Creator: Joe Murphy, Joe Murphy | Credit: NBAE via Getty Images Copyright: 2020 NBAE Information extracted from IPTC Photo Metadata.

Everybody loves an underdog. The scrappy competitor that never gives up and shows that they can fight with the best of them. They are the definition of the unexpected. A wild card (much like this current year has proven to be).

With the NBA restart right around the corner, there are a lot of question marks in the air. Questions about chemistry, player availability, health guidelines, manufactured crowd noise, player consistency and even what everyone is being forced to eat are all coming into play. The biggest question is who will win the NBA title when it is all said and done.

Everyone talks about the favorites, but who knows what could happen now. The underdog might have the best chance in NBA history to shock us all.

5. The Orlando Magic

There is nothing like being the only team in the league to play at “home” for the entirely of the NBA bubble. Technicalities aside, the Magic have quietly been having a solid season. Before the shutdown, they wrapped with three straight wins. One of those wins was a ten point victory against the Houston Rockets, who are currently one of the favorites to win it all.

Their lineup is not one built from superstars, but it does provide solid contributors all around such as D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier, Markelle Fultz, Terrence Ross, Nikola Vucevic, and Aaron Gordon who are all scoring in double figures.

The Wildcard: Orlando’s major question marks hang over two players: Markelle Fultz and Mo Bamba. The former Big 12 phenom, Mo Bamba has been off to a slow career start. His abysmal 5.5 points per game and 5 rebounds a game are nothing to gawk at. He isn’t even in the starting lineup. That said, Bamba has shocked the press with a noticeable muscle gain over the course of the shutdown. Orlando fans are waiting for his big moment and it might come at some point soon. At the very least, the young center could strengthen the bench.

Fultz is another piece of the puzzle. Many have already called the former 76er a bust. Injuries and shooting woes have echoed from his years in the past, but Magic fans have seen a different story. Fultz, who is now a starter, has averaged 12 PPG, 3.3 RPG, and 5.2 APG. Orlando has proven to be a fresh start. He has had several 20 point breakout games and averaging 6.6 assists in his final ten games. If he can avoid any further injuries, Fultz is making steady progress. His confidence is the key.

4. The Portland Trailblazers

Portland has had an incredibly rocky season. Expectations were high going into the fall of 2019. The Trailblazers went to the Western Conference finals in the previous playoffs for the first time in 19 years. Despite the loss of big man Jusuf Nurkic, the expectation was that Lillard and McCollum could hold the team together.

The Blazers had a rough start to the season which didn’t waver much as they moved into the late winter months. Up until the shutdown, there was little hope of a playoff berth for the Northwestern team.

Now things are looking a touch different. Players who where believed to be out for the season are now back into the mix. More games are going to be played. There is a chance. Portland has the 6th toughest schedule in the restart, facing 5 guaranteed playoff teams in their 6 scheduled games. The roster is key for Portland starring Lillard, McCollum, (a slightly leaner) Melo, Nurkic, Collins, and Whiteside. On paper the team looks strong. It’s the offensive chemistry of the group that is the biggest factor.

The Wildcard: This teams wildcard also comes in two parts starting with Carmelo Anthony. Melo jumped onto the team midway through the season and gave the Blazers a much needed boost. In the 50 games he played, he has averaged 15.3 points per game and around 6 rebounds per game.

Obviously Carmelo is no longer the primary option so the key for him is efficiency. For someone who is a “shooter” he shoots an average of 37% from the coveted three point line on 4 attempts a game. So far what has done with in Portland has been good enough, but they are going to need more threes from him especially with a noticeable presence inside which brings our second player into the mix.

Jusuf Nurkic is finally returning. After missing the entire season up until the pandemic due to a fractured left leg, he has become the spark of hope the Blazers have needed all season. Prior to the injury Nurkic was averaging a clean 15 PPG and 10 RPG. His comeback reintroduces a pick and roll option for the Lillard/McCollum duo and solid interior defense at the very least. Best case scenario: the West better watch out.

3. The Philadelphia 76ers

Heading into the final week or so of play in March, the Sixers were in rough shape. Both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were on the sidelines with minor injuries. Neither would be out for the season, but gaining traction in the final games before the playoffs wouldn’t have been possible without the stoppage. Now both stars are healthy and back to full speed once again.

The Sixers have been a spotty team this year. At times, they look like they could compete in the Finals. Other times, they are barely able to scrape up wins from some of the weaker teams in the NBA. This fact is shown perfectly in their record. At home they have an impeccable 29-2 record, but away they are at 10-24. So the question is: which Sixers team is going to show up in Orlando?

The Wildcard: Brett Brown has opted for a roster shake up to start the NBA bubble. Or more specifically he has opted for Shake Milton to start as point guard for the Sixers instead of Simmons. Philly is going to try to work with a more conventional lineup with Milton and Richardson in the backcourt and Harris, Simmons, and Embiid in the frontcourt. The spotlight is on new point guard Shake Milton now.

The former G-league player leapt into the scene averaging 17.8 points on 60.4% shooting from the 3 point line in the final nine games of the season. The major key here is Philly’s ability to use Milton to stretch the floor in a way that Simmons never could. Simmons as the roller could not only force defenses to guard him, but to also guard a Milton if he can stay hot from distance.

The Sixers do have more room to experiment since they have already made the playoffs unlike the other teams on this list. It will still be interesting to see if this change works well.

2. The New Orleans Pelicans

Hope for the playoffs weren’t even in the picture last year. Anthony Davis desperately wanted out of the Big Easy and hope that the team would pull off any kind of deal was dwindling. Those days are far behind New Orleans now. They struck big making a blockbuster deal with the Lakers and winning Zion Williamson sweepstakes in the last draft.

The core of the team is solid. Jrue Holiday has carved a role as an excellent player averaging nearly 20 a game. JJ Redick has also provided some consistency for the young team with 45% shooting from three.

The teams youth is the most exciting piece for the Pelicans though. Brandon Ingram has proven to be a borderline All-Star in a breakout season. Lonzo Ball hasn’t necessarily found his former UCLA confidence, but he has proven to be a lightning quick guard and a willing passer. Josh Hart is a fiery wing with the mental toughness to guard anyone and everyone. And the youth on the team is at its best with their crown jewel Zion Williamson.

It’s reasonable to say that the Pelicans are in the playoff hunt because of Zion Williamson. In 19 short games, the phenom has averaged 23.6 PPG and 6.8 RPG and entered Rookie of the Year talks. New Orleans’ offensive efficiency shoot up from 99.2 without Williamson to 122.4 with. This squad has very little playoff experience (if they do get there), but that might not matter with Zion.

The Wildcard: Injuries are something that could harm any team in the NBA. The Pelicans are much more fragile than many other organizations entering the bubble. Zion’s injury history is already spotty in his first NBA season. Many analysts and trainers have been concerned with his weight coupled with his freak athleticism and how it is especially wearing on his knees. Fans have their fingers crossed that nothing will end up happening to the 2019 number one pick.

Consistency sits right next to injury fears. The Pelicans need to find a way to remain much more even across the board, not just when Williamson is in the game. That’s the risk a team runs when they core is so young. All there is left to do is to wait and see.

1. The Dallas Mavericks

There is one thing fans and NBA executives alike have learned over the years: never underestimate Mark Cuban. It started with the 2018 draft. Dallas had just traded up to snag the latest European prospect Luka Doncic. There were dozens of doubters who questioned Dallas for trading (the closest thing in recent years to a young Stephen Curry) Trae Young. Could Doncic handle the pressure of the NBA? Was his time overseas just a fluke?

Fast forward two years and the Dallas point guard is running circles around the league. His numbers look like something out of a NBA 2K game: 28.7 PPG, 9.3 RPG, and 8.7 APG. While most players his age are fighting a sophomore slump, he’s going after an MVP trophy. The scariest part is that he isn’t alone.

Part two came to Dallas via a brilliant trade. They received the one and only, the Unicorn, Kristaps Porzingis. Essentially creating a duo made in basketball heaven. With Porzingis’ ACL injury a thing of the past, the Mavs are ready to move forward into the rest 2020. Prior to the knee injury, Porzingis was seen as the singular bright spot of the New York Knicks. His numbers after the trade have held up well regardless. He is a borderline 19 and 10 double-double. The time of Big Threes seems to be over. We are now in an NBA of dynamic duos and the Mavericks might have one of the best in the league.

The Wildcard: Can the Mavs come through in the clutch? As talented as they are, tight games have not been their forte. They went 3-13 in games separated by one point with a minute to go. The playoffs are quite literally built to put teams into close games.

The awful “clutch” record comes down to playmaking. When Luka is forced to be the only one facilitating, things get messy. A healthy Porzingis will help stop the bleeding offensively, but it really comes down to players like Tim Hardaway Jr. and JJ Barea to keep the scoring and passing coming from all sides.

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