The NBA is back. After a four and a half month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the league will restart the 2019-20 season at Disney World on Thursday evening with a double-header of games on TNT: The New Orleans Pelicans and the Utah Jazz will square off at 6:30 p.m. EST, followed by a tilt between the Los Angeles squads at 9 p.m.
It’s been a while since we’ve seen basketball, and for the 22 squads that are in the bubble, they’re going from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye, as eight seeding games will determine who plays for a championship this year. Before that begins, we wanted to look at each of those squads and try to answer their biggest questions before things tip off and the race to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy begins, starting at the bottom of the standings.
Washington Wizards: Can they pull off a miracle?
The bad news for Washington is that John Wall won’t be able to return for the bubble, while Bradley Beal is out with a shoulder injury and Davis Bertans has decided to opt out of the restart as well. It would take a miracle for them to make up the gap on the eight seed — the Orlando Magic are 5.5-games up right now, but the Brooklyn Nets (currently six games up on Washington) are dealing with a thin roster of their own. Maybe Rui Hachimura morphs into a killer wing scorer, or Isaiah Thomas is able to explode, or Thomas Bryant cannot be kept from imposing his will in the paint. But in all likelihood, this is about getting younger dudes run before next season, when a healthy Washington side will have postseason aspirations. They only need to get within four games to force a play-in series, but even that seems like an exceptional long shot.
Phoenix Suns: Can they set the table for a playoff push next year?
Phoenix is in a similar boat to Washington, although they’re heading into the bubble healthy and ready to battle. The Suns are a team that has struggled to establish a foundation in recent years, but the bubble gives them a chance to do just that — Devin Booker is playing in meaningful basketball games for the first time in his career, as are other young pillars like Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges. Jumping five teams and getting the 8-seed seems nearly impossible, especially considering they’re six games back of No. 8 Memphis right now. They’ll be a handful to deal with, though, and at the very least, we’ll get to watch Booker cook dudes on offense, Ayton continue his development as a two-way player, and Bridges do ludicrous stuff like this on defense.
San Antonio Spurs: Is this the last time we’re going to see Pop?
The rumblings about Gregg Popovich having an eye on retirement at some point in the not-too-distant future have been around for awhile, but he’s continued to stick around. Unfortunately for the Spurs, it’s hard to see a way for them to leap four other teams, especially because they’re four games back of the 8-seed and will not have the services of LaMarcus Aldridge in tow. Then again, if anyone can figure out how to take some bubble gum, a straw, and a paperclip and MacGyver the kind of rocket ship San Antonio would need to strap on their backs en route to pulling off a miracle, it’s Pop. Still, here’s to hoping that the next time we see him after this all comes to an end isn’t during next summer’s Olympics.
Sacramento Kings: Do they have the horses to leapfrog three teams?
Prior to the season going on hiatus, Sacramento was one of the hottest teams in the league, winning 13 of their last 20 games and getting within striking distance of the 8-seed. Finding that form as soon as they can once games starts, especially considering they have a pair of tilts against the Pelicans, will be crucial. It would help plenty if both De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, two very good players, can make something of a leap and go from a pair of very good players to a pair of superstars. They’ve been the forgotten team in a lot of discussions about the race for 8th in the West, as they’re tied with Portland and New Orleans, and can force the acknowledgement of the basketball world by getting into a play-in.
New Orleans Pelicans: How do they handle expectations?
The Pelicans have been in a pretty interesting situation this season. No Zion Williamson for the first half of the year or so meant that their job was to stay afloat, then upon Zion’s return, they looked and played like a playoff team. Now, New Orleans faces the easiest schedule of any team in the league in Orlando, and even their toughest game will occur against a Los Angeles Clippers team that is not at full strength. Veterans like Derrick Favors, Jrue Holiday, and J.J. Redick will be gigantic in this endeavor, but the Pelicans’ numerous youngsters are getting thrown head-first into the deep end, and guys like Williamson and Brandon Ingram will learn early on if they’ll sink or swim.
Portland Trail Blazers: Can a suddenly stout frontcourt make up for a questionable wing rotation?
Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic are back, which is a gigantic boost for a Blazers team that was relying heavily on Hassan Whiteside and Carmelo Anthony in the frontcourt. With two legitimate centers and two legitimate power forwards, Portland can roll out some gigantic lineups in support of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The issue is at the three, where the Blazers are basically a gigantic question mark. Anthony likely doesn’t have the quickness to play there for lengthy stretches anymore (but it seems they’ll try that), and it might come down to hoping one of Mario Hezonja, Nassir Little, or Gary Trent giving them consistently solid minutes.
Orlando Magic: Can a healthy team give a top-2 seed problems?
Currently the 8-seed in the East, Orlando seems like a safe bet to leapfrog the 7-seed Nets, which sit a half-game up entering the bubble but have issues we’ll dive into momentarily. While picking them to go on a run in the playoffs is a stretch, Jonathan Isaac being back from a knee injury is huge as the lynchpin of their defense. It’s a good chance to get run for their youngsters — Mo Bamba, Markelle Fultz, and Isaac — alongside the vets who are going to be in Orlando for a long time after they went all-in on bringing this group back last summer.
Brooklyn Nets: Can they survive?
Here’s a list of players who Brooklyn won’t have in the bubble: Wilson Chandler, Spencer Dinwiddie, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, and Taurean Prince. While Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris, and Caris LeVert are wonderful players, and we cannot wait to hopefully watch a game or two where Jamal Crawford gets thermonuclear hot, this is going to be a monstrous undertaking for Brooklyn. The cushion they have on the Wizards should all but guarantee a playoff berth — and at absolute worst a play-in series — but doing much of anything against a team like the Bucks or Raptors is going to be brutally difficult.
Memphis Grizzlies: [see question posed to New Orleans Pelicans, only with a harder schedule]
Most everything has gone right for the Grizzlies this season — both of their first-round draft picks have been sensational, to the point that Ja Morant is the Rookie of the Year frontrunner and Brandon Clarke should make a whole lot of ballots. Seemingly all of their younger players have improved, while their veterans like Jonas Valanciunas have all been great at doing whatever has been asked of them. But now, they have five teams gunning for their 8-seed and have a brutally difficult schedule while they’re in Orlando. The good or bad news for Memphis is they face all three of their chief competitors for the 8-seed early on. Losses in those games brings those teams much closer to them, but it also gives them the chance to pull away. If they just take care of business, what those teams do won’t matter.
Dallas Mavericks: What does Luka magic in the bubble look like?
Is anyone else overjoyed at the thought of watching Luka Doncic play basketball again? Dallas is kind of playing with house money, insofar as no one expects them to get out of the Western Conference, but unless they’re playing the Lakers, Clippers, or Rockets, they will have the best player in the court in any series in they play thanks to Doncic. This is a great first taste of (extremely weird, mind you) playoff basketball for him and Kristaps Porzingis, and with Dallas hoping to go star hunting in free agency sometime soon, those two showing out on a team that’s a bit ahead of schedule would certainly help.
Philadelphia 76ers: Take your pick of about 10,000 different questions.
In no particular order: Is Ben Simmons shooting threes a thing now? Is Shake Milton at the point the answer, and if not, how does the rotation change with Simmons presumably needing to move back there from the four spot? Can things work with Al Horford coming off the bench? Can Joel Embiid stay healthy? Can Brett Brown put this funky roster in position to win games and potentially convince ownership he should stick around? Can Tobias Harris play like a max player on a nightly basis? Are guys like Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle able to space the floor enough? Will the indomitable home team or the limp road team show up in the bubble? If things don’t work, what does this offseason look like? The Sixers are, quite possibly, the weirdest team in basketball, and have a wildly high variance of possibilities for how this restart goes, as everything from “unmitigated disaster” to “win the title” on the table.
Indiana Pacers: Can Victor Oladipo be Victor Oladipo?
The Pacers got a gigantic boost when All-Star guard Victor Oladipo announced he had done a 180 on his decision to sit out the bubble to continue rehabbing his surgically-repaired quadriceps. While he hadn’t always looked like himself during the 13 games he played after returning from injury, Oladipo has had an additional four months to work on getting his body right. Him playing to the level we all know he can achieve is particularly huge following the news that All-Star Domantas Sabonis had to leave the bubble to seek treatment on a foot injury. Keep an eye on how Oladipo plays during the Pacers’ first game, a tilt against the Sixers that is monstrous for seeding purposes in the East.
Houston Rockets: How does hyper-small ball work now that teams have seen it?
Right around the trade deadline, the Rockets decided to embrace a small ball to an extent we’ve never seen. Instead of being a card the team can throw out every now and then, Houston traded Clint Capela and decided that players like P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington, and Jeff Green — all of whom are 6’8 or shorter — will battle with bigs. When it’s worked, the Rockets have been a wonderfully chaotic team that unlocked Russell Westbrook’s ability to play at a billion miles an hour better than anyone else in the league. There could be justified skepticism about how this works when games slow down in the playoffs, but between the success they’ve had and the fact that James Harden has had four months to get his body right, the Rockets are a dangerous side in the bubble, with, like Philly, a wild variance in potential outcomes.
Oklahoma City Thunder: How much higher can this team go?
Their backcourt trio of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chris Paul, and Dennis Schröder has been nothing short of magnificent this year — Gilgeous-Alexander is a budding star, Paul should be in MVP consideration, and Schröder will get a ton of love for Sixth Man of the Year. Danilo Gallinari has continued to be quite good, Steven Adams is a load, and every button Billy Donovan has pressed has seemed to work. This is not the best team in basketball, not by a long shot, but everything they’ve done has been effective, and they’re a mere 2.5 games back of the 3-seed in the Western Conference. They’ll have their sights set on continuing to shock teams in the West in Orlando.
Miami Heat: Can their young guns come up big as the playoffs go on?
Miami’s core of veterans — Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, Andre Iguodala, Meyers Leonard, Kelly Olynyk — are all battle-tested in the postseason. Their head coach knows what a team needs to do to compete for championships. But as we have seen all year, the Heat have some excellent youngsters, and when they are cooking, they can be awfully hard to beat. Players like Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Derrick Jones Jr., Kendrick Nunn, and Duncan Robinson have either had just a scant taste of playoff basketball or are completely new to this, and while this organization takes pride in being able to out-tough opponents when the going gets tough, the metal of these youngsters will be tested like never before once the postseason rolls around.
Utah Jazz: Where do things stand with both halves of their backcourt?
With Mike Conley, things are easy enough. The veteran guard has been up and down during his first year in Salt Lake City, and the Jazz need him to play up to the level he is capable of playing if they want to make any sort of a run. With Donovan Mitchell, playing like an All-Star would certainly be huge, as would him and Rudy Gobert getting on the same page following a … let’s call it tumultuous couple of months. Even if Bojan Bogdanovic wasn’t injured, those two would hold the keys to everything for the Jazz. With him out, it’s now imperative both are firing on all cylinders for Utah to have a shot at making noise in the postseason.
Denver Nuggets: Do they have enough firepower around a slimmed-down Nikola Jokic?
It can be easy to forget that Denver was a Game 7 away from making the conference finals last year. Still, this team has the All-Star big man who completely transformed his body over the last four months and a collection of players around him who have been banged up or arrived in the bubble late. Jamal Murray consistently playing like someone who just got a gigantic contract extension would help, as would consistent play from Will Barton and Gary Harris. The best version of the Nuggets is one where everyone — those guys, Paul Millsap, Michael Porter Jr., etc. — are spacing the floor and moving around Jokic, providing him the space and flexibility to do all the incredible stuff he is capable of doing. If they can do that, and the svelte looking Jokic’s body can hold up with the physical demands that’ll be placed on it, Denver is going to be a nightmare to play in the postseason.
Boston Celtics: Is Jayson Tatum prepared to win them basketball games?
Jayson Tatum is really, really good. The Celtics have a number of very good players, but Tatum is the one who is looking to get a max deal at the end of this year and might be the best bet to get a bucket in big moments. Add in that Boston isn’t going to have Gordon Hayward at some point this postseason when he departs the bubble to be with his wife as they welcome a new child into this world, and Tatum’s going to have to do a whole lot of heavy lifting. The Celtics’ aspirations of winning the Eastern Conference make a whole lot of sense, and while Kemba Walker is an All-Star in his own right, the third-year forward out of Duke might be in the best position to raise their ceiling from “conference title contender” to “conference winner.”
Los Angeles Clippers: Is Paul George 100 percent back to being Paul George?
A major question is their center rotation — with no Montrezl Harrell for an undetermined period of time and Ivica Zubac joining the team late, Joakim Noah will probably play more minutes than anyone could have anticipated when he joined the team. But when the Clippers went star hunting this past offseason, it was with the hopes of getting a pair of names that could bring them a championship. Kawhi Leonard has been magnificent, while Paul George has been good, but not quite the All-NBA caliber player he’s capable of being. He’s admitted a need to be more accepting of contact after shoulder surgery. He says the hiatus allowed him to finally, fully recover from his shoulder issues, and if he’s able to get over that hurdle and can impose himself on games, the Clippers might win a title regardless of who is playing at the 5.
Toronto Raptors: Is Pascal Siakam ready to be the man?
There is a ton to like about the defending champions, which have carried the title of champions around with immense pride even though they lost a pair of starters from that squad. They’re deep, tough, and smart, but while their 2-12 can go haymaker-for-haymaker with any team in the league, Pascal Siakam is their star. When the going gets tough, he’s the guy who has to battle with Giannis Antetokounmpo, or LeBron James, or Kawhi Leonard, or any other No. 1 they come across in the playoffs. He got a great glimpse of how you do this last year thanks to Leonard, and he’s been really good this year. Life after Leonard had the potential to be tough. Siakam has been a major reason why that hasn’t be the case, and he’ll be the driving force in them continuing to shock people should they make another deep run.
Los Angeles Lakers: How does Anthony Davis handle the spotlight?
LeBron James is the NBA’s ultimate trump card and there is zero reason to think he won’t be able to do something special during the playoffs. Anthony Davis has made the playoffs twice in his career and ran into the Golden State Warriors at the peak of their powers — once in a first round sweep, once in a second round gentleman’s sweep. He’s now going to be expected to help carry a team to a championship. The good news is that there’s zero reason to think he won’t do this, because he has been outrageously good this year and the perfect player to take the floor alongside King James. The Lakers’ guards entering the playoffs are a bit suspect, so they’re going to need Davis to come up as big as he has all year if they want to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to L.A.
Milwaukee Bucks: Can they keep being the best team in basketball during the most important postseason in franchise history?
The Bucks are just so good. When they are able to get into a rhythm, they are the league’s best squad, and it’s hard to imagine anyone beating them four times in seven games in that circumstance. The question, though, is what happens when a side that has mowed through everyone they’ve faced finally gets punched in the mouth — as we saw last year against the Raptors, when Milwaukee is unable to do what it wants to do (a very, very hard thing to pull off) they have struggled to adapt to a Plan B. Is that still the case, especially considering how when they were bounced last year, a report immediately came out saying that the team needs to make the Finals if they want to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo? While he’s said all the right things, and turning down the amount of money he’s going to be offered by the Bucks is going to be impossibly hard to turn down, Antetokounmpo wants to win. The conversation about where he’s best suited to do that will be a pretty quick one as long as Milwaukee does what’s expected and makes a really, really long run this postseason.