Teams With the Most at Stake Heading to Orlando

SHANGHAI, CHINA - OCTOBER 10: Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots during a preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets as part of 2019 NBA Global Games China at Mercedes-Benz Arena on October 10, 2019 in Shanghai, China.
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Although 22 teams will be returning to Orlando to play on July 30th, some will undoubtedly face more pressure than others. While some organizations are glad to simply be invited to the dance – say, the Wizards and Suns – others realize the goal hasn’t changed. Not making the Finals or falling short in early rounds could have seismic repercussions for some franchises. As we await the return of basketball, here are the teams with the most at stake heading into Orlando.

Stats courtesy of www.basketball-reference.com/

Milwaukee Bucks

CHICAGO, USA - OCTOBER 6: Khris Middleton (22) of Milwaukee Bucks in action during the preseason NBA game between Chicago Bulls and Milwaukee Bucks, in Chicago, United States, on October 6, 2017.
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Since winning 15 games in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s rookie year, the Bucks have catapulted themselves into an Eastern Conference powerhouse. However, after blowing a 2-0 series lead against the Toronto Raptors in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, his 2021 free agency has never been more salient. Another botched playoff run in Orlando could mean the beginning of the end of the Antetokounmpo era in Milwaukee.

Anything less than a Finals appearance is a disappointment for the Bucks. Moreover, Vegas gives them the second-best odds to win it all, at +275. The Bucks may never have a better shot than right now – considering Kevin Durant will be returning to the Nets next season.

Milwaukee leads the league in what feels like a myriad of categories. They have an astonishing 101.6 defensive rating and are beating opponents by an average of 11.3 points per game. That would rank as the fifth-largest average margin of victory in league history.

Failure to capture an Eastern Conference crown – at a minimum – would jeopardize their chances at the Antetokounmpo sweepstakes in 2021.

Los Angeles Lakers 

DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 12: LeBron James (23) of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates the final horn against the Denver Nuggets during overtime quarter of Los Angeles' 120-116 win on Wednesday, February 12, 2020.
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After what feels like a decade long playoff drought, the Lakers are back. This is in large part due to the sensational play of LeBron James. He is currently leading the league in assists and is a top-two MVP candidate. To make this feat even more impressive, James is also a 35 year old in his 17th season. This could be his last best chance to capture a title.

James has logged a staggering 48,328 minutes in his career, according to statista.com. That ranks him eighth all-time; leaps and bounds ahead of any current player. Despite James’ rigorous – and costly – training regimen, his decline is inevitable.

Over the course of the past few seasons James’ defense has already suffered a noticeable regression. He’s drawn criticism for taking plays off on defense – in turn, manufacturing his own version of load management.

To make matters worse, the salary cap will greatly diminish due to lost revenue. In an already subpar free agent class, the Lakers will have little to no money to spend. Having one of the oldest rosters in the league, LeBron and the Lakers can’t afford to wait.

With the league on the verge of a generational reset, teams such as the Mavericks, Nuggets, and Celtics are poised to be legitimate title contenders. Not to mention, franchises like the Clippers and Rockets still have their stars in the midst of their primes. Therefore, anything but a title will be a disappointment for the Lakers heading into Orlando.

Philadelphia 76ers 

NEW YORK, USA - JANUARY 20 : Ben Simmons (25), Al Harford (42) and Tobias Harris (12) of Philadelphia 76ers in action during NBA match between Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets held on January 20, 2020 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York.
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Coming into the season, the 76ers were projected to be battling the Bucks for Eastern Conference supremacy. Fast forward to today, and the Sixers occupy the sixth seed. They’re one disappointing playoff series away from the always exciting franchise blow-up.

For starters, head coach Brett Brown is on one of the hottest seats in the NBA – and he’s well aware of it. In a virtual press conference last month Brown acknowledged the state of his job and the expectations heading into this postseason. 

Another blunder in Orlando could mean the end of the Big 3 in Philadelphia. Al Horford has already expressed his dismay with his limited role in the offense and the team’s lack of continual success. Embiid and Simmons are still struggling to find an offensive foundation in which both their talents are maximized. Consequently, pundits across all platforms have been debating which superstar the 76ers should build around – and which they should ship out.

The 76ers organization will be entering the postseason in trepidation. They’re no longer in the “process” – as the outcome of this season will dictate their future.

Houston Rockets 

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 20: James Harden (13) of the Houston Rockets walks off the court with PJ Tucker (17) and Thabo Sefolosha (18) after the fourth quarter of Denver's 105-95 win on Wednesday, November 20, 2019.
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The Rockets have devoted themselves to small ball – trading away center Clint Capela and moving 6’5 P.J. Tucker to the position instead. They’ve had disappointing playoff runs the past couple of seasons. Failure to escape the second round this year could mean changes in both coaching and management. Moreover, the Rockets could be faced with finding a new identity for next season – something that could prove very difficult with minimal roster flexibility. 

An early exit in the playoffs can all but assure the firing of D’Antoni. GM Daryl Morey was one of the individuals at the forefront of their small-ball movement. He’s one of the best GM’s in the league and has the support of the owner, Tilman Fertitta. However, if the Rockets’ small lineup is exposed early in the playoffs, then Fertitta might begin to have his doubts about Morey. The revolutionary GM could see his daring experiment flounder in a seven-game series. Ultimately, costing him his job.

Most at stake for the Rockets would be their blueprint for the future. If adding a small-ball lineup to an iso oriented and three-point shooting team ceases to get the job done – then perhaps it’s time the Rockets reassess their playstyle.

Developing a new identity is a daunting task, and the Rockets could be poised for it if they don’t make a legitimate Western Conference push.

These teams realize that lackluster playoff performances entail more than merely “we’ll get it next year.” The future of their franchises is on the line, as well as the jobs of those who have been mainstays for years. As the NBA draws closer to its return, it will be very interesting to see which of these teams seize the moment, and which fold under the pressure.