This article is part of our NBA Roundtable series.
Welcome to the latest edition of the RotoWire NBA Roundtable. With the league officially set to return in Orlando in late-July, our experts weigh in on what to expect, which teams they'll be watching, and who has the best chance to take home what will be a particularly memorable title.
1. How satisfied are you with the NBA's plan to return to play, bringing 22 teams to Orlando and playing eight regular season games before the playoffs?
Alex Barutha: I'm pretty satisfied. Getting rid of the non-competitive teams was a good idea, and eight regular-season games feels like a good number. Part of me wishes the league experimented more, but I also think normalcy is important in this situation, especially when discussing the "legitimacy" of the title.
James Anderson: It's fine. I think they missed out on an opportunity to experiment with cool ideas like 1-16 seeding, group play, a true play-in tourney where seeds 7-11 play to get in in each conference or something like that. Still, I understand why they did what they did.
Shannon McKeown: Given the circumstances, it's a solid solution. Obviously, my preference would have been for the remainder of the full, original schedule to be played out, but that wasn't feasible. Plus, I expect the unique finish to the season will create something special. I wouldn't be surprised if this creates one of the most memorable NBA playoffs in my lifetime, whether it's in a positive or negative light.
Nick Whalen: Twenty-two teams is more than I thought the league would bring, but the general attitude regarding the pandemic does seem to have shifted over the last month, so I'm not overly surprised. Considering how real the possibility of not finishing the season seemed back in April, I'm just glad that we'll have a conclusion to what should be one of the more competitive playoffs in recent history. I'm also glad the league opted against a 1-through-16 seeding system – the West is the deeper conference, but the ninth-place team is still eight games under .500.
Ken Crites: I'm extremely satisfied. Kudos to the NBA and the Players Association for reaching a quick agreement.
2. During the eight-game finish to the regular season, what will you be keeping the closest eye on?
Barutha: I'm still most excited about the race for the eighth seed in the West. Even though Memphis is there right now, they're the team I'd least like to see the Lakers play in the first round of the playoffs compared to New Orleans or Portland. I think Zion vs. LeBron, plus AD against his former team makes for great motivation for both sides and would be the most entertaining to watch.
Anderson: Playoff seeding. I'm particularly interested in how seeds 3-6 play out in the East and I'd love it if things broke so the Mavs and Rockets could play in the 4-5 matchup out West.
McKeown: Seeding will be interesting due to the cluster of teams between 39-41 wins in both conferences, but seeding doesn't matter as much due to the lack of a home court advantage. The race for the 8th seed, while intriguing, may end up being a nothing burger, as Memphis (3.5 games) and Orlando (5.5 games) hold significant leads. Players getting back in shape and teams rediscovering their rhythm, momentum, etc. is most important and what I'll be keeping a close eye on.
Whalen: The race for the eighth seed, particularly out West, will draw the most attention, but I'll be watching how the 2-through-7 seeds shuffle over the eight-game regular season. The Lakers will likely seal up the No. 1 spot in short order, but seeds 2 and 3 are separated by just 1.5 game, while the 7-seed Mavericks are just 4.0 games out of third place.
Crites: Team Chemistry. Who quickly gels and who starts slow. Teams will need to be much more self-motivated to succeed. If guys are not fully invested, I can see players coasting sooner than later.
3. What are your expectations for the presentation of these games in a neutral setting with no fans?
Barutha: I hope the league at least experiments with the idea of not pumping in crowd noise during the regular season. The opportunity probably won't arise again to see and hear NBA players play competitively in that sort of empty gym environment. Ideally, rap instrumentals from the mid-2000s would play in the background the whole time.
Anderson: I hope the league does NOT pump in any sound. I'd love to just hear the squeaking of shoes on the floor and every word that the players/coaches say on the court due to the emptiness of the arena.
McKeown: Watching on TV, I don't expect the lack of fans to be that noticeable. I'm not eagle-eyeing the crowd hunting for Tyrone Wheatley jerseys (editor's note: this was uncalled for) when watching televised NBA games, so no skin off my back. I expect the presence of announcers and some manufactured crowd/arena noise will make things seem somewhat normal. But my preference would be for all the players to be mic'd up and for the use of natural sounds only, which would be even better if things were left uncensored.
Whalen: My expectations are fairly low, but I hope the league is willing to use the first few weeks of play as a testing ground. As a television viewer, I'm lest concerned about the visual effects, but I'd like to see the NBA do whatever it can to make the broadcast sound as much like a normal regular season game as possible. Without that, the most meaningful games of the season could end up sounding like a Wednesday afternoon at summer league.
Crites: I hope we can hear a lot more of the trash talk, coaching and communication between teammates. I'm optimistic this will be a unique opportunity to learn another side of the Association.
4. If the play-in "tournament" is triggered in the Western Conference, which two teams would you most want to see battle for the eighth seed?
Barutha: Portland and New Orleans. The combined star power between those two teams is the highest.
Anderson: Memphis vs. New Orleans. I think getting Ja vs. Zion would be more intriguing than any other matchup. The Blazers at full strength are probably the best team of the available options, but they're not very compelling — we know what they are.
McKeown: I would prefer to see Portland and New Orleans battle for the 8th seed, as I believe those are the two best teams sitting 8th or lower in the Western Conference. That seems unlikely given Memphis 3.5-game cushion over both teams, though.
Whalen: Any combination of Memphis, New Orleans, and Portland would probably be the most entertaining. But the team no one is talking about is Sacramento, which is also just 3.5 games back of Memphis. The Kings haven't played a consistent two weeks of basketball all season, but they'll have a chance to prove their late-season surge wasn't a total fluke.
Crites: I'd love to see Memphis and New Orleans battle for the last spot. Both squads are loaded with exciting young talent that needs playoff experience.
5. Outside of the three favorites – Bucks, Clippers, Lakers – which team(s) in either conference could you see making a deep playoff run?
Barutha: From the East, the 76ers. Their top-end talent one through five still might be the best in the league. From the West, I could see Houston making things interesting, and I always have a soft spot for the Nuggets.
Anderson: Toronto and Boston are talented enough to go on a deep run. I wouldn't pick either to beat the Bucks, but they *could* beat them in a series. I'd love it if the Mavericks went on a run, but realistically, I think the Bucks, Lakers and Clippers are the only teams that can win the Finals.
McKeown: Given the layoff, we could see an extremely unpredictable playoffs. I don't expect Memphis, Orlando or Brooklyn to make a run, but I wouldn't be surprised by any other team from either conference.
Whalen: In the East, I still have to ride with the Sixers. They've been wildly inconsistent and one of the league's worst road teams, but in terms of pure talent, they can mount the best challenge to Milwaukee. Out West, I think Houston benefits from the unpredictability of this entire scenario. Due to the shutdown, most of the league hasn't had a chance to see the Rockets up close since they shifted to full-time small ball.
Crites: For me it's Boston. The Celtics have great team chemistry now that they've replaced Kyrie with Kemba, and I've already stressed how I think chemistry will be vital. And unlike Philly, Boston can shoot from the outside.
6. What is your Finals prediction, and has it changed since the NBA shut down in mid-March?
Barutha: Bucks vs. Clippers, with Clippers winning the title. I was more Lakers-heavy toward before the shutdown, but the extra time off truly benefits Kawhi Leonard and Paul George due to their respectively injury situations.
Anderson: My pick has not changed since the shutdown: Bucks over Clippers.
McKeown: Bucks over Lakers in six, which is the same pick I would have made on March 11.
Whalen: I was starting to lean toward the Lakers after the All-Star break, but I'll stick with my original prediction: Clippers over Bucks.
Crites: I think it's Clippers versus Bucks, but Boston has a great chance to upset Milwaukee. From a gambling perspective, betting on Boston at +700 is more fun than the Bucks at -165. In the West, wagering against Kawhi Leonard sounds foolish – plus, Doc Rivers is an excellent playoffs coach.