You can exhale now. After a nearly five-month layoff, the NBA is back.
The bubble is holding tight so far. The daily testing regiment and strict quarantine protocols appear to be working. Unlike Major League Baseball, the NBA hasn’t faced an outbreak within its locker room. Knock on wood.
We still have a long way to go before the NBA crowns a champion in October, but it’s safe to actually focus on basketball again. So, it’s time to get reacquainted with every roster and identify the storylines to keep an eye on.
Here’s one thing to watch for every Eastern Conference bubble team. To add a little spice to this endeavor, I’ve sorted the teams by my likelihood of them winning the 2019-20 NBA championship. See the West preview here.
Buckle in, folks. This is gonna be a ride.
Milwaukee Bucks: How will Eric Bledsoe look?
As long as Giannis Antetokounmpo was on the floor, the Bucks looked like their unbeatable selves in the preseason. The Bucks are plus-21 in the 61 minutes with Antetokonmpo on the floor this preseason and minus-13 in the minutes he’s riding pine.
But the Bucks will need starting point guard Eric Bledsoe to be in top form if they want to take the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to Milwaukee. Right now, we don’t know what kind of shape he’s in after testing positive for coronavirus and missing the team’s scrimmages, though Bledsoe says he was asymptomatic and feeling fine.
For a team with championship aspirations, that’s an undeniable question mark. Bledsoe has some question marks about playoff performance heading into this restart anyway. After lighting up Detroit in the first round last postseason, Bledsoe’s production cratered. Over series against Boston and then Toronto, Bledsoe averaged just 11.6 points on 35.7 percent shooting from the floor and 20.8 percent from deep. By the end of the Eastern Conference finals, Bledsoe just couldn’t get past anybody. It’s been a concern for two postseasons now.
Dante Divincenzo has been a solid stopgap with Bledsoe sidelined, but they need Bledsoe to rediscover some of that magic he displayed in the Detroit series last season. Against top defenses, the scoring can’t solely fall on Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton’s shoulders. Bledsoe has an enormous postseason ahead of him, and that was before the coronavirus infection.
Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons, stretch 4?
OK, I’m kidding. But seriously, Simmons taking two corner 3-pointers in the scrimmages (and making one), is maybe the biggest development in the Eastern Conference. Simmons’ trifecta in the right corner during Friday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies was particularly notable because his defender, Kyle Anderson, left him wide open in order to smother Al Horford in the post. Tobias Harris saw Anderson cheating and threw the skip pass to Simmons, who confidently stepped into the jumper. Anderson didn’t even raise a hand.
Simmons needs to shoot if for no other reason than to keep the defense honest. If he knocks down a couple in the seeding games, opposing defenses will at least have to pay attention to him when he trots out beyond the arc. And that will free up Joel Embiid and Horford to get cleaner looks in the paint.
But the best thing I saw from the Sixers this past week came in the third quarter of the Sixers’ scrimmage against Oklahoma City. Josh Richardson held the ball on the left wing and Simmons strolled into the right corner. As Richardson surveyed the defense, Simmons raised his hands in the air, looking for the catch-and-shoot jumper as his defender Danilo Gallinari sagged to double the post. Richardson didn’t make the pass, but the bigger story is that Simmons wanted it.
The Sixers are the second-best team in the East if Simmons is willing to space the floor. It doesn’t mean he has to make them all, or even at an average clip. Case in point: Giannis is about to win his second MVP while shooting just 28.5 percent on his 474 3-point attempts over the last two seasons. That can be Simmons if he wants it.
Toronto Raptors: Champs In The Zone
If you listened to the Habershow pod with Adam Schefter -- yes, that Adam Schefter -- you know how I feel about Raptors coach Nick Nurse. He’s the Coach of the Year, in my book. Despite losing Kawhi Leonard in the offseason, the defending champs have the No. 2 seed in the East all but locked up as well as the No. 2 defense in the NBA.
They do it unconventionally by mixing in zone defenses that you rarely see at the NBA level. After going zone for 6.8 possessions per game in the regular season, we didn’t see it much in the scrimmages. According to Synergy Sports tracking, the Raptors only went zone for six total possessions, with all of them coming in the third quarter against the Phoenix Suns. Notably, it came when the Raptors’ A-team was out there, suggesting it was a tune-up for the seeding games and beyond.
What’s so fascinating is how Phoenix beat it. The Raptors gave up two corner 3-pointers to Mikal Bridges in those six possessions (more on him in Thursday’s West preview). Analytically, that’s not a shot a team should want to give up given its high success rate. But the dominant Raptors defense has picked its poison, walling off the paint at all costs and living with snipers from the corner. In fact, no defense this season has given up more 3-pointers from the corner than the Raptors, per Basketball Reference.com tracking.
Luckily for the Raptors, the best corner 3 teams all hail from the Western Conference (I could see Harden and LeBron carving them up that way). The zone will certainly throw some teams off in the playoffs, but there are ways to beat it. Knowing Nurse, he will probably find a bulletproof counter by then.
Boston Celtics: Is Kemba Walker’s left knee a long-term concern?
There’s no two ways about it: Walker’s knee issues should make Boston queasy. Smaller point guards that depend on lightning-quick movements can’t afford any breakdowns in the kinetic chain. With Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas’ injury issues at point guard over the years, we don’t need to belabor the point about smaller guys having flat tires.
That said, I loved what I saw out of Walker in his re-season debut, finishing with six points on six field-goal attempts in nine minutes. He was aggressive running in transition and looked undeterred by his chronic knee issues. On his first scoring attack, he drove straight into Suns big men Deandre Ayton and Dario Saric and drew an and-one. He looked as zippy as ever.
It was good to see him out there, even if for just one scrimmage. For any star player, there’s a fine line between durability and overuse. After missing just six games total in the 2015-16, ‘16-17 and ‘17-18 seasons, last season was an absolute marathon for Walker. He played all 82 games for the Charlotte Hornets, including playing host for the All-Star Game, and then played for Team USA in the summer.
The hope is that his mileage isn’t catching up to him, but there is real concern here from my perspective. With so much of Walker’s value tied up to one end of the floor, he can’t afford to be a step slow or limited in any fashion.
Luckily for Boston, almost every team at the top is dealing with an ailing key member, so the Kemba situation isn’t uniquely worrisome in Orlando. But with $107 million due to Walker over the next three seasons and three surgeries on that knee since his UConn days, the medical staff will have to make sure that Walker’s knee doesn’t get too ragged on this playoff run.
Miami Heat: Are Bam and Jimmy ready to go?
Bam Adebayo has been one of the best stories of the 2019-20 season, vying for both Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved. I don’t think he’ll win either award, but that doesn’t take away from how important he is to the Heat’s bubble chances.
After testing positive for COVID-19, you wouldn’t know Bam Adebayo missed any time if you watched his game on Tuesday. The very first play of the game, he and Jimmy Butler made music in the pick-and-roll for Adebayo’s first bucket of the bubble. From there, Adebayo looked strong, finishing with 16 points, four rebounds, three assists and a pair of blocks in just 25 minutes of action.
He toyed with Jonas Valanciunas throughout the scrimmage. First, he finished through the Memphis big man for an and-one, then later Euro-stepped around him for a finger-roll layup and then finally blew by him for a reverse dunk. Yeah, I think Bam’s feeling good. Defensively, he gave Jaren Jackson Jr. fits throughout the day.
Though Adebayo and Butler didn’t play much at all in the Heat’s scrimmages, I’m not too worried about their wind. The Heat’s conditioning program is famously top-notch and they’ll be champing at the bit to do their thing. The Heat’s first four games in the bubble? Denver, Toronto, Boston and Milwaukee. They better be ready.
Indiana Pacers: Worries about Victor Oladipo
Victor Oladipo might be the most interesting player in the bubble format. The 28-year-old guard initially didn’t want to participate in the Orlando bubble out of caution for his rehabilitated quad tendon, but the two-time All-Star reversed course and decided he was going to make the trip.
What I’ve seen is someone who’s still nowhere near 100 percent. Oladipo has no lift right now. He settled for long jumpers (half his 38 field--goal attempts in Indiana’s scrimmages are from beyond the arc), rarely ventured into the paint and earned only one trip to the free-throw line in 76 minutes of action. Looking at the film, not once did the two-time Slam Dunk contest participant even try to rise up for a dunk.
Domantas Sabonis being out indefinitely due to a significant foot injury puts more pressure on Oladipo as Indiana’s go-to scorer, but he’s just not himself right now. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that the NBA and the players union are discussing what to do with the $3 million remaining on Oladipo’s contract if he opts not to play in Orlando. If Oladipo sits out the bubble action out of precaution, I wouldn’t blame him -- but he might be forfeiting his salary this season. He’s entering a contract year and has a long way to go before he re-establishes himself as one of the game’s top guards. Nonetheless, the Pacers’ immediate future suddenly looks much dimmer.
Orlando Magic: Jonathan Isaac back?
Some rehabbing players didn’t benefit from the long layoff (see: Oladipo). Some look completely re-energized. That would describe Orlando big man Jonathan Isaac, who was in the hunt for Defensive Player of the Year when he went down with a severe left knee sprain on New Year's Day.
Isaac had been sidelined for over six months before his return in Monday’s scrimmage, finishing with 13 points, seven rebounds and two steals in just seven minutes. Isaac was a tour de force, splashing 3e-pointers (even completing a four-point play) and taking guys off the dribble.
The Magic may want to bring the 22-year-old along slowly, but his scrimmage performance was legitimately one of the biggest feel-good stories of the bubble so far. I’m bullish on Isaac long-term. His ceiling is Andrei Kirilenko.
Washington Wizards: Rounding out Rui
Let’s be honest, the Wizards should really treat the restart like Summer League. With Bradley Beal, John Wall and Davis Bertans sitting out the bubble, Washington should be in full-blown development mode in Orlando. In that sense, all eyes are on Rui Hachimura, the Wizards’ 2019 first-round pick and the No. 9 overall selection, who is now Washington’s only reliable go-to scorer.
If he wants to blossom into a player above the Marcus Morris/Markieff Morris mold, he needs to focus on becoming more of a team player in the halfcourt. With great size and a knack for scoring, he can get his shot off on just about anyone, especially in post where he seems to be most comfortable. In the bubble, I’d like to see how he gets his teammates involved. His backdoor bounce-pass to Isaac Bonga against the Lakers on Monday was beautiful. More of that, please.
The passing element of his game should only improve when he plays alongside All-NBA weapons like Wall and Beal. Hachimura can get buckets on the elbow, that much is clear. Hopefully, he’ll be able to work on rounding out the rest of his game in the seeding games. If he can develop his 3-point shooting, dishing or defense into a plus, he can get into the All-Star discussion one day.
Brooklyn Nets: Can Caris LeVert average 30 points?
Things are going to get weird here. Nine Nets players have contracted COVID-19 (that we know of), including Michael Beasley, who was signed as a substitute for a COVID-19-infected player and then later contracted the novel coronavirus himself. The Nets’ Orlando roster is one giant “Who He Play For?” exercise.
Brooklyn scored 68 points in their first scrimmage. They put up 124 points a few days later. Who knows what to expect team-wise? What I do know is that Caris LeVert will be feasting like it’s Thanksgiving. The 25-year-old shooting guard posted the bubble’s third-highest usage rate in scrimmage play behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic, per NBA.com tracking (minimum 20 minutes per game). LeVert might take all of the shots.
LeVert posted a 50-piece on the Celtics a week before the league shut down, so don’t be surprised if he averages 30 points per game in the seeding games. If you’re playing daily fantasy, make sure he’s in your lineup. Jamal Crawford, too. Yes, he’s on the Nets now. Let’s get weird.
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