It’s now been 75 days since Rudy Gobert’s diagnosis of Covid-19, which marked the start of the whirlwind shutdown of the the NBA and then the world. That’s long enough to matter; the Cuban Missile Crisis lasted 13 days, Nick Drake’s recording of the classic Pink Moon required two nights, and William Faulkner needed only six weeks to scribble his masterpiece As I Lay Dying. By comparison, however, the 2019 NBA offseason was 131 days long. We’re not there yet, but this break has been all the longer for its uncertainty and surrealism. At least we’ve had #nbatogetherlive and The Last Dance to keep us company. But it seems that the NBA may soon be returning. Our own Lukas Weese investigated the rumours that Orlando will serve as the location for the NBA’s return. The news yesterday from Brian Windhorst was that the NBA is “strongly considering” re-seeding the playoffs 1-16, although the idea’s implementation still requires the passing of an owner vote. So we’re a ways away from this being reality. But this year would serve as an especially effective trial, as the teams already have to play in the same location, minimizing the onerous travel burdens that have made re-seeding less likely in the past. As for the Toronto Raptors, re-seeding the playoffs would be a particular joy.
If the NBA carried into the playoffs its standings before the suspension of the season, the Raptors would be the third seed in the playoffs. Their first round opponent would be the Memphis Grizzlies, which would be a brilliant matchup no matter which way you slice it: narratively, aesthetically, or statistically.
First and foremost, the Memphis Grizzlies were once upon a time, of course, the Vancouver Grizzlies. Five times the Raptors and Grizzlies played in the Naismith Cup, an annual pre-season game between the two teams, named for the Canadian inventor of the sport. The Raptors won the series, before it became an international contest, four games to one. Memphis has carried its honorary status as Canada’s second team into the present, as it employs Canadians Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke, two of the country’s best young players. Memphis is also the home of former Raptors Jonas Valanciunas, who served as a lightning rod in his seven seasons as the starting center of the Raptors. A revenge match between Valanciunas and Marc Gasol, traded for one another after spending long careers with their original franchises, would be a tidy subplot.
There are yet more reasons why Memphis would be a thrilling series for Raptors’ fans. Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. are two of the league’s most exciting players. Both are creatively athletic, fearless, and able to combine skill-sets from across the position spectrum. Jackson is a passer, shooter, and ball-handler beyond the skills of most centers. Morant is unbelievably strong and one of the flashiest dunkers and finishers in the league.
The Grizzlies play fun, up-tempo, and fearless ball, and watching them is a joy. However, the Grizzlies would be unlikely to topple the defending champions.
When the season was suspended, Memphis had the 20th-ranked offense and 15th-ranked defense in the league. They sported a sub-.500 record, at 32-33. They were a team on the rise. They had the best defense and highest net rating in the league over the short month of March, which of course was only five games, but coincided with increased playing time for youngster De’Anthony Melton, a Brooks hot streak, and the dominance of Valanciunas. Over a longer time period, since the start of 2020, Memphis was 19-12 against a soft-ish schedule. The Raptors, of course, were 23-7 since the start of 2020. The Grizzlies are a fun team, but they are not a great team. Their strengths overlapped with Toronto’s; Memphis was a good defensive team, and they were solid at controlling the pace of games. Toronto was one of the best teams in the league at those elements, and the Grizzlies are outclassed in terms of skill and experience. It would be logical to expect the final tally of the Naismith Cup — four wins for the Raptors and one for the Grizzlies — to repeat itself.
But the re-seeding benefits for the Raptors would not end in the first round. The Raptors would likely face the Denver Nuggets in the second round, and Marc Gasol’s status as one of the best defenders of the center position would give the Raptors an advantage against Denver, whose best player is center Nikola Jokic. It also would be nice for the Raptors to face another star Canadian, Jamal Murray. Projecting further, the Raptors could see LeBron James yet again in the third round, offering Toronto a chance to exorcise any demons that remain after a championship.
The re-seeding benefits to the NBA are manifold. The dream Finals matchup, the battle of Los Angeles, the Lakers versus the Clippers — James versus Kawhi Leonard — would be possible with re-seeding. However, teams like the Raptors or the Milwaukee Bucks could pierce the NBA’s dream and upset either of those teams in the mixed Conference Finals. The first round would contain big-draw matchups between the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, as well as the Houston Rockets versus the Utah Jazz.
Ultimately, re-seeding would make Toronto’s path to the Finals easier than if the Raptors faced its traditional Eastern Conference foes. Re-seeding would offer a host of new and exciting possibilities that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. And with Toronto rested and presumably healthy, it could maximize the team’s chances at defending its title.
More than anything, having basketball back, even in purely a theoretical sense, is a joy. For 75 days, the most common basketball conversation has been whether LeBron James or Michael Jordan is a better player. That tired and dreary conversation will fade as we inch closer to the return of the NBA. We are only in the earliest stages of NBA basketball returning. There is much yet to discuss and finalize, and the earliest we could see playoffs return seems to be July. Covid-19 remains an awful barrier. But as the conversations surrounding the return gain speed, so too do our hopes and imaginations. It will be good to have the NBA back. And for the Toronto Raptors, there are even more reasons why a return to normality could mean a return to Toronto’s new normal of winning.