If the NBA season does return, there's a chance the playoffs will look quite different.
According to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, the NBA has talked about reseeding the playoffs 1-16 as opposed to 1-8 in each conference. Under this scenario, Eastern Conference and Western Conference teams would be matched up with each other throughout the playoffs, not just in the Finals.
For the Toronto Raptors, that would mean a first round matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies based on the current standings. Should the Raptors advance, they would then face either the Indiana Pacers or Denver Nuggets in the second round, followed by one of the Los Angeles Lakers, Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz or Houston Rockets in what is normally the Conference Finals.
The other side of the bracket would be made up of the Milwaukee Bucks, Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, LA Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.
Better or Worse?- Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) May 25, 2020
The 2020 NBA Playoffs With Straight Seeding pic.twitter.com/39ljLPA1Ax
Would reseeding the playoffs 1-16 be better or worse for the Raptors? Let's take a closer look.
The great unknown
If the playoffs were to begin today, the Raptors would face the Nets under the normal playoff format. I've already written about how the Raptors would match up with the Nets in a potential first-round series, but the gist of it is this: Brooklyn doesn't pose as much of a threat to the Raptors without Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
The problem? We still don't know for certain if Durant and Irving will play if the season returns.
While there have been reports that neither of them will return, the hiatus has given them both extended time to recover from their respective injuries. Nets general manager Sean Marks said recently that Durant was looking like Kevin Durant again before the pandemic hit and it appears as though Irving is back in the gym after undergoing surgery on his shoulder. The combination has led to some speculation that they could play.
Again, there's a chance that's all it is - speculation - but the possibility of them returning makes the Nets a much scarier first-round opponent than their record or seed might indicate.
MORE: Would Durant's return make the Nets a contender?
The Grizzlies, on the other hand, are less of an unknown. At stoppage of play, they had a 32-33 record, giving them a 3.5 game lead over the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings for the final seed in the Western Conference. They have an offensive rating of 108.9 and a defensive rating of 109.9 on the season, giving them a net rating of -1.0 which ranks 15th in the league.
It might not look like it based on those numbers, but the Grizzlies have proven to be a frisky team. It starts with Ja Morant, the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft who is having one of the best rookie point guard seasons of recent memory. Surrounding him are Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke and Jonas Valanciunas, each of whom have a skill set that complements Morant well - Brooks and Jackson as shooters, Clarke as a roll man, Valanciunas as a roll man and post-up scorer. The Grizzlies play at one of the fastest paces in the league and have shown on numerous occasions this season that they aren't afraid of anyone.
14 dimes from Ja Morant last night in the @memgrizz win over the Lakers!- NBA Fantasy (@NBAFantasy) March 1, 2020
27 PTS | 6 REB | 4 3PM | 55.2 FPTS pic.twitter.com/4kFPvwpDa5
Adding to the intrigue of this as a first-round matchup is the Raptors and Grizzlies engaged in one of the biggest moves at last season's trade deadline, swapping Marc Gasol for Valanciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles and a 2024 second-round pick. Valanciunas is the only player from that trade still on the Grizzlies, but it would be fun to watch him and Gasol go head-to-head for a series. It would be the first time the two have played against each other since the trade.
MORE: Ranking the best duos in five years
I wouldn't go as far as saying the Grizzlies are a better first-round opponent for the Raptors because they're much better than the Nets are without Durant and Irving. However, with the amount of uncertainty surrounding Durant and Irving right now, there's a case to be made that the Raptors would be better off matched up with the Grizzlies than the Nets. The Raptors would still have experience on their side against the Grizzlies, as well as better coaching and a core that matches up well with theirs.
Plus, a Raptors-Grizzlies series would open up the possibility for both teams to wear their throwback jerseys for at least one game. Everyone should be rooting for that.
The path beyond
Let's say the Raptors face the Grizzlies in the first round and beat them. As already mentioned, waiting for them in the second round would be either the Nuggets or Pacers.
The Pacers are a talented team, but the Raptors have had their way with them this season, winning three of the four games they've played against one another, the last of which was decided by 46 points. Aside from Victor Oladipo becoming the player he was prior to his injury - something that could happen in the future but probably not this season - it's hard to see the Pacers being much of a threat to the Raptors.
Besides, it's far more likely the Nuggets make it out of the first round than the Pacers in this scenario. They've been the better team all season long and they would have the best player in the series in Nikola Jokic, who made our shortlist of MVP candidates prior to the season being suspended with averages of 20.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game.
The Raptors and Nuggets have played each other once this season. The result? Jokic led the Nuggets to victory with a 23-point, 18-rebound, 11-assist triple-double.
Nikola Jokic had a triple-double (23 PTS, 18 REB & 11 AST) as the Nuggets defeated the Raptors 🃏 pic.twitter.com/Y9I5zrVIRW- NBA UK (@NBAUK) March 2, 2020
Impressive of a performance as it was, it came with a rather large caveat: Toronto had neither Marc Gasol nor Serge Ibaka, as both were sidelined with injury. It forced the Raptors to go small, with OG Anunoby and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson drawing the primary assignment of guarding Jokic.
The outcome of that one game might not have been much different had either one of them played, but Gasol would give the Raptors a fighting chance at slowing Jokic down over the course of a series, similar to how he contained Nikola Vucevic and Joel Embiid in last season's playoffs. Jokic, Vucevic and Embiid are different players, but there are some similarities between the three of them, the most notable being that they're among the league's leading post-up scorers this season.
Defensive stats leave a lot to be desired compared to offensive stats, but Gasol ranking in the 90th percentile in allowing only 0.65 points per post-up possession this season backs up the eye test that he's one of the best post-up defenders in the league. If he could slow Jokic down in the post, it would go a long way in tipping the scale in Toronto's favour in a series.
With how they match up with the Nuggets - provided, of course, that Gasol is fully recovered from the injuries that have limited him to 36 games this season - the Nuggets make for a better second-round opponent than either the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers, the two teams the Raptors would face in the second round under the normal playoff format. The Celtics are a far better defensive team than the Nuggets, and I'm not sure anybody wants anything to do with Jayson Tatum if he can continue to play at the level he was prior to the season being suspended. The Raptors have gotten the better of the 76ers over the last year or so, but there's a reason our Micah Adams gave them the best non-Lakers, Clippers and Bucks odds to win the title this season. With their size and physicality, they can out out-ugly any team.
The next round is where it would get really difficult for the Raptors, as they'd likely face LeBron James and the Lakers. We don't need to rehash LeBron's history against the Raptors and I'm not going to try and convince you that this time would be different, but you never know what can happen three rounds into the playoffs. The Raptors would've likely faced the buzzsaw that is the Bucks had they made the Eastern Conference Finals anyway, so this is more about them having an easier path to the third round than it is winning it all.
So is it better or worse for the Raptors?
Based on what we currently know, I lean towards it being better for the Raptors. There's still too much unknown with the Nets and the Raptors match up better with the Nuggets than they do with either the Celtics or 76ers.
Also, reseeding the playoffs 1-16 would lead to some fascinating storylines for the Raptors, mind alone the rest of the league.
To name a few:
- Gasol strikes again. He's battled injuries all season long, but matchups with Valanciunas and Jokic would give him another chance at proving his value ahead of free agency.
- Canadian takeover. The Raptors would face two Canadians in the first round in Brooks and Clarke, as well as one in the second round should they face the Nuggets in Jamal Murray.
- A shot at redemption. Would the Raptors beat James and the Lakers? I don't think so. Would they have plenty of reason to give the Lakers their best shot? You bet. If nothing else, the Raptors have enough bodies to throw at James to make life difficult for him. In theory, at least - although it feels like we've had this conversation about James and the Raptors before to no avail.
- Familiar faces. Valanciunas, plus Danny Green should the Raptors play the Lakers and Kawhi Leonard should they play the Clippers in what would be the Finals.
Now we just have to wait and see if the NBA will actually reseed the playoffs. There's a chance they won't go through with it considering team owners need to vote on it, but there's no doubt that it would add even more intrigue to a potential return.
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