If all goes smoothly over the next few weeks—which, in the grip of a pandemic, is a mighty big “if,” but such is life right now—NBA basketball will return at the end of the month. After a 141-day shutdown prompted by the onset and spread of the novel coronavirus, 22 teams—many of whom will look quite a bit different than when last we saw them—will embark on a two-and-a-half-month sprint to try to complete the suspended season and crown a new champion.
As we try to get our arms around the idea of watching NBA hoops again, let’s get ready for the planned restart by taking a look at the five most interesting teams (to me) that are heading to Disney, starting with … well, the guy everything still starts with, 17 seasons later:
Los Angeles Lakers
A brief reminder: When last we saw LeBron James, he was rampaging through fellow contenders and metahumans, piloting the Lakers to a commanding 5.5-game lead over the rival Clippers in the race for the West’s no. 1 seed, and cruising toward his first-ever assist title on the strength of magic, whimsical shit like this:
It’s possible that going from the peak of his present-day powers to a forced four months on ice will elide LeBron’s effectiveness, diminish his ability to be the force multiplier who elevates his teammates, and derail the Lakers’ bid for their first championship in a decade. Then again, the last time LeBron got an extended rest—which was just last spring and summer, as you might remember—he came back with a vengeance to remind anyone who’d doubted just how much he can still control the NBA, on and off the court. Besides, it’s not like he and the rest of the Lakers have just been sitting around eating Funyuns and binge-watching prestige TV during the hiatus:
Bill Simmons and JJ Redick hint that the Lakers have been secretly scrimmaging throughout quarantine at a mansion in Bel-Air with a replica Staples Center court. pic.twitter.com/WCdSTaS1Wu— ³ (@33643pts) June 19, 2020
Anthony Davis—a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and surefire All-NBA selection after a brilliant first season in Hollywood—thinks the Lakers might be even better positioned for a title run now than they were in March, even without starting guard Avery Bradley, thanks to all that extra rest and recuperation time. There might be something to that: L.A. blitzed opponents by 10.4 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with its two top dogs on the court this season, according to Cleaning the Glass, putting up crooked numbers whether they were flanked by JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard in more traditional big lineups, or by three wings/guards in smaller configurations.
It’d be overly simplistic to say that a fully operational LeBron and AD is all head coach Frank Vogel needs to get the Lakers through the postseason gantlet—though maybe not by much. While the Lakers’ chances will rise and fall based on the health and performance of the NBA’s no. 1 assist combination, how the rest of the rotation shakes out and returns to form does loom large.
Bradley’s exit opens the door for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who shot 39.4 percent from 3-point range and defended well in a bounce-back year, to step into a larger role on the wing; the Lakers went 17-3 in KCP’s 20 starts this season. But elevating Caldwell-Pope into the starting lineup means back-filling his role on the second unit, and no matter how loudly the internet screams, Alex Caruso won’t be getting all of those minutes. (Though giving him more of Rajon Rondo’s might not be a bad idea.) In theory, late-season addition Dion Waiters and pre-Orlando signing J.R. Smith profile as experienced perimeter options capable of stroking catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, offering complementary playmaking, serving as screeners to help LeBron ruthlessly target smaller guards on switches, and defending multiple positions on the wing. In practice, Waiters has been largely injured or ineffective ever since he signed his big deal in Miami in 2017, and Smith has played just 11 games in the past two seasons (and, if we’re being honest, wasn’t particularly productive on either end the last full season he did play).
Throughout the season, Vogel has preferred bigger lineups featuring a rim-protecting big like McGee or Howard alongside Davis and James, helping produce a defense that ranks first in the NBA in blocks, third in defensive efficiency, and sixth in defensive field goal percentage. Against elite opposition in the West, though, he’ll have to more frequently use Davis and James as his bigs, and find three perimeter answers he’s comfortable with in crunch time. Ever-stalwart 3-and-D man Danny Green will take one spot; Caldwell-Pope, whom Vogel recently called “one of the brightest parts of the season” for the Lakers, seems a good bet to take another. Can Smith or Waiters prove sharp and sound enough to earn the third? Will Caruso, one of the highest-impact defensive reserves in the league this season, win Vogel’s trust when it counts? Will Kyle Kuzma’s size and natural scoring talent outstrip concerns about how well he’ll hold up in a more perimeter-defense-oriented role in the postseason crucible?
LeBron made it clear months ago that, come hell or high water, he and the Lakers intended to finish this season. You can understand why: After the disappointment of last year’s 37-45 campaign, he’s built this team into one that might represent his best chance for a fourth ring. Whether or not he’ll get there remains to be seen, but there won’t be anybody in Orlando more motivated than James to see this thing through, and a King with something to prove sure seems worth watching to me.
My Ringer teammate Zach Kram was exactly right in reminding us that the Milwaukee Bucks, all else equal, remain the clear favorites to win the whole stinkin’ thing. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the best player in the league this season, on both ends of the court, and he’s surrounded by a pitch-perfect supporting cast featuring a brilliant second banana in Khris Middleton, All-Defensive Team–caliber bookends in Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez, and a coterie of competent, professional role players throughout Mike Budenholzer’s rotation.
If the Bucks wind up breezing through conference play and knock off the best of the West to hoist the Larry O’B, I won’t bat an eye. I’m just hoping that the basketball gods conspire to put the Raptors in their path. “To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man,” and all that.
I’ve loved watching Toronto this season. It’s been awesome to see the Raptors respond to the loss of Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard by collectively raising their game—to see Pascal Siakam build on his Finals turn with an All-Star breakout, Kyle Lowry get the flowers he deserves for his constant positive contributions, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby cement themselves as difference-making starters, and a slew of lightly regarded and little-known reserves coalesce into one of the league’s best benches under the watchful eye of Nick Nurse. Eight of the Raptors’ top 10 players missed at least 10 games this season, often in frustratingly staggered fashion, and they still had the same record through 64 games as they did last season and the league’s no. 2 defense.
The Raptors enter Orlando with a full, healthy, and rested squad—and, perhaps most notably, with a recharged Marc Gasol. The Spaniard missed 28 games while battling a nagging left hamstring injury, and hasn’t seen regular action since January 28. The silver lining: The shutdown gave the 35-year-old, who went straight from Toronto’s title run to leading Spain to FIBA World Cup gold and right back into Raptors camp for the 2019-20 season, his first extended break in more than a year and a half. From the looks of things, the time off agreed with him:
Marc Gasol’s quarantine transformation is insane: pic.twitter.com/jt5hfJHyKa— Dionysis Aravantinos (@AravantinosDA) June 20, 2020
“Maybe a leaner Marc gets him to more rebounds, gets him to better defensive positions more quickly—not that those are a problem—but maybe he’s going to produce more in those things,” Nurse recently told reporters. “Maybe his legs stay in there late in the games for some 3-balls. I don’t know. If his conditioning improves him as a player, it’s going to be a super added bonus for us.”
How big a bonus? Toronto had its preferred starting lineup—Lowry, VanVleet, Gasol, Siakam, and Anunoby—for only 280 minutes over 17 games this season. In those 17 games, the Raptors crushed opponents by 12.3 points per 100 possessions with that lineup on the floor. Gasol’s combination of frontcourt passing genius, back-line defensive acumen, floor-spacing shooting, and experience helps unlock the best version of these Raptors—an unselfish, smart, ferocious group that can shift shapes and styles to create mismatches and punish whatever weak points an opponent presents. Maybe that’s not enough to survive a brutal path through the postseason that could feature matchups with an excellent Celtics team and Giannis’s Bucks. I’m just saying I’d like to see what the full-squad Raps look like at Disney first; I don’t expect them to just hand over the crown.
Everything in Denver revolves around Nikola Jokic, which means all of the Nuggets’ hopes and dreams rest on how Jokic feels and performs after recovering from the coronavirus. It’s possible that Jokic will be none the worse for wear; he was reportedly asymptomatic after his initial test, and Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said last week that as far as he knew, his All-NBA center “feels great.” (Jokic has since reportedly tested negative, though he has not yet joined his team in Orlando: “We’re trying to work out the logistics right now,” new Nuggets general manager Calvin Booth told reporters Wednesday.) And while some have raised doubts about whether Jokic—who, like Gasol, shed a ton of weight during quarantine—might have sacrificed too much bulk for a big man who frequently goes to work on the low block, it could be that his significant weight loss translates into increased stamina and flexibility, and reduced risk of injury, as the postseason progresses … provided, of course, he actually gets onto the Disney campus.
#Nuggets superstar Nikola Jokic is still in Serbia after nearly three weeks since his positive test. Because of travel issues, as previously reported, he’s still awaiting a flight stateside.— Mike Singer (@msinger) July 9, 2020
Jokic was dominant during the 2019 playoffs, leading the Nuggets to the brink of the Western Conference finals. The All-Star averaged 25.1 points on .596 true shooting while using 26.6 percent of Denver’s offensive possessions—production only 25 other players in NBA history have matched in a postseason in which they played more than seven games—to go with 13 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game, carrying the offensive load while also manning the middle of the defense for 40 minutes a night. Replicating that performance is a big ask, but the Nuggets need Jokic to provide all that and then some to stand a chance of pushing past the second round this summer. He’s going to need some help, too, and seeing where it’s going to come from promises to be fascinating.
Much will be expected of Jamal Murray, the boom-or-bust bellwether whose confidence gives the Nuggets some swagger, and whose decision-making can give them fits. An awful lot could similarly depend on what kind of start Gary Harris gets off to once play resumes. Right before everything shut down, Harris finally seemed to have pulled out of his season-long offensive nosedive, shooting 51.5 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from 3-point range over his final 12 games. At 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, Harris is a critical perimeter defender for Denver—he tied for 13th among NBA guards in steals per game and 16th in deflections per game, and the Nuggets allowed three fewer points-per-100 with him on the court this season, according to Cleaning the Glass. But if he can’t knock down enough shots to keep defenses honest, he becomes a liability in a short series. After four months on the shelf, can Harris pick up where he left off and give Malone another good two-way player to roll with?
The Nuggets are kind of like a Rorschach test for NBA observers. You can look at them and see indicators of a potential contender: 14-8 against top-10 offenses, 12-8 against top-10 defenses, 7-4 against teams in the top 10 on both ends, with a bona fide MVP candidate at the controls and a deep bench of contributors who took a round of postseason lumps together last year and are ready to take another step. (There’s also ace rookie Michael Porter Jr., who Malone recently said has a “good chance” of seeing playoff action and is one of the more tantalizing break-glass-in-case-of-emergency options in Orlando.) Or you can look at them and see something similar to last year’s team—a very good squad that lacks the high-end perimeter talent and top defensive wings to match the Giannises, LeBrons, and Kawhis of the world when it counts most.
In all likelihood, the Nuggets are both: operating from a bit of a firepower deficit against the best of the best, but capable of making a deep run if the bracket and matchups break right. I’m eager to see how things fall for Jokic, Malone, and Co. once the seedings are set and we can see the lay of the land.
Let us now move from the Nuggets’ quest to improve on last season’s second-round run to the team that ended that run …
Portland Trail Blazers
With the exception of the Nets, who will suddenly be turning to Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley for big minutes thanks to injury and illness, Portland might be the team in line for the biggest overhaul in Orlando. Whether that will be enough to propel the Blazers through a daunting seeding-game schedule—the third-toughest slate of any team in the restart, according to our Zach Kram—and a play-in showdown into the West’s final eight, though? That very much remains to be seen.
The good news: After spending the entire season searching for answers in the frontcourt, the Blazers will welcome back sight-for-sore-eyes big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Nurkic hasn’t suited up in 15 months, since suffering compound fractures to his left tibia and fibula in the final weeks of the 2018-19 season; surgery to repair a torn left labrum has kept Collins on the shelf for just over eight months. How effective they’ll be after such long layoffs is a major question, but when healthy—and both say they are—Nurkic and Collins give the Blazers a massive infusion of size and skill.
Nurkic was averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists at the time of his injury and was holding opponents to 55.2 percent shooting at the rim (a strong if not top-shelf number). The 22-year-old Collins profiles as a potential unicorn, pairing a credible 3-point stroke with the ability to protect the rim and guard in space; last season, he was one of only 11 players to take at least 100 3s, hit at least one-third of them, and block more than 3 percent of opponents’ shots. Their reintegration could add some interior punch and variety to Portland’s predominantly guard-oriented offensive attack, and prove a major boon to a Blazers team that ranks 26th in points allowed per possession and 27th in defensive rebounding rate this season.
Juggling the big-man rotation won’t be easy for Terry Stotts, though. Hassan Whiteside—much maligned for his mammoth contract and stat-chasing reputation—has been way better than you might think for the Blazers this season. The former Heat big man is averaging a career-best 16.3 points per game on 61.8 percent shooting, and while this owes in part to the lack of quality options behind him, the Blazers’ point differential is 10.5 points-per-100 better with him on the court than off it; Whiteside actually ranks 14th in the entire league in player impact plus-minus this season. Even if Nurkic and Collins are expected to start, Stotts can’t just cast Whiteside out entirely; this means the Blazers are probably going to trot out some jumbo-ass lineups … especially given their dearth of options at small forward.
Trevor Ariza might not seem like a crucial piece for a playoff team in 2020, but his decision to sit out the restart has major repercussions for a Blazers team that has struggled to patch together minutes on the wing after Al-Farouq Aminu, Mo Harkless, and Jake Layman all left in free agency last summer, and Rodney Hood ruptured his Achilles tendon in December. After coming over from Sacramento in a late January trade, Ariza made 21 starts for the Blazers, chipped in 11 points, 4.8 rebounds, and two assists per game on 49/40/87 shooting splits, and at least put in a shift defending opposing perimeter players. Without him, Stotts’s options are sudden positional revolutionary Carmelo Anthony, Mario Hezonja, rookie Nassir Little, and second-year man Gary Trent Jr. (who might be the best pick, given his combination of shooting stroke and defensive aptitude)—which is to say, three power forwards, two of whom present major defensive challenges, and a shooting guard.
I’m excited to see Nurkic and Collins back on the court, and I believe that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum (who might functionally turn into a small forward in three-guard lineups?) will give Portland a puncher’s chance of holding off the Pelicans, Kings, Spurs, and Suns to force a play-in tournament against the Grizzlies. I just don’t know how Stotts will make it all work. I’m looking forward to finding out, though.
Not sure we’re going see this one on League Fits, but let it be said that Joel Embiid knows how to dress for a business trip in These Uncertain Times:
Embiid is one of a number of players to go on the record and voice concerns about the safety of the NBA’s campus environment. He’s going anyway, though, because six summers after the Sixers drafted him out of Kansas—after injuries and front-office chaos and more injuries and more chaos and four bounces and a truly insane 2019-20 season—he feels like his, and Philly’s, time is now.
“I want to represent my city,” Embiid told reporters this week. “I’ve been here too long, and this is my opportunity. I feel like we have a great chance. I believe we have a great chance of winning this championship.”
The chances are almost certainly better than they were four months ago. The Sixers—who certainly feel like the NBA’s most volatile playoff team, with any outcome from total flameout shitshow to NBA champion seeming plausible—have the second-easiest slate in the league during the seeding stage, which should help them edge the Victor Oladipo–less Pacers in the race for the no. 5 seed. Playing neutral-site games without fans at Disney World means they won’t benefit from playing at home, where Philly was a league-best 29-2 this season, but it also means it won’t be playing on the road, where the team was just 10-24, the worst mark among any playoff team.
More than that, though: Ben Simmons’s back is once again in working order, the impinged nerves all soothed and the surrounding muscles evidently all bulked up. Embiid’s left shoulder is good to go, too, and coach Brett Brown raved about his center’s fitness as Philly started to ramp back up: “There is nobody on our team that has put in more time than Joel Embiid.” As ever, the Sixers will go only as far as the two All-Stars can take them. Having them in full working order, capable of being the two most influential defensive players on the floor in virtually every game, and driving an offense that for all the slings and arrows has scored like gangbusters this season when sharing the floor without Al Horford, seems like a pretty good start.
How it all fits together, though, remains the million-dollar question—the one that could determine Brown’s future on the bench, the longevity of the Embiid-Simmons partnership, and the state of an organization that has gone all in on trying to load the floor with smothering defensive giants. The X-factor in that equation remains Horford, who struggled to find his offensive comfort level alongside Embiid and Simmons. They did defend like hell with all those big bodies and long arms on the floor, though—a microscopic 100 points-per-100 allowed in Simmons-Embiid-Horford minutes, stingier even than the Bucks’ league-best mark.
Asked about how his body was feeling before the shutdown during a recent conference call with reporters, Horford said, “I probably wasn’t where I wanted to be. I’m not going to make any excuses. But right now, I’m in a much better place. The time off for me was beneficial.” If four months of rest allows the 34-year-old to enter Orlando refreshed, with a little more oomph on those jumpers and an extra burst as he slides into place on the helpside rotation, the original vision some held of Philadelphia—a massive, mauling team built for the playoffs—might actually, finally begin to materialize.
There are more questions that need answers. With everyone healthy, will Brown once again shuffle Horford back to the bench, as he did coming out of the All-Star break? Will Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson consistently produce on the wing, or will they continue to disappear at inopportune times? Can Shake Milton continue to flash the shooting and playmaking touch that bumped him into a key role in Philadelphia’s rotation, or will veteran Alec Burks earn more minutes on the ball with the second unit? Have the Sixers at some point in the past four months perfected The Fly–style metamorphic technology that can combine Furkan Korkmaz and Matisse Thybulle into the Perfect Complementary Wing Player? When it counts—when it’s crunch time in a must-win playoff game—who is Philly’s best five? And who’s got the ball in his hands?
The next couple of months should shed some light on all of the above. On the last one, though, our man in the Tyvek suit already has some ideas. Few players are more capable of taking matters into their own hands and affecting all facets of the game than Embiid. If he can make good on his word, Philly could be one hell of a tough out in the tournament to come.