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Denver Nuggets: Playoff Jokic
For much of his career, Nikola Jokic has been questioned over his conditioning and the general physical shape he’s in.
Last postseason, when he averaged 39.8 minutes, 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.9 blocks, should’ve put all that to rest.
In case it didn’t, Jokic surfaced in video from Serbia in June looking significantly slimmer than he did when the season shut down in March.
If he’s gained mobility without sacrificing much of the strength that helped make him the first-team All-NBA center in 2018-19, Jokic could be in for another all-time great playoff run.
Toronto Raptors: Championship Mettle
The Toronto Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green last summer, but the moxie developed through last year’s postseason clearly stayed with holdovers like Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka and others.
Even with the starting wings in Los Angeles and the roster decimated by injuries in 2019-20, Toronto has the same 46-18 record it had through 64 games last season.
Toughness and a commitment to the defensive end of the floor make these Raptors dangerous. And if you’re looking at teams equipped to at least slow Giannis Antetokounmpo down, few (if any) teams boast as many options as Toronto. Siakam, Ibaka, OG Anunoby and perhaps even Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will make the 2019 MVP work for every bucket.
Boston Celtics: Positionless Basketball
The Golden State Warriors and a still-to-be-analyzed Texas team get much of the credit for the positionless revolution sweeping the NBA, but the Boston Celtics are right there with them.
Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward are largely interchangeable on both ends of the floor, and 6’8″ Daniel Theis often is on defense.
When those four are joined by Kemba Walker, the Celtics are plus-14.3 points per 100 possessions.
The ability to switch all over the floor gives Boston a level of defensive versatility that few other teams in the bubble will enjoy. And bucket-getters who can create something out of nothing, like Tatum and Walker, become more important in high-leverage playoff possessions.
Houston Rockets: Point Center
The Houston Rockets may be challenging traditional positional designations more than any other team in the league.
After Houston traded Clint Capela, Robert Covington became the nominal center (at least according to Basketball Reference). But in many ways, Russell Westbrook was the functional 5.
Opposing centers were often matched up with him, and that created a level of chaos in which he thrived.
In the 382 minutes Westbrook played without a traditional center on the floor, he averaged 28.4 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists per 75 possessions. The most important number from those situations, though, is a 59.2 true shooting percentage that towers over his career mark of 53.0.
The sample on this is too small to draw any definitive conclusions, but if the Rockets have figured out how to optimize Westbrook’s efficiency over prolonged periods, Houston is a wild card in the West.
Ben Margot/Associated Press