13 Huge Storylines Surrounding the NBA's Return in Orlando

Before the NBA is officially back July 31st in Orlando, here are the storylines that matter the most a month before basketball returns.

Joel Embiid Sixers Hawks 2020
USA Today Sports

Feb 24, 2020; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) reacts after his three point score against the Atlanta Hawks during the fourth quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Joel Embiid Sixers Hawks 2020

The NBA is coming back. No more speculation. No more conjecture. We were blessed with concrete dates and preliminary details and to characterize us as hyped would be an understatement. The only downside to the momentous news is we have to wait a little bit longer before we get meaningful games again. Since it’s been 88 agonizing days without basketball, I think we can wait another 51.

So hang in there until July 31st when the 2019-20 regular-season gloriously resumes in Orlando. The completion of the NBA season will be unlike anything we’ve seen before for a laundry list of reasons. While you’re probably familiar with the dates surrounding the Association’s return, are you up to date on all the intriguing storylines?

If we were insane, we could find 2,096 different ones to write about—one for every point the NBA’s leading scorer this season, James Harden, has accumulated through the Rockets first 64 games. Instead, we highlighted 13 (serendipitously, Harden’s jersey number) of the most important storylines you need right now before teams start arriving in Florida early next month.

The basketball is going to look, and sound, different

The games are back. That’s awesome. But we all realize this isn’t going to look, or sound, anything like the NBA we’re used to, right? ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex is a neutral site so any semblance of a home court advantage will obviously be gone, which will really hurt teams like the Thunder and Raptors who are known for their raucous environments. And without any fans allowed in the building, the game’s atmosphere is going to feel weird and sound completely different. It surely won’t be like that disastrous experiment in 2018 when Madison Square Garden didn’t play any music during the first half of a game between the Knicks and Warriors in order to present basketball “in its purest form”? The NBA will surely blast some kind of music and possibly pump in crowd noise, but get ready to hear a lot more screeching of sneakers, the calling out of screens, and, most interesting, more trash talking that will surely echo in an empty arena.

The unknown that is the virus

Commissioner Adam Silver will soon lay out all the safety measures the league is implementing to protect the players, coaches, team support staff, referees, and league personnel in Orlando from contracting and spreading COVID-19. For starters, it sounds like there will be daily testing. While Silver has said the league will not shut down if one person tests positive—like it did when Rudy Gobert was Patient O—what happens if the coronavirus runs through a team, or multiple teams, and multiple players must quarantine? What if 4-6 guys, including key rotation players, test positive?

“We’ve got a long way to go here,” Silver told Inside The NBA last week. “There’s constant changes in what we’re learning about this virus.”

For now, it looks like the NBA will allow teams to bring up replacement players—“Eligible replacement players probably will have had to be signed in the NBA or G League or be on training camp contracts this season,” ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarwoski and Bobby Marks reported—to fill sports vacated by injured players or those who contract the virus.

Players will be required to quarantine a minimum of seven days if they are found to have the virus. But most interestingly, ESPN also reported there have been discussions that players lost to injury or a positive COVID-19 test could become ineligible to return for the rest of the season. Regardless, the NBA believes it’ll be isolated and diligent with testing to prevent operations shutting down for a second time.

Some teams could be without their coach(es) on the sideline

NBA coaching staffs are full of older individuals and some of the game’s most prominent head coaches—like Gregg Popovich, Mike D’Antoni, and Alvin Gentry—are over the age of 65. That means they’re in a demographic considered much more susceptible to serious complications from a COVID-19. The prospects that these coaches, and many assistants who are in the same age range, are putting themselves in potentially greater danger than staying at home is something NBA’s taking very seriously. Silver told Inside The NBA “certain coaches” might not be allowed on the bench or in huddles “in order to protect them.” I kind of feel like Gentry would rip out somebody’s throat if they tried to prevent him from being on the sidelines with his team, but we’ll see if the league holds firm on its preliminary pledge to protect the coaches.

LeBron’s window to a title is wide open, but closing

The Lakers are the favorites, according to Vegas and every obnoxious Los Angeles fan you talk to, to win it all. Which is understandable. The Lakers are the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and were playing their best basketball when the season abruptly shut down in March. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the most potent and dangerous 1-2 combo in the league these days. And with a well-rested LeBron not getting any younger (age 35) and Davis a free agent at the end of the season (but most likely re-signing with the Lakers) the window for LeBron to win a title with his third different team is wide open this summer and fall. But with an inevitable decline due to age (you would assume that's coming soon, but with LeBron, you never know) and next season likely starting less than two months after the end of the season (see below) it’s best LeBron take advantage of the opportunity now. 

LeBron James Kawhi Leonard Lakers Clippers March 2020

The Clippers’ clock is ticking

The Kawhi Leonard and Paul George experiment is still a work in progress since the Clippers superstars haven’t played together that much this season (760 minutes on the court compared to 1,317 minutes for LeBron and AD). When they do play together and are healthy, look out. They’re a beast to deal with and you’d think with all this time off Kawhi can go HAM in his pursuit of a third title with a third different team. But the sense of urgency around LA’s other team is just as great as the Lakers considering Leonard and PG can opt-out of their deals after next season and the franchise heavily mortgaged its future just to land the superstars last summer. Don’t forget the Clippers also landed Marcus Morris Sr. (free agent at the end of the season) at the trade deadline in an effort to not just go after the franchise’s first conference finals appearance, but a spot in the NBA Finals.

Updated injury situations you need to know

There’s good and bad news for contenders in both the Eastern and Western Conferences.

Out West, the Blazers, currently 9th, should have the services of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins as they try to scratch and claw their way into the playoff picture. Meanwhile, one of the early season favorites to make a run at Western supremacy, the Utah Jazz, lost the services of Bojan Bogdanovic to wrist surgery. He was Utah’s second-leading scorer. Utah is currently the 4th seed in the West.

In the East, the back issues that leveled Ben Simmons before the season was shut down should be over when play resumes in Orlando. We all know the Sixers, currently 6th in the East, have a bunch of offensive issues to figure out, but if they don’t have Simmons out there, it could be a real mess for Philly. 

Tantalizingly, Kevin Durant seemingly could return to action and finally suit up for the Nets, 7th in the East, since he’s a year past Achilles surgery. But Durant officially shut the door late last week in an interview with The Undefeated where he told Marc J. Spears, "My season is over. I don't plan on playing at all."

Meanwhile, Durant’s buddy Kyrie Irving had shoulder surgery in February that was supposed to sideline him for the rest of the season. The timeline for recovery was roughly four months so Irving could seemingly be ready to suit up at the end of July. But ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported it’s possible Irving “could join the Nets in Orlando this summer—as an inactive player supporting his teammate.”

The idea of KD and Kyrie returning for a run was enough to make Nets fans (all five of ‘em, JK) giddier than Michael Jordan at a blackjack table. The wild speculation of the dynamic duo swooping in for the postseason made the Nets a popular pick with bettors.

We get to see more Zion

Zion Williamson gave the NBA a much-needed shot in the arm when he debuted in January and was nothing short of sensational in 19 games. But can he will the Pelicans (3.5 games back of the 8th seed Grizzlies) to the postseason in the 8 regular season games that remain on the schedule? Everyone not a Memphis fan hopes so because we can’t get enough Williamson and watching the Pelicans potentially battle the Lakers in the first-round would easily be one of the most entertaining early series.

Should there be an asterisk attached to this season?

Hell no. Stay tuned for our thorough explanation. But anyone asserting otherwise is lost.

Will NBA players go stir-crazy in the bubble? 

Two teams will be holed up in Orlando for almost three months when the season finally ends in October. You’re telling me a bunch of young guys with money burning a hole in their pocket, who will be required to stay in the NBA's bubble, aren't going to go stir-crazy? I don’t care that they’ll be staying at luxury hotels and can move around some of the Disney grounds. The odds of something hilariously stupid happening are legit because there are plenty of lovable knuckleheads in the NBA. 

There will be major NBA Draft and Draft Lottery ramifications

We know eight teams not taking their talents to Orlando have been firmly placed in the NBA Draft Lottery (tentatively scheduled for Aug. 25). But we still need to figure out who will be joining them for a shot at LaMelo Ball or James Wiseman. The NBA has already stated that odds for the lottery will be “based on records through games of March 11.” Additionally, the 16 teams that qualify for the postseason will then have their draft order (tentatively scheduled for Oct. 15) determined by the action in Orlando with “combined records across regular-season games and seeding games” accounting for that final order.

Knowing all of the above, keep an eye on the Grizzlies. There are a lot of scenarios at play for Memphis and what happens with its first-round selection this year. Most interestingly, if the Grizzlies miss the postseason (currently 8th in the West) then their pick obviously becomes a lottery pick that is conveyed to Boston (albeit top 6 protected). Brooklyn also (7th in the East) could lose a first-round pick to Minnesota if it makes the postseason.

The Thunder also bears watching. Oklahoma City will keep a first-round pick it originally dealt to the 76ers back in 2016 if it doesn’t finish as one of the top 10 teams at the end of the regular-season. The Thunder and Rockets have the ninth best records in the NBA currently and there are three teams within a few games of surpassing the Thunder. The final order, it should be noted, will be determined by win percentage, not record since teams will end up playing varying number of regular-season games.

Will there be protests?

NBA players have never been afraid to take a stand when it comes to social issues. From “I Can’t Breath” t-shirts to the Clippers turning their warm-ups inside-out in the wake of the Donald Sterling racist tapes, there are plenty of examples of the league allowing or co-signing political statements on the hardwood. Will the vibes from the nationwide protests carry into the summer? Will players take a knee during the anthem? The NBA has long had strict rules that require the players to “stand in a dignified posture” during the playing of the "Star-Spangled Banner," so that is still up in the air. But don’t be surprised to see players, teams, or the entire league send a very strong message of inclusiveness while promoting law enforcement reforms in the wake of George Floyd’s tragic death.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bucks march with Wisconsin protestors: “We want justice.” https://t.co/hiQsZL5Xoj pic.twitter.com/HEXUVS7yzi

How will the NBA fare competing with the NFL?

The NBA may never earn the TV ratings the NFL does, but can it steal a little of the NFL’s thunder in the early fall? Even with the playoffs in full swing, the behemoth that is the start of the NFL season will likely cause the Association to take a backseat to The Shield on all the cable news and debate shows once September arrives. Can playoff basketball be good enough or compelling enough to lead SportsCenter over a recap of Monday Night Football?

Plenty of fans won’t care, but it’s an interesting subplot to the NBA’s altered schedule. It has never had to compete with the start of the NFL season before and monitoring how it fares in the ratings and relevancy battle among casual sports fans bears monitoring—if you’re into that sort of thing. The greatest test of the NBA’s general appeal could come on Oct. 12. That’s a Monday night when (tentatively) Game 7 of the NBA Finals would go down in Orlando. Would LeBron and the Lakers against Giannis and the Bucks in a winner-take-all scenario earn more viewers than ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast of Chargers-Saints from New Orleans? Media nerds will be watching closely. 

This means the NBA calendar could be forever altered

That could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on who you’re talking to. The late end to the 2019-20 season means a late start to next season. The league is roughly targeting a Dec. 1 start to the 2020-21 season, although that could change. But starting in December, whether it’s the first of the month or Christmas, means the NBA season wouldn’t overlap as much with the NFL and would likely extend into the summer. It would allow the NBA to dominate the sports scene in June and July during a time when the sports calendar is normally empty unless you’re not a baseball fan.

The NBA Draft could be moved a month or two and provide another big event during the summer. Same with free agency that's always kicked off on July 1st. Fans, especially younger ones, will probably be all for more basketball during the slower, less hectic summer months. But the NBA might be hesitant to make it a permanent move if TV ratings take a hit when its money maker, the playoffs, coincide with prime vacation time and traditionally less eyeballs watching major networks. Also, a lot of NBA players love having the summer off to travel internationally and do things with their family. That can't be discounted. 

As for the players, the two teams that make the Finals will have the shortest off-season in NBA history, putting them at a severe disadvantage entering next season. Wear and tear catches up to every team eventually. That means the sense of urgency should be massive down in Orlando and hopefully that makes the basketball that much more entertaining.

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