It’s here, folks!
After a month of practice and scrimmage games, the NBA regular season is set to restart on Thursday, July 30 in the Orlando bubble where the league has stationed itself to finish off the 2019-2020 schedule. Players, coaches and others in the bubble have so far defended themselves from an outbreak of Covid-19 within that would halt everything again, giving hope that this season will indeed be finished.
The scrimmage games in the last week have given us all a glimpse of what we will see when the eight-game regular season begins on Thursday — the atmosphere of an AAU Tournament, just happens to be professional basketball players competing for the NBA Finals trophy.
With the soon start of the eight-game finish to the regular season, it is time to make predictions as to how the season will be played out.
Let’s start with the biggest wonder in the shaping of the 2020 NBA playoffs — Who will be the eight seed in the Western Conference?
A grand total of 13 teams representing the Western Conference qualified for the season restart in Orlando, as five teams currently outside the playoff picture were within the requirement six games of the eighth seeded Memphis Grizzlies (32-33). Of those teams, only two are thought to be the competition for Memphis to get that final spot — Portland Trail Blazers (28-36) and New Orleans Pelicans (29-37).
All three teams have a legitimate claim to be the team that will fill in that final spot. My pick is the Portland Trail Blazers.
Portland, who made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season before losing to Golden State, was riddled with injuries this year. After the long break as we all were quarantined due to Covid-19, both starting big men — Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins — have returned for the Blazers. Nurkic averaged 15.6 points per game along with 10.4 rebounds per game in the 2019 season as he was a force inside for team, and Collins provides as a clean-up man on the other side for the Blazers.
Also Portland finally has a relatively productive bench. For the past few seasons, the criticism of the Trail Blazers has been that they do not have a productive enough bench, until this year.
Among those bench players is former UofL commit Anfernee Simons and UK forward Wenyen Gabriel, but the player that most catches my eye is former Duke guard Gary Trent Jr.
Trent, a second-year player, exploded in the second half of the season before it was halted. In a game against the OKC Thunder on Jan. 18 in which he was thought to have the flu, he dropped a career-high 30 points. He has been consistent offensively for the Blazers, shooting 38% from the three-point line and 47.8% overall on the floor in the fourth quarter. Not only that, but the guard has been a force defensively too, often harassing guards around the perimeter.
The biggest reason I am picking Portland, however, is Damian Lillard. The all-star point guard is known for his clutch play in the postseason, and again went bonkers this season pre-Coronavirus averaging 28.9 points per game (fifth in the league).
Shall I remind you of what Damian Lillard did against OKC in the playoffs last season in an example of his clutch performances:
Memphis is a really competitive, hard working team that will no doubt be right there in the race, as they are already ahead at least four games of the teams outside, and New Orleans does have superstar Zion Williamson, but with Damian Lillard and the return of Portland’s big men, I am picking the Blazers.