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How Will the Biggest Absences From Orlando Impact the NBA’s Stretch Run?

With several keys players opting out of the restart, we examine how their teams will fill the void and adjust for the rest of the season 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s hard to predict what will happen when the NBA season resumes in Orlando next month. The league is in uncharted territory as it sets up its bubble campus and returns after a four-month absence in the middle of a pandemic.

Many players don’t want to come back. Some are worried about the injury risk after so much time off, and several have undergone surgeries during the lockdown in order to get ready for next season. Others have health concerns about the spike in COVID-19 cases in Florida, while even more don’t want games to distract from social justice movements around the country.

The NBA initially set a Wednesday deadline for players to decide whether to play or sit for the Orlando restart, but teams are treating that as more of a soft target since they don’t have to finalize their rosters until July 1. There are currently five notable players—Bojan Bogdanovic, LaMarcus Aldridge, Trevor Ariza, Avery Bradley, and Davis Bertans— who will not be in Orlando, for a variety of reasons. Here’s a look at how their teams will have to adjust without them:

The Utah Jazz Without Bogdanovic

Losing Bogdanovic, who had wrist surgery in May, could be a devastating blow for the Jazz. He’s the most notable absence in Orlando after averaging 20.2 points and shooting 41.4 percent from 3 on 7.3 attempts per game this season. His ability to stretch the floor as a power forward allowed the Jazz to modernize their offense this season.

But removing Bogdanovic from the rotation could have some hidden benefits. The team’s biggest issue this season has been the perimeter logjam between Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Joe Ingles. Utah has struggled to find a rhythm since adding Conley and Bogdanovic this offseason. There haven’t been enough basketballs to go around, or spots in the lineup. Playing Mitchell-Conley-Ingles with Bogdanovic and Rudy Gobert means taking Royce O’Neale, the team’s best perimeter defender, off the floor.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder has said that he has “six starters” in an effort to keep everyone happy with their playing time. The one combination of those six that he really has not tried is Mitchell, Conley, Ingles, O’Neale, and Gobert. Now, after playing together only 14 minutes this season, they will likely be starting and closing games for the Jazz. That unit has the potential to be better than any with Bogdanovic because he’s the worst defender of the six.

The key will be how Ingles handles Bogdanovic’s role. They are both big wings with an elite 3-point shot and the ability to handle the ball. The difference is that Ingles is a superior defender and playmaker while Bogdanovic is a more aggressive scorer. Both Ingles (39.7 percent from 3 on 4.8 attempts per game) and O’Neale (38.9 percent on 3.3 attempts) will need to let it fly more often to keep the floor spaced around Mitchell, Conley, and Gobert.

Conley could also benefit from the change. Transitioning from the undisputed hub of the offense in Memphis to one of several ball-handlers in Utah has been difficult for him. His scoring average has dropped from 21.1 points last season to 13.8 this year. He will get more opportunities to initiate the offense, as well as the chance to take more shots at the end of games.

The bigger concern for the Jazz might be the domino effect in the back of their rotation. Jordan Clarkson has been an excellent sixth man since coming over in a midseason trade, but they no longer have any proven frontcourt options on their bench with Ingles and O’Neale in the starting lineup.

One player to watch is Georges Niang, a fourth-year forward who has played well in limited minutes (13.3 per game) this season. He was a 6-foot-7 point forward at Iowa State who had to transform his body and polish his 3-point shot to stick in the NBA. Think of him as a thicker and slower Ingles. Niang will never be an elite defender, but he’s a smart player who understands how to shuttle players into help in Utah’s defensive scheme.

The Jazz have the perimeter firepower to redistribute Bogdanovic’s offense while improving on defense. It won’t be easy, but it’s possible they could be just as good, if not better, without him.

The San Antonio Spurs Without Aldridge

The shame of losing LaMarcus Aldridge, who is out for the season after shoulder surgery in April, is that he had found his ideal role in San Antonio. He might have been the last big man in the NBA to realize the value of taking an extra step back and turning long 2s into 3s. His decision to embrace the shot in early December enabled the Spurs to claw back into the playoff race.

The numbers are dramatic:

LaMarcus Aldridge Shooting 3s

Aldridge Games 3PA Spurs' Net Rating
Aldridge Games 3PA Spurs' Net Rating
Pre-12/06 22 1.6 Minus-7.4
Post-12/06 41 3.7 Minus-0.6

The Spurs have been carried by their bench in two seasons with Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, but their starters were getting beaten so badly in the first six weeks of the season that it didn’t matter. Neither Aldridge nor DeRozan is much of a defender, so lineups with both had to win with offense—which was difficult with two ball-dominant players who didn’t shoot 3s and occupied the same areas of the court. Aldridge going from a post scorer to a stretch big man created more driving lanes for DeRozan and Dejounte Murray.

San Antonio will need to discover a new identity without Aldridge. The good news is the team should be getting back Jakob Poeltl, a fourth-year center who had been sidelined with a mild MCL sprain when the NBA shut down.

The Spurs will look much different with Poeltl. The 24-year-old is more mobile and active defensively than the 34-year-old Aldridge. He also averages more blocks per 36 minutes of playing time (3.1) as Aldridge (1.8). But improving their defense will come at the cost of the offense. Poeltl has only taken two 3s in his NBA career. He’s more of a traditional big man who needs four shooters around him to be effective.

So how should the new-look Spurs build around him? The sample size is small, but there is one giant flashing sign in his lineup numbers:

Jakob Poeltl Lineups

Frontcourt Partner Minutes Net Rating
Frontcourt Partner Minutes Net Rating
Rudy Gay 554 Plus-3.2
Trey Lyles 151 Plus-16.3
LaMarcus Aldridge 105 Minus-9.1

There could be real synergy between Poeltl and Trey Lyles, a fellow 24-year-old former lottery pick who had bounced around the NBA before the Spurs signed him off the scrap heap last summer. Lyles, at 6-foot-9 and 234 pounds, has a smooth stroke (38.7 percent from 3 on 2.7 attempts per game) and can put the ball on the floor and make plays. He’s a more natural frontcourt partner for Poeltl than another big man like Aldridge or a slasher like Gay. Playing with an excellent rim protector like Poeltl could be just as helpful to Lyles since defense is the weakest part of his game.

Like in Utah, the bigger concern could be the downstream effects on San Antonio’s rotation. Starting Poeltl leaves a hole at backup center. The Spurs signed Tyler Zeller on Wednesday, but the 30-year-old hasn’t been a consistent part of an NBA rotation in three seasons. Their other options are Chimezie Metu, a second-round pick in 2018, or two-way player Drew Eubanks.

The Spurs have needed a youth movement for some time. Aldridge’s injury, for better or worse, has forced it upon them.

The Portland Trail Blazers Without Ariza

Ariza is choosing to spend time with his son amid a custody case rather than head to Orlando. He doesn’t have the production of Bogdanovic nor the star power of Aldridge, but he might be more valuable than both to their teams. It’s hard to believe a 34-year-old on his fifth team in three seasons is that vital to a potential playoff squad. But that’s how dire the situation is in Portland.

Ariza became the Blazers’ only 3-and-D wing when they acquired him at the deadline. That skill set is incredibly valuable on a team that starts Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in the backcourt and Carmelo Anthony at power forward. Terry Stotts had been playing Ariza 33.4 minutes per game even though he no longer moves as well as he did in his prime and can’t do anything on offense beyond shoot spot-up 3s. The Blazers have a higher net rating (plus-2.5 in 702 minutes) with Ariza than any of their rotation players, including Damian Lillard, and a net rating of minus-5.5 in 306 minutes without him.

So while there is a lot of excitement in Portland due to the returns of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins from injury, it won’t matter if they can’t find some way to replace Ariza. The most obvious fix—moving Carmelo back to small forward—is dead on arrival since it would turn him into their primary wing defender. Their only other perimeter player taller than 6-foot-6 is Mario Hezonja—another guy not exactly known for his defense.

The Blazers will likely have to lean on youth. Nassir Little, a first-round pick out of North Carolina, started earlier this season before falling out of favor with head coach Terry Stotts. He’s an elite athlete with a questionable jumper and still learning the nuances of the game. Gary Trent Jr., a second-round pick in 2018, has had a breakout season as a bench scorer, but would be giving up a lot of size (6-foot-5 and 209 pounds) at the 3. The outside-the-box solution might be to close games with promising second-year guard Anfernee Simons in three-point-guard lineups and try to shoot teams off the floor.

It’s a shame because a fully healthy Portland team would have been a legitimate dark horse in the bottom of the West. For as much grief as Blazers fans gave Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu over the years, they sure would like to have them back now.

The Los Angeles Lakers Without Bradley

The Lakers seem to be leaning into the jokes. With Avery Bradley skipping Orlando to protect his son with respiratory issues, L.A. is reportedly signing J.R. Smith, and that’s after it added Dion Waiters before the lockdown.

Bradley started 44 games this season as a 3-and-D guard who spots up off LeBron on offense and hounds opposing guards on defense. He’s a veteran leader who understands his role and has the trust of LeBron and Lakers coach Frank Vogel. But there are better options waiting behind him in Los Angeles.

The Lakers can get bigger in the backcourt by pairing Danny Green with another sizable 3-and-D wing in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. But Green and KCP would have been huge parts of the playoff rotation even with Bradley. The biggest beneficiary of his absence could be third-year combo guard Alex Caruso.

Caruso is more than a fan favorite. He’s a bigger and more versatile defender than Bradley who can play on and off the ball and provides more playmaking juice. Caruso is averaging almost twice as many assists per 36 minutes of playing time (3.6) as Bradley (1.9) on nearly the same number of turnovers (1.6 to 1.4). He always seems to be in the right place at the right time on both ends of the floor. Caruso is playing like Matthew Dellavedova if he were quicker and could create shots. He’s the perfect complementary role player, with the best net rating next to LeBron (plus-20.8 in 485 minutes) of anyone in the Lakers rotation—and far ahead of Bradley (plus-8.9 in 904 minutes).

Caruso has a more well-rounded game than the big-name guards (Waiters, Smith, and Rajon Rondo) now on the bench. His versatility will allow Vogel to mix and match those players without having to rely too much on any of them.

The Washington Wizards Without Bertans

There was never a good reason for the Wizards—who are 5.5 games out of the no. 8 seed in the East with just eight games to go—to be in Orlando. There’s no reason at all now that Davis Bertans has shut himself down for the season.

It’s hard to blame Bertans considering that he’s a 27-year-old with a long history of knee injuries set to enter free agency for the first time in his NBA career. He has been a breakout star in his first season with the Wizards, averaging 15.4 points while shooting 42.4 percent from 3 on 8.7 attempts per game. He’s essentially a 6-foot-10 version of JJ Redick who has to be picked up almost as soon as he crosses half court. Some of these 3s are absolutely obscene:

Bertans’s and Bradley Beal’s shooting was the only thing keeping Washington afloat this season. The Wizards were never able to guard anyone, but they could at least go point for point with those two bombing away from 3. Their net rating plummets from minus-0.3 in 1,583 minutes with Bertans to minus-7.6 in 1,504 minutes without him.

Washington will need its youngsters to make up the difference. The best candidate is second-year big man Moe Wagner, who took almost half as many 3s per 36 minutes of playing time (3.4) as he did in his rookie season with the Lakers (6.2). That decline never made sense considering that outside shooting is his best skill. It’s slim pickings on the perimeter after him. First-round pick Rui Hachimura and 2018 first-round pick Troy Brown Jr. are more comfortable in the midrange. Second-round pick Admiral Schofield and two-way player Garrison Mathews might get pressed into action.

The result of a Bertans-less offense is that Beal could spend a lot of time playing 1-on-5. That is, if the Wizards are even in the hunt long enough for him to play a lot.