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NBA

Teams most likely to overreact to underachieving in a potentially unprecedented postseason

Which teams have the most on the line come playoff time?
Which teams have the most on the line come playoff time? (Getty Images)

While the NBA enters its third month of developing a plan for resuming the 2019-20 season, teams are left preparing for the playoffs and beyond.

In every previous season in NBA history, teams have valued the information they get from the playoffs far more than what they got from the regular season. Good, bad or indifferent, playoff narratives inevitably overshadow regular-season ones, regardless of their performance in the first 82 games.

Think of the 2006-07 Mavericks, a team that had the best regular season in franchise history and saw Dirk Nowitzki win his MVP, but is remembered first and foremost as the team that lost to the We Believe Warriors.

Now think of the 1994-95 Rockets, a team most remembered for winning a second straight title despite an underwhelming regular-season slog many deemed a disappointment prior to that unlikely back-to-back bidding.

This has held true throughout league history and yet, that may not be the case for many teams this season.

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All the information from games and practices from before March 11 was conventional, or at least directly comparable to the NBA of the past. No one knows precisely what will come next but we do know it certainly won't be "conventional". Comparing the coming months to past seasons isn't apples to oranges, it's apples to telescopes. There is quite literally no comparison.

Players, coaches, management, even fans will be learning on the fly and figuring out how to evaluate performance in such a unique environment. For the majority of the mid-level playoff seeds - those not considered title favorites but with internal expectations of advancing at least one round - this is especially uncharted territory. Teams in that category have a wide range of possible outcomes in the most normal of situations, the extra variables of this season will make that variance even greater.

The unique circumstances mean teams should simply expand their range of acceptable outcomes, not dismiss results entirely. Even so, there are bound to be teams disappointed with how their season ends.

How these mid-level teams would likely respond to extreme disappointment - something resembling an unceremonious first-round exit - is a fascinating thought experiment. Which teams would be more likely to value the intel gathered over the course of a somewhat stable regular season? Which would take an early exit even in these times as a signal to shake things up?

Not a care in the world

Dallas and Oklahoma City are blessed with bright futures that far outstretch these next few months. Fledgling stars Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis are both entering their first playoff runs as underdogs, so the Mavs can view success as a sign of a promising future while easily and justifiably shrugging off failures as youthful hiccups impacted by unique circumstances.

The Thunder have a similarly promising future with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a bounty of future assets they will be reaping for years. It's fair to say OKC has already overachieved this season and, while the Chris Paul-led older contingent is more preoccupied with immediate results, the Thunder franchise as a whole would have no inclination to resort to self-inflicted turmoil as a result of a quick playoff exit.

Stay the course

The next group is made up of fringe contenders with far grander aspirations. Toronto, Boston and Miami all have realistic hopes of reaching the Eastern Conference Finals and beyond, so a first-round exit would certainly create immense disappointment for all three franchises. That said, all three are led with such organizational consistency that none would be impulsive enough to allow these circumstances to cloud their already in-depth evaluations.

For the Raptors in particular, six months of being a top-four team in the league has dismissed any inklings this may have been a victory lap season. A failure on this stage would certainly be a setback for the defending champs, but this is a franchise with enough earned equity to proceed with caution in these unique circumstances.

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Boston and Miami are both built to win now with stars in their 30s on max contracts but have such promising young cores that their futures are bright regardless of the outcomes of this season. For the Celtics in particular, the emergence of Jayson Tatum as Boston's clear No. 1 option - regardless of Kemba Walker's contract - pumps the brakes on any imminent "win now" momentum.

Neither franchise has shied away from making big moves in the past and could certainly go down that path again, but a playoff disappointment wouldn't create the pressure that would obligate either to do so.

Time to look in the mirror

Denver, Utah and Indiana are the biggest unknowns on this list. They likely wish to emulate the consistency of the previous group but face all the limitations that come with playing in smaller markets and need playoff success to affirm they are on the path to contention.

The Nuggets have proven they've found a formula conducive to regular-season success, but another early playoff exit following last year's disappointing loss to Portland would be the start of a troubling pattern. Sure, they came a few possessions away from reaching a Conference Finals last year, but they also came one out-of-body experience by Jamal Murray from falling down 3-0 to an underwhelming Spurs team in the first round.

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Similarly in Indiana, the Pacers' 2018-19 momentum was derailed by Victor Oladipo's season-ending injury, but they are facing the possibility of a fifth-straight first-round exit and yet another sign they are stuck a step behind the East's elite. Is it Oladipo's team? Is it Domantas Sabonis's team? Will they ever have to choose between Sabonis and Myles Turner? An early exit could force Indiana's hand in stalling on any bigger moves.

Utah's continuity has been altered more than most these past months and the pressure that comes with stagnation is growing. Two-straight playoff losses to the Rockets have been understandable, but the list of contenders in the West is expanding and the Jazz need to take a step forward to confirm their name belongs on that shortlist. The injury to Bojan Bogdanovic and the reportedly frosty relationship between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert means the Jazz will enter the fray already somewhat out of tune.

DefCon 4

That leaves the two most volatile teams. The ones with high-profile superstars and genuine championship aspirations for this season: the Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets.

Philadelphia clearly has the longer view of the two, but this season was going to be the measuring stick by which they measured how Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid would perform together without Jimmy Butler.

Even with Simmons' health questions, a first-round exit - paired with an underwhelming regular season - would constitute a massive step back from last year's Game 7 loss in Toronto. Many have been dubious of Simmons and Embiid's fit together over the years but an unceremonious early loss would cast so much doubt over this team that changes would likely come, even in these circumstances.

Houston, on the other hand, has nothing resembling a long-term view. Led by two former MVPs in their 30s and without full control over four of their next five first-round picks, the Rockets title window is right now.

You can debate how realistic it is for this roster to compete for a championship but you can't debate that the franchise expects it to. Given their playoff history, regression to a first-round exit would elicit a swift and immediate reaction. Houston is the one franchise where no amount of benefit of the doubt that things may have been different in a normal season would shield them from inevitable change.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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