After a four-month hiatus, the NBA’s restart tips off Thursday. We paneled our NBA staff to answer the biggest questions entering the seeding games and postseason. Among them: Who are the most intriguing players and teams? Which bubble-specific story lines are you keeping an eye on? Who will make the Finals? And should this year’s winner receive an asterisk? Let’s dive in. Basketball awaits.
1. Who’s the most intriguing team of the NBA’s restart?
Jonathan Tjarks: Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo’s free agency in 2021 is the biggest wild card hanging over the league. He’s up for a supermax extension this offseason. How much of what happens in Orlando will affect his decision? The stakes are impossibly high for Milwaukee, and their margin for error is slimmer than it would have been with no home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Dan Devine: Clippers. I picked my five a couple of weeks ago, but in the interest of shaking things up, I’ll go with someone different. As good as they were all season long, the sheer number of parts they’ve moved in and out of the lineup—due to injuries, load management, trades, whatever—have made them feel like about 11 different teams as opposed to one defined unit. An example: The Clips’ post-trade-deadline starting five—Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Marcus Morris, Patrick Beverley, and Ivica Zubac—logged only 124 minutes over eight games before the shutdown. (It blew opponents’ doors off by 20 points per 100 possessions in that limited run.) Doc Rivers has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal, a roster two-deep at every position with players he can mix and match depending on opponent and circumstance; how he juggles his rotation, and how well all those pieces jell, could go a long way toward determining which team comes out of the West.
Zach Kram: Raptors. I’m assuming all of my coworkers are going to say the 76ers and their new lineup, but Nick Nurse’s team lost Kawhi Leonard and yet improved its winning percentage and net rating this season. That success also came with basically every key player injured at one point or another. The Raptors probably don’t have the same ceiling without Leonard, but with a now-healthy outfit of solid players throughout the rotation, Toronto has an underrated chance to defend its title.
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Nuggets. Denver’s roster is brimming with possible X factors, from Will Barton to Michael Porter Jr. to Jerami Grant to Bol Bol. Nikola Jokic looks healthier than ever after dropping 40 (!) pounds during quarantine, and Jamal Murray is shining in scrimmage play. And remember that Paul Millsap guy from a couple of years ago? He’s still a force.
Justin Verrier: Sixers. Our new predictive model gives Philly less than a 1 percent chance to make the NBA Finals; FiveThirtyEight’s model gives Philly a 33 percent chance, just behind the Bucks for fourth best in the NBA. Anything is possible when your fate hinges on your star’s willingness to attempt a 3-pointer.
Rob Mahoney: Raptors. The defending champion Raptors, that is, who are healthier than they’ve been all season and flexible enough to lock down any offense they would reasonably encounter. It seems deeply unpleasant to let the Raps root around your brain and your playbook over the course of a seven-game series, picking out your every weakness.
Matt Dollinger: Lakers. I’ll take the team with a gray-bearded LeBron James, who has as much riding on this postseason as anyone, and the ever-intriguing J.R. Smith, who is back in the league after two years on the sideline. Add in the most ego-heavy roster in the league and something interesting is bound to happen.
Paolo Uggetti: Sixers. They’re finally turning Ben Simmons into a big. Even with a point guard who was in the G League earlier this season, Philly has the on-paper potential to win this entire thing.
2. Who’s the most intriguing player of the NBA’s restart?
Kram: Bam Adebayo semi-arrived on the national stage as a first-time All-Star this season, but he still feels like a bit of a League Pass secret, appreciated best by viewing his impact on every Heat possession than shouting out lofty stats. He doesn’t score 30 points per game, but he does just about everything on the floor, combining craft and athleticism as a prototypical big man for a positionless future. If the Heat and 76ers play in the 4-5 series in the East—a likely outcome, given the 76ers’ easy schedule in the seeding games and the Pacers’ injury woes—Adebayo could match up with Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo in consecutive rounds. (Adebayo defended more shots from Embiid and Giannis this regular season than any other players.) He’s about to reach the full mainstream.
Tjarks: Zion Williamson. If you believe the conspiracy theorists around the league, Zion’s presence on the 10th-seeded Pelicans in the West is the reason there are 22 teams in the bubble in the first place. He was playing absurdly well before the shutdown and has had four months to get into better shape. The thing to watch is whether his improved fitness will make him better on defense, which was a strength of his game in college but was MIA in his first few months in the pros.
O’Shaughnessy: Zion. He was the most intriguing player when the world stopped, and we’d barely gotten a taste of what he is capable of. The Pelicans are playing for their playoff lives, 3.5 games back from the Grizzlies. Does Clutch Zion await?
Devine: I bet most of my colleagues are picking the Flubber-heeled juggernaut who turned the Pelicans into a must-watch nightmare, so I’ll go with James Harden, who feels a little too much like an afterthought in the big-picture conversation for someone who averaged 34.4 points, 7.4 assists, and 6.4 rebounds per game, and who will all but certainly become the seventh player ever to lead the league in scoring for three straight seasons. He also stands in the shadow of three consecutive disappointing postseason defeats.
So much about Houston remains uncertain as we resume meaningful play—whether Daryl Morey bit off more than he can chew by tripling down on small ball; whether Russell Westbrook’s nasty habit of commandeering possessions and jacking up 3s will return in the pressure of the postseason crucible; and whether Harden can escape the grasp of the ghosts of playoff failures past. If he can carry this purpose-built roster through to the conference finals and catch fire at the right time, he’ll burnish his reputation in ways no scoring title or all-league honor ever could. If he can’t … well, it’ll be another long summer in Houston.
Uggetti: My rational answer is Ben Simmons. Personally, I care less about whether he’s shooting 3s or not and more about whether his position shift will unlock what Philly should be—a massive team with the best two-man combo in the conference. Maybe this is what it finally takes to get it right.
O’Connor: Simmons. How will the Sixers utilize him? Can he force defenses to respect his spot-up 3-point jumper? Will Brett Brown get creative and use him to screen for Shake Milton? I have many questions and look forward to finding out the answers.
Dollinger: Zion. Outside of Giannis, there’s no greater spectacle in the league right now, and we still don’t really know what the Pelicans rookie is capable of.
Mahoney: Joel Embiid. If the Sixers go anywhere interesting this postseason, it will be because Embiid has the power to control any series. The intrigue of Ben Simmons shifting positions is tangled up in this, but Embiid is the element of Philly’s lineup that is altogether undeniable.
Verrier: Zion. His career already reads like a Paul Bunyan tale. Now add uncertainty about his playing status after leaving the bubble for a family emergency and New Orleans’s precarious playoff situation. The game comes alive when Williamson plays; the next two-plus weeks will be all about how much we get to see that happen in the bubble.
3. What’s one bubble-specific wrinkle you’re keeping an eye on?
Uggetti: Players doing interviews within minutes of either winning or losing a playoff game because they want to go back to the hotel as quickly as possible to shower and change. Hopefully we’ll get some great podium moments because of it.
Dollinger: The silence. With no fans in the stands, a loud guy on the end of the bench is a potential postseason X factor. Will we hear opponents yell during crucial free throws? Will a technical foul be assessed? Which side of the argument will Chris Paul be on?
O’Connor: The regularity of games: With teams generally playing every other day rather than having more time off between games, how will that affect playoff adjustments, playing time, and fatigue?
Verrier: The smol arena experience. Unlike MLB, which is trying desperately to maintain some semblance of normalcy, and going so far as to superimpose digital fans into the outfield seats during broadcasts, the NBA has reconfigured around its makeshift environs. Scrimmages felt intimate, not claustrophobic, and there are enough bells and whistles around the court to elevate the production value. It remains to be seen whether the court will have any effect on gameplay, and the video fan board is trying a little too hard, but as long as no one gets injured by a renegade camera, the changes look like they might enhance the product, not diminish it.
O’Shaughnessy: How Philly will cope with a permanent road trip. The Sixers are the league’s best home team, with a near-flawless 29-2 record at Wells Fargo Center, and one of the worst away teams at 10-24. Games in Disney World will technically be soft road games for everyone, without crowd noise or sway. Because Philadelphia swung so drastically on both ends, we don’t yet know what its middle ground looks like.
Mahoney: Three-point shooting in games at a neutral site, without the sway of crowds or travel, and what that could mean for great defenses that allow a lot of 3s.
Tjarks: The lack of home-court advantage. Home court is built into the rhythm of the playoffs—the road team has to split one of the first two games, a series never starts until a home team loses, the lower seed has to close out a series in six to avoid a Game 7 on the road. You can throw all of that out of the window now. The bubble will be a fascinating experiment to see how much of that stuff really matters.
Devine: How players continue to use the spotlight afforded by this unique set of circumstances to protest police brutality, systemic racism, and institutional injustice against Black people; whether and to what degree those protests make their way onto the actual court; and how commissioner Adam Silver will respond if players elect to stage a protest during the playing of the national anthem.
Kram: Does shooting plummet, at least early on, after the long layoff? As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton found when examining the lockout seasons of 1998-99 and 2011-12, “the effect of rust is most evident in shooting percentages,” and early returns in the scrimmage games suggest 3-point shooting in particular might require a gradual return to normalcy. Will the period of eight seeding games fulfill that role so the playoffs are fine—or will some lag extend into the games that really count?
4. Let’s talk asterisks: Does the eventual champion deserve one? Does this debate matter to you?
Tjarks: No. This argument doesn’t matter to me and it’s crazy that we’re even having it.
Devine: We’ll all probably mentally append one involuntarily, given just how galactically different and fucking insane the circumstances are. But no, this debate does not matter to me.
Kram: No and no. Next! (At the very least, let’s get to the point where we have a champion before we declare in advance whether it needs an asterisk. This whole debate is putting the cart well before the horse.)
O’Shaughnessy: “Deserve” is the wrong word. We can’t blot out the context of what came before the 2020 Finals. But the debate doesn’t matter to me because I don’t see the asterisk as lessening the accomplishment. I liken it to the NBA award winners during lockout seasons. Vince Carter played only 50 games when he won Rookie of the Year in 1999, but he was no less deserving of the award than Tim Duncan was the season before; everyone in 1998-99 played a shortened season, as they will in 2019-20. The best teams are still in Disney World, playing on neutral ground. If they had a chance at winning it all before, they still do now.
Dollinger: Baseball ruined asterisks forever. The eventual champion does deserve specific recognition, but maybe a different type of punctuation. Pound sign?
Verrier: If the Lakers don’t win, we’ll hear about this for the rest of our lives.
O’Connor: No. It shouldn’t even be a conversation when every single season you can pinpoint a reason for the champion to deserve an asterisk, whether it’s a shortened season, an injury, a suspension, or a bubble.
Uggetti: I’m sure that if you went back through basketball history, you could conceivably come up with a reason for an asterisk for nearly every title winner. This is uncharted territory, but in 10 years we’re going to think of this as a unique title, not a diluted one.
5. Which L.A. team are you leaning toward now?
Devine: The Lakers. I believe the Clippers are capable of dealing with LeBron-AD pick-and-rolls if Kawhi and PG are healthy. I’ll just need to see them do it for seven games before I believe the Lakers are going down.
O’Shaughnessy: My brain says Clippers, but my heart says Lakers. The Clips have a more balanced attack and should be more durable, but LeBron’s used to tipping the scales against teams that look complete on paper.
Uggetti: Lakers. The numbers and rosters are built to make you lean Clippers, but then you realize that if anyone has been groomed and built for this kind of environment, while also being fueled by the late-career desperation for another title, it’s LeBron.
Kram: On reopening night, our Restart Odds say the Lakers would be 51-49 favorites over the Clippers if key players like Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams were available. The margin between these teams is incredibly thin. If I knew they were guaranteed to play each other in a full series, I’d lean slightly toward the Clippers because of their greater lineup flexibility and rotation depth. But the Lakers also have an easier path to the conference finals. It’s a true toss-up.
Tjarks: Clippers. Kawhi has the crown until someone takes it from him. They are also deeper than the Lakers, which could be important given all the potential for absences over the next few months.
O’Connor: The Lakers. Their stars are better and their non-stars are much better than they get credit for.
Verrier: The Clippers. Both teams are down key players at the moment, but as far as we know, only the Lakers are assured to be without theirs, Avery Bradley, for the entirety of the restart. The Clippers’ league-best depth provides them with not only lineup versatility, but insurance for any unforeseen absences. As good as the players around LeBron James and Anthony Davis have been—Alex Caruso, Dwight Howard, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in particular—the Lakers’ margin for error is perilously thin right now.
Dollinger: Lakers. Everything feels geared toward LeBron’s team winning the title, even the hotel accommodations. The team’s supporting cast might seem random, but you only need so much help if you have a healthy LeBron and AD. James came down from a 3-1 deficit. The bubble probably feels pretty low on the adversity level.
Mahoney: Clippers. I should know better than to pick against LeBron, but something about the Clippers feels sustainable and effective against even the highest levels of competition. Series may be controlled by superstars, but I have more faith in the Clips’ supporting cast to deliver that one crucial win in the middle of a series.
6. Who will win the West’s 8-seed?
O’Connor: Pelicans. The Grizzlies are inherently the favorite since they have a cushion for the 8-seed and need to win only one game in the event of a play-in tournament. But I’ll take New Orleans, assuming Zion Williamson plays.
Tjarks: Grizzlies. They have a big enough lead that they should be able to hold on to the no. 8 seed in the seeding games, which means they would have to win only one play-in game while the no. 9 seed would have to win two. Keep an eye out for Brandon Clarke. Memphis doesn’t have two great young players—it has three.
Mahoney: Grizzlies. Not the most imaginative pick, I know, but don’t underestimate the play-in advantage of the team already in eighth.
Verrier: Pelicans. Though all of the hand-wringing has been over Zion’s status, New Orleans’s main competition, the Grizzlies and the Blazers, have their own concerns: Justise Winslow is out for Memphis, thrusting Kyle Anderson into the starting lineup, and Portland, already thinner than most teams, will be without Trevor Ariza, which puts more pressure on 36-year-old Carmelo Anthony to guard someone, anyone. The numbers favor Memphis, but Zion defies all logic.
Devine: Now that Kyle Anderson’s a 58 percent 3-point shooter? Memphis, all day. If he resumes being bad at shooting and that starting lineup resumes its late-season suffering, though, I’ll take the Pelicans, just like everybody else.
Uggetti: Blazers. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are the best players among those teams vying for the no. 8 seed and Portland is also adding a healthy Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic to the mix.
Dollinger: Pelicans. After four months of waiting, a Lakers-Pelicans series would be a treat for NBA fans. If New Orleans can force the play-in tournament, the team has the veteran experience to oust the young Grizzlies.
Kram: Grizzlies. The Pelicans are a more complete team (and maybe the healthy Trail Blazers, too) but the Grizz are heavy favorites to retain the no. 8 spot, meaning they’ll have a considerable advantage in any play-in scenario.
O’Shaughnessy: Grizzlies. Memphis holds a huge advantage entering the seeding games. Memphis could go 0-8 and still make the playoffs if the teams below them finish 3-5 or worse.
7. Who will make the Finals?
O’Shaughnessy: Lakers vs. Bucks. MVP candidate vs. MVP candidate. Old vs. new. Graybeard vs. can he grow a beard?
Tjarks: Clippers vs. Bucks. That was my prediction before the season and I’ll stick with it now. I’m going to assume that basketball is still basketball in the bubble. But who knows.
Devine: Lakers vs. Bucks. May God have mercy on us all.
Mahoney: The Bucks and Clippers. By the end, you will respect Khris Middleton.
Kram: Clippers vs. Bucks. The math says Lakers-Bucks, but my gut disagrees. I might have to turn in my calculator and erase all my spreadsheets for this answer, but I’m going with my gut.
Dollinger: Lakers vs. Raptors. Toronto no longer has its closer, but it has the talent and the chemistry to make it back to the Finals.
O’Connor: Lakers vs. Bucks is such a generic pick, but I’m going with that with the Lakers winning it all.
Uggetti: Lakers vs. Sixers. And the Sixers in seven. I don’t know anything.
Verrier: Clippers vs. Bucks. I already regret this.