The NBA season is close to returning after a long suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic. All 22 teams have arrived in Orlando for the bubble experience. There’s no secret that there are teams that standout more than others. Teams like the Lakers, Clippers and the 76ers arrive in Florida with intriguing storylines. How will LeBron James perform after a huge wait? Can Kawhi deliver the Clippers a title? What about the 76ers and the pairing of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons? The Crossover staff takes a look at some of the most intriguing teams in the NBA bubble.
I’ve been banging the Sixers drum for a while now, so why stop? Four months ago, Brett Brown’s crew was dead in the NBA water. Ben Simmons was out, and Philly looked like an easy first round exit. Now Simmons is back—and stronger than ever, he says—Joel Embiid is in shape and Philadelphia will resume a season where everyone could be just as unreliable from beyond the three-point line as they are. They can lock you down at three positions and have the NBA’s most dominant inside presence, an automatic bucket. If these games are as sloppy as many expect, the Sixers could be primed for a surprising playoff run.
I was going to say Houston, but I’m 99.9% certain at least one other person is going with the Rockets (hey, Shapiro!). So I’m going to switch it up and go with Toronto. The Raptors were an intriguing bunch last year, when they had one of the best players in the league but still didn’t seem like they should win any of their last three playoff series. We all know what happened, but when Kawhi left it seemed safe to write off their championship run as a one-off and sit back and watch them win 46 games and lose in the second round.
Well, they’ve won 46 games, all right—and they should still have 18 to play. They’re somehow better than last year despite losing Leonard and having every meaningful player outside of OG Anunoby and Terence Davis miss at least 10 games. How has this happened? Well, that’s not the question we were asked to answer (and thank God, because I have no idea). Some thoughts: Is Nick Nurse some sort of shaman? Is Pascal Siakam that good? Is the calming influence of Kyle Lowry’s veteran leadership that significant? Is former-SI-scribe-turned-front-office-guru Luke Winn that much smarter than we all thought?
The East is a toss-up, and now that they’re healthy, the Raptors are as liable as anyone to come out of it. And last year serves as a pretty good reminder: You never know what’s going to happen in a seven-game series.
The Brooklyn Nets are not "intriguing" in terms of odds to win a championship, but the team will be interesting to follow purely for how different the lineup will be from the last game played. With Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving not returning from rehab, to Wilson Chandler, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince and Nic Claxton sitting out of the restart, the team will be forced to get creative.
So far, Brooklyn has signed Tyler Johnson, Jamal Crawford, Michael Beasley and reportedly Donta Hall through the rest of the season to help fill its roster. While the production of those players is yet to be seen, the team still has its third- and fourth-leading scorers in Caris LeVert (17.7) and Joe Harris (13.9) to lead the way. Jarrett Allen will be depended on as Brooklyn's go-to big man, with Hall also adding some size.
The Nets are not entering as a threat in Orlando, but how the team adapts to being without much of its regular rotation draws some intrigue. Brooklyn likely will not be challenged for its playoff spot with Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards sitting out, and the team may have a quick exit in the postseason, but scenarios such as the Nets' are representative of the NBA's unique circumstances. Plus, with Crawford and Beasley returning to the court, the possibilities are truly endless.
There seems to be an odd lack of attention on the Clippers as we approach the 2020 postseason. LeBron and the Lakers have snagged a majority of the headlines out West, while all eyes are on Giannis and the Bucks in the junior varsity conference. But neither No. 1 seed has a true leg up on the Clippers in the chase for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Los Angeles sports a 60-win pace when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George both play, and Doc Rivers’ squad has perhaps the deepest supporting cast in the Western Conference. The Clippers’ sheer ceiling makes them a fascinating watch in Orlando.
I think the obvious answer is the Los Angeles Lakers as LeBron James' quest for another championship is sure to be the central storyline when the season resumes. But beyond that I'll go with the Houston Rockets. James Harden has had time to rest so usage should no longer be a concern with him. Not to mention the small ball lineup they went all in on should have fresh legs, which could be to their advantage. And the variance that comes with their high volume three point shooting also makes them an intriguing "sleeper" contender. So beyond the presumed top three teams in the two Los Angeles squads and Milwaukee... Harden, Russell Westbrook and Mike D'Antoni's attempt to all win their first respective title is most intriguing to me.
Philadelphia enters the bubble tied for fifth in the Eastern Conference standings, though, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that they jump into the top four by the time the Eastern Conference playoffs begin. There’s a lot at stake for the 76ers, starting potentially with uncertainty surrounding Brett Brown’s future with the team. But there are broader questions related to if the more than four month NBA layoff has allowed this year’s Sixers team to better gel together on the court.
Joel Embiid said earlier this week that the team’s offense should go through him. In terms of Embiid's fit with Ben Simmons, the star center said the two of them have “got to be ourselves.” The team was also still trying out a number of lineup combinations, with the Embiid—Al Horford pair being a particular pain point in the last few weeks before the season was suspended.
On the plus side, Simmons’ back has had time to recover from an injury that seemed poised to keep him out. There’s no denying the team’s talent, but the potential outcomes for how Philadelphia does in the restart could be vast. Maybe they lose in the first round of the playoffs to Miami, as an example. Maybe they go on the miraculous run that helps them reach the NBA finals.