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NBA

Let's talk title contenders

Which championship tier do the 76ers, Lakers and Bucks belong to?
Which championship tier do the 76ers, Lakers and Bucks belong to? (Getty Images)

Every year in early summer, your family hosts a dinner party for 16. It's a time honoured tradition dating all the way back to 1947.

The festive event begins in a few hours.

Every detail has been meticulously planned over the course of months. Four courses and 82 ingredients in all, you've outlined how the whole evening will unfold. The talking points are predictable based on the seating arrangements and though the food may unexpectedly not sit well with one of the guests, you have a pretty good feel for who will stick around the longest.

You're in the chef's kitchen preparing everything when all of the sudden, those meticulous plans begin to unfurl.

The babysitter cancels, the oven stops working, the fuse blows for the light in the dining room and you come to find out, the now unattended toddler mischievously snuck into the pantry and fed 20% of those 82 ingredients to the family dog.

You've invested too much time, energy and money into this dinner party to cancel so you're determined to proceed.

Adjusting on the fly, you somehow manage to wrangle up a new plan. Everyone will eat sporadically in different rooms and there will be no background music.

Could it all play out as it would have under typical conditions? Potentially.

Is there significantly more risk for the night to veer off course and head in a direction nobody saw coming? Absolutely.

If the NBA season does continue and 16 teams enter the postseason, rest assured the four course meal that is the 2020 NBA playoffs will not play out as it has each year since 1947.

No fans, neutral sites, a three-month layoff, a rushed training camp, unusual practice schedules, nobody sleeping in their own homes... there is literally no telling how individual players will react.

The sheer number of unknown variables and everyone basically making it up on the fly means there could be more upsets, more drama, more uncertainty and more teams capable of making some serious noise. The New York Knicks reached the NBA Finals as an 8-seed in 1999 during a shortened season that was an apples to oranges comparison with a typical season.

What we could be on the verge of with the 2020 postseason isn't apples to oranges, it's apples to staplers.

And just like 1999, there's even more opportunity for a surprise team to get to the Finals at which point anything can happen.

And so from the 16 teams currently projected to make the playoffs, here are the 12 teams capable of surviving the NBA's craziest dinner party.

Tier V: Not this time

Utah Jazz, Orlando Magic, Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies

The season-ending injury to Bojan Bogdanovic coupled with the frayed dynamic between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert drops the Jazz down into this group. There's just too much to overcome to see it ending with a banner in Utah no matter what else happens.

As for the Magic, Pacers and Grizzlies, they simply don't have the horses. Orlando may have the oddest "home court advantage" in the history of sports should the postseason resume at neighboring Walt Disney World, but to borrow a line from Rick Pitino, "Mickey Mouse ain't walking through that door."

Tier IV: The 1999 Knicks

Brooklyn Nets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks

These are the lightning in a bottle teams, the teams that in a laboratory would need everything to break just right, just as it did for the 1999 Knicks. Lucky for them, this entire postseason would act as one giant science experiment with games played in figurative test tubes.

For the Nets, this is as simple as "what if Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving return?" which should send shivers down the collective spine of every other playoff team. Suddenly, the Nets would be the most talented 7-seed ever with a pair of players each capable of single-handedly carrying teams across the finish line. Assuming Durant only plays if he and the Nets are 100% certain that he's 100% healthy, Brooklyn would get essentially a free pass with zero expectations. No team in the East (or West, for that matter) wants to see Durant standing on the other side come playoff time.

MORE: Durant casts 7-foot shadow over Eastern Conference playoff picture

Chris Paul has been the NBA's best clutch player all season and is on the short list of players who could in theory benefit the most physically from the extended time off. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been playing at a borderline All-Star level the entire season while Danilo Gallinari is capable of catching fire from deep and torching anyone at a moment's notice. The emergence of Luguentz Dort gives OKC the wing stopper it so desperately needs and without many true small ball giants outside of the Houston Rockets, Steven Adams shouldn't have any issues staying on the floor this time around.

Any team with the best offence in NBA history and a superstar capable of being the best player in any series always has a puncher's chance.The Mavericks have Luka Doncic and sometimes playoff success boils down to having the best player in a series.

Yes, the 21-year-old Doncic would be playing in his first postseason, but he carries plenty of big game experience thanks to his time spent winning titles in Europe. First time in the playoffs or not, Doncic possesses the game to go toe-to-toe with any player in the league in a playoff series. Throw in Kristaps Porzingis, who had been playing the best basketball of his career, and the Mavericks - led by one of the NBA's best tacticians in Rick Carlisle - could parlay a record-breaking offence into a surprisingly deep run.

If you wanted to convince me that the Heat belong in the next tier, I'd be open to a discussion. Jimmy Butler is a certiable big-time playoff performer and Bam Adebayo's game-changing defensive talent should shine through even more in the playoffs than it did during the regular season when he earned his first All-Star bid. The Heat's identity as a rough and tumble bunch means they won't be a pushover for anyone. If there's any team you'd expect to come back in pristine shape, it's the proud group in Miami who for years have outworked everyone. The biggest reason they sit in Tier IV is that they essentially played .500 ball over the last two months of the season and sport a point differential that indicates they may not be as good as their record suggests.

MORE: Bam is ready to turn the East upside down

Tier III: Frisky but flawed

Denver Nuggets, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics

The Nuggets still give that vibe of a really good regular season team that doesn't strike fear into the hearts of the upper crust of title contenders. Even if Nikola Jokic quieted most of the skeptical chorus with an unquestionably dominant postseason run last year in which he became just the second player in NBA history to average 25 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists for an entire postseason, two major questions linger: 1) Can the Nuggets consistently defend at a high enough level? 2) Can Jamal Murray - a very good young player but one who didn't take the step forward this season many expected - pose a big enough threat as a No. 2 to go toe-to-toe with some of the other superstar second fiddles? On any given night, the Nuggets can hang with anyone, but there's a nagging feeling that they're still just not quite ready.

The Raptors play with more pride than anyone else, exuding championship DNA in droves at seemingly every turn. They are disciplined. They are smart. They are deep. They are versatile. What you see is what you get and what everyone sees in broad daylight is a team that will make any opponent earn every ounce. The one limiting factor? The lack of a transcendent A-lister star. Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade. That's the best player on each of the last 15 championship teams. To find the last title team without an MVP-calibre player you have to go back to the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons, a team that could provide the blueprint for a Raptors repeat without Leonard.

MORE: How good are the Raptors at full strength?

On paper, the Celtics have more talent than either the Nuggets or Raptors. Jayson Tatum's emergence over the second half of the season - he averaged nearly 29 points per game on over 40% shooting from 3 over the last two months - gives Boston the proverbial raise the roof heavyweight lacking in Toronto. Together with Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart, the Celtics can throw a small ball lineup on the floor that's just as talented on both ends of the floor as anyone. The elephant in the room is the same one that existed prior to the start of the season: they lack a truly imposing paint presence. Daniel Theis has played well, but could he manage in a series against Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis? Size is the only thing holding Boston back from entering the next tier.

Tier II: Radioactive isotopes

Philadelphia 76ers, Houston Rockets

Both could win the NBA title. Both could get routed in the first round. Both feel equally plausible. The 76ers and Rockets play wildly different styles and yet they're essentially two different versions of the same team and not coincidentally present as two of the most dangerous 6-seeds in recent memory.

Both present migraines for opposing teams when hitting on all cylinders. The 76ers introduce size and physicality at every position that no team can match. The Rockets go to the absolute extremes to dictate the terms of engagement with a version of small ball that's more extreme than even the Golden State Warriors in their heyday.

Obvious potentially fatal flaws exist: Philly can struggle to score and Houston can be bludgeoned on the block. The 76ers can't paint by numbers on demand in the halfcourt and shooting remains a legitimate concern. Houston openly banks on the idea that three is greater than two and invites teams to force feed the inside to take advantage of the 6'7" Robert Covington, 6'6" Danuel House and 6'5" P.J. Tucker, all three of whom play "centre" for long stretches.

MORE: The Rockets have unleashed the most terrifying version of Russell Westbrook

The long layoff presented a much-needed window for both teams to get some much needed rest and essentially take a mulligan on what have been for fairly underwhelming regular seasons to date. At their best, both the 76ers and Rockets - even moreso than the three top contenders - are like the video game bosses who are beatable yet beyond exhausting and annoying to play against.

Tier I: The Big 3

Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers

These remain the heavyweights. In terms of the NBA playoff pecking order, nothing has changed.

Under normal circumstances it would be tough to realistically envision a scenario in which the Bucks, Lakers or Clippers don't win it all. It's why these are the teams most impacted by the introduction of competitive chaos at the hands of unprecedented circumstances.

All three could in theory benefit.

Giannis Antetokounmpo sustained a minor knee injury and missed a few games in March, resulting in a rare three-game skid prior to the suspension of the season. Throw in a double-digit loss against the Heat, and the Bucks dropped four of five after a blistering 52-8 start to the season. Giannis and the Bucks needed to regroup and the time off could prove critical for preventing that minor injury to the presumptive MVP from becoming a potentially bigger problem.

MORE: Giannis dominates good teams like nobody else in recent history

Even in the midst of an age-defying season, which even picked up some MVP buzz well into March, LeBron James is still a 35-year-old forward in his 17th season. As difficult as it may be to ramp back up, there's a world in which three months off gives James the juice he needs to take his game to another level. A well rested LeBron spells trouble and potentially doom for anyone else looking to take the throne.

The Clippers were starting to look like the juggernaut many thought we'd see from the beginning of the season. And yet nagging injury concerns still lingered for both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, concerns that should be significantly assuaged or even eliminated entirely with the added benefit of a months-long hiatus. As Doc Rivers told the media back in April, both of them have been working hard during the break in action and the Clippers expect each of them to be in peak form if and when the season resumes.

The road to the title certainly features more speed bumps, hitchhikers, unmarked exits, potholes and all sorts of other unforeseen obstacles. And even though more teams are now in the mix, the road still goes through the original Big 3.

Add it all up and it makes for a potentially combustible yet undeniably fascinating next few months.

"NBA playoffs 2020, party of 16, please report to the host station, your table is almost ready."

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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