COVID-19 shutdown widens NBA title pool beyond the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks

Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma tries to block the shot of Memphis Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant on Feb. 21 at Staples Center.
(Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)

For Episode 2 of the Legends of Sport: Restarting the Clock podcast host Andy Bernstein spoke with longtime Lakers trainer Gary Vitti and Bleacher Report NBA writer and podcast host Howard Beck about the challenges players will face in recalibrating their own body clocks. Excerpted here—and lightly edited for clarity and space— are parts of Bernstein’s conversation with Beck, who at the time of the shutdown saw the title chase as a three-horse race, but has recently taken a more expansive view of the Finals possibilities.

You can listen to the entire podcast with Vitti and Beck here.


Andy Bernstein: Let’s be total optimists here and hope that everything is going well so far. So, let’s turn it around, okay? Let’s talk about what good is going to come out of this crazy restart of the NBA. I don’t want to call it an asterisk season, but this a unique season. What, in your view, is going to be what lingers and stays with us forever?

Howard Beck: If the basketball looks like NBA playoff quality basketball and a champion is crowned sometime in early to mid-October and minimal guys get hurt or get taken out by the virus, I think everybody will walk away feeling pretty great about it. And that scenario is on the table. It is in the realm of possibility. That is an idealized scenario.

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And somewhere along the way, by the way, over the course of those months, the NBA will use all the attention and its platform and all that time on national TV to elevate and amplify the Black Lives Matter discussion, to help educate and inform, to give its players that much bigger of a platform to talk about the issues they’ve been discussing in various other forms and places for the last several weeks, but will have a much, much bigger platform when the entire country and a lot of the world is watching the playoffs.

There’s a phenomenal opportunity here for the league to defy the odds on some level with the virus, to reestablish a sense of at least pseudo normalcy. I don’t want to say normalcy because there is no normal until this virus is eradicated or until we’ve got a vaccine, so let’s not be naïve or Pollyannaish about it. There are a lot of people who are very, very sick and struggling with this across the country, including in Florida, including in the very county that the NBA is operating in. So, we should all be sensitive to that. And perhaps there’s an opportunity for the NBA to help in that regard too. Whether it’s funding testing, whether it’s helping establish alternative clinics if things are overrun in the area. The NBA has some vast resources.

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Which brings me to the last piece of this, which is the NBA is losing money regardless this season, this calendar year. This restart is about, among other things, very much trying to defray those losses or reduce those losses. There’s 900 million to a billion dollars at stake here. So, if everything goes off as planned, they’ve also allowed themselves to be that much more sustainable. Because if you decided not to do this, you’re foregoing a lot of money. And that’s going to have ramifications going into next season, which also has some question marks hovering over it. But there is a best-case scenario here where the league can do all of those things. Meet a lot of goals both on and off the court and help their bottom line too a little bit.

Andy Bernstein: Do you expect to see a surprise in the playoffs? Like some team come out of nowhere that maybe wouldn’t have done that in a normal scenario?

Howard Beck: If we’re going to buy into all of the things we usually say in March and April and May where we talk about teams peaking at the right time and teams getting their chemistry settled and their rotation settled and being in a rhythm and having momentum, if those things matter at all, and I believe they do, well, all that stuff is off the table. There is no momentum. There is no rhythm. There’s no anything. They’re starting from scratch with a rushed training camp and then eight seeding games, many of which will be played against teams that have no shot at the playoffs. They’re going to be like glorified exhibition games. And they’re going to go from glorified exhibition games to playoff games within days.

Lakers' LeBron James attempts to block a shot by Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo on March 6 at Staples Center.
(Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)

Now, all that said, this is a league where talent rules. If you have elite talent, and we even talk about this in terms of playoff series, most of the time, nine times out of ten, you can predict the team that had the best player on the floor is the one that wins. So, maybe the Bucks supporting cast people might question, but they’ve got Giannis. He’s going to be the best player on the court in almost every series, certainly in the East for sure. And so, you favor them.

So, I think that still applies. However, a scout said this to me last week, the Bucks are really a rhythm team. They really rise and fall on Giannis. Chris Middleton is an All-Star, but he’s not a guy who you can run an offense through, who you can build an offense around. It’s all Giannis. He doesn’t have a Paul George the way Kawhi Leonard does. Giannis has this perfectly calibrated supporting cast. So, the rhythm they establish of Giannis attacking, drawing in the defense and finding open guys or attacking the hoop, that is a timing and rhythm thing. What one scout suggested to me is that maybe this is a team that’s hurt more by the layoff.

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo handles the ball during a game against the Clippers on Nov. 6 at Staples Center.
(Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)

Whereas the Lakers, they could be all over the map. The role guys, the shooters, everybody could be completely out of whack. But hell, just give the ball to LeBron, give the ball to A.D. Let those two play a two-man game, and they’re going to get a lot done just on that alone, right?

Andy Bernstein: Yeah.

Howard Beck: Lou Williams of the Clippers is just a walking bucket, right? Plus, they have Paul George and Kawhi. Certain teams I think can get away with being out of rhythm more so than others. But I had Kenny Smith from TNT on my [The Full 48] podcast recently too, and when I asked him for his list of contenders, he went nine deep.

Andy Bernstein: Yeah, I heard that.

Howard Beck: We were talking three teams when the season suspended. It was Lakers, Clippers, Bucks. That’s it. End of story. End of sentence. End of debate. And maybe a few dark horses that people might toy with. Kenny flat-out listed nine teams. All the way down to the Dallas Mavericks.

Memphis rookie Ja Morant puts up a shot in front of Clippers' Reggie Jackson.
(Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images)

Andy Bernstein: Kenny also talked about guys like Ja Morant and Zion. You know, these rookies who really aren’t going to be rookies now. It’s almost like they went through the summer and we’re starting the season over again. Gary Vitti talked about that. We’re almost like in November even though it’s July. If you look at a regular NBA year. So, how much different are these guys going to be? They’re not going to be like the wild-eyed rookies really anymore. They had 65 games under their belt, give or take.


Howard Beck: Those are the two rookies we’ll be focused on the most. There are some others, Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn with Miami. There will be other guys who we’ll be keeping an eye on for that same set of circumstances, same reasoning. But with Zion and Ja, whichever of them makes the playoffs, it’s one or the other, and they’re going to be the eighth seed and they’re facing LeBron and Anthony Davis in the first round, and they’re probably out before too long.

But it was a really interesting case that Kenny Smith made, which is that even though these guys haven’t been playing for months — this is not the normal offseason. The normal thing is you have your rookie season. You have the summer to work on your game. You get in the gym with your trainer. You work with the assistant coaches from your team. You get in the weight room. You study film. You do all these things in the offseason then you come back and you’re that much better as a sophomore than you were as a rookie.

And my response to Kenny was well, hold on a second. These guys didn’t have any of that. They’ve all been shut in their houses. A lot of guys had no access to gyms at all. He said, “No, no, no.” They went through the majority of a season, learned a bunch of lessons along the way, have all this game tape now of themselves playing at this level against the league, all this film they can study now.

These months off, if these guys have been diligent the way that you expect them to have been, they’re learning even though they weren’t in the gym. Especially for the guys who do have access to a ball and a basket somewhere. You could still be working on individual things in your game, right? You can still be working on your form, you shot, your ball handling. There are drills you can do even in isolation.

And so, yes, Kenny’s case was — it was a really interesting one — is that they’ll come back as if they are second-year players now. Now, I think that’s probably more the case for Ja than Zion because Zion, of course, only played 23 games.

Andy Bernstein: Right.

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Howard Beck: Mostly a lost season. But, yeah, I’ll be fascinated to see if there is a level up for these guys when we see them again in Orlando. And of course, we’re also seeing the photos of Zion that popped on Instagram or social media recently where it looks like he slimmed down some too. So, that’s a big deal.