive 15 games it was. Porter averaged 17.5 points and 5.5 rebounds over that stretch and shot a scorching 48.9 percent from three on 5.3 attempts per game. Porter was a pricey acquisition, but he adds consistency, versatility and a veteran wing presence to a young team trying to get back to the playoffs.

And what does Thaddeus Young bring to the table? The same thing! Chicago signed Young to a three-year, $41 million-dollar deal this offseason to shore up their bench and add a player with playoff experience to the roster. Young has been to the playoffs in eight of his 13 seasons, including the past three in a row with Indiana.

Both Porter and Young are exactly what these Bulls need heading into 2019-2020.

– Drew Mays

WHO WE LIKE

1. Lauri Markkanen

Finally, a place to give the Finnish big man some unaccompanied love. As mentioned, Markkanen is probably Chicago’s best player. He has shown flashes of brilliance in two seasons and health is really the only thing holding him back. In 52 games last year, Markkanen averaged 18.7 points and nine rebounds per game with a true shooting percentage of .553. He is a modern big who takes 67 percent of his field goals either from three or at the rim and shoots 85.9 percent from the free-throw line for his career. The Bulls are plus-5.2 points better with him on the floor than off, good for the 89th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass. Like LaVine, an injury-free year could lead to Markkanen’s first All-Star appearance.

2. Coby White

The seventh overall pick in this year’s draft is an explosive scorer and prolific shooter. He averaged 16.1 points per game in his lone year at North Carolina and shot 35.3 percent in 232 attempts from three. His production this year will be vital to Chicago reaching their ceiling, but with Satoransky in tow, White can progress at his own pace.

3. Daniel Gafford

The Bulls’ other rookie should also make an impact this season. Gafford showed tremendous athleticism at Arkansas and in summer league and will look to provide quality back-up minutes and rim protection in his first season. In Las Vegas, Gafford brought the thunder by averaging 13.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks on 68.3 percent from the field in just 24.9 minutes per game. Rim-protection is a serious need for postseason-ready franchises and Gafford, at some point, has all the tools to fit the bill.

4. Denzel Valentine

After missing all of last season with an ankle injury, Valentine is back with more opportunity than he has seen in his career. No longer forced to stand and watch Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade or Rajon Rondo, Valentine now has a chance in his third year to show why he was college basketball’s National Player of the Year at Michigan State.

– Drew Mays

STRENGTHS

Chicago will have a full offseason to prepare under Boylen and they have even more young talent than last year. LaVine has a year under his belt as a primary offensive option, Markkanen and Carter will be healthy, and the trio of Satoransky, Porter and Young give the Bulls veterans to lean on. Whether Chicago can successfully marriage the roster splits between young and old remains to be seen, but it’s a solid problem to have, overall, and they’ll be in the mix out in a weaker Eastern Conference if they can.

– Drew Mays

WEAKNESSES

Obviously, the Bulls need to improve on both ends of the floor. Last season, they were 29th in the NBA in points per 100 possessions at 104.9 and 25th in points allowed per 100 possessions at 113.7. Detroit, who was eighth in the Eastern Conference last season, finished 21st and 12th in those categories, respectively. While that large of a defensive jump is unreasonable, Chicago will need to make improvements in order to become a playoff team. If they’re functionally the same team as last year — but a little bit healthier and with White — then the Bulls will still struggle.

– Drew Mays

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will Chicago go over their projected win total of 32.5?

An 11-win jump for the Bulls may seem unlikely. The eight Eastern Conference playoff teams from last year will be the favorites to make it again this spring, while Miami and Atlanta both got better this offseason.

But regardless of how you feel about head coach Jim Boylen, the defensive-minded coach has all of training camp to establish his philosophy, one that follows analytical trends and forces teams to play in the midrange. That plus the new roster additions and the health of LaVine, Markkanen and Carter Jr. have Chicago primed to overperform. We’re bullish on the Bulls and expect them to win over 32 games in 2019-2020.

– Drew Mays

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The X-Factors: Indiana

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factors series by taking a look at how certain aspects affect the Indiana Pacers’ chances.

Matt John

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There’s a lot going on right now. So much so that it’s overshadowed a positive string of news – the NBA is (hopefully) coming back. We don’t know when that is, and we don’t know how they’re going to approach the rest of the 2019-20 season, but at least we know that pro basketball is coming back.

If you’ve been keeping in touch with Basketball Insiders over the past week, we’ve been looking over X-Factors that can shape the chances of potential playoff teams. X-Factors like injuries, how teams figure out their rotation, getting past their internal issues, and so on and so forth. We’ve already gone over New Orleans, Portland, Brooklyn and Memphis. Today, we’re going over the Indiana Pacers.

Over the past three years, the Pacers have been unanimously crowned as one of the league’s more entertaining underdogs. Since they started their new era of basketball post-Paul George, their identity has centered around their scrappiness and effort. It’s what’s led to them having two consecutive 48-win seasons and being on pace to win 49 this season. If that’s not enough, they’ve done this while having their new face of the franchise Victor Oladipo fully healthy for only one season during that time.

There’s only one problem. In spite of them wildly exceeding expectations, it hasn’t led to much playoff success. In their defense, some of that came from factors that were out of their control, like having to face LeBron in the first round one year and losing Oladipo mid-season the next. This upcoming postseason is their chance to prove that there is more to them than being the little train that could.

For Indiana to take that next step, their chances start and end with how much of Victor Oladipo that we’ll get to see from Victor Oladipo.

First, let’s give props to the Pacers for being able to manage without ‘Dipo for the past year or so. Teams more often than not crash and burn after they lose their best player. Indiana can take pride knowing that they weren’t one of them. They’ve proven that they’re a good team without him – which definitely wasn’t the case his first year when he exploded. At this point though, good isn’t enough for them, which is why they still need him at full strength to achieve their full potential.

Alas, integrating an all-NBA caliber player following a devastating injury to a team that was playing fine without him is much easier said than done — the 2018-19 Boston Celtics can attest to that. It can really boggle down to two reasons why.

1. A star coming off a serious injury mid-season needs time to shake off the rust
2. Working him into a rotation that was doing fine without him is hard to maneuver

When Oladipo came back, neither he nor the Pacers could avoid those issues. Indiana went 7-6 and seemed to go hot and cold. After winning an overtime thriller against Chicago, they went on a five-game losing streak. They followed that with a six-game winning streak before losing to Boston in a close battle just as the NBA shut down. In that 13-game span, Oladipo averaged nearly 14 points on 39/30/78 splits along with three rebounds and three assists. Those numbers are to be expected knowing what’s happened to him, but not the ones you regularly want from your franchise player.

However, that last loss to Boston bred reason for optimism for Oladipo. He had his best game of the season by, scoring 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting including 5-for-7from three. Better yet, he single-handedly spurred a 9-2 run that helped the Pacers catch up to the Celtics late in the fourth quarter. He was the best player on the floor when it mattered, and he did his damage against a good team. He looked like Victor Oladipo again!

Unfortunately, his performance was like a show putting on its best episode just as it was about to go on hiatus. Because the NBA shortly put the season on hold afterward, we don’t know if it was all a fluke or if it was him trending upwards. We’ll get a better look when the season resumes.

If we get the Victor Oladipo that put the league on notice just two years ago, then the Pacers become one of the playoff sleepers with an ambiguous ceiling. Granted, Indiana has progressed enough as a team that they don’t have to rely on him as much as they did two years ago, but adding a two-way star to an already good team opens so many possibilities. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they don’t get that version of Oladipo when the playoffs come around, but if they do, absolutely no one would want to face them in the playoffs.

If they believe that they can get the Oladipo of old, his presence would mean someone(s) else isn’t getting minutes. Playoff rotations always shorten because teams want their best guys out there. Jeremy Lamb’s awful season-ending knee injury does make things simpler in that regard, but Oladipo will have to absorb a lot of minutes if Indiana wants him to get his best form back, which means the back-end rotation guys in Indiana like TJ McConnell and the Holiday brothers might be riding the pine more than what they are used to.

Oladipo at full strength is obviously a lot better than those players, but as stated before, him coming back at full strength is not a guarantee. Giving him minutes at the expense of others who have been productive is a gamble especially now that it’s looking more and more likely that the NBA will start with the playoffs right off the bat.

Let’s be honest here: You probably already knew Indy’s playoff chances revolve around how Oladipo performs. You might be asking if there are other factors at play. There most certainly are for them. Although not nearly to the same proportion as Oladipo is.

A consistent subplot over these last three years has been the shaky pairing of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. Nate McMillan, whose coaching has been among the best in the league during that time, has tried his darndest to make the pairing work. The Pacers aren’t worse when they share the court together – they have a plus-2.1 net rating as a duo — but they clearly don’t make the team better together.

It’s clear that this team ain’t big enough for the two of ‘em, and this season, Sabonis has made it obvious that he is the better player of the two. Indiana should probably look into trading Turner this summer, but that’s not relevant for why this is all being brought up. The point is, if the Pacers want to go the distance, they have to mix and match those two to the best of their abilities.

In other words, they need to stop putting themselves on the court together for an extended period of time. It’s a shame because they are two of Indiana’s best players that just happen to play at their best at the same position. The playoffs are about playing the best lineups and exploiting the best matchups. In order to do that, they shouldn’t be playing at the same time.

Having two really good centers can be a positive though. It makes it so that the Pacers will always have at least one of them on the floor at all times. That can do wonders for them.

There are other factors at play here. TJ Warren will be getting his first taste of playoff action. He’s done an excellent job replacing Bojan Bogdanovic this season, but who knows if that is going to continue when the playoffs start? Aaron Holiday has a much bigger role than he had last year and did not get much playoff burn as a rookie. If the Pacers entrust him in the playoffs, is he going to fill in Cory Joseph’s shoes?

There’s also the playoff formatting that’s still very much in the air. If they do the standard formatting, Indiana will be facing Miami in the first round for what should be a very entertaining – not to mention nostalgic – playoff series. If they decide to do seeding based on league standings, they would face Denver, which would provide a fair amount of fun matchups. We may not even get that either.

Whatever the case is, Indiana can at least sleep well at night knowing that this go-round, they’ll have their best player back on the team to lead the fight.

The biggest question is how much of the said best player will be there when they do.

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The X-Factors: Memphis

David Yapkowitz continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Memphis Grizzlies should the NBA return this July.

David Yapkowitz

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Developing news: the NBA is forging a path towards resuming the season, something that didn’t seem all that likely a couple of months ago. Now there are still quite a few things needed to be addressed before a resumption, but things have seemingly gained momentum within the past week or so.

Different scenarios have been floated around. But the ultimate question, should the season indeed resume, is how? Will the NBA opt to go only with the teams that were in a playoff spot before the shutdown, or will they include the bubble teams who had a fighting shot at the playoffs as well?

We’ve begun a new series here at Basketball Insiders in which, assuming those bubble teams have a legit shot, we take a look at not only the potential issues each team may face, but the x-factors that could swing their favor in their respective quests toward the postseason.

Today, we look at the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the regular season’s biggest surprises. Of course, nobody would blame you if you picked them to miss the postseason — they came into the season as an extremely young team with not a lot of experience. And they started the season about as you would have expected, 14 losses in their first 20 games. Come 2020, their record stood at 13-35 as they sat near the bottom of the Western Conference.

Then, on Jan. 4, something changed. A big 140-114 win on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team many expected to represent the conference in the NBA Finals, set off a chain reaction. From there, the Grizzlies would go on to win seven straight as they cemented themselves a spot in the race for the conference’s last playoff spot. When the NBA suspended play on March 11, Memphis sat at 32-33 and 3.5 games ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth spot in the conference.

So, what exactly could prove the Grizzlies x-factor should the season resume? First and foremost would be the health of budding star Jaren Jackson Jr.

After a pretty solid rookie season in 2018-19, Jackson appeared on an upward trajectory prior to his injury. The archetype of the modern big, he is an elite defender with a great range from beyond the arc. He may not shoot the prettiest ball, but it goes in nonetheless: the former Michigan State Spartan took 6.3 three-point attempts per game and knocked them down at a near 40 percent clip. He’s active around the basket and, given his size and potential in the pick-and-roll, Jackson is the perfect complement to the Grizzlies fellow phenom and future star, Ja Morant.

Prior to the league shutdown, Jackson had missed nine straight with a left knee injury. His absence was evident — Memphis went 4-5 in his absence after that aforementioned seven-game win-streak — and a potential return could give the Grizzlies the boost they need to solidify their position in the standings.

While Memphis would have almost certainly have preferred to have Jackson in the lineup, they may have stumbled upon another potential x-factor in his absence: Josh Jackson.

The former lottery pick had a humbling experience to start this season, as the team essentially told him not to show up to training camp and instead had him immediately assigned to their G-League team, the Memphis Hustle.

Down in the G-League, Jackson was given the opportunity to hone his craft, expand his repertoire and further build on the talent that made him the fourth pick back in 2017. Later in the year, the Grizzlies seemingly liked what they saw: recalled to the team in late January, Jackson proved a nice spark for the team off the bench as averaged 10.4 points, 1.7 assists 3.2 rebounds and a steal per game in 18 contests. In that time, Jackson also shot a career-high 43.9 percent from the field.

Of course, there was never any question about his talent — Jackson was a lottery pick for a reason — but in his short time with the Phoenix Suns, Jackson just couldn’t put it together. That said, he’s shown some serious improvement defensively and in terms of his shot selection and, still only 23-years-old, he could quickly become a major difference-maker for Memphis off the bench. In the short-term, his improvements should only serve to benefit the team’s postseason chances.

Their youth and inexperience, something that has often been regarded as their biggest weakness, could also serve as another wild card or x-factor for the Grizzlies. Only three players — Gorgui Deng, Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson — are over the age of 26, and the energy their young legs would bring to any potential tournament could serve as their ace in the hole.

Looking back toward the standings, the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers, two veteran-laden teams with significantly more experience than Memphis, loom large. Should the NBA give those teams on the bubble a real opportunity to reach the postseason, the Grizzlies’ youth will have to play a significant role. Of course, their inexperience may prove fatal, given the amount of time away from the game.

But, over the course of the season, Memphis proved a resilient bunch — there’s no reason to think that might change should the season resume.

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The X-Factors: Brooklyn

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “X-Factor” series by identifying potential difference-makers for the Brooklyn Nets when the NBA returns this July.

Drew Maresca

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The NBA season appears ready to resume. It looks set to do so in Walt Disney World (Orlando, Florida), and it may or may not consist of all 30 teams.

While the details aren’t entirely ironed out, it seems to no longer be the question of if, but when for the 2019-20 season’s return. With that in mind, Basketball Insiders has set out to identify the x-factors of each team in their respective quests to qualify for and advance in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. We’ve already covered the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers. Next up, we turn out attention to the most controversial of the whole bunch – the Brooklyn Nets.

The Nets are currently 30-34 – a significant step back from the winning season they posted in the previous season (42-40). But injuries and acclimating to new star players cost them dearly. Fortunately for the Nets, they are still either the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference or 15th in the league overall, depending on how the playoffs are to be seeded – but either way they’ll pick up where they left off or qualify for the postseason, facing off against either the Toronto Raptors or the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Nets have as much to gain from the two-month-long, COVID-19-related interruption as anyone. But they also have plenty of unanswered questions – and big ones at that. Questions include, “How effectively will Jacque Vaughn take over in Kenny Atkinson’s place?” and “Will Jarrett Allen’s relegation to the bench continue? If so, will it adversely affect team chemistry?” But somehow, those aren’t even the team’s biggest x-factors.

Their first x-factor is their biggest – almost literally. It’s also, figuratively, the NBA’s biggest x-factor—and it’s not even close. It’s Kevin Durant. When healthy, Durant is one of the three best players on the planet – even with LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But just how good is he? Well, he’s good for 27 points and 7 rebounds per game across his entire 12-year career. He also dealt 5.9 assists per game in 2018-19 on average – a career-high. He’s long, scores in every way imaginable, defends and plays better in the clutch – to which his two-NBA Finals MVP awards speak.

But enough about Durant’s abilities, will he be ready to play?  Unfortunately for Brooklyn, it’s unclear if its newest and shiniest toy is ready to be unboxed. Durant tragically ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of last year’s NBA Finals, and he hasn’t played since. Durant’s representatives did an excellent job of managing expectations, clearly stating that — regardless of circumstance — Durant was unlikely to return at all in 2019-20.

And all was well in Brooklyn. The Nets still had to work Kyrie Irving into their rotation, and they were clearly on board with Durant’s rehab plan. The media’s expectations have been tempered, leading to a more seamless rehabilitation schedule, and it was widely known that Durant would not return before the start of 2020-21.

But expectations change quickly in New York. First, we saw leaked videos featuring Durant working out painlessly on the basketball court, in which he was running and jumping. And then, COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down. It put the entire NBA season and just about everything else on hold. As we approached the light at the end of the tunnel that is the NBA season, the NBA universe began considering what finishing the season would mean to players and staff. Paramount in that series of questions is one that greatly affects the Nets – does the late-July start date for the return of the NBA season give Durant enough extra time rehabbing his Achilles to come back this season?

Unfortunately for Brooklyn – as well as the broader basketball community – the answer is probably “no.” The risk is too great. As unique and talented as Durant is, he’s also bound to be out of basketball shape. The speed of the game would be a challenging adjustment, even if he is fully healed. After all, healthy and ready are worlds apart. But nothing’s been decided yet, and that means there’s still a chance. And it’s ultimately, entirely up to Durant – who’s been unsurprisingly tight-lipped.

If Durant does return, he would headline a pretty deep and very talented roster. But Durant along doesn’t make the 30-34 Nets a contender all by himself. He needs at least one other piece to do so, which leads us to Brooklyn’s other major x-factor – Kyrie Irving.

Like Durant, Irving alone doesn’t make the Nets a contender – we actually have more evidence of this given that the Nets were only 4-7 through Irving’s first 11 games before he suffered an injury. But Irving played incredibly in that time, averaging 28.5 points, 7.2 assists and 5.4 rebounds. Maybe the problem was less Irving and more the team’s ability to fit around him? Then again, maybe not. Either way, Irving is an obviously special player who can steal away an opponent’s momentum in the blink of an eye. And like Durant, Irving thrives on clutch situations, sporting a few highlight-worthy crunch-time moments and one legendary game-winner in the 2016 NBA Finals.

So how is Irving an x-factor? After starting out the season on fire, Irving missed 26 consecutive games with a shoulder injury. He returned to play in nine games in early 2020 before opting for surgery to repair his injured shoulder on March 3. The New York Daily News reported in April that Irving would be sidelined for approximately six months, which means Irving shouldn’t be ready to return until September.

Still, it’s within the realm of possibilities that Irving opts to speed up his rehab schedule. After all, allowing an entire season to go to waste with the core and role players that Brooklyn has under contract is unwise. Championship windows aren’t open forever. Granted, this season was always seen as a throwaway for Brooklyn. But making a run this season is kind of like betting with house money. Ultimately, if one of Durant and Irving want to return, expect the other to follow.

So assuming they’re healthy enough to do so,  what would the Nets chances be with them both back in the fold? The less-likely scenario is unfortunately the more interesting one. And it’s against the Lakers.

The Lakers are clearly the favorites – even with Durant and Irving dressing for the other side. They have the league’s best player and its most dominant big man, respectively. And while Irving and Durant would be healthy, the time off would have likely aided James more than anyone.  So if the NBA decides to re-seed all 16 playoff teams and Durant and Irving can return, the Nets face a very tough decision.

But the other possibility is more likely, and it provides an easier first-round matchup with the Raptors. This writer was down on the Raptors all season, and they made sure to prove me wrong at just about every possible juncture to do so. But the fact remains – they’re not as good as their record indicates. They’re 46-18 this season, good for the second-best record in the East and third-best in the entire league. They’re quite good – but they just don’t have the horsepower to play with the elite teams in the league (e.g., Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, against whom they are a collect 1-4). When Leonard left, so too did any hopes of winning another championship with this particular unit. The thought of facing off against Durant and Irving has probably haunted Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse since the idea first entered their brains a month or so ago.

This isn’t predicting an upset, but let’s put it like this: if Durant returns, I would advise bettors to steer clear of this matchup. And if Durant and Irving lead a first-round upset, they’ll enter the Eastern Conference semifinals (or the equivalent of them) with serious momentum and nothing to lose – and that’s a dangerous combination.

One way or the other, the NBA season will be back this summer. As much as this season will always carry an asterisk, it will still end with an NBA champion being crowned.

And that matters to the players — asterisk or not.

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