After an almost five-month hiatus, the 2019-20 NBA season is set to resume from the Disney World bubble on Thursday. The first game back will be the Pelicans vs. the Jazz at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by the Lakers and Clippers at 9 p.m. There will be six more games on Friday, and with that, we’ll (hopefully) be off and running. This continues to be a fingers-crossed situation, but so far the NBA‘s bubble plan appears to be working as well as anyone could’ve hoped.
A reminder: Each of the 22 teams in Orlando will play eight “seeding” games that will constitute the close of the regular season, at which point the top seven playoff seeds in each conference will be locked. As for the No. 8 seeds, if the No. 9 seed is within four games in the standings at the conclusion of the eight seeding games, there will be a playoff for the final spot, with the No. 9 seed having to beat the No. 8 seed twice.
Once the playoffs start, it will be business as usual: four rounds, seven-game series. If all goes well, the NBA Finals will conclude within the first two weeks of October. As for storylines to watch for, there are plenty. Hundreds, if you really want to go that deep. But we won’t do that. We’ll focus on the big ones, and there are indeed plenty of those as the playoff, and the ultimate championship chase feels more wide open than at any point I can recall, particularly in this unique environment. It genuinely feels like anything could happen.
With that, here are 20 reasons to be geeked for the weirdest NBA playoff run we’ll likely ever see in our lifetimes.
1. LeBron chases No. 4
Catching Michael Jordan’s six titles remains unlikely, but if LeBron James gets to No. 4 this season (asterisk or not), you can at least let yourself dream on a couple more titles if you’re a Lakers fan. Anthony Davis will likely sign long term, the Lakers will do whatever they can to make another power roster move, and honestly, does it seem like LeBron is slowing down? For my money, the Lakers are the smartest bet to come out of this bubble with the Larry O’Brien trophy, but I say that with the understanding that anything could happen in this environment and under these conditions.
2. Wake up the Sleepers
As I said above, anything could happen in this bubble. No home-court advantage. Teams in varying states of conditioning and rhythm. And this was a relatively open championship race to begin with this season. If any of the following teams (outside of universally accepted favorites Milwaukee and the two L.A. teams) were to make the Finals, I would not be completely shocked: Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, and if I reach just a little bit, Miami and/or Houston.
3. Race for No. 8
Particularly in the West, this is going to be a wild run through the eight seeding games and potentially an 8-9 play-in series. For the latter to happen, whoever ends up as the No. 9 seed only has to be within four games of No. 8 — and as it happens, when play begins on Thursday, four teams (Portland, New Orleans, San Antonio and Sacramento) will be within that four-game window as they chase current No. 8 seed Memphis.
4. Battle for L.A.
This was the biggest story when the NBA season began, and nothing (besides, you know, everything) has changed: The Lakers and Clippers, barring an upset, are on a conference finals collision course. And what a series that would be. A quick reminder: Kawhi Leonard is averaging just under 31 points per game vs. the Lakers this season. They don’t really have an answer for him. Speaking of …
5. Kawhi the roaming assassin
Leonard delivered the Raptors their first championship in franchise history last season. Why not do the same for the Clippers in Orlando? That would make Leonard a three-time NBA champion with three different teams — the ultimate hired gun, perhaps even more powerful than bringing LeBron to your team. Leonard wanted to play with Paul George so he wouldn’t have to do quite so much heavy lifting, and George is fully healthy and I suspect ready to play like a top-10 player in the league. But Kawhi is the matchup nightmare. As mentioned above, he ate the Lakers alive this year. His one-on-one prowess has become so destructive that we’ve almost forgotten he’s arguably still the best perimeter defender in the game.
6. Bucking the doubters
Milwaukee was on track for 70 wins most of the season. That milestone is out now, but a championship was always the goal, and the Bucks are the favorite to come out of the East. I wouldn’t call them the clear favorite. I still question a team that relies on its best player to put his head down and barrel to the rim, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. Milwaukee’s center-dropping defense could also be exposed by teams with pick-and-roll shooters and popping big men, but the Bucks could counter with Giannis-at-center lineups that have dominated this season.
Milwaukee is fascinating from a number of matchup standpoints, but there’s no denying Giannis’ unparalleled force or the Bucks’ depth of good-to-really-good players inside a perfectly tailored system. They’re an unquestionable title-worthy team, but their holes might also be bigger than other contenders. Looming over it all is Giannis’ 2021 free agency. Does Milwaukee have to win it all, or at least make the NBA Finals, to keep him?
7. Jayson Tatum takeover
Tatum emerged as Boston’s go-to player — to the extent that such a distinction exists in a pretty equal-opportunity offense — around January, and he was off the charts for the six weeks prior to play being suspended, averaging 29 points on 47 percent 3-point shooting dating back to Feb. 1. But is he ready to be a true No. 1 option in the playoffs, where schemes are tailored to the finest of details and much more aggressive? We’re about to find out.
8. Zion and the Pelicans
The Pelicans are three games back in the loss column of No. 8 Memphis to start this thing, and they are dangerous. There’s no way to overstate how great Zion was over his 19 games this season; a man among boys, even though he’s actually the boy at barely 20 years old. With Williamson on board, the Pelicans’ healthy starting lineup rounded out by Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Derrick Favors has, by far, the best net rating in the league (plus-26.3) among lineups that have played at least 200 minutes together.
9. Lonzo Ball’s shooting
Sticking with the Pelicans, when the 2019-20 campaign was suspended Ball was in the middle of the best shooting season of his young career at 39 percent from beyond the arc, per Cleaning the Glass. With his streamlined form, Ball has never been more aggressive as a shooter/scorer, which opens up New Orleans’ offense considerably. If he picks up where he left off, it’s another reason to fear the Pelicans.
10. Houston’s small ball
The Rockets were barely a .500 team after sending out Clint Capela as part of a four-team trade that brought back Robert Covington, but the intrigue and matchup issues of the small-ball Rockets extend beyond that small sample size. We saw them play with, and cause problems for, some of the best teams in the league, and with P.J. Tucker at center stretching defenses out as a corner 3-point shooter, the lane is wide open for Russell Westbrook, who was playing like an MVP candidate before the season was suspended. This is to say nothing of the almost five-month break James Harden got, which could reverse some of the attrition we’ve seen from him in postseasons past.
11. Ben Simmons at power forward
Brett Brown announced early that he’d been playing Ben Simmons exclusively at power forward during practice, and Brown has gone on to say Simmons has had a “paradigm shift” in his approach to taking 3-pointers. We’ll see when it counts, but for what it’s worth, Simmons drilled a corner 3-pointer last Friday in Philly’s scrimmage vs. Memphis. Simmons taking and making jumpers will always be a point of emphasis when people talk about him and the Sixers, but this move to power forward is about a lot more than that.
For starters, he’s still bringing the ball up the court plenty. He’ll still lead breaks, particularly when he’s the rebounder. But once the pace slows down, if he remains active with cuts, screens and rolls, and uses the space defenders give him to initiate dribble-handoffs and impromptu screens, and if Shake Milton continues his hot shooting/playmaking as the new starting point guard, the Sixers’ offense becomes far more dangerous in the halfcourt, and that is really the difference between them being a first or second-round out and a legitimate championship contender.
12. Dangerous Dallas
Our first look at Luka Doncic, already an MVP candidate, in the playoffs. Do not sleep on the Mavericks. When play was suspended they were on track to be the greatest offense of all time. Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, who’s averaging almost 25 points a game since Feb. 1, have continued to build their chemistry. They’ll miss Jalen Brunson, but hopefully, Trey Burke can give them some production. They’ll really miss Dwight Powell, a great roller to pair with Doncic in pick and roll.
But the Mavs are still loaded with a lot of good players to support their two stars. Dorian Finney-Smith can really defend. Seth Curry is shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc for the season, and almost 58 percent since Feb. 1. Curry and Tim Hardaway Jr. combined to score almost 40 points per game in the six weeks leading up to the break in play. Dallas, currently the No. 7 seed in the West, is dangerous.
13. Toronto’s life after Kawhi
The Raptors were supposed to quietly fade away after Kawhi Leonard left for the Clippers; preseason Vegas lines only had them winning 45 games. When the season was suspended in early March, they had already passed that number with 46 wins (third-best record in the league) with the No. 2 overall defense behind Milwaukee. But can they navigate the playoffs with the same success without a superstar No. 1 player? Or is Pascal Siakam that superstar? We shall see on both.
14. Will the Thunder roll?
Chris Paul has had an All-NBA season and the Thunder have been the biggest surprise in the league. OKC is really dangerous with Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder on the court together, versatile defensively and Paul still controls tempo as well as anyone on earth. As long as OKC keeps games close, Paul has been a historically great clutch player all year and can usually carry them across the finish line. When the season resumes, OKC will be the No. 5 seed in the West just one game back of No. 4 Utah, but also tied in the loss column with No. 6 Houston.
15. Dame time
There aren’t five players in the Orlando bubble I’d rather have on my team in a playoff series than Damian Lillard. But the Blazers have to get to the postseason first. When play resumes, they’ll sit four games back in the loss column of No. 8 Memphis, which just happens to be Portland’s first opponent out of the gate in Orlando. They have to hit the ground running, and they’re in a great position to do so with Jusuf Nurkic, who has looked great in scrimmages, and Zach Collins back in the mix. If Portland were to get in, that would be one heck of a 1-8 first-round series with the Lakers.
16. Lakers lineups
How often will Frank Vogel turn to Anthony Davis at the five? He’ll try to balance it as much as he can and the Lakers, depending on matchups, can try to bludgeon teams with essentially two-center size with Davis alongside either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard. But it’s hard to imagine the Lakers not wanting to put three shooters around LeBron-Davis pick and rolls as much as possible, particularly to close games.
Aside from that, who picks up Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley’s minutes? Alex Caruso will likely see more playing time; probably the same for Danny Green. How much will Vogel trust Dion Waiters and/or J.R. Smith? Waiters can create offense, we know that, and I expect him to get the chance to do so with the second unit. My guess is it will be a game-to-game thing with Waiters and Smith. If they’re in a rhythm and putting up buckets, they’ll stay out there.
With Domantas Sabonis out, the Pacers don’t feel like a threat to do much in Orlando, but they won’t be an easy out. They play tough defense and don’t turn the ball over. They aren’t going to hurt you from 3-point range, but they won’t beat themselves. Also, Victor Oladipo’s return carries a lot of intrigue even if Indiana suddenly isn’t terribly interesting as a whole. First Oladipo said he was going to sit out of the bubble, then he changed his mind. He has looked pretty good in Indiana’s scrimmages, and everything about the Pacers performance in Orlando will be colored by the question of whether Oladipo, a free agent in 2021, will stay in Indiana.
18. Heat check
Jimmy Butler is at once having an All-NBA season and, all things considered, the worst shooting season of his career. The Heat need those shots to start falling if they’re going to make a real playoff run, even with Butler assisting and getting to the free throw line at career-high rates. Meanwhile, Bam Adebayo could be one of the more pivotal players in this postseason; Miami runs a lot of offense through him. He’s a fantastic passer and improving as a face-up shooter, and most important, he’s one of the most versatile defenders in the world. If the Heat were to match up with the Bucks, nobody would be tougher on Giannis Antetokounmpo than Adebayo. If Miami’s shooters get hot, they could be a problem.
19. Jazz being overlooked?
The second news broke that Bojan Bogdanovic was done for the season, it became easy to write off the Jazz. Perhaps a little too easy. They could, in theory, still have one of the best starting lineups in the league with Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale and Rudy Gobert, but that depends on Mitchell playing like a superstar and Conley playing like the player he was supposed to be when Utah acquired him from Memphis. If those things happen, Utah, currently the No. 4 seed, will still be a tough out.
20. The Ja and Jaren show
Ja Morant is appointment television: Russell Westbrook athleticism and explosion, John Wall speed, better shooter than both, and Jaren Jackson Jr. is a 3-point shooting big with great defensive instincts that I almost guarantee you haven’t watched enough of. The Girzzlies, as of right now, are in the playoffs, but four teams are within four games. Can they hang on?