The NBA’s six-phase plan to resume the 2019-20 season in Orlando will enter Phase 3 on July 1, when individual workouts, which have not been mandated to this point, will become mandatory. Between July 7 and 9, teams will make their way to Orlando, where Phase 4 will mark the opening of team and group activities with everything moving toward the resumption of games on July 30.
When that happens, the strangest postseason in NBA history will commence. No fans. No home-court advantage. Players and teams entering the bubble in varying degrees of rhythm and condition after a nearly five-month hiatus from live action. It’s a high-variance environment that could feasibly turn the typically predictable playoffs into a relative free-for-all.
Put another way, if chaos is a ladder, then there are a handful of teams that could be in position to climb higher than they might’ve been able to under typical conditions. That said, there is also, potentially, much to lose inside this ironically uncontrolled bubble. It works both ways in many situations: Much to gain, much to lose. For the purposes of this article, we’re looking at the latter. Below are the teams and players who potentially have the most to lose in Orlando.
LeBron and the Lakers
The Lakers traded just about every future asset they held to pair Anthony Davis with LeBron James, and technically this is the only season they are guaranteed to play together. Yes, all indications are Davis will re-sign with the Lakers in the offseason, and LeBron might have two or three years of elite production, at least, remaining in his seemingly endless tank.
But you never know.
When a player is in his 17th season carrying the mileage LeBron has accumulated, you can’t take anything for granted. You can’t look ahead to next season and certainly not to seasons beyond that. The Lakers will be without Avery Bradley, who is opting to stay home from Orlando, but otherwise they’re healthy and whole and the odds-on favorite to win it all. Not taking advantage of this opportunity would be a big miss.
It’s not to say the Lakers won’t get another chance if they fail to seal the deal this season, but dynamics could be changing. Giannis Antetokounmpo could create a superteam somewhere. The injury bug could hit James or Davis next season. At this point in his career, LeBron’s entire goal is to enter the postseason healthy and rested, and when is he ever going to be as fresh as he’ll presumably be when games resume in Orlando after nearly five months off in the middle of the season?
This is everything the Lakers could ask for, everything for which they traded the entire core of their future, and it’s certainly all that LeBron could ask for as he aims to add a fourth championship to his side of the GOAT ledger. There have been rumors that the Lakers have been holding secret workouts to make sure they’re ready for Orlando. This is a team, and player, that knows just how precious legitimate title shots are at this stage of a superstar’s career. If they don’t capitalize, I believe it will hit them harder than any other team coming home from Orlando empty-handed.
You’ll notice I didn’t say Giannis and the Bucks, as I said LeBron and the Lakers above. That’s because LeBron, at this late stage of his career, has as much to lose personally as the Lakers have to lose as a team as every title shot could be his last. Giannis is 25 years old. He’s a good bet to get at least a few more cracks at a title. It just might not be with the Bucks.
With Antetokounmpo being a free agent in 2021, the Bucks have exactly two more guaranteed chances to secure a title before he could bolt, and this year is one of them. The pressure is on them to convince Giannis to stay, and if they fall short of the Finals again, that could become a very difficult sell without cap room or any obvious avenues for meaningful talent acquisition.
This could be boom-or-bust time for the Bucks. What do they stand to possibly lose if they don’t get it done? Only potentially the best player in the world for the next decade.
It goes without saying that all these teams have a lot to gain in Orlando in the form of a championship, and technically every team then also has something to lose. But like the Lakers, the Clippers signed up for a short-term championship run. Both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard can become free agents next summer. Being that they’re both from Southern California and pulled out all the stops to manipulate their way back home, they’re a good bet to re-sign to stay in L.A. But again, you never know.
When you trade away the kind of assets the Lakers and Clippers did for short-term superstar guarantees, the clock starts ticking very loudly. You are constantly concerned about time running out.
I don’t think the Clippers have quite as much to lose as the Lakers for the sole reason that their best players aren’t as old as LeBron and it’s easier to imagine them getting a few more runs at this, but in today’s NBA, there is no guarantee any player is staying anywhere. All the Clippers know is they have George and Kawhi right now. And they gave up a lot to make that happen. Every year they miss out on the payoff is another year spent chasing their own bet.
Perhaps the Rockets would fit cleaner in the “most to gain” group as I believe this is the best championship shot they’ll have during James Harden’s remaining prime, but that means they have a lot to lose, too. If they don’t get it done this season, I don’t think it’s going to happen. They don’t have any cap space or meaningful assets with which they can upgrade the roster. Harden isn’t getting any younger. Neither is Russell Westbrook, who was playing perhaps the best basketball of his career when play was suspended.
Unconventional conditions and circumstances are a breeding ground for dark horses. These conditions in Orlando are nothing if not unconventional. We really have no idea which versions of these teams are going to show up. The chances of the Rockets catching, say, the Lakers or the Clippers during a bad stretch are far more likely as every team’s rhythm and conditioning could literally be at a preseason level. The Rocket, meanwhile, can kind of throw rhythm out the window, as their offense is as simple as it gets and individual creation should be a premium with five-man chemistry
Also, in other seasons, the Rockets, currently a No. 6 seed, would be facing the prospect of probably having to win a Game 5 or 7 on the home floor of the Lakers or Clippers, if not both, to get out of the West. Now that’s out the window. Taking away home-court advantage for the higher seed is always going to up the chances of the underdog, and Houston is the perfectly constructed underdog. They are the definition of the puncher’s-chance threat. They have two guys who can land multiple haymakers at any time, and if that happens, combined with the strange conditions, some of their deficiencies could be neutralized.
Again, if the Rockets don’t find a way to at least advance to the Finals for the first time during Harden’s tenure, they’re going to leave Orlando wondering if they’ll ever have the this wide-open an opportunity again.
The Sixers might have the most to lose of any team in Orlando. If current matchups were to hold, they would play the Celtics in the first round, and a first-round exit would potentially represent a core-shaking blow to the contingent clinging to the fading hope that Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid can win a championship together.
Brett Brown is a good bet to lose his job if the Sixers lay a postseason egg, and once that happens, the excuse-makers for why Simmons and Embiid don’t work great together will lose perhaps their last scapegoat. Then what? The Sixers don’t have any cap space or assets to speak of, other than Simmons or Embiid, and how long will it be before the organization concedes to trading one star in a desperate attempt to appropriately support the other?
Philly does not want to deal with these questions. And the only way to avoid them is to make a real run in Orlando. A bad showing would potentially put this entire process in jeopardy.
The Wizards have a lot to lose in Orlando, but only if they win. As long as they stay out of the playoffs, they’ll preserve their lottery slot in accordance with their standing as of March 11 when play was suspended. Odds are, that would land them a top-10 pick.
If, on the other hand, they close to within four games of the No. 8 seed and win a play-win series against either the Nets or Magic, they’ll fall out of the lottery and potentially lose five or more draft slots all for the right to get bludgeoned in the first round against the Bucks.
Also, the longer the Wizards are in Orlando, the greater the chances for injury to Bradley Beal. Yes, every team is risking injury to a star player every time they take the court, but usually there is some reward for the risk. Here, there is no reward for the Wizards. It would be in their best interest to mathematically eliminate themselves as quickly as possible and get out of Dodge.
Ingram is potentially in line for a max contract this offseason, and suffering a serious injury in Orlando would be devastating. Again, injuries are always a risk, but there of even greater concern in Orlando with players having been inactive for so long.
You could also argue Ingram has a lot to gain in Orlando, as playing well and leading the Pelicans to a playoff berth would further solidify his max value. But he’s already done enough to get something very close to a max offer, at least. He has more to lose than gain.
2017 draft class
The first-round class one year after Ingram was drafted is eligible this offseason for full five-year designated rookie extensions, which are worth 25 percent of the cap. Players potentially in line for such a max extension prior to the conclusion of their rookie deal are Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo.
Tatum, in fact, has a chance to be eligible for 30 percent of the cap via the Rose rule, if he were to be named to an All-NBA team this season, which is not out of the question. Mitchell will almost certainly get a max extension offer, as will Fox in Sacramento. As for Adebayo, the Heat are likely pinching their pennies for a run at Giannis and the free-agent class of 2021, so he might not get his max extension until the 2021 offseason.
Still, it’s coming. For all these guys. And an injury in Orlando before the first big payday of their careers would be devastating. This same logic also applies to guys who are not likely to get max extension offers, but are still in line to sign their first post-rookie deal in 2021 — guys like Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Zach Collins, for example.