The reasons the 2019-20 NBA season will resume in July and stretch into August will be impossible to ignore or forget. The restart in many ways will still be about COVID-19. The entire endeavor also will be a way to shine light on the ongoing fight against social injustice.
The usual basketball issues, however, will elbow their way into the conversation as the NBA recommences at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex outside Orlando, Fla.
The NBA has seemed determined to return, even as coronavirus cases surge in central Florida.
“We can’t sit on the sideline indefinitely,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “We have to find a way to adapt.”
With that in mind, before the NBA’s restart turns the Disney campus to the Hoopiest Place on Earth, a look at the storylines to come.
GET WELL SOON
As with everything else about the NBA season and far beyond, the coronavirus touches most of 2020 in one way or another. Even on a Disney campus, isolated for the most part from the outside world, there is no escaping why hoops will head to central Florida.
The league and players association announced last week that 16 of 302 players tested were positive for COVID-19. There is a likelihood that there will be others. Though Silver said no one found to be positive so far is seriously ill, it is unknown how athletes will respond when it comes time to perform.
Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and Marcus Smart received positive test results at the start of the NBA hiatus. In recent weeks, Nikola Jokic, Malcolm Brogdon, Buddy Hield, Alex Len, Jabari Parker and Derrick Jones Jr. have tested positive. Though there is a month before games begin, players attempting to come back from a postive coronavirus test will have to be watched closely.
Though the league has been clear that it does not plan to shut down again if there are positive tests among players on the Disney campus, there has been no sense of how many would be too many to continue.
If cases remain isolated with the protocols in place preventing a community spread among players on the Disney campus, Silver said in terms of continuing the season they would be treated like a mid-season injury. Even if a superstar goes out during a playoff series, the games will go on.
If ESPN’s broadcast of players competing in H-O-R-S-E demonstrated anything, besides how sports-starved fans had become, it was that Mike Conley has a really nice home gym.
Other players probably do, too. Many do not. Workout regimens during the hiatus surely varied greatly. While there have been many tales of great weight loss or strength gains and will be more to come, that is typical before training camps begin. They do not always translate to great change in performance.
How prepared players are to start training camps, the seeding games and even the postseason to begin in mid-August will be a large part of how things go. Teams will be careful about pushing too hard through training camp 2.0, but soft-tissue injuries that come from the restart after the long layoff from competition can dramatically change how the season goes.
Even those with great workout equipment and determination cannot duplicate playing NBA basketball at home. Players have cited the risk of injury as a concern. Even just needing weeks to be sharp or to reach even mid-season form in what would normally be deep into an offseason, could change the championship chase dramatically.
WISH YOU WERE HERE
Players opting out of the NBA restart or who are out with injuries could impact the race for playoff spots or the postseason.
The Trail Blazers have a chance to play their way into the playoffs but will be missing Trevor Ariza. The Wizards’ Davis Bertans also told his team he will not be with them in Florida, but the Wizards are much more of a long shot.
The Spurs will be without LaMarcus Aldridge, making their pursuit of an NBA record 23rd consecutive playoff appearance even more difficult than just starting in 12th place in the Western Conference and a storyline to watch as soon as the “seeding games” begin.
The absence of Avery Bradley from the Lakers’ backcourt is significant, especially with Los Angeles in position to accept no less than a championship as satisfactory. Bradley, who opted out of Orlando, had an outstanding season, but the Lakers can easily start Danny Green with Alex Caruso picking up extra minutes along with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope off the bench. The addition of J.R. Smith could be fun, too.
The Mavericks could be shorthanded up front, depending on matchups, with Dwight Powell out with an injury and Willie Cauley-Stein opting out of the restart, though anything that bring more playing time for Boban Marjanovic sounds good. Trey Burke was signed to help with backcourt depth with Jalen Brunson out.
Among the other playoff teams, the Jazz’s loss of Bojan Bogdanovic to a wrist injury could be especially significant. The Jazz’s depth improved with Jordan Clarkson’s play. Mike Conley could assume a larger role Georges Niang might be ready to help off the bench, assuming Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale both start. Still, Bogdanovic, Utah’s second-leading scorer, was considered a key to the Jazz hope to change things in their annual playoff meeting with the Rockets.
PLANTING THE SEEDS
The Lakers and Bucks seem nearly locked in with the top seeds. The Clippers and Raptors seem as solidly second.
In the Western Conference, however, there could be a good battle for positioning. There is just one win separating the fourth and seventh seeds.
With home-court advantage not a factor, there might not be much to gain. In the Western Conference, the primary goal would seem to avoid the Lakers or Clippers in the first round. The are four games separating the third-seeded Nuggets and No. 7 seed Mavericks. The Mavs are just 2½ games out of fourth, 1½ behind the Thunder and Rockets.
THEN AGAIN, WHO CARES
The possibility of play-in games could keep teams that start outside of playoff position interested a bit longer. That could be especially true for the Grizzlies and Pelicans, with young players that will be in their core for years, and the Trail Blazers, who consider themselves out of place in the lottery and get Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back from injuries. But if teams lose a few of the early “seeding games” they could play with little to gain.
Beyond that, the lottery might sound better than a first-round match up against the Bucks or Lakers.
The play-in concept — with ninth-place teams within four games of a playoff spot given a chance to win their way into the playoffs — made sense in the unique circumstances of the season. It will keep teams involved longer and help create more fairness given that the strength of remaining schedules was so different when the season was stopped.
But it also might be a good test drive for future seasons, especially if the play-in possibilities take away the tanking temptation for a few more teams.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is considered certain to a win a second consecutive MVP award, but is after more. The stakes for the Bucks could not be greater.
Antetokounmpo was dealing with a minor knee sprain when the season was halted, but when it comes to a player that important to a legitimate championship contender, the words “minor” and “knee” do not seem to go together. The long layoff should be ample for the Bucks’ star to be at full strength.
The Bucks are heavy favorites to reach the NBA Finals. They bring the best record (53-12) in the NBA to the restart, three games better than the Lakers. They had the league’s best defense, an NBA best 11.3 points per game margin of victory. They would be disappointed by anything less than a championship.
Their future also could be determined in Florida. Antetokounmpo has shown no signs of wanderlust, embracing Milwaukee in many ways. The Bucks will surely offer a supermax extension once the league gets around to an off-season. Antetokounmpo could complete his next contract and return next season, but if he does not grab the $250 million or so the Bucks will offer, speculation will crank up and hang over the Bucks until the day he signs.
The Bucks know what it is like to lose the heart of a championship team, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar having led them to their lone title before winning five more in Los Angeles. But for now, the Bucks could have even more to gain with a title than the championship itself. Antetokounmpo’s presumed return to full strength could make that happen.
IT’S GOOD TO BE THE KING
It was assumed when LeBron James got a break from his usual grind in a short, first season with the Lakers that he would benefit from the break in 2019-20. He proved that thinking correct.
Greatly aided by the addition of Anthony Davis, he is on his way to his first assists title, joining James Harden and Russell Westbrook as the only active players to have seasons leading the league in scoring in assists. He also could be refreshed by the layoff since March 10.
The playoffs, however, will be grueling, with games every other day. For James, delivering the Lakers’ 17th championship in his 17th season would provide another argument for James in best-ever discussions as well as a trimphant end to an emotional, even painful Lakers season following the January loss of Kobe Bryant.
ANOTHER L.A. STORY
The Clippers, the other half of the expected hallway series, are neck and neck with the Lakers as Western Conference favorites to reach the Finals. The Clippers are loaded with depth, with the top-scoring bench in the league further bolstered by the additions of Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris. But championship contention likely could come down to stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
It will be worth seeing how well Leonard and George mesh, having not had a great deal of time together in their first season in Los Angeles. Both could opt out of their contracts, though neither is thought to be going anywhere. Montrezl Harrell will be a free agent. But much more than playing to secure the future, the Clippers are solidly in the championship hunt.
DON’T SLEEP ON SLEEPERS
As much as the Lakers and Bucks established themselves as teams to beat, way back when, this was supposed to be the season without an overwhelming championship favorite. With a layoff that will stretch to more than four months, upsets should not be a surprise.
In the Eastern Conference, the reigning champion Raptors have earned respect as contenders. Teams will not be eager to face the Celtics and Heat, with both offering reminders of last season’s Raptors if Jayson Tatum and Jimmy Butler can fill the Leonard closer role. But the Sixers might be the most intriguing team, with Ben Simmons getting the time needed to be back at full strength and Joel Embiid expected to return in better shape.
In the West, the Nuggets’ championship chances start with how well Nikola Jokic comes back and if he does, how he responds to being much thinner. The Rockets, as always, remain intriguing, with their MVP backcourt and daring move to a center-free style.
There was speculation that the NBA did not limit the restart teams to the 16 in playoff position just to get Zion Williamson back on television. The league would not have had to invite 22 teams to do that. And it would have seemed unfair to the Trail Blazers, Pelicans and Kings, teams knocking on the playoff door, to have been locked out.
Rookie of the year should be Ja Morant’s, but a few more games with Williamson and Morant seem worth checking out. The Pelicans are especially interesting with the easiest schedule of “seeding games.”
Then again, after months with cornhole and H-O-R-S-E competitions, NBA basketball will be welcome if they can pull it off, no matter what storylines come.