Based on the current standings, the Toronto Raptors would play the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of this season's playoffs.
The problem? Now more than two months into the suspension of the regular season due to the coronavirus pandemic, we still have no idea how the rest of the season would play out if it were to return.
- Would every team play the remaining amount of games on their schedule?
- If not, how many would they play?
- Would the NBA decide to forgo the rest of the regular season and move forward with the 16 teams currently in the playoff picture?
- Would the playoffs include all 16 teams?
The answer to those questions could determine whether or not the Raptors and Nets would actually face each other in the first round of the playoffs. But for argument's sake, let's make two assumptions: 1) The Raptors and Nets play each other and 2) Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving do not play due to injury.
How would they match up? Let's take a closer look.
The injury report
It goes without saying that the Nets would be a much scarier first-round opponent if Durant and Irving were healthy, but it doesn't appear as though either would play if the season were to resume.
While there have been some murmurs recently about Durant possibly returning - players usually miss nine months with an Achilles tear and he is close to a year removed from tearing his right Achilles tendon - ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski said this week that he's not coming back this season. As for Irving, Kristian Winfield of the New York Daily News talked to a medical expert who said the shoulder surgery he underwent following the All-Star break could sideline him until September, making a return this season highly unlikely.
Nobody on the Raptors was at risk of missing the rest of the season when the pause button was hit, but they've been one of the most injury-ridden teams this season. According to Spotrac, the Raptors have missed a total of 219 games to injury, putting them behind only the Golden State Warriors (253), Portland Trail Blazers (248), Detroit Pistons (241) and Washington Wizards (231) for most in the league. Just about everyone has missed extended time at some point, from Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam near the start of the season to Marc Gasol and Norman Powell more recently.
In Toronto's final game before the season was suspended, Gasol and Fred VanVleet were both on the inactive list - Gasol with a hamstring injury, VanVleet with a shoulder injury. The Raptors then lost Powell to a sprained ankle in the game's opening minutes, although it wasn't an injury that was expected to keep him sidelined for very long.
Given the short-term nature of Gasol, VanVleet and Powell's injuries, you'd think that this extended break would give them the time they need to be able to play if the season resumes. In which case, the Raptors should be back at full strength for the playoffs.
The Nets without Irving
The Nets have played far more games without Irving (44) than with him (20) this season. Since the odds of him returning are close to zero, let's focus on how they have played without him.
According to NBA.com, the Nets have averaged 105.9 points per 100 possessions with Irving on the bench this season, a rate equivalent to the New York Knicks, Charlotte Hornets and Chicago Bulls at the bottom of the league. Not great! However, they've still been competitive thanks to their defence, as they've given up only 106.4 points per 100 possessions to their opponents, a rate equivalent to the LA Clippers and Boston Celtics near the top of the league.
The wildcard for the Nets is Caris LeVert, who has once again battled injuries this season. Without him, Spencer Dinwiddie is the team's only playmaker. With him, the Nets have someone else who can create efficient offence for themselves and others. As a result, they become an entirely different team when the two of them are on the court together: Brooklyn's defence stays the same but its offence improves by 4.5 points per 100 possessions.
That's helped the Nets post a net rating of +5.3 in the 500-plus minutes Dinwiddie and LeVert have shared the court without Irving, showing the potential for a team that could be more dangerous than your typical 7-seed.
LeVert missed Brooklyn's first game against Toronto this season and played only 15 minutes in the second. He showed what he is capable of in the third and fourth meetings, going off for 37 points in a one-point loss to the Raptors on Feb. 8, followed by 20 points, seven rebounds, four assists and four steals in a 10-point win on Feb. 12.
The former marked a career-high at the time...
Not our result tonight, but a big 3️⃣7️⃣-point effort from @CarisLeVert shatters his previous career high 🎥 pic.twitter.com/5rRs8HOFBy- Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) February 9, 2020
...while the latter helped the Nets end Toronto's franchise-best win streak.
📼 | A streak ends in Brooklyn. Highlights from our big W over the Raptors! pic.twitter.com/iUA8sYFLoz- Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) February 13, 2020
Both of those games came during what was the best stretch of LeVert's career to date. In the 16 games leading up to the season being suspended, he averaged 24.1 points, 5.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals on 44.7 percent shooting from the field and 41.3 percent from 3-point range, putting him on a short-list of players who were trending upwards.
That begs the question...
Who would guard LeVert?
According to NBA.com, Terence Davis defended LeVert more than anyone else on the Raptors in the regular season, followed by VanVleet.
LeVert had success against both of them.
Fortunately for the Raptors, they have a number of players they can put on LeVert in a series. In addition to Davis and VanVleet, they have Lowry, Siakam, OG Anunoby and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Lowry and VanVleet are Toronto's two-best pick-and-roll defenders while Anunoby, Siakam and Hollis-Jefferson each have the size and length to disrupt him in 1-on-1 situations.
Between the six of them, the Raptors should have the manpower to contain him. As good of a player as he is, it's hard to believe that the Raptors can have as much success as they have this season against the likes of Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James but not have an answer for LeVert.
This becomes a far more pressing issue with a healthy Durant and Irving, but that doesn't appear to be something teams will have to worry about until next season.
Who would guard Siakam?
Earlier this week, I wrote about how Siakam is one of the players who would have the most to prove in the playoffs. The reason why? He hasn't been able to elevate his game to the same level as other stars in head-to-head matchups this season, which could become a factor in matchups with the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers or Miami Heat in the playoffs, teams built around All-NBA calibre players.
Without Irving and Durant, the Nets don't have a player who can go toe-to-toe with Siakam, but they will still throw everything they have at him. The Nets actually defended Siakam pretty well during the regular season, limiting him to 22.0 points on 38.5 percent shooting from the field and 25.0 percent from 3-point range over three games.
According to NBA.com, Taurean Prince had a big hand in Siakam shooting as poorly as he did.
The Raptors have the depth to overcome Siakam not being at his best against the Nets - they went 3-1 against Brooklyn in the regular season despite him posting those numbers after all - but it would be interesting to see if Prince is able to continue to have success defending him should they meet in the playoffs.
The differences between the Raptors and Nets
According to NBA.com's Play Type data, here's how the Raptors and Nets differ stylistically:
A few things that should jump out...
- How much the Nets score in pick-and-rolls. Only six teams in the league are generating more of their offence from the ball handler in pick-and-rolls this season. Irving leads the team with 12.8 points per game on those plays, but both Dinwiddie (9.3) and LeVert (6.6) are also among the league leaders.
- How little the Nets score in the post. They rank dead last in the league with 0.4 percent of their offence coming in the post. Their centres, Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan, score the bulk of their points on cuts, rolls and putbacks.
- How much the Nets score on spot-ups and off screens. Prince and Joe Harris are the main reasons why. Prince scores almost half of his points on spot-ups and Harris has proven to be one of the best shooters in the league over the last couple of seasons. Harris is the type of player teams have to account for every second he's on the court because he's in constant motion and needs very little space to get his shot off.
- How little the Nets score in transition. Compared to the Raptors at least. Whereas the Raptors get out in transition more than any other team in the league, the Nets are around league average.
Something else that has to be taken into account is the Nets parted way with head coach Kenny Atkinson before the season was suspended to the shock of just about everyone. There's a chance the Nets rally around interim head coach Jacque Vaughn, but it adds another layer of unknown to this team.
Ultimately, I have a hard time seeing the Nets challenging the Raptors in a seven game series without Irving and Durant. To put it simply, the Raptors would have the two best players in Lowry and Siakam, the best coach in Nick Nurse and homecourt advantage.
I could see LeVert and/or Dinwiddie getting hot and stealing one game, but that's about it.
Prediction: Raptors in 5.
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