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Resetting the NBA’s Essential Questions Heading Into Bubble Basketball

Teams are arriving in Orlando to begin the league’s restart. Here are the (mostly) basketball-related topics we’re pondering if play resumes as scheduled.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2019-20 NBA season is a remnant of our former lives. Straightforward. Uncomplicated. The NBA’s restart in Orlando, however, is as surreal as our here and now. Throughout this week, teams will be flying down to Disney World to be quarantined, and announcing as they go if certain players won’t be making the trip after all. In a best-case scenario, seeding games will be held throughout the day in empty arenas, while players on the bench social distance from one another. Players will then field questions from reporters via teleconference, bus back to a hotel assigned based on their team’s regular-season performance, and go about their bubble lives in strict observance of the league’s extensive guidelines.

It took almost four months of planning and deliberation to get to this point. Restarting the season, as you might imagine, is hardly as simple as the NBA picking up where it left off. Rosters have shifted. Players have recovered from their injuries, or undergone surgery to address them. There’s a lot to take in, and a lot to catch up on. Let’s take stock of what we know now and what we can expect:

1. What becomes of the MVP race?

The suspension of the season came just as LeBron James began to make his MVP case—authoring back-to-back wins over the Clippers and Bucks, just as Giannis Antetokounmpo was beginning to miss time with a sprained knee. The machinery behind his candidacy had come alive. LeBron has too much narrative heft to play this well for a team as good as the Lakers without shaping the MVP race. Spring was his chance to steer the conversation; if LeBron’s production held and Milwaukee continued to win games without Giannis, maybe he could have closed the gap. And maybe, given the start of that discussion and even eight more games to show out, he still could. Never underestimate how the respect for LeBron and the attention drawn by the Lakers might coalesce.

This is an especially strange season for award voting in the NBA, beginning with the fact that it’s not immediately clear what voters should consider. Most likely, the media panel will be directed to make their selections just before the playoffs based on all games played to date. Yet officially, the regular season appears to be over; the league has been quite specific in referring to the entire Orlando experience as a “restart” where 22 teams will play “seeding games.” Call it semantics, but the NBA’s own language would suggest that voters could cast their ballots now based on what they’ve seen thus far. Under those guidelines, Antetokounmpo would almost certainly (and rightly) win his second straight MVP. Even under the alternative framework, he should head to Orlando a heavy favorite.

2. Are the Mavs playoff-ready?

Dallas has the profile of a plucky, well-coached team that could stir up some trouble in a seven-game series. They also have a roster composed almost entirely of playoff novices; of the team’s expected rotation, only Tim Hardaway Jr., Seth Curry, Delon Wright, and J.J. Barea have playoff experience. So begins the Mavericks’ practical exam, where in going about their postseason education, they just might ruin the stay of a few more veteran teams. Luka Doncic working in space is inherently dangerous. The next few months should demonstrate that, while also peeling back the layers of this Mavs roster to make clear what it needs going forward. Can Kristaps Porzingis be a reliable secondary creator? What combinations of role players will get exposed by playoff competition? The only way to know for sure is to put the whole team to the test.

3. Will depth finally matter in the playoffs?

If we assume that players in the bubble may at some point test positive for COVID-19 and be pulled from action, and that ramping up quickly into high-intensity basketball may increase the chance of injury, wouldn’t it stand to reason that depth would matter more in these playoffs than any other? Along those lines ...

4. Who fills in for those sitting out?

There is already a growing roster of players who won’t be participating in the NBA’s restart, either by choice, injury, or illness. Here’s a list, as of July 7:

  • LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs (injury)
  • Trevor Ariza, Trail Blazers (personal)
  • Bradley Beal, Wizards (injury)
  • Davis Bertans, Wizards (impending free agency)
  • Bojan Bogdanovic, Jazz (injury)
  • Avery Bradley, Lakers (personal)
  • Willie Cauley-Stein, Mavericks (personal)
  • Wilson Chandler, Nets (personal)
  • Spencer Dinwiddie, Nets (coronavirus)
  • DeAndre Jordan, Nets (coronavirus)
  • Victor Oladipo, Pacers (injury risk)
  • Courtney Lee, Mavericks (injury)
  • Taurean Prince, Nets (coronavirus)
  • Thabo Sefolosha, Rockets (personal)
  • Caleb Swanigan, Trail Blazers (personal)

Every absence has ripple effects, some more severe than others. Indiana will have to adjust to the absence of Oladipo, as they did the first three months of the season—only now without Jeremy Lamb, who tore his ACL in February. The Lakers will need a new starting shooting guard in place of Avery Bradley, which should create opportunities for players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso. The Nets have been so compromised at this point that they will need multiple replacement players just to field a full roster. Yet some free agents, like former Rocket Gerald Green, have elected to pass on the chance to play in Orlando due to their own concerns. There’s a lot to shake out.

5. Have the Sixers made sense of themselves?

Probably not, but we can open our minds to the magic of possibility. Ben Simmons has had crucial—and unexpected—time to recover from a back injury. Joel Embiid has worked his way through quarantine, so much that Brett Brown expects to see his star center “in as good as shape as I have coached him.” Philadelphia is a confusing team, but Brown and his staff have had months to review and adjust the team’s methods to the extent the roster will allow. The argument could be made that no team has benefited more from a lengthy stoppage in play.

The peculiarities of the Sixers roster, however, mean that some of their on-court issues will always need to be worked out in real time. Games and series will come down to Simmons, Embiid, and Tobias Harris troubleshooting on the fly; when Al Horford plays, and with whom; and whether an interchangeable cast of perimeter talent has the juice to sustain the offense in high-leverage moments. There may be too many balls in the air, as it were, and not enough in the hands of a proficient, off-the-dribble creator.

6. Can the Rockets rebound?

It’s a simple question, really, considering that Houston traded away its starting center along with any pretense of fielding a conventional lineup. (Just to drive the point home, the Rockets also waived reserve 7-footer Isaiah Hartenstein.) Even if we assume that the Rockets can better leverage their spacing and compete in their matchups defensively by playing small, moving away from Clint Capela means accounting for the 15.1 rebounds he pulled down per 36 minutes. It will have to be done creatively and by committee. For all their talents, PJ Tucker and Robert Covington—now Houston’s primary bigs—are by no means volume rebounders. Russell Westbrook can certainly help in that effort, and James Harden, Danuel House, and Jeff Green will surely have to. The Rockets want to play faster when the season resumes, but can’t afford to push the pace at the expense of an already challenging dynamic on the glass. Whether the Rockets can survive multiple playoff series may depend on whether they’re able to play opposing bigs off the floor entirely.

7. Who plays their way into the West playoffs?

There is effectively a three-team race for the West’s eighth seed between the upstart Grizzlies, who currently hold the spot; the Trail Blazers, who will welcome back Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins; and the Pelicans, a team transformed by the midseason introduction of Zion Williamson. The Ringer’s own Kevin O’Connor made a compelling case for Zion and the Pelicans, while our Zach Kram handicapped the Grizzlies as the clear favorite to land in the final playoff spot.

But the Blazers enter the seeding stage with their own built-in advantage. To account for teams finishing their seasons with a different number of games played, the NBA has established that win percentage will be used as the primary criteria for seeding. That gives Portland—by virtue of its .002 edge in win percentage over New Orleans—the inside track for a play-in spot. It seems inevitable at this point that the first playoff game will be an elimination game, with one of Williamson, Damian Lillard, or Ja Morant on the ropes.

8. Are the Nuggets ready to contend?

This might seem like a disrespectful line of questioning for a third-seeded team on a 54-win pace, but there were some red flags with the Nuggets even before Nikola Jokic tested positive for COVID-19.

If we assume—as was suggested by Michael Malone—that Jokic is in good health, Denver is still the third-most-successful team in a conference with two clear cofavorites. They’re a victim not of the sheer number of contenders, but of how the West has stratified. No indicator suggests that the Nuggets are better than the Lakers or Clippers, or that they would hold some distinct matchup advantage in a potential series. If anything, there is lasting, well-founded concern for Denver’s team defense and, specifically, its capacity to check the bigger wings who drive both L.A. teams. With the NBA’s unusual circumstances, however, comes the capacity for surprise. What we thought we knew about the league hierarchy could change once the restart is in full swing. Top teams might not be in top form. Whatever momentum teams had created by February and March has long since fizzled out. The Nuggets are a good, flawed team with a chance—likely more of one, anyway, than they might have under more normal conditions.

9. Can the NBA actually finish this thing?

The NBA spent months consulting experts, fine-tuning protocols, and weighing options, and still has been managing its restart on the fly. These are uncharted waters—not just for the NBA, but for American sports leagues at large. Some of the protections for players may not work as intended. Other restrictions could be helpful in preventing the spread of the virus, but grating enough as to create other problems. The league’s ability to keep everyone in the bubble safe won’t be a function of a 113-page manual, but its capacity to adapt a complex set of rules to a dynamic situation. Even then, the integrity of the bubble will depend on the compliance of players, some of whom have been playing pick-up basketball and living their lives without much concern for the coronavirus. The disregard of even a few individuals could create significant problems.

“My confidence ain’t great because you’re telling me you’re gonna have 22 teams full of players following all the rules? When we have 100 percent freedom, everybody don’t follow all the rules,” Lillard told reporters last week. (Joel Embiid and Brandon Ingram expressed similar skepticism.) Whether that allows the NBA to play out its full playoffs, as intended, remains to be seen.

10. Can Kemba Walker course-correct?

When the NBA suspended its season, Walker was playing the worst basketball of his Celtics career. An injury to his left knee had compromised his entire game. Walker was a score-first guard who couldn’t score, his output reduced to just 14.8 points per game on 30.5 percent shooting from the field in the four games he suited up for over the Celtics’ last 10. He was a valued creator who was having trouble dealing with bigger, longer defenders. At times, Boston’s offense was forced to work around him. Those struggles were amplified by the fact that Walker’s shot wasn’t getting its usual lift. Over that same stretch, he shot just 20 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s and 25 percent on his 3s overall.

None of that production really matters in the grand scheme of a season; NBA basketball in February and March has only marginally higher stakes than a company kickball league. So long as Walker was more or less himself by the lead-up to the playoffs, the Celtics would be just fine. That timeline was broken—seemingly in a way that gave Walker some needed relief. “I really, really needed to get that break,” Walker told reporters last week. “It definitely helped me get back to myself and start to feel comfortable on my knee. It was a very unfortunate time, but it was in my best interests for sure.” Even still, the All-Star point guard doesn’t have a few months to find his game again. He has a makeshift training camp and a few scrimmages before he’s thrown into eight rapid-fire games with real weight. Boston is already guaranteed a playoff spot. Yet if the standings hold, the Celtics would run head-first into a dangerous first-round matchup against a Sixers team that played them well all season. The tests will start early, and Walker—who has played just two playoff series in his career, neither exactly impressive—will have to be ready.

11. Just how good are the full-strength Raptors?

Oddly enough, the defending champions are a bit of a mystery. We have a general sense at this point of how the Raptors operate without Kawhi Leonard. It’s just impossible to fully understand what they’re capable of when we’ve seen it so sparingly, if at all. Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, and Norman Powell have missed a combined 101 games in Toronto’s 64 games to date. Despite this, Toronto has managed to be one of the best defenses in the league. Their entire campaign is a picture of resilience. When Lowry was sidelined by injury, Siakam, VanVleet, and Terence Davis filled the creative void. While Siakam was out, Toronto threw Patrick McCaw into the starting lineup and leaned even more heavily on VanVleet’s scoring. The Raptors still won a majority of their games. When they were without VanVleet, they trusted in Powell, who responded with the best, most confident basketball of his career.

On and on it went, as an understaffed team posted the second-best record in the East and managed one of the best defenses in the league. What was most impressive (and terrifying) about the Raptors this season was the negative space that surrounded them—the gaps in their rotation, and the lost opportunity to hone a fully operational roster. Rarely did it seem to bother them. Toronto just kept making the right reads, again and again, until they found a way through. Now that they’re healthy, maybe they’ll find their way through the whole damn thing.

12. Will any other star players drop out?

The NBA went out of its way to include the Wizards in its 22-team restart, but Beal—the team’s best player by a mile—won’t be participating due to a shoulder injury. The Pacers could wind up a top-four seed in the East, but will have to do without Oladipo, who chose not to play out of concern for reinjury. These explanations are not only valid, but accepted; the NBA has given its players complete freedom to skip the Orlando restart, or to leave it early for any reason they see fit. Gordon Hayward, for example, has already disclosed that he intends to step out of the Celtics’ playoff run to attend the birth of his child.

Although the deadline for teams to apply for substitute roster spots and finalize their traveling parties has technically passed, there’s an open question as to whether the league’s best players will see the restart through to the end. This whole arrangement is a whirlwind of complicating variables: the spread of the virus, the injury risks of aggressive scheduling, the strain on a player’s mental health, the pressing fight for social justice, extended isolation from friends and family, financial uncertainty for upcoming free agents, and restrictions that players have pushed back against well before setting foot in Orlando. Beyond any one of those concerns is the compounding pressure between them. It would be naive to think that players will not be monitoring the situation around them and considering, with every new development, whether they would be better off elsewhere.

13. Does the seeding schedule really matter?

If asked, NBA team personnel can make a full presentation of all the ways their organization was screwed over by the schedule. If it’s not the generalized strength of their opponents, it’s the logistics of certain road trips, a run of particularly tough games, or a lack of practice time at a particular stage in the season. There’s always something. And there will be in the restart, too—even as every team plays out its seeding games under similarly strange conditions. If anything, the atypical format makes it more difficult to even assess which scheduling factors really matter. The NBA has never played wall-to-wall games, for days on end, with playoff spots on the line. We can’t yet know which games will be easier than they seem now, or which inconspicuous matchups might become suddenly charged. One factor to watch: back-loaded schedules. When the seeding games begin, every team will be motivated to compete—if not to lock in a playoff spot, then to find their rhythm for a long postseason run. By the end of the eight-game seeding slate, that could easily change. Teams that play their toughest opponents at the end of their schedule (Denver, Memphis, and Washington among them) could benefit if the best teams take care of business early.

14. Will the Bucks get a run for their money in the East?

The Bucks have been alarmingly good—so dominant through their first 65 games as to sit in a class all their own. No other Eastern Conference team is within six games of Milwaukee in the standings. No team whatsoever comes anywhere near the Bucks in terms of margin of victory, which historically has been a sound indicator of a team’s postseason viability. Even in a playoff environment this unstable, Milwaukee is the closest thing the NBA has to a conference finals lock. But most of the other top teams in the East have been preparing for this possibility, and devising some kind of basic framework to mitigate Giannis Antetokounmpo. One of the costs of being a prohibitive favorite is the clarity it offers to every challenger. The Raptors, Celtics, and Sixers might not have fully gamed out how they’ll match up with one another, but they came into this season knowing full well that they would need some kind of plan for the Bucks. What those plans amount to is the question that defines the conference. Of all the teams on the board, Toronto—which may be the smartest team in the league—has the most compelling upset case.