Josh Selby was sitting in the upper deck of a small high-school gym with one-side seating when he challenged a bench-warming teammate to hit a three-pointer from the bleachers. The stakes weren’t high, in the neighborhood of $130 per shot, make-or-miss.
The kid missed. Twice. Selby was up $300, but he never had any intension of collecting the cash. It was his way of making sure his team doesn’t fold under pressure.
It wasn’t long ago that Selby, once the No. 1 NCAA recruit in the nation and former NBA draft pick, hit rock bottom.
Selby, once the highest ranked high-school baller in the United States, led a class that featured some of the NBA’s current-and-future stars. In a sense, he went from hero-to-zero. Selby bounced around the NBA and the respected D-League before heading overseas for stints in China, Croatia and now Israel. At one point, the 23-year-old Baltimore native began to mull over retirement.
“I went through a time where I was depressed with basketball. I got depressed because things weren’t going my way. I had thoughts of retiring,” Selby told Basketball Insiders following a team practice in Herzliya, a suburb city outside of the Tel Aviv.
His dream of an NBA comeback was still alive as he attended a private workout for the Orlando Magic over the summer.
“I had a good workout for the Magic and was able to get my feet wet after not playing since January. It was a blessing to get a camp invite, but it was the only invite I got,” said Selby. “I went up against Seth Curry and a few others, but the Magic already had a Summer League roster, so I didn’t get a real chance.”
“A real chance,” Selby said as his face frowned and dropped south, is all he ever asked for. But he never got it.
Selby was a late second-round draftee of the Memphis Grizzlies in 2011. It was his time as a backup point guard with the blue-and-gold that sparked Selby’s depression. Selby had just moved into to his new home and was getting comfortable in Memphis when the business side of the league took a swing at the former McDonald’s All-American.
“It was around Christmas,” the 6-foot-2 guard recalled, “I had my entire family in Memphis when the Grizzlies traded me to the Cleveland Cavaliers. I left them all behind.”
Selby recorded just 2.2 points and 0.9 assists in 38 appearances for the Grizzlies before being shipped off to the Cavaliers. Selby was crushed. His depression, though, began a lot sooner.
“I got depressed when I was with the Grizzlies,” Selby said. “When I got drafted, Memphis signed Jeremy Pargo as a backup point guard during my rookie season. Then, Memphis drafted Tony Wroten my second season, so I never go a real opportunity to play. I was always a third-string point guard. If I had a legit chance to showcase my talents and a coach that trusts me, I might reach my full potential.”
Prior to that, before the walls crumbled around him, Selby capped a highlight-real Summer League chapter for the Grizzlies, averaging over 25 points per game on 70 percent shooting from the perimeter. He was ranked as the third best scorer and earned co-MVP honors with Portland Trail Blazers phenom Damian Lillard.
Soon after, Selby became a basketball journeyman, moving from one place to the next.
“I’ve been on five teams in five months. I went from Memphis to Reno; from Reno to Cleveland; from Cleveland to Canton; and then from Canton to Maine. Wow, five teams in five months,” Selby said, tossing his hands in the air as his eyes opened wide.
Selby’s depression escalated upon his arrival in Ohio.
“As soon as I get to Cleveland they sent me down to Canton to the D-League,” he said. “I had no chance with the Cavaliers. Then I’m released two weeks later, traded to another D-League team. I was like damn, no one wants me, what am I doing wrong? I’m working hard and trying my best. I couldn’t believe it.”
The former Kansas Jayhawk star saw the NBA doors closing as teams failed to offer a contract. Selby was forced to cross the pond and his first deal was a short-lived era in China, land of high-volume scoring guards and even higher checks.
On November 2013, Selby signed a one-month, $40,000 deal with Qingdao Double Star Eagles of the CBA, but that lasted just three games. The transition to the high-speed overseas style of play wasn’t the issue. Selby posted averages of 22.3 points, three rebounds and three assists per game, yet his team couldn’t win.
“Our team was losing all the time. I don’t think the club won a game in two years. I was playing well but all the imports got sent home because we weren’t winning. I sure didn’t see all the money I was owed. I don’t know what happened to it,” said Selby, who realized how shady and cut-throat the hoops market is outside the NBA.
The next attempt at resurrecting his career was in Croatia. Selby signed with local power-club Cedevita Zagreb for $15,000 per month, but recorded just one game before receiving his release papers. According to multiple sources, Selby’s coach, Jasmin Repesa, coach for the Croatia national-team at recent World Cup games in Spain, isn’t fond of U.S. players. Furthermore, his current team has zero American imports.
Selby, though, wouldn’t comment in full on Repesa’s dislike of non-European players.
“I’ll say I was cut because of a stomach injury, that’s what the team told me,” Selby said.
In high-school, Selby was one of the brightest NBA prospects and top ranked recruits in a class that included Kyrie Irving, Harrison Barnes, Dion Waters, Tobias Harris, Jared Sullinger, Brandon Knight and Tristan Thompson.
His one-and-done stint with Kansas was shadowed by a suspension and injuries, as Selby played in only 26-of-38 games for a total season average of 7.9 points and 2.2 assists per contest. He then declared entering the NBA draft.
“Honestly, I don’t know if my knee injuries impacted my draft stock. All I know are rumors. Would I still be in the NBA if I were a first-round draft pick? Man, I have no idea. God is the only one to know that,” Selby said.
Selby continues to battle common misperceptions about him wherever he goes. Now, roughly 6,000 miles away from home, he tried to brush it off.
“The negative media had a lot of impact on my career,” Selby said. “I put myself in the wrong situations in the past, but I was young. I read all the negative stuff about me, some parts are true, others aren’t.”
During the recent offseason, Selby signed a single-season deal in top league in Israel worth $110,000, according to team insiders. Selby didn’t wait long for his coming out party, dropping a season-high 30 points in 39 minutes for Bnei Herzliya in the season opener. Over the first month of the season, Selby was No. 1 in the Israeli-League in scoring and efficiency.
His stock slipped over the last couple of weeks, but Selby cemented himself as the third-best scorer in the league with 16.4 points per game. He’s also ranked sixth in three-point shooting percentage with 43.5 percent, and ninth in steals with 1.9 to go along with 2.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. Selby is Herzliya’s lead candidate to make the domestic All-Star Game.
Still young and learning, Selby found a way to transform his negative publicity and fuel the jets.
“I try to take the negative rumors, learn from them and better my character and continue to grow,” Selby said. “I used to get angry over what people were writing, but I’m more mature now and just ignore it. I hate that people keep talking about the old Josh Selby.”
Upon signing in Israel, a couple of Twitter users invented “The Selby Line” – an over/under estimation of the total number of appearances Selby would register before losing his job.
“8 games,” tweeted one handle.
“If he plays over 10 games that’s starting to get towards a successful stint for him,” tweeted a second user.
“The Selby Line,” caught up to Selby, who screen grabbed the tweets and saved them on his cell phone.
Next week, Selby will enter round No. 14 and complete almost five full months with his club. His mission, he confessed, is accomplished.
“Those tweets added fuel to my fire,” Selby said. “When I saw that I said, ‘Damn. People really doubted me like that? People are really going to tweet … what’s the under/over score of Josh Selby staying in Israel? Seriously?’ C’mon man, I’m 23 years old, people should be happy that I’m somewhere playing. I’ve never been someone people talk good about. It’s always some negative tag to me.”
With just a handful of practices in preseason, a second teammate of Selby’s, a starting 6-foot-4 point-forward who is also known as a defensive specialist, asked the former NBA guard to stay after training. When his coach gave the green light to hit the showers, Selby’s teammate was waiting at one end of the floor with a basketball.
“Let’s settle this. One-on-one,” said the teammate.
Needless to say, Selby, one of the quickest and elite ball-handling guards in Israel, took his opponent to school with a series of playground buckets. Selby won.
“I didn’t know anything about Israel, besides the wars and what people see on CNN. My family was hesitant and nervous about me coming here, but I discovered a beautiful country with nice people. I’m happy I made the right decision to sign here,” Selby said.
The off-court transition, though, was a struggle for the lone overseas guard. Selby knew nothing about his new club, he never heard of its city and was completely oblivious of the fact that the reigning European champions, Maccabi Tel Aviv, compete in the same league.
Things changed quickly for Selby.
“When I got over to Israel, as I started talking to people, at least 25-out-of-26 people didn’t know who Herzliya was, but told me about Maccabi,” he said.
The overall public assumptions were that Selby, based on his appearances, landed a deal with one of Europe’s most decorated organizations ever.
“People asked if I play for Maccabi and I had to correct them,” he said. “You play for Maccabi? No Herzliya. Who? Herzliya Who? Heeeerzzzliyaaaaa. I’m trying my best to get the team on the map because out here it’s Maccabi land.”
As far as an NBA comeback goes, he is currently out of sight and mind, but not giving up hope. Selby said no scouts or NBA personnel have contacted him thus far, but it’s not troubling him at this point in time.
“I want to help my team reach the playoffs and take them as far as possible,” Selby said. “As long as I take care of business and win here, the NBA will come find me.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.