10 Biggest Storylines to Watch as the NBA Resumes
The NBA is days away from resuming the remainder of their NBA Season and we can’t wait. In anticipation of the resume, we’ve identified the 10 biggest storylines to watch across the Association. My social team partner in crime, Adrian Crawford, broke things down in the Western Conference while I took a look at things out East.
Storyline #1: #GiannisWatch
In today’s NBA you know you’ve reached the pinnacle when fans and media begin counting down the days until you’re a free agent (which is stupid because those same people will be mad when he makes HIS decision… but I digress). Like LeBron James and Kevin Durant before him, we’ve begun to dissect every move that Giannis Antetokounmpo makes as we wait for the summer of 2021. If he talks to Steph Curry after a game against the Warriors he’s definitely going to the San Francisco. A lot of sleeveless shirts in Giannis’ wardrobe… he’s Miami bound. Someone saw Giannis at the store buying a coat, he must be prepping for a Milwaukee winter… he’s staying. You get the idea.
While the constant chatter and dissection of his every move is nonsensical. It is important to realize that the Bucks basically have a two-year audition to make a final impression on the best player in the world. They would be smart to not blow it like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder did before them. To their credit they’ve built a solid group around Giannis and the team caters to his strengths. But is that enough?
Absolutely not, Giannis has made it clear over the past couple of years that winning is his prime focus. Not just winning regular season games (which the Bucks have won a ton of), not even just playoff games (the Bucks have had mild success in the tournament), but championships. The 25-year old Greek international wants rings. Deep playoff runs are great, but if the Bucks can’t win the title this year (not sure a Finals appearance is even enough) they may have to trade Giannis this offseason to avoid letting him leave for nothing in 2021.
Storyline #2: LeBron’s #RevengeSeason Continues
We’re all aware that LeBron James’ first season with the Lakers didn’t exactly end the way he had hoped. After missing 17 straight games with a groin injury, Akron’s favorite son played under a minutes restriction and then was ultimately deactivated in late March of 2019 and LA missed the playoffs.
But we’re also aware of what happens when LeBron gets a summer off to do seemingly nothing but work out, and that’s now happened twice since the end of the 2018-19 season. The Lakers added Anthony Davis in the offseason and went into the COVID19-forced break on top of the Western Conference, with key wins over Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks and the nightmare Clippers duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the hometown derby.
Now LeBron’s just been waiting for his chance to get back on the floor and finish what he started. And based on his physical appearance from early sightings in the Orlando Bubble, who exactly is gonna get in his way?
Bonus subplot: Alongside King James and AD, the Lakers have paired up entertaining backcourt duo JR Smith and Dion Waiters, the latter of whom was traded from the Cavs to make way for the former in Cleveland in 2015. Awkward.
Storyline #3: Philly’s Last Chance?
The Philadelphia 76ers big three of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Bret Brown have been together for four seasons (the first of which Simmons missed all of). The chances that they make it to season five are slim. More so than any team not named Milwaukee (in the East), the 76ers need results. In the time that Embiid, Simmons and Brown have been together they’ve established themselves as a perennial playoff team, but getting past that point has been a hurdle as they’ve had back-to-back exits in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
This past offseason the 76ers made the shocking decision to let Jimmy Butler walk, flipping him to the Miami Heat for Josh Richardson as part of a sign and trade deal. That trade paved the way for them to sign Al Horford and retain Tobias Harris. Preseason Philly was a sexy pick to make the NBA Finals and they rewarded those that made the pick by starting the season 20-7. Unfortunately they’ve gone 19-19 since. The 76ers are a good defensive team (6th in the NBA) but struggle offensively (17th in the NBA). Simmons’ reluctance to shoot the three, having Embiid posted in the paint along with Horford on the block has created a lot of spacing issues. Prior to the NBA shutdown the 76ers played around with having Horford come off the bench but an injury to Simmons forced him back into the starting five.
Patience is wearing thin in Philly and there’s enough blame to go around. Brown led the 76ers through ‘The Process’ (RIP Sam Hinkie), but has been on the hot seat since (rightfully so) and the Embiid/Simmons duo also hasn’t been as seamless as the front office hoped. One thing is certain: if the 76ers exit in the second round or earlier again this season their big three will split. It’s just a question of how many will depart. My based-on-nothing prediction is that Brown is fired and Simmons requests a trade this offseason. Leaving Embiid as the final cog from ‘The Process.’
Storyline #4: Skinny Jokic and his Nuggets
Every year, the start of the NBA season brings with it a handful of players who spent the offseason in the gym every day, putting on muscle and shedding weight for the coming campaign. On the other side of that coin, someone almost always reports to training camp carrying a few extra pounds from an indulgent summer. Who amongst us can’t relate?
For the 2019-20 season, that player was star Denver center Nikola Jokic. Cue the predictable jokes on Twitter about how he’d spent the summer eating nuggets instead of practicing with them. After bowing out in game 7 of the conference semifinals against Portland in 2019, the Nuggets got off to a solid start this time around, and sit third in the West coming out of the hiatus.
And while Jokic tested positive for COVID19, he recovered and returned to the Nuggets in fighting shape, having dropped a significant amount of weight over the past few months. Now, if they can get Jamal Murray and Gary Harris firing, and some strong contributions from the bench, Denver will be a definite threat in the Bubble.
Bonus subplot: The Nuggets have two highly anticipated rookies in Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol, both of whom have barely seen court time this year. The latter put up a double-double with six blocks in his NBA debut in Orlando last week, and if both of them can find a way into the rotation, Denver just got deeper.
Storyline #5: A Little Love for the Champs
You may not remember (it feels like so long ago), but the Toronto Raptors are your reigning, defending, undisputed NBA Champions. While I maintain that the Warriors win in seven if Danny Green doesn’t take out Klay Thompson, the Raps deserve some respect. Most of us thought the boys up north would fall flat without superstar Kawhi Leonard, but Nick Nurse and co. stepped up and balled tf out this year. What they lacked in Kawhi they more than made up for with big leaps forward from Pascal Siakam (1st-time All-Star this year) and Fred VanVleet. Discovering role players Terence Davis, Matt Thomas, Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has helped soften the Kawhi blow as well.
As things stand the Raptors are currently in second place in the Eastern Conference (6.5 back of Milwaukee), with the Boston Celtics in striking distance at 3.5 back. The Raps offensive has been pedestrian (14th in the league), but their defense has been off the charts (second in the league). Which isn’t surprising if you caught some of Nurse’s schemes in the playoffs last year.
The Raptors have six players averaging double-figures, the problem is that their top three scorers are shooting less than 46% from the field (Siakam, Kyle Lowry, VanVleet), that same trio is shooting less than 40% from deep as well (though VanVleet is at 38%). Efficiency typically dips in the playoffs so their offensive struggles may magnify. But if their guys can find a way to put the ball in the hole they may find themselves back in the Finals because you know their defense will be up to snuff.
Storyline #6: Zion Williamson, Need I Say More
All eyes were on Zion Williamson long before he set foot on an NBA floor (remember when he blew out the sole of a Nike PG 2.5 and literally had his foot on the court?). A meniscus injury sidelined him in the preseason and we were forced to wait three agonizing months to see him in true NBA action, but it was worth the wait. Through 19 games, the one-and-done former Duke Blue Devils phenom is averaging 23.6ppg and 6.8rpg on 58.9 percent shooting.
Yes it’s a small sample size, but there’s no question that Zion belongs among the big dogs (as evidenced by the mid-workout pic that set NBA Twitter ablaze.) But can that translate to a late playoff push in Orlando?
The Pelicans come into the restart 10th in the West, 3.5 games back from the final postseason spot. Even without Williamson, New Orleans has been buoyed by a strong season from Brandon Ingram (24.3ppg, 6.3rpg, 4.3apg, 38.7 percent from deep). With the rookie back on deck after an unfortunate positive COVID19 test in July, the Pelicans will be a dark horse to sneak into the Western Conference playoffs for sure.
Storyline #7: Miami Heating Up the Bubble
We all know about Miami Heat culture, and if you don’t, just ask a Heat fan, they love to talk about it. Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, the conditioning tests, hard work and everything in-between have become Miami’s identity.
In a time when they should’ve been tanking for a top draft pick, the Heat doubled down on their culture. They just missed out on the playoffs for years but their scouting department turned those late lottery picks into Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro. That same scouting unit unearthed Duncan Robinson (best shooter in the Bubble) and Kendrick Nunn as undrafted free agents. As mentioned above, the 76ers gifted them Jimmy Butler this past offseason and it’s been off to the races ever since.
Prior to lockdown the Heat put the league on notice with their 41-24 record. They were seventh in offense and 14th defensively. Injuries to Herro and Leonard, and the acquisitions of Andre Igoudala and Jae Crowder, and Butler’s loss of a jumpshot saw the Heat’s numbers dip to 12th in offense (they held steady at 14th defensively) just after the trade deadline. But the time away should’ve greatly helped this squad. Herro and Leonard are healthy, Iggy and Crowder have had more time to practice with the team and early vids suggest that Butler may have regained his touch (his shot looks much more fluid now).
The Heat are currently the #1 3pt shooting team in the league (KAMBOOM), they’re also #1 in free throw rate, two incredibly important stats for the playoffs. Their starting five of Butler, Nunn, Robinson, Adebayo and Meyers Leonard is +13 on the year together (which is an amazing number) and they’ve got a deep bench, Goran Dragic, Iggy, Crowder, Herro, Derrick Jones Jr., Kelly Olynyk. Depending how the final standings shake out, don’t be surprised if Miami finds themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals
Storyline #8: Can Kawhi Leonard Go Back-to-Back?
This time last summer, Kawhi Leonard was inking his deal with the Los Angeles Clippers, fresh off a maiden championship run with the Toronto Raptors. He joined fellow LA County native Paul George, a formidable uo indeed, and the Clips quickly asserted their title intentions despite being plagued by injuries throughout the first half of the season.
The other LA team comes into the Bubble sitting in second place in the West behind the Lakers, and that’s in spite of George sitting out the first 11 games as he recovered from off-season shoulder surgery. The Clippers were safe in Leonard’s (enormous) hands though; he’s leading the team in points, rebounds and steals, and he has plenty of solid backup off the bench in Lou Williams, Landry Shamet and Montrezl Harrell.
Putting all those pieces together, healthy and locked-in (literally, I guess), is a frightening prospect for the rest of the NBA. If we have an all-Los Angeles Western Conference Finals, it’s going to be anybody’s series, if the Clippers’ statement win over the Lakers on Christmas Day is anything to go by.
Can Leonard become the first player (I can think of*) to win back-to-back titles on different teams since Steve Kerr in 1998 for Chicago and 1999 in San Antonio? STAY TUNED.
*UPDATE: Turns out Pat McCaw is the most recent player to do so, having won rings with Golden State in 2018 and alongside Kawhi in Toronto in 2019.
Bonus subplot: Lou Williams leaving the Bubble for personal reasons and stopping at famed Atlanta strip club Magic City, ostensibly for to-go food, on his way back to Orlando. Phew.
Storyline #9: The Boys in Green
I will go out on a limb and say that the Boston Celtics are the best team in the Bubble that no one is talking about. Talking heads love the narratives behind the LA teams, Zion Willamson and Giannis. Fans are enamored by the Rockets, Blazers and Ja Morant. Heck I myself put them as my final storyline in this piece. But the Celtics are not to be slept on.
Led by a pair of killers, ‘Cardiac’ Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum, the Celtics grade out as the fifth best offensive team and the fourth best defensive team in the NBA. Only two other teams rank in the top five in both and they both call the Staples Center home. In addition to Walker and Tatum, the Celtics have Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Gordon Hayward and Brad Stevens. That’s an incredibly versatile core, they can switch everything on defense and when it comes to nut cutting time you’d trust three of those guys to get you a basket when you need it (I’d even lean towards four w/ Hayward). Talent and coaching are not issues in Boston.
My favorite thing about the Celtics is that they pass the eye test. When you watch them play they look formidable. They look like a team that should be in the NBA Finals. Being in the bottom half of the East should make for an easy path to the Conference Finals, where Giannis will be waiting. If the Celtics can get past the Greek Freak, don’t be surprised if they’re lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of the Bubble.
Storyline #10: Can the Trail Blazers Keep Their Postseason Streak Alive?
Always the bridesmaid but never the bride, the Trail Blazers (to continue the analogy and steal a line from my colleague Alijah) are in danger of not getting a wedding invitation this year.
Only twice in the past 11 seasons has Portland failed to qualify for the playoffs, spanning the Brandon Roy-LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum eras. And last year the Blazers came into April in strong form, dispatching Oklahoma City in five games and Denver in seven, a back-and-forth series that included a 4OT slugfest at the Moda Center and a come-from-behind Game 7 road win on the Nuggets’ floor.
They eventually fell at the hands of Golden State in the Western Conference Finals in a sweep, but never have McCollum and Lillard looked more of a threat. I was at Pepsi Center for that Game 7 and I’ve never heard the air go out of a building the way it did as CJ racked up 37.
The Blazers haven’t exactly been able to build on that momentum this year, though. A broken leg to Jusuf Nurkic has been a huge blow for Rip City, and as a result the team clocked the second-biggest drop in winning percentage from last season, per NBA.com stats. The Blazers’ defense has had obvious struggles, and they come into the hiatus eight games below .500 and ninth in the West.
With Nurkic recovered from injury and a presumably hungry Lillard and McCollum, as well as contributions from on-the-rise sophomore Gary Trent, Jr., Portland has the tools to claw its way back into the postseason for a seventh straight year, but the team has its work cut out.
Check the return of the NBA on 7/30 with an insane double-header on TNT. As always be sure to keep it locked on Twitter and Instagram as we’ll have coverage of the league for the remainder of the season.