With basketball set to return in what has become a unique season, the NBA has kicked things off with an enticing commercial featuring Issa Rae.
The NBA's slogan, "It's a Whole New Game" perfectly depicts the upcoming restart and postseason.
A four-month pause has given teams and players the chance to heal, recharge, and come back to what normally would be a new season–but it's not. Now more than ever, teams that may have not been expected to make the finals or even playoffs just might have a chance, if the stars align at the right time. If you're going against betting odds, here are two teams from each conference we believe have the possibility to make a surprise run in the playoffs this year.
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- 6th in the west
- 10th in the league
- +1400 championship odds
Eric Gordon's right knee injury affected his game this season, but hopefully the additional time off has allowed him enough time to be back to full health. Looking to return to form, Gordon could provide perimeter shooting to open up the driving lanes for Russell Westbrook and James Harden, and the Rockets could excel even without a traditional big man.
Robert Covington could also be a key player in the playoffs. As an often-overlooked player, he was brought to Houston for his defensive abilities. Statistically, Covington had been having the worst defensive season of his career. He spent the first 48 games of it in Minnesota, which means that statistical analysis alone isn't a fair assessment of how Covington can still be a force on the defensive end. He will likely be tasked with guarding opponents' best offensive player, and if he can be successful in that task, then the Rockets could be a tough team to beat.
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- 7th in the west
- 13th in the league
- +5000 championship odds
Last year's rookie of the year and this year's candidate for MVP and most improved player, Luca Doncic, has proven to be a big-time performer at all levels, and we've yet to see him let pressure affect his game.
Kristaps Porzingis is another one to watch for. Porzingis has always been an anomaly since entering the league. Coined "The Unicorn" by some, his combination of size, shooting, and defensive ability is almost impossible to stop when he's on the court. Unfortunately, Porzingis has been sidelined with injuries throughout his career; but, much like Joel Embiid, he's only going to help the team if he's on the floor and fit to play.It also doesn't hurt to consider that the Mav's hold the highest offensive rating in the history of the NBA. I question if Dallas has the structure around their two Euro sensations, but the duo may be good enough to do it themselves.
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- 6th in the east
- 12th in the league
- +2000 championship odds
Things were not looking good for Philly before the March pause. Simmons was out with a back injury and not slated to be back for the original start of the playoffs. Joel Embiid has also, yet again, dealt with nagging injuries this season. But he's continued to show what he can accomplish if he's able to stay healthy enough to reach his full potential.
The Sixers have shifted Ben Simmons into the power forward position while still maintaining primary ball-handler responsibilities. Averaging 17 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists per game on the year already, this move might be the change the Sixers need to elevate Simmons to a new level.
In their first scrimmage game, Simmons just missed a triple-double. The Sixers have the star power to take on any team in the playoffs, but will a lack of perimeter shooting (JJ Redick) prevent them from advancing through the eastern conference?
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- 3rd in the east
- 5th in the league
- +2000 championship odds
Kemba Walker struggled during the games leading up to the pause in March due to a knee injury. Having the extra four months off to heal has greatly improved the Celtic's chance of making the NBA Finals.
Jason Tatum was on fire before the pause and is expected to pick back up right where he left off as a dangerous scoring threat. His progression has been impressive this season, posting 17 points per game while shooting just under 46% from the field. Walker and Tatum provide Boston with two all-star caliber threats on offense to pair alongside budding star Jaylen Brown, who we have seen improving throughout the 2019-2020 campaign and could be the third piece to a Celtic championship puzzle.
The time off also gave Gordon Hayward more time to recover. He is now the healthiest he has been since his gruesome injury sustained during the 2017 season opener. His ability to score from anywhere on the floor and make smart plays with or without the ball makes him an X factor that could push Boston all the way through to the finals.
NBA teams were informed by the league last Friday that none of the seeding games slated to start on July 30th will be taken into consideration for the postseason player awards.
Included in the memo was the following: "The decision to exclude seeding games from awards voting ensures a fair process in which players and coaches from all 30 teams will have the same opportunity to be honored as top performers for the regular season."
This means that all individual awards will be based solely on the season up to the March 11th pause. However, statistical awards will remain up for grabs until the end of the seeding games sometime in mid-August.
Now that it is known that all player awards will be solely based on play before the March 11th pause, we can equitably assemble our picks to win the NBA's top awards.
MVP - Lebron James
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While the reigning 2019 MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo is a favorite pick for back to back MVP awards, our pick for MVP is with the King: Lebron James. Although the "Greek Freak" may be dominating in various statistical categories, including field goals, points, blocks, and rebounds, Lebron's overall achievements this season should be enough to grant the 4-time MVP his 5th award. Leading the league this year in assists, his ability to maximize the talent around him only adds to his case. James has led this Laker team to top spot in a stacked Western Conference, he has exceeded the expectations of what anyone thought possible in their 17th season of basketball, and it looks like he's far from being done.
Rookie of the Year - Ja Morant
There was a good chance the Rookie of the Year Award may have gone to Zion Williamson of the Utah Jazz before the announcement of seedling game exclusions, but with only counting his 19 played games this season, Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies is undoubtedly the pick for rookie of the year. Morant is one of only three rookie players in the NBA to ever average over 20 points and 8 assists in their first year. Morant leads a young core group of players that are looking to establish themselves as playoff contenders in Memphis, and he provides the superstar foundation that teams are looking to harness for the future.
Sixth Man Award - Dennis Schroder
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This one was a tough call between Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams of the LA Clippers and Dennis Schroder of the Oklahoma City Thunder, but Schroder's ability to carry his team this season won our pick for sixth man. Of course, his 19 point and 31 minutes played average helps prove our case, as well.
The Thunder have put together an unexpected season after the departures of both Russell Westbrook and Paul George. While Chris Paul has been the biggest reason for Oklahoma City's fifth-place standing in the western conference, it can also be attributed to the play of Schroder coming off the bench and maintaining a high level of scoring ability from the guard position.
Defensive Player of the Year - Anthony Davis
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It's finally time for the Lakers' Anthony Davis to win Defensive Player of the Year. Statistics may favor reigning champ Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, but Davis' defensive game this year simply can't be matched. The Lakers rank third in the league for points allowed per 100 possessions, mostly due to Davis.
The Frank Vogel-led Laker defense has allowed Davis to play at his natural position of power forward as the Lakers have made a point to bring in traditional centers so Davis wouldn't have to play out of position the way he did in New Orleans. This has allowed Davis to have much better matchups and has also allowed him to roam in the paint more to disrupt opposing offenses from getting easy scores.
Most Improved Player - Bam Adebayo
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Bam Adebayo of the Miami Heat had a phenomenal year coming off of a two-year reserve role for the Heat–one which earned him our pick for most improved. As a starter this year, he put up an impressive line of stats and has proven that he can defend any opponent. Much like Dennis Schroder's Thunder, the Heat have over-performed compared to expectations, and Adebayo has proven to be one of the most promising young talents in the league, earning his first all-star selection this season.
Coach of the Year - Nick Nurse
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Coach Nick Nurse of the Toronto Raptors unequivocally gets our pick for how he handled his team this year. Things didn't look promising for the Raptors at the beginning of the season with the loss of their 2019 MVP, Kawhi Leonard, and the rocky start of the season due to injuries. At one point, the Raptors weren't projected to even make the playoffs–now they sit at 2nd place in the eastern conference. Without Nurse at the helm to adapt to the constant changes needed this season in lineups, we doubt the Raptors would be where they are right now.
Voting for the awards began on the 21st and will run through the 28th of July.
The NBA is leading the way in a mental health movement within the sporting world. Athletes such as Kevin Love want to create a better environment around mental health
Exacerbating mental health concerns in the NBA is the fact that 22 teams have headed to Walt DisneyLand Resort to finish the season inside "the bubble": the 220-acre ESPN sports complex that will be the home to NBA crew and teams over the next few months in order to finish the season with minimal exposure to the public.
With some athletes voicing concerns over having to live in isolation away from family and loved ones for possibly months, the NBA has reportedly put an emphasis on mental health and making resources available to the teams inside the bubble.
William Parham, director of the NBA's mental health program, said, "[This season] is going to leave the guys with a lot of time on their own, and challenges with families, newborns and whatever else they have going on in their personal lives are going to be magnified because they're going to be in confined spaces for prolonged periods of time."
The NBA's emphasis on mental wellness during playoffs shows their efforts in ramping up mental health awareness, something they have been proactively encouraging the last few years.
During this year's ESPY awards on ESPN, Kevin Love received the prestigious Arthur Ashe Courage Award in recognition of his continued efforts in mental health awareness. The following day, Love's foundation donated $500,000 to UCLA's psychology department. In a statement, Love said, "I hope one day we are able to erase the stigma around mental illness, starting with public conversations around mental health and encouraging people to seek help when they need it, followed by research, action, and change."
Love has had a huge role in facilitating the NBA on improving their policies and stance on mental health. Beginning with his candid personal essay in March 2018, Everyone Is Going Through Something, in which he opened up about his anxiety and panic attacks, Love's called attention to the stigma around discussing mental health issues, especially regarding men.
When the Cavaliers played a home game against the Atlanta Hawks in November 2018, Love suffered from a bad anxiety attack that put him out of the game during the third quarter. According to Love, the most shocking reaction he had after he realized what was wrong was not the attack by itself, but the way he may be viewed by his teammates if they found out what had happened. His greatest fear was that others would think less of him.
Many other NBA athletes have followed Love's example and opened up about their own struggles with mental health. Demar DeRozan, Trae Young, and Kelly Oubre Jr. are just a few current all-stars who have shared their own experiences.
Just a few months after Love's story was published, ex-NBA all-star, Keyon Dooling, published his own essay for The Players Tribune describing his experience getting the mental help he needed after spending 25 years of his life hiding that he had been sexually assaulted at the age of 7.
The number of high-profile NBA stars opening up about their own mental health stories helped the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) to develop a first-of-its-kind initiative among national sports leagues: a mental health wellness program, which was adapted in May of 2018.
The program's mission is to facilitate balance between athletes' mental and personal health. The NBA also created new rules and guidelines for teams regarding mental health for the 2019-20 season. Teams are now required to have at least one mental health professional on as a full-time staff member. Each team is also required to have a written plan in place for mental health emergencies, along with confidentiality and privacy agreements for all athletes.
Athletes are often held to infeasible standards. They are under constant pressure to "be the best." But they are not superheroes; they are just as prone to mental health issues as anyone else.
One common factor amongst these NBA stars is the fear of being seen as weak. Hopefully, with more and more athletes sharing their personal mental health struggles, the stigma associated with discussing it will fade away.