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Best and worst cases for the Warriors, Knicks and the teams we haven’t seen since March

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Next season will reintroduce the eight teams that didn’t make the cut for the NBA’s restart this summer in Orlando, Florida.

For the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves and New York Knicks, the tipoff to the 2020-21 season will be their first time on an NBA court since March.

The Warriors plan to pick up their championship pursuit after injuries to Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry derailed last season. For the Bulls and Knicks, front-office and coaching shake-ups give hope for a brighter future.

What does success and failure look like for these eight teams after such a long layoff? Our experts detail what could go very right or very wrong for each.

MORE: The 25 best free agents available in 2020


Best case
A young, talented team usually breaks through at some point. There was a thought, briefly, that last season would be that time for the Hawks. The start was promising and there were signs of an upward move. But John Collins‘ suspension, some injuries and a lack of defensive development put them right back in the lottery.

Next season is another shot at making that progress. Trae Young‘s offensive ability and stardom have been established. The young pieces have improved. And Clint Capela could be the interior bulwark needed to stabilize an abominable defense.

The Hawks can score. They just let their opponents score a lot more. If they make some defense-minded moves this offseason — in addition to several such moves in the last year-plus — those decisions might start to show results. If they improve on defense — even just to middle of the pack — they could be an Eastern Conference playoff team.

Worst case
At their core, the Hawks have a simple but possibly unsolvable issue: Their best player is also their biggest liability in their biggest area of weakness. Young’s defense has been an issue, and while there have been moves made to try to cover for his limitations, playing a defensively deficient player for 40-plus minutes a game can take its toll.

Adding Capela was an effort to address some of that on the back end, but it’s not just Young. The Hawks have not developed an identity beyond running and gunning, and they aren’t offensively elite enough to simply outscore opponents every night.

The Hawks have set themselves up to operate on a process-oriented plan, and it’s about time to see those investments yield results. If the Hawks don’t progress into the playoff hunt next season, change could be coming.

— Royce Young


Best case
In the dream scenario, the Hornets find a future star. There was enough competence on Charlotte’s roster last season to hang around the fringes of the playoff race, but no big-time upside. Devonte’ Graham‘s leap forward in his second season was impressive, but he’s limited by his size and poor finishing. At 25, Terry Rozier probably isn’t going to improve dramatically. And Miles Bridges has yet to create his shot efficiently enough to project as more than a quality starter at best.

That leaves two good options for the Hornets: PJ Washington and this year’s No. 3 pick. Because Washington scored with average efficiency and was a weak rebounder, his rookie campaign didn’t rate as well by advanced stats as per-game ones, but at 22, it’s too early to define his ceiling. The No. 3 pick is Charlotte’s highest since 2012. More than any other team in this year’s draft, the Hornets should swing for the fences.

Worst case
The Hornets miss on another high pick. Their record in the lottery since returning to the NBA in 2004 is ugly:

Of the 14 lottery picks Charlotte has made over the past 16 years, only Walker has ever made an All-Star Game. Besides Walker, there are some quality role players in this group, but such a player won’t move the needle for the Hornets. As much as Charlotte needs to draft for upside, missing would be painful and leave the team no closer to returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

— Kevin Pelton


Best case
After whatever this past season was for the Chicago Bulls, seeing the team’s young core stay healthy enough to play together and compete for the eighth seed would be a step in the right direction.

Good health would allow the Bulls to see what they have in Otto Porter Jr. before his contract expires after the season. The same would be true of restricted free agent Kris Dunn, one of the NBA’s best perimeter stoppers, assuming Chicago brings him back despite his struggles to stay on the floor.

One other area to watch with this club: how it delivers in the clutch. The Bulls were one of the NBA’s worst teams in close games last season, as Zach LaVine often played with tunnel vision in putting the club on his shoulders late. By contrast, the Thunder, who were led by new Bulls coach Billy Donovan, finished with a league-high 30 clutch victories during the regular season.

Worst case
It would be a waste to gain no clarity on the question of whether Coby White is better as a lead guard, alongside the high-usage LaVine, or as the backup shooting guard. And it’d be a shame if the club doesn’t seek more chances for Wendell Carter Jr. He’s one of Chicago’s best passers, but he often barely looks at the rim. Donovan, who coached former Bulls star Joakim Noah at Florida, should be able to help Carter realize his potential.

An overlooked blemish on this team’s résumé is its brutal performance against solid competition. The Bulls were an NBA-worst 2-23 mark against teams .500 or better last season. To play that poorly against the league’s best in consecutive seasons — with a decent roster — would be a failure, especially as the team tries to showcase its progress to free agents in 2021.

— Chris Herring


Best case
After back-to-back 19-win seasons in the post-LeBron James era, contending for a playoff spot would be a huge success for the Cavs.

Cleveland must hit on its No. 5 pick in the upcoming draft to help a roster with plenty of holes. A full season under head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, hired full time in March after John Beilein agreed to part ways 54 games into his first season, would establish stability for young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, with added leadership from All-Star veterans Andre Drummond and Kevin Love.

Ideally, the Cavs fight all season to hover around .500 and contend for the No. 8 seed in the East.

Worst case
If Cleveland fails to improve defensively after giving up 42.8 points per game in the restricted area last season, the most by an NBA team in the last 23 seasons, per NBA.com/stats, things could go sour.

Sexton, entering Year 3 after emerging as one of the best scorers in the NBA after the All-Star break last season — 25.5 points per game on 53% shooting in 11 games — can’t take a step back as he becomes a focal point of opposing defenses.

If moves by GM Koby Altman and the front office, such as adding Drummond and Bickerstaff, don’t translate to wins in 2020-21, the franchise could suffer its third straight sub-20-win season.

— Eric Woodyard


Best case
The Pistons hope to get another borderline All-NBA season from Blake Griffin, which, despite his bloated contract for this season and next, could allow them to move on from him before the trade deadline to ensure Detroit finishes at the bottom of the NBA standings.

The Pistons could then use their cap space to acquire more draft assets to help new general manager Troy Weaver begin to turn around the franchise. Those plans would get another massive boost if the Pistons win the 2021 NBA draft lottery, giving them a chance to pick at the top of a deep class and give them a shot at landing the franchise’s first homegrown superstar since Grant Hill in the early 1990s.

Worst case
If the franchise watches its star spend the season on the shelf with more injuries and doesn’t get the chance to flip a resurgent Griffin for future building blocks, that could spell trouble. Meanwhile, it could mean the Pistons attempt to get better quickly in free agency by spending money on long-term deals that both clog up the team’s books for years to come and do nothing to improve Detroit’s standing at the bottom of the league.

If the team’s young talent — including second-year forward Sekou Doumbouya and the team’s latest lottery pick — both look more like busts than long-term fits, that will be a problem. And if the team’s lone other potential intriguing young piece, Luke Kennard, isn’t healthy enough to be turned into a draft asset by the trade deadline that will raise other issues.

Detroit could find itself in the spot it was in after the 2019-20 season: near the league’s basement but not bad enough to realistically have a shot at the No. 1 overall pick.

— Tim Bontemps


Best case
This is a proud group looking to compete for another NBA title. In a season that goes according to plan, the Warriors become the Warriors again: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green remain healthy and lead the team back to prominence as a young bench finds its way. Golden State hits on the No. 2 overall draft pick or flips it in a deal to land another star-caliber player.

If Curry finds his shooting stroke quickly after playing in just five games last season because of a hand injury, and Thompson again becomes one of the best two-way swingmen in the league after missing all of last season because of an ACL injury, the Warriors have a chance to get back into the NBA’s upper echelon.

That process accelerates if Andrew Wiggins fits into the offense by playing off the Warriors’ stars, Kevon Looney becomes a productive player again after a year full of injury problems, and Eric Paschall builds on a solid rookie season and develops into a trusted piece of Steve Kerr’s rotation.

Worst case
If Curry can’t dominate at age 32, or if Thompson struggles to regain his All-Star form more than a year and a half removed from his ACL injury, the Warriors won’t be the team we knew. The same goes for Green on the defensive end — they need him to be great again.

A strong supporting cast is necessary, too. Wiggins and the young players are unproven, and Looney’s health is a question. It remains to be seen if Curry, Thompson and Green can find the same chemistry with the newest Warriors that they had with the old group, which included glue guys and multifaceted contributors Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. And of course, the Warriors’ last title team featured Kevin Durant, who’s now in Brooklyn.

In the worst-case scenario, the Warriors have to face the realization that their run as title contenders could be ending sooner than they expected.

— Nick Friedell


Best case
The Timberwolves want to see Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, who played only one game together after the trade that united the longtime friends, click on the court and emerge as one of the NBA’s best 25-and-under tandems. With this duo combining for close to 50 points per game, the Timberwolves could crack the NBA’s top 10 in offensive efficiency.

Before that, the Timberwolves hope to find a third franchise cornerstone with the No. 1 overall pick or by trading the selection. And Minnesota especially needs the trio of Malik Beasley, Jarrett Culver and Josh Okogie to be strong defensively to help make up for the shortcomings of the team’s stars and provide further evidence that they are quality rotation players.

If the Timberwolves compete for a playoff spot in the loaded West, that’s a major step forward and a successful season in Minnesota.

Worst case
In the worst-case scenario, the Timberwolves continue to be bad defensively. That’s a distinct risk when building around a center and a point guard who lack defensive instincts and whose effort on that end of the floor can often be politely described as indifferent.

If the development of the other young potential core players on the roster stalls — or if they draft a dud with the No. 1 pick — the Wolves could again be one of the NBA’s worst teams. And next year, the pingpong balls might not bounce Minnesota’s way. If the Timberwolves slip to No. 4 — just outside of the top-three protection on the pick owed to Golden State as the tax for taking on Andrew Wiggins’ contract in the Russell deal — that could assure another year of misery in Minnesota.

— Tim MacMahon


Best case
Success next season won’t be measured in wins and losses. Instead, the Knicks hope to develop a winning culture under new coach Tom Thibodeau — and especially an improved defense — and identify the young players who show the most promise as centerpieces for their rebuild.

The best-case scenario is that RJ Barrett develops into the superstar scorer he was drafted to be. And the team wants to see Mitchell Robinson and Julius Randle mesh into an impact frontline.

The Knicks have six players 25 and under — including former lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox II — and three of the top 38 picks in next month’s NBA draft, including No. 8 overall. The Knicks need to find a starting point guard and wing among these players and picks.

Worst case
The absolute worst case is if none of the young guys are able to gain traction or show they are future NBA impact players. Rebuilding is difficult, but the first step is identifying and developing young centerpieces. If they squander their opportunities to find that young talent, the Knicks will continue to be stuck in the lottery purgatory in which they’ve resided since 2013.

If the Knicks continue to bring in overpriced free agents, and if Thibodeau takes a “win-now” approach, the rebuild could be halted before it really gets going. Thibodeau needs to be willing to play the youngsters, and to avoid shrinking the rotation for short-term gain. All in all, the franchise must embrace the opportunity to build for the long haul — taking the time to invest in their young players and assess them.

— André Snellings

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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