Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders will be watching when the NBA resumes its season Thursday, but it doesn’t mean he has to be totally happy about it.
“I’m watching with a sour taste in my mouth,” Saunders said. “Because you want to be a part of it. But once again, we support what the league feels is safest and best for our association.”
The Wolves will all be watching from home as 22 of the 30 NBA teams will resume the season in Orlando. If the league is successful in keeping coronavirus out, it will crown a champion in October.
Several Wolves are back in the Twin Cities for individual workouts and for socially distanced group outings to places like some of the lakes in the area, Saunders said. The organization hopes there will be a separate opportunity for the eight teams not in Orlando to get together. The Charlotte Observer reported this week that the NBA is making progress on a plan for those teams to practice and potentially scrimmage in August.
“We want to compete in whatever competing looks like,” Saunders said. “Obviously, we support whatever the league lays out for us, but we have 10 guys in market right now doing individual work, which is great for us, and we’ve been able to do a number of things, too, as a group being safe, socially distant outside. … We value any time we could have to work together.”
While the Wolves await word on that, here are some things to watch as the NBA season resumes:
Will the Wolves get that additional first-round pick?
This is the most pertinent question to Wolves fans who might want to watch some hoops. At the trade deadline in February, which seems like forever ago, the Wolves acquired Brooklyn’s first-round pick via Atlanta, a pick that is lottery-protected. This means if Brooklyn qualifies for the playoffs, the Wolves will get the pick, giving them two first-rounders (including their own) in the upcoming draft.
“Everything takes care of itself the way it should,” Saunders said of rooting for the pick. “I think that when you start worrying and being so concerned about those things, that’s when things don’t go your way. I’m just watching to get better, to be more prepared for next season, too, and to help our guys become better.”
There are only nine Eastern Conference teams in the bubble. Eight teams make the playoffs and Brooklyn starts in the No. 7 seed, six games ahead of ninth-seeded Washington.
However, Brooklyn making the playoffs is not as simple as finishing ahead of the Wizards.
Under new rules the league set up to finish this season, if the No. 9 team were to finish four games or fewer behind the No. 8 seed, they would have a mini play-in tournament. The No. 9 seed would have to defeat the No. 8 seed twice to jump over it and qualify for the playoffs. The No. 8 seed would only have to win once.
But it’s possible for Washington to gain enough ground over the final eight regular-season games to force a play-in tournament against Brooklyn, which also holds a half-game lead over the No. 8 seed Magic.
Complicating matters for the Nets’ playoff chances is the attrition that has hit their roster. Kevin Durant is still out as he recovers from an Achilles’ tendon injury from last year’s finals. Kyrie Irving won’t participate because of a shoulder injury. The Nets are also down several important contributors because of the coronavirus, including Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince and Michael Beasley, while Wilson Chandler opted out of the restart.
On the other hand, the Wizards will be without their top scorer in Bradley Beal (30.5 points per game), who is out because of a shoulder injury, while Davis Bertans (15.4 points per game) opted out of the restart.
Who will the restart benefit most?
The NBA season is a grind, and it’s fair to wonder if the long layoff might benefit some teams more than others. Portland, for instance, is able to get Jusuf Nurkic back from a gruesome leg injury and could sneak into the playoffs. The Blazers would be a low seed no top seed would want to see.
For all the talk of Kawhi Leonard’s load management the past few years, the two-time NBA Finals MVP should be refreshed as the season resumes. That can be dangerous for the rest of the league and should help the Clippers’ pursuit of a title.
The same goes for LeBron James, who is 35. LeBron is one of the most well-conditioned athletes in the world, but here’s to guessing his 35-year-old body didn’t mind the rest to tune up for a playoff push with the Lakers.
How successful will Rockets’ small ball be?
The multi-team trade in which the Wolves sent Robert Covington to the Rockets ignited a fascinating NBA experiment in which Houston is playing without a traditional center. They are asking Covington to take over some of those duties.
It was successful for a bit (seven consecutive victories) and then not (four losses in a row). Houston ended its losing streak just before the season stopped with a win over the Wolves. But Houston will likely enter the playoffs as a wild card capable of upsets but also capable of a first-round exit.
Will there be massive change for Philadelphia?
After last season’s playoff exit and an up-and-down season this year, another early playoff exit could mean the time for change in Philadelphia. Would the organization look to move on from coach Brett Brown? Would Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid be able to coexist beyond this season if that happened?