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Opt-outs, bubble departures reshape NBA playoff picture

LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers lost some defensive strength due to player opt-outs and injuries but could be improved on offense as the NBA season resumes Thursday in Orlando, Fla. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/127b3c18cb2ae973bc292527ae956fb4/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers lost some defensive strength due to player opt-outs and injuries but could be improved on offense as the NBA season resumes Thursday in Orlando, Fla. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

July 27 (UPI) -- The Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers and the Milwaukee Bucks remain title favorites, but the NBA postseason landscape is fluid as key players opt out and continue to leave the league's Orlando, Fla., bubble.

LeBron James and All-Star teammate Anthony Davis will lead the Lakers in Orlando. The Lakers had a Western Conference-best 49-14 record when the NBA season was suspended in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Oddsmakers still have the Lakers as the overall favorite to win the NBA Finals.

Caesars has the Lakers as favorites at +180. The means bettors would win $180, in addition to their original wager, if they bet $100 for the Lakers to win the title.

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BetOnline.AG has the Lakers as favorites at +240. Caesars gives the Milwaukee Bucks the second-best odds, while BetOnline.AG gives the Clippers the second-best chance of a championship.

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This Lakers lineup is different than the one that stepped off the floor after a March 10 loss to the Brooklyn Nets. Most Lakers players remain on the roster after the nearly five-month hiatus, but the squad will be without guards Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo.

Bradley opted out of the NBA's restarted season in June. He cited the health of his son, who has a respiratory illness, among his reasons. Bradley started 44 games this season and was a key two-way player for the Lakers. The veteran guard was an integral part of the team's defense.

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Rondo will miss several weeks due to a thumb injury. Los Angeles recently added J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters to fill in for the absences of Rondo and Bradley, but downgraded in defensive versatility with the moves.

Shock departure

The biggest defensive blow during the initial games, however, could be the shock departure of Patrick Beverley for the Clippers.

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Beverley left the bubble Tuesday to deal with a personal emergency. He returned to the team Sunday, but the timeline for his return to the court is unclear. Any number of missed games for Beverley could have a major impact on the Clippers' chances for a title.

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Players only need to quarantine for four days when they return to the bubble, if they are tested regularly during their absence. They could be subject to up to two weeks of quarantine if they aren't tested regularly.

The Clippers' first game is Thursday against the Lakers. They play seven additional seeding games through Aug. 14. Beverley will likely not be available for practice as the team prepares for the opener.

The Clippers are in a tight race for the No. 2 seed in the conference, which means a slip in Orlando could result in a first-round playoff matchup against the No. 6 seed Houston Rockets instead of the No. 7 seed Dallas Mavericks.

Clippers big men Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac also have left the bubble, which will hurt the team defensively if they can't return soon. Veteran guard Lou Williams also had a recent departure and return from the bubble, which could result in an absence that would hurt the team from an offensive standpoint. Williams is expected to serve a 10-day quarantine, which would sideline him for at least the team's first two games.

Others in the mix

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MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo's Bucks have the best record in the NBA and are heavy favorites to advance out of the Eastern Conference and into the NBA Finals to play against one of the Los Angeles teams.

Several other lower-tier teams in the conference had key players opt out and now have longer betting odds to win the title.

In a normal year, the NBA playoffs consist of the top eight teams from each conference. This year, the seven teams with the best records in each conference, from a combination of regular-season and seeding games, will clinch a spot.

The eighth seed could come down to a play-in tournament. No play-in game will be necessary if the No. 8 team is more than four games ahead of the No. 9 team in the standings.

If that is not the case, the No. 9 team will play the No. 8 team in a best-of-two-games series. The winner will claim the final playoff spot in each conference.

Twenty-two NBA teams are in Orlando to fight for playoff spots and positions, but the Brooklyn Nets and New Orleans Pelicans are among the teams that have had their rosters decimated due to player opt-outs and departures.

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The Nets hold the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference, but will be without Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie, Taurean Prince and Michael Beasley, among others, for the restart.

Irving and Durant are out due to injuries they sustained before the NBA season was suspended. Jordan, Dinwiddie, Prince and Beasley were ruled out after they tested positive for COVID-19.

The Nets made several additions to their roster for Orlando, but are longshots to contend for a championship.

The Pelicans were without Zion Williamson when they entered the bubble. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft left the bubble July 16 to attend to an urgent family matter. He returned Friday, but was tested daily while absent. He will likely be available for the Pelicans' first game after he spends four days in quarantine.

The Nets' absences could allow the No. 8 Orlando Magic to climb in the standings and away from a first-round matchup against the Bucks.

The Western Conference playoff picture is a bit more murky at the bottom of the standings, with the Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, Pelicans and Sacramento Kings all in striking distance of the No. 8 seed.

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The Blazers could benefit most if Williamson were to be miss time or not be in top form due to his absence, as they sit in the No. 9 position just ahead of the Pelicans. Portland will be without forward Trevor Ariza, who opted out, but still have a deep lineup led by Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.

The Miami Heat are in fourth place in the Eastern Conference and are in line to face the Indiana Pacers in the first round.

Pacers star Victor Oladipo is in the bubble, but hasn't decided if he will play when the resumed season begins. His absence would give the Philadelphia 76ers a better chance of climbing in the NBA standings.

Indiana and Philadelphia sit in fifth and fourth place, respectively. If the Pacers were to hang onto their position, that could give the Heat a better chance to win their first-round matchup because they would face an Indiana team without Oladipo instead of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons' 76ers.

The Utah Jazz will face the Pelicans at 6:30 p.m. EDT Thursday in the first game of the NBA's resumed season. The Lakers will play the Clippers in the second game at 9 p.m. EDT Thursday in Orlando.

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