After 20 full weeks on hiatus, the 2019-20 NBA season is finally ready to restart. In case you’d forgotten, the Milwaukee Bucks lead the Eastern Conference, the Los Angeles Lakers are atop the West, the Memphis Grizzlies are clinging to the West’s 8-seed and the Toronto Raptors are still — more than a year later — the defending champions.
With 22 teams participating in the NBA restart at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida, there will be no shortage of storylines to get excited about as play resumes Thursday. Here’s what our experts will be watching in the 88 seeding games and beyond.
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Is the world ready for Ja Morant?
Unlike his childhood friend Zion Williamson, Morant has flown under the radar. He played his college ball at Murray State, not Duke. He plays his pro ball in Memphis, Tennessee, and away from the national spotlight. But anyone who gets the chance to see him play can instantly fall in love with his game. He has unbelievable athleticism as he showed with a game-saving block of Kyrie Irving in his first week as a pro. He has a fiery competitive streak that’s easy to like. And he plays with a pass-first style that, once Memphis adds more perimeter shooting around him, is going to lead to both a really fun offense and lots of assists. With a wider world that hasn’t had a chance to see Morant as much as it should’ve tuning in, it will be a golden opportunity for him to show what he’s capable of on this kind of stage. — Tim Bontemps
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Ja Morant throws down a soaring reverse dunk from an alley-oop pass in practice, and his Grizzlies teammates are in shock.
How will LeBron finish Year 17?
There is very little that LeBron James does or says that is not intentional at this stage in his career. So when he showed up to the NBA’s bubble with a thick beard flecked with gray hair, it was easy to decipher the statement he was making.
After missing the playoffs in his first year in L.A. and suffering the most serious injury of his career, LeBron started the season tweeting he is not the #washedking (which no one actually called him). In his 17th year, the 35-year-old was determined to prove this was still his league — and he largely did, leading the league in assists and leading the Lakers to the best record in the West.
He’d played his two best games of the season right before the league went on hiatus, beating his two biggest challengers for both the MVP and the NBA championship — Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks and Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers — in back-to-back games.
Showing up to the bubble as a graybeard is just a continuance of the statement LeBron has been making all season:
Father Time might be coming for him someday soon, but not yet. — Ramona Shelburne
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What will happen with the unpredictable 76ers?
What happens to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons is one of the key variables that will determine the balance of power in the NBA over the next half-decade. Each is good enough to change the fortunes of a downtrodden franchise, but they have never meshed seamlessly. The impact of those fit issues has probably been a little exaggerated; they both overflow with sheer talent, and talent can paper over fit.
An appearance in the conference finals or NBA Finals in Florida would quiet the noise about their partnership and give Philly brass confidence their two homegrown stars can carry the team where it wants to go — provided the right supporting cast.
But an early flameout will pump up the volume on that noise and bring those (mostly fair) questions back to the forefront. It feels too early for this postseason to be make-or-break considering the unprecedented circumstances of a global pandemic. Barring an unforeseen trade bounty, the 76ers should give this pairing another year. But they don’t have forever. — Zach Lowe
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Is Shake Milton the answer for Philadelphia?
What if I told you a 54th overall pick with a 7-foot wingspan was informed he was out of the rotation, only to seize the moment when a teammate went down and torched the LA Clippers for 39 points? Sounds like a great 30 for 30 film. Maybe someday ESPN will feature Shake Milton; in the meantime, the G League alum will be the starting point guard for the Sixers, directing a lineup that has played exactly zero minutes together. Milton has exhibited exceptional range — how does 45.3% from the 3-point line sound? — and a defensive fierceness Philly craves. The Sixers knew they needed to shake things up. Now all eyes will be on Malik Benjamin Milton to see if he will thrive under playoff scrutiny. — Jackie MacMullan
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Can Zion Williamson make a playoff push?
Shaquille O’Neal didn’t make the playoffs until his second season in the league. LeBron James didn’t make it until his third. Both were ubiquitous talents from the moment they made it to the league — one-name stars like Prince or Madonna — but had to wait for the game’s biggest stage. Zion Williamson, another budding superstar on a similar path, has a chance to outpace both of their trajectories to a postseason berth. I want to see what he does with that carrot in front of him. The New Orleans Pelicans are in a prime position to make a final push to catch the Memphis Grizzlies, and Rookie of the Year front-runner Ja Morant, for the No. 8 seed. And if they do, we’ll likely get two of the one-name guys squaring off: Zion vs. LeBron. — Dave McMenamin
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Can the NBA keep everyone safe?
While the NBA and all involved parties have done an impressive job of keeping the coronavirus out of the bubble thus far, there is still a long way to go between now and mid-October. It feels in some ways inevitable that someone inside — a player, staffer, etc. — will contract it at some point. League officials have said they expect that to happen. One general manager posed to me that the first positive case will “increase the fear factor” inside the bubble, changing the whole environment and raising stress levels about a potential outbreak. I’ll be very interested to see how the whole tenor of the bubble changes at that point, and what happens next. — Baxter Holmes
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Can Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert coexist?
We get it. You don’t have to go out to dinner every night and play video games for hours with all of your teammates to be effective on the court. Mr. Kobe Bean Bryant and Mr. Shaquille O’Neal showed us that in the 2000s with three rings together.
However, I’ll be watching closely to see how Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are able to coexist in Utah. They’re both nice guys who consistently do good in the community — especially with kids — but relationships matter in basketball to some extent. You don’t want to be beefing with the guy next to you, especially if you’re trying to become a legitimate championship contender.
They looked good together throughout the scrimmages, and both guys say any preexisting animosity is now water under the bridge. The Jazz are going to need their two All-Stars to be on the same page. For years, Jazz fans were spoiled with John Stockton and Karl Malone, so the dynamics of this latest Utah duo are a different story. — Eric Woodyard
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Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert details the day he found out he tested positive for the coronavirus.
Can ‘Heat Culture’ make a difference in the bubble?
Team president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra have created a basketball-centric universe that has produced titles and admiration on South Beach over the past 20-plus years. Spoelstra and his players genuinely believe that the hard-working environment they exist in on a daily basis is only going to help adapt to the unprecedented circumstances that surround the bubble. Jimmy Butler believes in the culture in Miami and has the opportunity to prove that he can carry a team to the Finals. The bubble seems tailor-made for Butler’s personality and his new team. — Nick Friedell
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Who will win the West’s wild race for eighth?
For some teams in the bubble, the first few seeding games might be treated like glorified preseason contests or December regular-season outings. They mean something, but not much. For the teams battling for the No. 8 seed in the West, however, it’s almost as though the playoffs start Thursday when the Pelicans take on the Jazz. New Orleans, like Portland, San Antonio, Sacramento and Phoenix, is chasing Memphis for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Those six teams have reason go hard every night as they jockey for position to try not only to get the eighth spot but also both stay within four games of that spot and ahead of each other to claim the ninth seed in order to force the play-in tournament. — Andrew Lopez
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What will the Pacers look like?
For a third year in a row, the Pacers will be vying for a top-four seed in the East, but you won’t hear anyone discussing them as a threat to win the conference.
Whether they could’ve been dangerous is hard to know. Due to injuries, and waiting on star Victor Oladipo to return, they never really had a chance to jell during the regular season. Oladipo’s participation in seeding games is still a question, and All-Star Domantas Sabonis won’t be with the club to start, if at all, as he faces a foot injury.
All of this speaks to something that could become a larger issue for Indiana: The small-market team will soon have to decide how it wants to proceed, perhaps without having had a full opportunity to watch its four core players (Oladipo, Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner) play in significant games together. — Chris Herring
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Will the NBA regret not taking the 16 best teams for the playoffs?
In fairness, the NBA did not have a crystal ball in mid-June when it set the playoff format. At the time, Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans were going to play for the Washington Wizards and Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, Wilson Chandler and Taurean Prince were scheduled to play for the Brooklyn Nets. A month later, both teams resemble their respective G League affiliates. Yet one of those teams (and possibly both) will be playing when the playoffs start in mid-August. That means instead of seeing the Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard, Grizzlies’ Ja Morant or Pelicans’ Zion Williamson oppose Milwaukee in the first round, we are left with possibly the most one-sided first-round series in NBA history. — Bobby Marks
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Can the Raptors repeat?
Having lost Kawhi Leonard weeks after he was named Finals MVP, Toronto was never going to be a typical defending champion in 2019-20. Even without Leonard and fellow starting wing Danny Green, however, the Raptors have put themselves in contention in the East. Toronto enters the restart with a fully healthy rotation for the first time since the season’s early days and should be favored to meet the Bucks in a rematch of last season’s conference finals. Certainly, the Raptors would be an underdog against Milwaukee, and they’re no sure thing to make it that far with the talented Celtics potentially looming in Round 2. But after last year’s thrilling title run, I’m excited to see what Toronto has in store this year. — Kevin Pelton
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Were Bol Bol‘s scintillating scrimmages for real?
NBA fans are getting a firsthand look at exactly why Bol Bol was widely considered a top-five talent and the most polarizing prospect in the 2019 NBA draft. Through three games, the Denver Nuggets big man blocked nine shots in just 88 minutes, knocked down 35% of his 3s out of several different actions and handled the ball like a guard. But the question has never been ability with Bol. Despite his 7-foot-7 wingspan, agility and touch, he fell to 44th in the draft in large part due to questions about his health, durability and resolve. He’s good for at least a few “wow” moments every time he steps onto the floor, but I’m fascinated to see whether Bol can carve out an actual role next to Nikola Jokic & Co. when wins and losses are on the line. Regardless of how much he plays in the postseason, the Nuggets’ redshirt program has already worked wonders for the 20-year-old big man, who has quickly turned into must-see TV. — Mike Schmitz
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Nikola Jokic passes out of a double-team and finds Bol Bol, who rises high above the rim to convert the basket.
Which young stars will stand out?
For first- and second-year players, the summers are when things happen. It’s when they can assess their seasons, identify areas to improve and go to work. The driven, upper-tier under-25s often take their leaps summer to summer. And in this situation, there was a summer right in the middle of the season.
For Zion Williamson, Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, and others, the Orlando restart could serve as a sneak peek of sorts at what the next things they’re putting in the bag are. Morant and Williamson are effectively no longer rookies, and the second-year guys are essentially veterans. One player to keep an eye on who fits here: Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is drawing rave developmental reviews so far. — Royce Young
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Lisa Salters breaks down why the Mavericks expect high-level production from a healthy Luka Doncic.
Are the L.A. teams headed for a conference finals clash?
Even if Anthony Davis, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and possibly Patrick Beverley aren’t available to play on Thursday, Lakers-Clippers is still perfect for relaunching the NBA season. LeBron James’ Lakers against Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers will remind us after four-plus months off what we could get when, one hopes, we have NBA playoff games in the fall.
Since last summer, when the Clippers got Leonard and Paul George, the dream of an epic Lakers-Clippers Western Conference finals collision has been gaining strength. They played three times before the hiatus, with each game carrying the hype and feel of a heated playoff rivalry. Even though it will be in Orlando with no fans, a Lakers-Clippers best-of-seven with the NBA Finals on the line is the basketball holy grail I need to see. Please, 2020, give us something. Give us the all-L.A. bubble battle. — Ohm Youngmisuk
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