NBA bubble restart: Clippers, Nuggets, Ja Morant among those with most to lose

The NBA playoffs will provide teams, players and coaches with a smorgasbord of opportunities in Orlando that they wouldn't have otherwise if the league didn't move forward with the conclusion of the 2019-20 season during the coronavirus pandemic.

But with great opportunity, there also comes great risk.

Here's a look at who has the most to lose once Season 2.0 tips off.

Los Angeles Clippers

Billionaire owner Steve Ballmer has spared no expense in trying to turn the other L.A. team into a championship franchise, with a major front office overhaul, big-name coach in Doc Rivers and the monster signings of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

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One could argue that the Clippers getting to the Western Conference finals or NBA Finals would be a breakthrough. But this season has subtly been about outshining the LeBron James-led Lakers to become the title team of Hollywood. The team has the ammunition to do it and will likely be a No. 2 seed once the playoffs begin next month. Not reaching the Finals means Ballmer's initiatives would be dashed and Leonard's former team, the reigning champion Toronto Raptors, could arguably be seen as the team that helped lift him to a title instead of the other way around.

Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers are the likely No. 2 seed in the West. (Photo: Daniel Dunn, USA TODAY Sports)

Gregg Popovich

The San Antonio Spurs have an outside chance of making the playoffs, currently in 12th place in the West. It would be the first time in 22 years that the championship-winning coach didn't make the playoffs. But the real question is whether the 71-year-old Popovich will stick around after the season or if he'll finally leave San Antonio. He will coach Team USA at the 2021 Olympics, and it's unlikely Pop sticks around for a rebuild. And coaching without a playoff team could be the final reason he opts to hang it up.

Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks lost in the Eastern Conference finals last year as the top seed, falling short in six games to the eventual champion Raptors. Playing in a re-jiggered season finale with unique circumstances, the pressure to break through in the weaker East is undoubtedly high. Franchise player and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is a free agent in 2021, and another playoff setback could push him to find a more championship-capable roster elsewhere just as other stars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant have done.

Denver Nuggets

At 43-22 before the break, the Nuggets were on pace to challenge the Lakers and Clippers for a spot in the NBA Finals as the third-best team in the West. That scenario is still in play, but Denver is impacted by COVID-19 as much as any team in Orlando. All-Star center Nikola Jokic tested positive for the virus last month in Serbia, and the team closed its practice facilities after three members of its traveling party tested positive. Coach Michael Malone said he recently tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies and said he believes he had the virus in March.

"I’m not going to get into the details of who’s here and who’s not. We have some players here, and unfortunately, because of the coronavirus pandemic, we have some players that aren’t here," Malone said on a conference call when the team arrived in Orlando.

While Jokic is now in Orlando and a fuller squad is expected by the time games start, the Nuggets' early roster outlook could foreshadow a team whose trajectory won't be what it could've been had the pandemic not delayed the season.

Ja Morant

The Memphis rookie has been sensational this season, averaging 17.6 points and 6.9 assists while spearheading the Grizzlies' run into the Western Conference playoff picture. But human highlight reel Zion Williamson, who missed the first 44 games of the season, could benefit from a four-month layoff and explode out of the gate. A performance like that could potentially leapfrog New Orleans over Morant's Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot. Even if Morant secures the Rookie of the Year hardware, the playoff stage has more importance for both young stars.

Follow Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.

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