Sunday Special: Three storylines to follow when the NBA resumes

With the NBA’s resumption just 11 days away (LET’S GO!!!), I want to feature some of the storylines NBA fans have been patiently waiting to see unfold on the hardwood. This bone is too meaty for a single post, so I’ll be back with more next Sunday.

In this first batch, we have the Houston Rockets, Miami Heat, and the battle for the Western Conference’s 8-seed, and as always, a few bits of entertainment (some excellent stuff) that got me through my week.

Houston’s Super-Small-Ball Experiment

Daryl Morey does not care what you think. He cares about what the numbers say, and advanced analytics don’t require Clint Capela to be on the floor in crunch time. That’s why the Rockets’ trade-deadline move for Robert Covington was the ultimate all-in from the Billy Beane of the NBA.

The first game of the Rockets’ “super-small-ball” experiment resulted in a 121-111 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Staples Center. They then went on to lose four of their last five, including two horrendous losses to the Knicks and Hornets. 14 games and an 8-6 record isn’t conclusive evidence of what to expect from Houston in the playoffs, but it’s enough to indicate the experiment hasn’t been a total train wreck.

When play resumes, James Harden and Russell Westbrook will get their shots up each night, but the play of Eric Gordon is a crucial x-factor for the team to be successful. After November knee surgey, Gordon’s return to play has been less than stellar, shooting 37% from the field and 31.9% from three.

Should the trey bombs fall for the trio of Gordon, Tucker, and Covington, Houston will have a great chance at upsetting one of the Los Angeles heavyweights. They are my dark horse pick to win the Western Conference.

However, if the Rockets fail with P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington defending centers, the future for all parties in Houston will be unclear. Anyone within the organization could end up a casualty from a first or second round exit. Morey’s infamous Hong Kong tweet and inability to get over the hump might cause owner Tilman Fertitta to push him out the door. Mike D’Antoni may want to leave to secure more influence on how his team operates. And if Morey and D’Antoni do survive, there is no guarantee James Harden and Russell Westbrook will remain Rockets heading into the 2020-2021 season. This organization will trade anybody.

Are the Miami Heat true contenders?

The Heat have been one of the season’s biggest surprises. Not even Nostradamus could have predicted a 41-24 record with Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn in their starting lineup. But just how good will they be in playoffs?

Bam Adebayo rapidly emerged into one of the league’s best modern bigs this year, earning his first All-Star bid and averaging 16.2 PPG, 10.5 RPG, and 5.1 APG in his third season as a pro. Miami leads the NBA in three-point shooting percentage thanks to the likes of Duncan Robinson, Meyers Leonard, Kelly Olynyk, and Tyler Herro. Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala bring a level of toughness and experience the team lacked prior to the trade-deadline. And most importantly, Jimmy Butler has the mindset any great team needs to make noise in the postseason.

Last season with Philadelphia, Butler nearly led the Sixers to a series victory over the potential NBA champion Toronto Raptors. His late-game shotmaking ability will be sorely missed by Philly in this season’s playoffs and will be on full display with Miami. There are few players I’d rather have on my postseason roster.

Miami’s record against the East’s elite is shockingly great. They are 2-0 against Milwaukee, Toronto, and Indiana and 3-1 against Philadelphia. However, they lost both games they played against Boston.

I’m picking Toronto to make it out of the Eastern Conference, but Miami can make waves with the depth and experience on their roster.

The Battle for the West’s 8-seed

The NBA moved heaven and Earth to get Zion Williamson back on television. Now it’s time to see if his New Orleans Pelicans can climb their way into the postseason.

Despite being gifted the easiest schedule of the remaining 22 teams, New Orleans is by no means a shoe-in to earn a play-in matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies, who should stay locked in as the 8-seed barring a collapse in their final eight games.

The Portland Trailblazers will be without swingman Trevor Ariza, but they get a massive boost with their two best big men, Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic, back in their starting lineup. Collins played just three games before dislocating his shoulder in the third game of the season, while Nurkic hasn’t played a game since suffering a compound fracture in a March 2019 game against the Brooklyn Nets.

In the 2018-2019 season, Portland outscored their opponents by 10.8 points per 100 possessions with Lillard and Nurkic in the lineup together. His absence has been the main reason why Portland has struggled their way to a 29-37 record this year.

With two games scheduled against New Orleans and the final game of their eight against a potentially load-managing Los Angeles Lakers, the Sacramento Kings have a roadmap to the 8-seed versus 9-seed play-in scenario. De’Aaron Fox would be ticked if I didn’t include that.

It is also possible that Ja Morant’s Memphis Grizzlies prevent a play-in from even happening. As a reminder, the 9-seed only earns a play-in matchup if they finish within four or fewer games behind the 8-seed.

The race for the 8-seed (and the TV revenue earned from these final eight games) is the only reason why 22 teams are in Orlando to begin with. This finish will be fascinating.

One of the best podcasts I’ve heard in a while: Patrick Beverley on Doubt, Setting Goals, and Developing His Game on The JJ Redick Podcast with Tommy Alter

I knew Patrick Beverley took an unconventional route from the University of Arkansas to the NBA, but hearing him explain his journey on this podcast blew me away. I have a newfound appreciation and understanding for the energy he brings to the court. This was easily one of the best podcasts I’ve ever heard.

A short article I needed this week: Reduce Your Stress in Two Minutes a Day by Greg McKeown (Harvard Business Review)

I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. I’ve dabbled into the world of meditation, journaling, and reading to find an edge when it comes to productivity. A common theme of my life is: How much can I squeeze into one day? This Harvard Business Review article is both short and practical, and I like the emphasis it places on starting small. Worth a read if you’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately.

The GOAT jazz album: Kind of Blue by Miles Davis

I don’t give a damn if it’s cliché. The replay value of Kind of Blue is as good as it gets. I’ve struggled to “get into the zone” of concentration and focus this past week, and for me, this album has a direct association with losing yourself into your work, which most of us don’t do nearly enough of anymore.

If you enjoyed this edition of the Sunday Special, consider subscribing to the ATM: At The Minute Podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Any and all feedback is appreciated. Have a great week.

Published by Peter Mitchell

Oklahoma-raised, KC-based. I like covering NBA, NFL, and Fantasy Football, among other things.

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