After more than four months off, the NBA season finally resumes on Thursday with the Pelicans tipping off against the Jazz, followed by a potential Western Conference Finals preview between the Lakers and Clippers.
The Disney World bubble seems to be working so far. Fingers crossed, because sports in a pandemic is very much a day-to-day proposition, and will be until the NBA Finals are completed in October (can you even imagine thinking that far?).
Ahead of the restart, here’s a look at 22 reasons (one for every single team there) to be excited about the resumption of the NBA season:
Giannis goes for his first championship
Giannis Antetokounmpo is on his way to a second consecutive Most Valuable Player award and possibly the Defensive Player of the Year award, as well. The Bucks had the best record in the NBA when the season was suspended in March, but all that will matter is how they perform in the playoffs, especially after blowing a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Raptors last season. At age 25, Giannis has already crossed off all of the important individual accolades, all that remains is the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Oh, and it would sure help quash a lot of the talk about his looming free agency.
LeBron’s best chance to win a fourth title
Remember last season when LeBron James was showing up to Staples Center with a glass of red wine and Magic Johnson quit his job right before their final home game? How the Lakers missed the playoffs entirely in LeBron’s first season in Los Angeles? A year and an Anthony Davis trade later, the Lakers are best among the league’s elite as LeBron tries to chase down a fourth championship at the age of 35. Could this be LeBron’s best chance to win one more championship? The clock is ticking which will make these Disney World playoffs that much more important for this Lakers team.
The defending champions look to rewrite their narrative again
The Raptors won the title last season and then said goodbye to Kawhi Leonard a couple weeks later, and everybody wrote them off. Instead, they remain one of the top teams in the league thanks to Coach of the Year favorite Nick Nurse and a core group that plays like they’re wearing their championship rings on their fingers each and every night. Marc Gasol looks like he’s in the best shape of his life post-quarantine, and the Raptors could be dangerous in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Sure there are lots of questions, starting with how Pascal Siakam will perform as a No. 1 option in the playoffs. But there’s too much “never underestimate the heart of a champion” energy with this squad to count them out.
A championship parade at Magic City
The Clippers franchise has never made it out of the second round (seriously) but stats like this might not matter at Disney World as long as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are healthy come playoff time. Everybody is pencilling in a Clippers-Lakers matchup in the conference finals, and if it does happen and we get seven competitive games with virtual Jack Nicholson and Billy Crystal courtside, this whole bubble experiment just might be worth it. Anything goes in the year 2020, so we should mentally prepare for a championship parade at Magic City—Lou Williams' favorite "restaurant"—if the Clippers win it all.
The Celtics’ young core looking to write their own chapter after Kyrie’s departure
In their first post-Kyrie Irving season, the Celtics seem to have found a winning formula that starts with the emergence of Jayson Tatum as their franchise player. There remains concerns about Kemba Walker’s lingering knee issue, and who is going to play center in the playoffs, especially in a potential first round matchup against the 76ers, but the Celtics have a formidable five-man lineup and guys like Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart who can swing a series. If it all breaks right, the Celtics could go on a deep run at Disney World.
The debut of the new, skinny and improved(?) Nikola Jokic
Nikola Jokic is going to be a feature attraction at the NBA bubble, but right now the Nuggets are just trying to have enough healthy bodies so they don’t have to start three centers in the starting lineup, as Denver did in their scrimmage debut last week. There are people who don’t think Denver can even win a round in the playoffs, let alone compete with the LA teams in the second round. This will be an important year to see whether the Jamal Murray and Jokic tandem can raise the ceiling of a team that came within one win of the Western Conference Finals last season.
The Jazz try to fight through their chemistry issues
This stop-and-go NBA season has been so long that I must remind you the Utah Jazz were everyone’s sleeper pick heading into the year. There’s entirely too much going on with this team to think they can pull it all together in the bubble, especially given the competitive landscape in the West. Mike Conley never quite found his footing in his first year in Utah. Bojan Bogdanovic is out for the year after undergoing wrist surgery. Have Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert fully squashed their beef after their COVID contractions in March? We’re about to find out if any of this matters, or if Utah can salvage an underwhelming season with a playoff run.
Jimmy Butler reporting himself to the snitch line for working too hard
It’s unclear how far this Heat team can go in the playoffs, but they are definitely in the running for most entertaining team in the bubble, from Meyers Leonard shotgunning beers to Jimmy Butler drawing complaints from the snitch line because he was dribbling a basketball in his room at 3 in the morning. The Heat might face a tough matchup in the first round (Jimmy Butler versus the Sixers, anyone?) but if they can get into the second round, the Heat have to like their chances to at least be competitive against Milwaukee, given how Bam Adebayo matched up against Giannis in the regular season.
Can the Thunder's Cinderella season run deep into the playoffs?
The Thunder weren’t just a feel-good story this season, they were—especially in the second half of the season—quite simply one of the best teams in the league. The trio of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder were a damn near unstoppable duo and especially great in crunchtime, and don’t sleep on Andre Roberson’s return (after a 30-month absence) in the bubble, either. All of this might still end up in a first round exit for the Thunder, and questions of whether it would be time to move Paul to a contending team despite what he brought to this team on the off the court this season, but I’m sure none of the Western Conference contenders wants to see this team in the first-round.
The Rockets try (again) to break through
The Rockets, as always, will be a swing team in the Western Conference playoffs. They have the kind of top-tier talent in James Harden and Russell Westbrook to win any seven game series, and their 3-point shooting gives them a chance to break open any game. On the flip side, how the small lineup with P.J. Tucker at center will work in the playoffs remains a question, and if the Rockets go through a shooting slump in a key playoff moment (this has happened before), they could easily make an early exit once again. There’s plenty on the line for this team, and Daryl Morey has remade this team countless times over this decade. This feels like one of the last swings this core group has at doing anything substantial in the postseason.
The return of a healthy Victor Oladipo
Victor Oladipo, who was initially ruled out for the rest of the season, has been scrimmaging with the Pacers, although there still isn’t an official decision on whether he will play when the actual season resumes this week. Domantas Sabonis is out indefinitely, and this Indiana team can’t really afford even one major injury if they want to win not just a series, but a few games in the playoffs. If Oladipo returns and plays at the level he flashed the past few seasons, this is still a dangerous team. If not, it’s looking like a first round exit for the Pacers.
The Sixers look for a fresh start
The Sixers are probably the most interesting team in the bubble because it always feels like there’s still plenty of untapped potential with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Simmons is playing the power forward spot now, and Brett Brown is going to see if Shake Milton can pick up where he left off at point guard, while still trying to manage the awkward mix of Embiid and Al Horford, who will be coming off the bench. It’s been a strange season for the Sixers, who went 29-2 at home and 10-24 on the road (put it this way: the Knicks had a better road record). If there’s one team that needed some time off and a reboot, it’s this team. We’ll see what drama awaits the Sixers in the bubble.
Luka Doncic makes his postseason debut
Already one of the best players in the NBA, when analysts talk about the next superteam being formed in the bubble it’s not hard to envision that superteam being led by Luka Doncic, whose skill set and selfless play makes him one of the most appealing young stars to play with in the entire league. Doncic is a pretty sure bet to win an MVP in the near future, and we’ll get a first look in the bubble how how he responds to a playoff environment (without fans, of course).
The Rookie of the Year tries to lead his team into the playoffs
The Grizzlies are probably right to have a gripe with this bubble format, given that they likely have to win a play-in game to secure the eighth seed in the West. Ja Morant is going to win Rookie of the Year, and already looks like a franchise player for years to come. There’s plenty to be excited about with this Grizzlies team, but it would be a disappointing finish if they don’t end up in the postseason. It makes them an absolutely must-watch team for their eight seeding games before the playoffs start in August.
The Nets roster will be important for a future trivia night
The Brooklyn Nets are without half of their team in the NBA bubble, and there’s legitimately a chance Jamal Crawford somehow drops 50 points in a game. They currently hold the seventh spot in the East, and even with a makeshift roster, it is unlikely the Washington Wizards will knock them out of the top eight (can you feel the excitement for the East playoff race?). This is definitely the time to learn names like Chris Chiozza and Jeremiah Martin though. I promise they will come up on trivia night sometime in the future.
The Orlando Magic try to figure out their young core
Mo Bamba looks like the muscle watch MVP of the NBA bubble. Jonathan Isaac is back and scrimmaging with the team. Aaron Gordon remains an intriguing player, dunk contest diss tracks aside. And there’s always interest in how Markelle Fultz is coming along. I also love the idea that they’re essentially the home team, but not really. The individual storylines are interesting enough, but the Magic don’t feel like a particularly fascinating team as a whole. It would be nice to see Fultz continue to develop and rebound for what became a very difficult situation in Philadelphia which eventually led to his trade to Orlando.
The Trail Blazers are everyone’s dark horse bubble team
Fresh off a Western Conference Finals appearance, the Blazers were on their way to missing the playoffs in March when the season was suspended. Now, they have Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back in the lineup, which changes the ceiling for this team entirely. The Blazers are among a handful of teams who are trying to get into a play-in game with the Memphis Grizzlies, who Portland will play in their opening game on Friday. If Damian Lillard catches fire for two weeks at Disney World, look out.
The Zion Williamson Show
Now that he’s back in the bubble and quarantining (honestly, I’ve lost track of the quarantine rules for different players), Zion Williamson is expected to play on Thursday in the league’s marquee opening night game against the Utah Jazz. The Pelicans have a bit of a climb to get into the playoffs, but a player like Zion gives them a chance. Throw in Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday, and it’s not hard to envision New Orleans getting into at least the play-in game. We know the NBA would not say no to a Zion-LeBron first-round matchup.
The Kings look to end a 13-year playoff drought
Listen, if my team was in a 13-year playoff drought, I am not putting any kinds of asterisks next to ending that streak at Disney World. The Sacramento Kings are probably not going to get into the postseason, but it’s been a strange season, a strange year, a strange everything, so we probably shouldn’t count anything out. Eight seeding games to get to where they need to be, those are probably better postseason odds than the Kings have had in years.
The Spurs try to continue their 22-year playoff streak
The Spurs have made the playoffs in every single season since 1998 and that is on the line in the NBA bubble. Without LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the most impressive streaks in the league is about to come to an end. But hey, we’ll still get a couple of iconic Gregg Popovich sideline interviews out of this, right?
Devin Booker goes for…70 points?
Apologies to Phoenix Suns fans, but I keep forgetting that they are in the bubble. Listen, I understand there are television deals that have to be honored and this is a chance for players to earn some of their contract back, but the Suns have to jump four teams in the standings just to maybe get into a play-in game against the Memphis Grizzlies. Even Howard Ratner from Uncut Gems isn’t touching those odds. But, well, I’m really trying to search for something here, maybe Devin Booker will go for 70 points in a regular-season game again.
The Rui Hachimura Watch is on
Bradley Beal is out and Davis Bertans decided to forego the bubble to not risk anything ahead of what should be a massive payout in free agency this fall. So, we’re left with perhaps rookie Rui Hachimura getting a chance to showcase his skills in a much bigger role. It’s not inconceivable for the Wizards to make the playoffs (see: Brooklyn Nets). All I’m saying is there are better storylines at the bubble than whatever eighth seed race that breaks out between the Nets, Magic and Wizards.