Imagine you’ve spent a long summer day working outside, daydreaming about the lemonade in your fridge. After hours of dripping sweat, toiling in the sun, you finally make it home and hurry to the kitchen. Exhausted, you fill a cup with ice and pour the beverage.
The drink hits your lips. Imagine the taste. It’s heavenly.
That’s what we imagine it’ll feel like when we’re watching the NBA again. We’re dying for some of that sweet basketball nectar.
When the league returns in the Orlando Bubble, it will have been nearly four months since Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus, sparking the shutdown of all sports. A flurry of activity—confusion, uncertainty—culminated in the league declaring an indefinite hiatus March 12. Though clearly the right move, it was nonetheless devastating news for hoops junkies.
Since then, we’ve subsisted on old game replays, The Last Dance, and daydreams of the bald demigod Adam Silver proclaiming, “Basketball is back!” Finally—July 1—our wish will be granted.
Orlando will play host to 22 teams and what’s sure to be a memorable NBA postseason. Though no one knows how it’ll play out, we’ve identified six teams that seem to have benefited from the unexpected midseason break. Here are the squads to look out for.
At 39-26, the Sixers are currently tied for fifth in the East with the Indiana Pacers. Needless to say, that’s underachieving for a team that—despite losing its leader in Jimmy Butler and a vital shooter in JJ Redick—still boasts two of the game’s best young players.
The biggest issue for Philly has been playing on the road. The 76ers are 10-24 when playing outside of the cheesesteak radius this season. If you’re doing the math at home, that means they’re (yes, really!) 29-2 at home.
So, playing in Orlando works against Philly, right? Not exactly. The ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex will be a neutral site. The Sixers won’t have their home fans’ support (and Lord knows those Philly fans are something), but they also won’t have to contend with the albatross of playing away from the Wells Fargo Center. It’s a toss-up.
What we do know is that the Sixers’ two primary weapons have had health issues. Joel Embiid has played in 44 of 65 games, missing nine in early January with a hand injury and five more recently with a shoulder ailment. His physical woes and need for rest have been well-noted throughout his career. Ben Simmons has also been banged up, missing Philly’s final eight games with a back injury.
Whether coach Brett Brown can figure out the Al Horford dilemma remains to be seen, but this much is clear: Philly needs its two stars to be at their best to have any shot at real contention. And for them to be at their best, they obviously need to be healthy. The extended break has to make Brown & Co. feel more secure they’ll have their biggest weapons at 100 percent.
Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers are 29-37, good for only No. 9 in the West. That’s well short of expectations for a team led by Terry Stotts, Damian Lillard, and CJ McCollum, as Portland advanced to the West Finals (before being swept by the Warriors) last season.
But the record doesn’t paint an accurate picture. Portland has had injury woes. McCollum (22.5 PPG, 38 percent from deep while shooting at a career-high volume) and Lillard (career-highs of 28.9 PPG and 7.8 APG) have been better than ever, but the supporting cast has been crippled.
Bigs Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins have had extra time to heal from injuries. Nurk hasn’t played since his gruesome leg injury in March 2019. Before then, he was playing career-best basketball and Portland had West foes quivering. He was scheduled to return March 15, but coronavirus obviously altered those plans. Collins only played three games this year before suffering a shoulder injury that required surgery. He’ll be back as well.
It’s hard to communicate just how vital those guys are to Portland’s success. They may not be huge names like Lillard and McCollum, but they’re essential pieces of what makes the Blazers dangerous.
Portland was the No. 3 seed in each of the past two playoffs but could be a red-hot No. 7 or No. 8 seed this year. If I’m a top seed and see Portland on the docket, I say, “No thank you.”
As with Portland, your mind immediately goes to the stars—but this isn’t really about them. There was once a time you could debate which was bigger, James Harden’s beard or game, but that debate is dead. The guy is an absolute savant on offense. He’s making 35 a night look casual. Think about that.
Likewise, Russell Westbrook is really out here hooping. In his first year in Texas, home to the world’s best breakfast tacos, the 31-year-old is dropping 27.5 PPG on a career-best 47.4 percent from the field and showing new determination. He’s forgotten how to shoot 3s, but outside of that, he’s been phenomenal. These bros picked up where they left off in OKC.
But it’s not easy to keep up with the Beard and Brodie. After 64 games, Houston’s forwards didn’t seem to have much juice left in their legs, and the Rockets lost four of their last five before the break. The shutdown gave PJ Tucker and Robert Covington a nice little respite. They should come back looking good as new.
Harden, who will debut a slimmed down physique in Orlando, has also had issues staying fresh through the grueling NBA season, so the hiatus could be beneficial for him as well. If the Rockets are at full strength, they’ll be another dangerous West foe who could legitimately challenge a top contender.
Everyone was sleeping on the defending champs heading into this season. Of course, they lost Kawhi Leonard, who was clearly the team’s (and league’s) best player down the stretch last year. But the Raptors also brought back much of their core. That includes budding star Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and—perhaps most importantly—coach Nick Nurse. Nurse has blossomed into one of the best in the game.
At 46-18, Toronto has been surprisingly dominant once this season. While the Bucks have again emerged as the class of the East, the Raptors have been right on their heels.
The Raptors have playoff experience and now the benefit of rest. That will be huge for the Raps’ older players, namely Lowry and Marc Gasol.
This team is capable of getting red hot, as we saw when they rattled off 15 straight wins in January and February. They were playing well before the break, too, with Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell finding their stride.
Milwaukee has been sensational, but the Raptors are my pick to once again represent the East. Remember when MJ couldn’t get past the Bad Boys? Maybe Toronto will be that foil for Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Los Angeles Lakers
You might be saying, “Wait a second—Avery Bradley is sitting out. LA is losing a huge asset. And Dwight Howard might skip the Bubble as well.” And you’d be right.
But there’s still reason for Lakers fans to be optimistic.
L.A. has been the best team in the West this season and gained J.R. Smith, LeBron James’ former comrade with the Cleveland Cavaliers. They won a ring together in 2016 and despite the lasting image of LeBron berating J.R. in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals they have strong chemistry. Smith may be rusty, but he also has an abundance of playoff experience. He may not be a 1:1 match for Bradley, but he helps fill the void.
This selection, however, is ultimately all about LeBron. At age 35, he continues to amaze.
He’s posting double-digit assists (10.6 APG) for the first time in his career and is right in the thick of the MVP race. The big thing with LeBron, of course, is ensuring he’s fresh. That won’t be an issue.
Further, he’ll be more motivated than ever before. LeBron is all about legacy. He recognizes what’s happening in America right now. He recognizes all eyes will be on the NBA. And he recognizes the opportunity to pay tribute to Kobe Bryant with a title.
This is more of a qualitative pick, but something tells me LeBron will go to another level in the Bubble.
Los Angeles Clippers
As much as I’m confident LeBron will go into Beast Mode, I also think the Clippers will be at their best. These LA squads are something serious.
Paul George hasn’t had the greatest start to his run with the Clippers, playing in 42 games and missing some action due to hamstring issues. It’s not like he’s been bad, but he hasn’t been the MVP-caliber swingman we know and love.
Meanwhile, Kawhi Leonard has continued his scorching play from last season, and he’s up there with Giannis and LeBron in the MVP mix. As we saw again last postseason, when the moment is biggest, Kawhi flourishes. The Bubble won’t faze this guy.
If you’re a Clippers higher-up, you have to feel great about both George and Leonard getting rest. You also have to feel great about your team’s depth. The guys on the Clippers’ bench are some of the best reserves in the league. If players start dropping out because of coronavirus, LA has insurance.
Three-time Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams is considering sitting out, although Doc Rivers believes he’ll play, which would be a big blow. But the Clippers have the manpower to weather a loss or two.
With their two recharged stars, they and the Lakers will be the teams to beat out West. Can their ‘opening night’ game be here already?