The summer of 2020 isn’t exactly the most comforting time in recent memory, with the NBA’s return-to-play firmly in the shadow of a global pandemic. But despite the wave of concerns outside the bubble, the basketball inside the NBA’s campus will take center stage sooner than later. And there are no shortage of quality storylines as we approach the regular season’s resumption. Two superstars in Los Angeles are vying for their third ring, while a crop of youngsters are ready to take the league by storm. The Western Conference is stacked with quality teams. The East has an interesting crop behind Milwaukee. The next three months should feature plenty of enjoyable hoops.
So what should fans be truly looking forward to with less than two weeks before regular season games resume? We at The Crossover ranked the top 20 reasons to be excited for the NBA restart.
1. The Battle for Los Angeles
All due respect to the other contenders in the West, but we’ll feel cheated to a degree if we don’t have a Lakers vs. Clippers Western Conference finals. Both LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard are seeking another Finals MVP with a third team, and both squads possess a deep cast of interesting characters. James isn’t getting any younger. Let’s hope he has another classic playoff series in store.
2. Zion and Ja
The top two picks of the 2019 NBA Draft have more than lived up to the hype in their rookie seasons. Williamson has been completely dominant in a small sample, while Morant established himself as a true building block within his first week in Memphis. We could very well see the pair of future All-Stars square off with the No. 8 seed on the line in the Western Conference play-in game(s).
3. Jayson Tatum on the big stage
Jayson Tatum burst on the scene as a surprising leading man in the 2018 playoffs, but he enters the 2020 postseason with true expectations. A run to the Finals will place Tatum as perhaps the top asset in the NBA. But if the Duke product struggles, a first-round exit against Philadelphia, Miami or even Indiana is in play.
4. Power forward Ben Simmons
Brett Brown is rolling the dice with a new position for Ben Simmons in the 2020 playoffs, though the power forward spot isn’t completely foreign to the former No. 1 pick. Simmons has logged 33 possessions as the roll man in pick-and-roll situations this season, generating an impressive 1.06 points per possession. Perhaps bucking conventional wisdom can turn the Sixers’ season around.
5. Harden and Westbrook eye the Finals
Houston has two legitimate superstars on its roster, raising the ceiling for a team that came within one game of the Finals in 2018. But both James Harden and Russell Westbrook have legitimate playoff warts on their respective resumes. Add in the Rockets’ unique devotion to small-ball, and there is no team with higher performance variance in Orlando.
6. Nick Nurse’s schemes
The Raptors’ head coach was arguably as impactful as Leonard last year, unleashing a slate of genius defensive schemes in the 2019 postseason. Toronto plays more zone than any team in the league–even bursting out the occasional box-and-1–and perhaps no coach deploys his defensive weapons as effectively as Nurse. His genius keeps back-to-back championships within reach in Toronto.
7. Doncic’s first playoffs
No player this century has turned in a sophomore season quite like Luka Doncic. The Slovenian sensation was the most accomplished teenager in European history when he entered the NBA, and Doncic can now add to his already-impressive resume in Orlando. Dallas stands as a dangerous first-round opponent for any Western Conference squad, including the juggernauts in Los Angeles.
8. Pacers at full strength
Indiana is perpetually under-discussed despite a strong past decade, and the Pacers could pull off a first-round upset in Orlando. The twin-towers duo of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner continues to be effective despite a questionable fit, and both Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. Warren have turned in quality seasons. Victor Oladipo remains a wild card. He’s reportedly looked impressive in summer camp workouts, though his playing status in Orlando remains unclear. A healthy and effective Oladipo could spell trouble for Miami, Boston or Toronto in round one.
9. Bam’s breakout
Bam Adebayo is now no longer under the radar in NBA circles, drawing plenty of praise for his defensive motor and offensive playmaking. But the rave reviews aren’t unearned. Adebayo is a true franchise building block, and the backbone of Miami’s stout defense. The Kentucky product may win Most Improved Player this season, and the 2020 playoffs could be a springboard to true stardom.
10. Chris Paul revenge tour
Chris Paul was written off as effectively a contract albatross one year ago after being traded from Houston to Oklahoma City. But the Point God has met the skepticism with a career revival in 2019-20, leading the NBA in clutch points for a feel-good Thunder team. There’s been no shortage of motivation for Paul over the last year. A matchup against the Rockets would provide an added dose. Don’t write off the Thunder in round one regardless of their opponent with Paul at the helm.
11. Skinny Jokic
Nikola Jokic showed stunning stamina in the 2019 playoffs, torching both the Blazers and Spurs as Denver won its first playoff series since 2009. The dynamic center has shed considerable weight since, and he enters the NBA restart on the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. Jokic already proved his playoff chops. But the Nuggets aren’t guaranteed a spot in the second round by any stretch of the imagination. They’ll need a repeat performance of Jokic’s 2019 playoffs to stick in Orlando through August.
12. MPJ’s minutes
Let’s stay with the Nuggets briefly, who don’t sport a truly reliable second option next to Jokic. Perhaps rookie Michael Porter Jr. could fill the role. The Missouri product sports a silky jumper with a 6’10” frame, showing slight hints of Kevin Durant if you squint hard enough. No disrespect to Jamal Murray, who has the talent to be a quality No. 2 on the right night. But don’t be surprised if Porter Jr. snags that role from Murray sooner than later.
13. Mitchell and Gobert
The Rudy Gobert-Donovan Mitchell relationship wasn’t perfect even before the COVID-19 fiasco, and it seems as though things aren’t exactly rosy entering Orlando. Gobert’s offensive limitations have been a source of some frustration, and Mitchell isn’t quite at the superstar level of Harden and the other All-NBA talents in the Western Conference. A second straight first-round exit could create some anxiety in Utah entering 2020-21.
14. Los Angeles’ twin towers
The Lakers were mocked for their slate of offseason additions outside of Anthony Davis, most notably for their decision to bring in two additional centers. Not only did Los Angeles make an odd stylistic decision by bringing in Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, they also brought upon the potential for significant drama and distraction. The veteran centers have been productive and largely on their best behavior in 2019-20. Will they be ready to play in the bubble? The Lakers are putting a lot of stock into two former castoffs.
15. Porzingis lurking
It’s been an injury-riddled and imperfect 2019-20 for Kristaps Porzingis, but don’t discount the young center’s offensive potential. Porzingis is a unicorn in every sense of the word, able to punish defenses both above the rim and beyond the arc. Porzingis and Doncic’s two-man dance was improving before the COVID-19 hiatus. Further growth in Orlando will only add to Dallas’ case as a dangerous round one opponent.
16. Popovich’s plan
There’s been little to celebrate in San Antonio this season, and the Spurs aren’t exactly the most exciting team in Orlando. But it would be downright rude to count out Gregg Popovich. San Antonio’s coach is likely to pull off a surprise upset or two in the eight games in Orlando, and the Spurs aren’t completely out of the hunt for the play-in game. If Popovich gets the most out of his young backcourt, San Antonio isn’t done just yet.
17. Houston’s small-ball gamble
We noted Houston’s small-ball commitment earlier, but we should underscore just how radical D’Antoni’s rotation really is. 6’5” forward P.J. Tucker starts at center for the Rockets, and there isn’t a single traditional big man in Houston’s rotation. But the Rockets’ daring move may truly pay off. Tucker and Robert Covington create a dynamic frontcourt duo, and Russell Westbrook has thrived since the Clint Capela trade. Daryl Morey’s midseason moves could be the catalyst for a surprising Finals run.
18. Markelle Fultz’s test
The Magic are likely to get swept by Milwaukee if they advance past the play-in, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t internal goals to be met in the NBA bubble. What sits atop Orlando’s wish list? Likely a quality performance from Markelle Fultz. The former No. 1 pick still has notable shortcomings in his game, but he showed flashes of starting point guard potential in 2019-20. Further growth in the NBA restart will help instill faith in the Magic’s plans for the next decade.
19. Portland gets healthy
The Blazers have been banged up throughout 2019-20, battling injuries as they fell out of the top eight in the Western Conference. But Portland could burst out of the gate in Portland. Both Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic appear to be healthy, bringing serious depth to the frontcourt. An effective Nurkic could supplant Hassan Whiteside and make a real difference in Orlando. The Lakers don’t want to see the Blazers fully operational in round one.
20. Jamal Crawford’s return
The Nets aren’t exactly rolling into Orlando, preparing to play after a stream of injuries and opt-outs. But we should still have some fun when watching Brooklyn cling to its playoff hopes. Jamal Crawford is back in the NBA and ready to light up the scoreboard, or at least make a flashy appearance off the bench. The NBA bubble isn’t just a showcase for the league’s stars. It could also serve as a final tribute to one of the 21st century’s smoothest players.