The NBA is finally back tonight after 140 days and a lot has changed since the season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. The 22 participating teams in the bubble will resume the season with each participating team playing eight “seeding games,” as selected from its remaining regular-season matchups. Once the 16-team playoff field is set, the NBA Playoffs will proceed in a traditional conference-based format with four rounds and best-of-seven series in each round.
In celebration of the NBA’s official return, our writers make their Finals predictions.
Chris Mannix: Bucks over Lakers in Six games
Entering the bubble, I was convinced—the playoffs wouldn’t be chalk. Too much can happen in an unorthodox (to say the least) re-start to get Bucks vs. Lakers, top seed vs. top seed. But being here … you start to believe that is the most likely scenario. The Clippers roster is a wreck. Denver’s, too. Meanwhile in the East, Kemba Walker is battling a bum knee and Pascal Siakam will have to prove he’s ready for the Kawhi Leonard role. The Lakers are flawed, more so with Avery Bradley gone. And the Bucks reliance on the three-point shot worries me, especially following the four-month hiatus. But they remain the safest bet, and it says here that a deep, talented and well-coached Bucks team, on the cusp of the Finals a year ago, outlasts LeBron and Co. to win a championship.
Mark Bechtel: Bucks over Lakers in seven games
I was torn between which L.A. team to take in the West, and when the margins are that slim, you take the team with the best player. And that’s still LeBron James. The Lakers will benefit training camp 2.0 (but, to be fair, so will the Clippers, and the Rockets, and the…). However, at the same time the Lakers probably benefit more from the midseason break. James is averaging a career-low 34.9 minutes per game, but that’s still a lot for a guy in his 17th season. With his batteries recharged and the whole team a little tighter after spending more time together, they’ll edge past the Clippers in the conference finals.
In the East things are a lot more clear. Milwaukee has the star power, the supporting cast, the coach—everything. If the Bucks stay healthy, there are no pressing issues—at least not as pressing as every other contender is facing.
Jeremy Woo: Bucks over Lakers in six games
This feels like a year where anything can happen, but in truth, I’ll be surprised if it’s not either Milwaukee or Toronto against one of the LA teams in the Finals. Giannis winning the East at some point feels inevitable. The Bucks are a tough matchup for everyone and have configured a tough, experienced rotation that can spread defenses out and punish them in the paint. If they recapture their form from earlier in the season, there’s little question they’re the favorites.
I admit I’m a bit concerned about all the Clippers’ moving parts, and while the Lakers have a shallower team, this also strikes me as a situation where LeBron adapts and finds a way. Looking down the road, the Lakers’ window to win the Finals isn’t quite as wide open as you think, and you have to think he realizes that. Watching him play with urgency is always something. If Anthony Davis is healthy, they’ll be a threat to win any seven-game series.
I’m not making any predictions with supreme confidence given the circumstances, but I like Milwaukee to get it done.
Rohan Nadkarni: Heat over Nuggets in six games
I’m going full anarchy with my bubble championship scenario, because this entire NBA situation is completely insane and the only way to fully reflect these (very solemn voice) unprecedented times is with an off-the-wall Finals pick. Grey-beard LeBron and one-eye Anthony Davis will end up being no match for Skinny Jokic in the conference finals. And I thought Bam Adebayo was the Giannis stopper way before NBA Twitter thought it was cool. (It took you all long enough to catch up!) In all seriousness, the exercise of trying to predict anything in 2020 is hilariously (darkly?) futile and as such I refuse to try to treat this guess with anything other than an aggressive shrug.
I’m supposed to tell you what’s going to happen a couple months from now? Really? Will movie theaters still exist by then? And are we completely sure we dealt with the murder hornets threat? If you want some hard-hitting analysis, I’m sure the three teams (Lakers, Clippers, Bucks) that separated themselves during the regular season will probably factor into the championship conversation based in reality. But I think the real Finals is the pandemic we’re trying to survive along the way.
Jarrel Harris: Lakers over Bucks in seven games
My initial pick was the Clippers but something keeps telling me to pick the Lakers. Los Angeles has not appeared in the postseason since the 2012-13 season and LeBron definitely wants to make up for not leading the team to the playoffs in his first season in LA. He is averaging 25.7 points and a league-high 10.6 assists at age 35 in his 17th season! Anthony Davis has fit in perfectly. But it is all going to depend on how players like Kyle Kuzma, Dwight Howard, Alex Caruso, J.R. Smith, and Dion Waiters step up when it counts. Bucks-Lakers is packed with potential storylines: Three Antetokounmpo brothers in the Finals, LeBron winning his first title since 2016, a possible first ring for Dwight Howard and the Lakers ending the season as champions to honor Kobe Bryant.
Ben Pickman: Lakers over Celtics in six games
There’s no denying the fact that Milwaukee has been the East’s best team during the regular season, but in a wonky season filled with twists and turns, it wouldn’t be completely shocking if the Bucks fell short in the postseason. Much like Toronto, who is another title contender in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics have a number of lanky wings that they can throw at Giannis Antetokounmpo. Jayson Tatum was emerging as an elite NBA player prior to the league’s stoppage and if Kemba Walker’s knee isn’t an issue, then Boston has both the backcourt and frontcourt depth to compete with anyone at the top of the conference. Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart all present a set of challenges to opposing teams. Daniel Theis has been productive from the center position when Boston elects to play a more traditional center. The Bucks and Celtics split their regular season series this year and while Milwaukee easily discharged the Celtics last postseason, the 2020 postseason might tell a different story.
While the Western Conference is loaded with talented rosters—see Dallas, Houston and Denver as examples—it feels like the Lakers and Clippers are on a collision course to meet in the Western Conference finals. It will no doubt be a grueling series, but the duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis will an overwhelm a Clippers roster that is seemingly in flux at the start of the NBA’s seeding games. The Lakers’ experience and frontline talent will then be overpowering in a finals matchup with the Celtics as James and the Lakers capture the league’s crown in the most unusual version of the league’s most common finals matchup.
Elizabeth Swinton: Bucks over Clippers in six games
The Lakers have received much attention in the West, but the Clippers should not be underestimated in the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard is well-rested and has proven his worth in the postseason, while Paul George looked sharp in the Clippers' exhibition games. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, who both have spent time outside the bubble with excused absences, should be ready to rejoin the lineup in time for the postseason. If Leonard and George can rely on their other top scorers, the Clippers may have enough depth to outlast LeBron James and Anthony Davis atop the West.
As for Milwaukee, Leonard's exit from the East gives the Bucks a great chance to prove themselves in the playoffs. Building on Giannis Antetokounmpo's MVP-caliber season and past playoff experiences, the Bucks should outlast the Toronto Raptors in the East and find themselves in their first NBA Finals since 1974. The Bucks defeated the Clippers both times they met during the regular season and will look to capitalize on their top defense to take home the trophy in an entertaining matchup.
Leonard is a formidable playoff opponent, but the Bucks are primed to take the next step and continue their leading play into the postseason. If Antetokounmpo can break out of his postseason shell while his teammates stay healthy, Milwaukee will be well-positioned for the 2019-20 title.
Michael Shapiro: Clippers over Bucks in six games
It's truly hard to parse which of the top three teams is the best entering the NBA restart. The Bucks sport the league's best record and the game's most dominant athletic force, while the Lakers have both the best player of the 21st century and another Hall-of-Fame talent. But it's hard to shake the feeling that the Clippers are best suited for a long run in Orlando. Doc Rivers' squad has perhaps the deepest roster in the conference, and Kawhi Leonard looks ready for a return to his Finals MVP form. Paul George is perhaps the most intriguing player entering the season's resumption. If we see the George of early 2018-19 in Orlando, the Clippers may very well cruise to the title. Otherwise, we'll have a true three-way battle for the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Robin Lundberg: Lakers over Bucks in six games
I won’t get too cute here. These were the two best teams that displayed the most continuity all year. I expect some of that chemistry to carry over into a restart. And while I still have questions about Milwaukee in crunch time and given the unpredictable circumstances could see them being upset by Boston, Miami, Philly or Toronto ( I have to imagine they’ll miss Kawhi come playoff time though), I’m not confident enough in any of those teams yet to outright pick against Giannis and company. On the other side, the Lakers face more notable threats, especially the second Los Angeles team. However, a fresh and motivated LeBron James flanked by AD, a strong D and just enough shooting is always a safe bet. And when it comes to winning the whole thing, I’ll default to the player I know can be trusted no matter the situation.