NBA’s biggest questions before return

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NBC Sports

NBA’s biggest questions before return

The NBA is back. Well, sort of.

No Stephen Curry, Draymond Green or Klay Thompson.

No Trae Young, Karl-Anthony Towns or D’Angelo Russell. Teams in large markets like the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks will be watching from home. Charlotte, Detroit and Cleveland: back to the big board.

But for everyone else, NBA games are upon us. 

For weeks, the league office, the board of governors and the National Basketball Players Association have gone back-and-forth on a variety of ideas with the explicit goal of resuming the NBA season in some form. Everyone wanted to play basketball. That was never in doubt. But not everyone wanted to play basketball if it meant a substantial risk of getting infected with coronavirus or suffering a major injury due to the extreme circumstances.

Following Thursday’s board of governors vote, the NBA believes it has a plan to account for both of those risks. But as they say, the devil is in the details. 

As much as we’d like to believe we have all the answers and everything is wrapped with a bow, the world does not work that way. There’s still plenty of uncertainty in this plan.

Here are seven lingering questions as the NBA proceeds towards July 31.

Is it, you know, safe?

“It’s about the data, not the date.” Commissioner Adam Silver said those words on a conference call with the media in late April while addressing the NBA’s eventual return-to-play plans.

Well, it’s early June and we have a date. The data? That’s another story.

The league and the players union have insisted that health comes first and there are signs that they’re taking that side of the plan very seriously. For one, they’ve planned to convene at one central site. Secondly, according to an ESPN report, there are plans for daily testing, which would be an enormous undertaking financially, logistically and politically. 

In my discussions with epidemiologists and infectious-disease experts, those were critical elements of a safe return-to-play plan, but there are still finer details that need to be addressed. Who’s allowed in the bubble? What kind of tests will those people receive? Does the league have the requisite supplies? What about hotel, food and maintenance staff testing? 

Above all, the NBA would be wise to have a concrete plan in the case that one or multiple people inside the bubble test positive. How many positive tests are acceptable? One? One per team? Does a positive test in August have different implications than one in October presumably in the Finals? 

In talks with teams around the league, this is one of the thornier issues that team executives need the league to address. A strictly-enforced guideline on how to handle positive tests would do a lot to strip away the emotions that can get in the way of making sound decisions and help the league protect its employees -- players, coaches, execs or team staffers -- from harm.

Not every team is in the same position. Take the New Orleans Pelicans, whose head coach, Alvin Gentry, is 65 years old. His top assistant, Jeff Bzdelik, is 67 years old. The CDC states that people 65 years or older are considered a high risk for severe illness from COVID-19. If a positive test pops up on their team, does the NBA need to take stronger action than other teams? What if they played a team with a positive test? 

Should Gentry and Bzdelik have to wear a mask on the sidelines? Should they be on the sidelines? These are thorny questions that don’t appear to have answers at the moment. 

And that’s just one coaching staff. What about referees? The NBA’s longest-tenured referee, Ken Mauer, is 65 years old. So is longtime NBA referee Michael Smith. If Gentry and Bzdelik have to wear masks, do Mauer and Smith have to wear masks as well? Can you officiate that way? And would the NBA let them officiate games of teams if they officiated a team with a recent positive test?

It feels a bit like we’re putting the cart before the horse. We’ve already planned a return date when one of its teams, the Spurs, haven’t deemed it safe to reopen their own practice facility because of coronavirus concerns

All these questions are tricky because there is still so much we don’t know about the novel coronavirus. But teams are hoping the league addresses them clearly in a league-issued document.

Will NBA players take a knee?

As the league plots a return to the court, NBA players, the vast majority of whom identify as black or African-American, are facing more than a deadly pandemic. Perhaps no one put it more clearly than former NBA All-Star Caron Butler, who said Wednesday night on the NBA’s official platform: “We’ve been dealing with two viruses: COVID-19 and racism.”

When it comes to social issues and civil rights, NBA stars have been some of the most outspoken in all of American sports. These days have been no different. LeBron James, who in 2017 called the President a “bum” for his response to Stephen Curry’s White House rebuff, recently blasted Drew Brees on Twitter after the Saints quarterback reiterated that kneeling during the anthem is disrespectful to the military.  

Players like Curry, Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown and Towns have marched or attended rallies in recent days to protest systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of law enforcement. One of the most vocal activists in the country has been Floyd’s friend, Stephen Jackson, a 14-year NBA veteran.

While the NHL has plans for a return and MLB is negotiating for one, there’s no doubt that the NBA will be the main draw in town. As such, the NBA megaphone may be louder than ever. 

However, some players already feel a restart may be taking away from the larger societal conversation.

Los Angeles Clippers point guard Patrick Beverley is known as one of the fiercest competitors in the league, but he strongly disagreed with the renewed focus on basketball.

Beverley wasn’t alone. When news broke Wednesday of the imminent agreement on return-to-play, Brooklyn Nets forward Wilson Chandler tweeted: “Government can’t wait until the NBA start the season back. Need a distraction from the bulls*** that’s going on. Always in need of a distraction.” Miami Heat guard Andre Iguodala, Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma, San Antonio Spurs forward Trey Lyles each retweeted Chandler’s sentiment with supportive comments.

On Wednesday night, Kuzma went further, tweeting a photo of Brees kneeling with teammates with the caption: “This shows you that there are a lot of people & companies out there right now that will say they stand with us but only do it so they dont get bashed not because they mean it.”

League insiders have been supportive of NBA players protesting in the streets of America. But what happens if they take those protests to the basketball court? Or the national anthem itself? 

If NBA players decide to kneel during the anthem like Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players did, it will be in violation of NBA rules. In the Player/Team Conduct and Dress section of the Official NBA Rule Book, Rule 2 states: “Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and lineup in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem.”

In 2017, the commissioner said he expects players to stand and follow the rules. The players did fall in line, choosing instead to stand with interlocked arms during the anthem for several games. 

NBA players might choose a different demonstration this time around. Kneeling during the anthem is officially against NBA rules, but it remains to be seen what the official punishment would be if NBA players decided to protest in that manner. One thing’s for sure: The world will be watching.

Is the scheduling fair?

The NBA landed on a compromise. They could have played the rest of the regular season or gone straight to the playoffs. Playing the rest of the regular season would mean teams would have to play 17 games on average. The NBA decided to split the difference and play eight.

Fair enough. But who would those 22 teams play in those eight games? One idea is to pick up where they left off before the league shutdown on March 11 and play the next eight games on the schedule. Seems fair, right?

That doesn’t work in a league where eight teams are no longer playing. For example, the Spurs’ next eight opponents were, in order: Denver, Minnesota, Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago, Utah, Utah again and finally a repeat date with Minnesota. Minnesota and Chicago aren’t going to be in Orlando. 

So what do you do? If you take those three games out and move up the next three opponents in line, the Spurs would then play Denver, Golden State and Sacramento. Uh, oh. Golden State won’t be there either. If you take Golden State out and look to their next scheduled game … you find Golden State, again. The next opponent would be New Orleans. To just get to eight games, the Spurs would have to look at their next 15 games.

But that sprouts two more problems. First, the Spurs just replaced non-playoff teams opponents with playoff-aspiring teams. Is that fair? By pure luck, the Grizzlies have already played 15 of their 16 scheduled games against the eight non-bubble teams, going 11-4 against the league’s doormat clubs. On the other hand, the Spurs just got five of their easier games erased and replaced them with harder opponents. Yikes.

And that brings the second issue. The Spurs’ eighth game against New Orleans? The Pelicans would be long done by then. 

To solve this issue, the league could just scrap the regular-season schedule and play a new set of games with fairer distribution of games.

You might say, “Who cares? Just play the games.” Try telling that to New Orleans, Portland, San Antonio and Sacramento, four small-market teams that are all but dead-locked in the standings and fighting for that final playoff spot. Every detail matters. 

Of course, there’s nothing fair about a pandemic. But there are things that the NBA can control. This is one of them, and it could have long-lasting ripple effects, especially for small market teams.

Given the huge moats surrounding the No. 8 seeds (Magic have a 5.5-game lead on the Wizards and Grizzlies have a 3.5-game lead on three teams), schedule equity could be a moot point anyway. The play-in game (it’s not a tournament) only comes into play if the ninth seed is within four games or fewer of the eighth seed at the end of the eight games. Even then, the No. 9 seed would have to win twice against the No. 8 seed to punch their ticket. Not to throw a wet blanket on the bubble teams, but if you’re not in the eighth seed by now, you’re basically Lloyd Christmas talking to Mary Swanson.

Will players be physically ready?

This is not like the 2011 lockout. This is a pandemic, not a work stoppage. In previous lockouts, the players regularly played pick-up games, sometimes for charity in front of crowds, to stay in shape. This time around, NBA players haven’t been allowed to play five-on-five in months. 

Early on in the process, the NBA presented a plan in which all 30 teams would return under the bubble environment, but that idea was met with considerable resistance, according to league sources. Multiple players and teams expressed disagreement with that idea and would rather not play than risk injury and infection. Portland was the lone team that dissented during Thursday’s vote and its star player, Damian Lillard, went on the record in late May to say he would sit out unless the Blazers could fight for the playoffs. Lillard told Yahoo Sports he was just coming off a groin injury and that factored into his calculus: “I'll be putting myself at risk for injury and reinjure myself.” 

The Blazers were given that chance to make the playoffs and still the team voted against. While it’s unclear how much of a role Lillard’s comments played into the Blazers’ position, it’s telling that even a superstar with five years guaranteed after this season is still iffy about risking it. According to reports, the Blazers preferred other formats and listened to their players before making the call.

Imagine being a free agent on a bubble team this summer and getting your body ready to play potentially only eight games. Is it worth it? If Washington Wizards sharpshooting forward and unrestricted-free-agent-to-be Davis Bertans felt the risk wasn’t worth the reward, I wouldn’t blame him for sitting out these games to protect what might be the biggest payday of his career.

Athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches and medical staffs will be hard-pressed to get their players ready in time for the July 31 kickoff. Three months of no basketball will disrupt the kinetic chain of joints, muscles and ligaments that make NBA players so thrilling to watch. 

On that note, prepare for some bad basketball as players work themselves back into shape. According to Basketball Reference tracking, the two biggest drops in year-to-year offensive efficiency in NBA history came during lockout seasons in 2011-12 (minus-2.7) and 1998-99 (minus-2.8). With a denser schedule and accelerated training camps, teams coughed up the ball at higher rates and shooting percentages bottomed out. Expect more of the same in the coming months. Basketball is back … ish.

What about the other eight teams?

The NBA’s 22-team return-to-play plan means we won’t see the Golden State Warriors in action until December. Here’s a crazy thought: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will go 18 months without playing in real games together. Life comes at you fast in the NBA. 

I hope the other eight teams will be able to participate in some sort of charity tournament or other competition between now and whenever the 2020-21 season starts (Curry vs. Thompson showdown, anyone!?). Nine months without playing basketball is a long time -- especially for teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves who remade their roster at the trade deadline and had almost no time to build on-court chemistry. D’Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns played in one game together in the 2019-20 season.

There’s also the issue of the draft and the draft lottery. For the teams that make the playoffs, draft order will be based on their regular-season record, including their eight “seeded” games. But for the lottery teams, the lottery odds are locked in as of their record on March 11. 

That eliminates the incentive for the Wizards to tank the eight-game slate in epic fashion, go 0-and-8 and leap the Charlotte Hornets and Chicago Bulls in the draft order odds. As my astute colleague Dan Feldman points out, that would raise the Wizards’ odds of a top-three pick from six percent to 15 percent. 

My hope is that the Wizards wouldn’t do that for the spirit of the competition, but the fact that the NBA pre-empted such an egregious tank job by freezing draft odds on March 11 is a tacit admission that teams are incentivized to throw games. We should just abolish the draft all together and let prospects choose their destination like we do for NBA free agents already. But that’s a discussion for another day.

Charlotte and Chicago have to be happy the league stepped in. If there’s a silver lining for the Delete Eight, as John Hollinger brilliantly dubbed them, it’s that they can finally move forward with clarity. The draft is tentatively set for Oct. 15 and the Bulls, who have picked seventh in the last two drafts, have the seventh-best odds in the draft lottery. At least there’s some semblance of normalcy in all this.

How weird is this going to be?

Super weird, at first. Are we going to have ads covering up the seats? Are we going to pipe in crowd noise? How much will that taint the viewer experience? 

We’ll probably get used to that, just like we’re used to laugh tracks on sitcoms. We better get used to it. Believe me, the NBA or the players’ union won’t allow raw audio from the court to be heard at home. That screams PR disaster. 

Even if they could offer an “uncensored” feed for a nominal fee to scrape together some extra dough, I’m guessing the unsavory stuff would trickle out onto the internet in no time. There are better ways for the NBA to have fans feel more engaged and closer to the action. Referee cams? Alternate broadcaster teams? NBA Jam-like flames when a player hits consecutive shots? Let’s get weird.

What does this mean for the NBA beyond 2020?

Even before this pandemic hit, I’ve argued that the NBA should kick off the regular season on Christmas Day. It’s time to make it a permanent change. Most fans don’t tune into the NBA until Christmas anyway (the league office programs its national TV schedule accordingly). The NBA has owned that day on the sports calendar. Just make it official already.

Although the NBA says that it will “likely” begin the 2020-21 season on Dec. 1, I wouldn’t be surprised if they buy some more time to raise the chances that they can get at least some fans in the seats. The commissioner has told players recently that ticket revenue typically makes up 40 percent of the league’s income, according to a report from Shams Charania. That’s an enormous pile of cash to leave behind in 2020-21. 

It’d be difficult to slowly re-integrate fans into the stands without shutting down for a period of time, allowing arena staff to reset protocols and observe new health guidelines. Perhaps the NBA can gradually fill seats on the fly without a pause in the schedule, but finding a sensible and healthy way to recoup ticket revenues should be a top priority for 2020-21.

From a fatigue standpoint, a Dec. 1 start for next season seems to be pushing it. The Finals will end sometime in early October and training camp would be slated for Nov. 10. Do we really want the league’s best players and teams to be coming into training camp ragged for 2020-21? After an injury-marred season from Curry and Williamson, I’d imagine the league will be looking to ensure every possibility that its top draws are as healthy as possible.

It seems the dates for 2020-21 are moving targets, according to reports from ESPN. My educated guess is that the league settles on Christmas Day as the 2020-21 season opener, pending any major coronavirus developments. A lot can change between now and then.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons look to spoil Bucks' reign over the East

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NBC Sports

Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons look to spoil Bucks' reign over the East

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.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Zion Williamson, Alex Caruso headline Western Conference storylines

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NBC Sports

Zion Williamson, Alex Caruso headline Western Conference storylines

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 Western 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. The East preview will run on Friday. 

Buckle in, folks. This is gonna be a ride.

Los Angeles Lakers: Welcome to Caruso Mania

The Lakers will be reigniting their title quest without the services of Rajon Rondo (thumb surgery) and Avery Bradley (opted out of resumption), but I’m not sure they’ll miss them much. This is Alex Caruso’s time to shine.

I’ve long felt that Caruso is a far better option than Rondo at this point in their careers (ahem). The numbers point to Caruso’s snug fit next to the Lakers’ MVP candidate. LeBron James-Caruso lineups have outscored opponents by a whopping 20.8 points per 100 possessions, which is the Lakers’ best two-man pairing featuring James (minimum of 200 minutes). Meanwhile, James-Rondo lineups have seen the lowest returns among LeBron lineups at a solid 8.1 net rating, per NBA.com.

Caruso has become a cult hero because of his “sneaky” hops, but Caruso’s defense is highly underrated. His ability to create turnovers as a disruptor -- Caruso wields the highest steal rate on the Lakers -- should shore up much of the void left by Bradley, who is more of an on-ball pest. 

The Lakers surely lost some depth in the backcourt and I’m not ready to place faith in J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters quite yet, but more of Caruso is a boost to their championship hopes. When Rondo comes back sometime in the playoffs, the Lakers should look at the 2011 Miami Heat as a cautionary tale. James’ failed 2011 Finals quest was largely on his shoulders, but it didn’t help that the Heat insisted on playing a washed Mike Bibby over up-and-coming Mario Chalmers. Even with a healthy Rondo, the Lakers would be wise to hand the keys over to Caruso.

Los Angeles Clippers: Can Kawhi Leonard’s shake off the rust?

If Kawhi Leonard wants to stake claim to being the game’s best player, he first needs to get his legs back. In three scrimmages, Leonard is shooting 1-for-10 on 2-point jumpers and 6-for-27 (22.2 percent) on 3-point jumpers, per Synergy Sports tracking. He might need a software update.

Look, chances are, Leonard is just toying around and he’ll ease back into championship form soon enough, but we can’t just ignore that the reigning Finals MVP hasn’t looked sharp at all. Leonard’s scoring output has dipped all the way down to 15.5 points per 36 minutes in the scrimmages with only two free-throw attempts in three games. Those are Landry Shamet numbers, not Kawhi freaking Leonard.

Watching the film, most of Leonard’s jumpers are falling way short, which suggests his legs just aren’t there yet and the smart bet is that he’ll power up once he gets more reps. The Clippers aren’t losing sleep just yet, but among superstars in this league, Leonard’s bubble performance is the most concerning of all.

Houston Rockets: Does Russell Westbrook have his wind?

Russell Westbrook is back in the bubble with more clarity on his situation, much to the delight of Vegas insiders. However, his box score stats aren’t pretty, with 13 turnovers to 14 assists in 68 minutes of action. He finally knocked down a 3-pointer on Tuesday night, making his first of six tries during the exhibitions.

But considering he is coming off a coronavirus infection, I’m more interested in how he looks getting up and down the floor. In the halfcourt, he was able to initiate the nitro boosters, slice into the teeth of the defense and find some open 3s for teammates, which is what makes Westbrook so deadly for the Rockets. 

And if you doubted his burst after the long layoff, the sky-high lay-in during the second quarter of the Toronto scrimmage was vintage Westbrook -- blazing through the defense and looking like he’s going to obliterate the entire basket with a tomahawk. Westbrook softly laid it in, but the point was made: Westbrook is still Westbrook.

Westbrook needs to sharpen up in the decision-making department, particularly on some lazy passes in the halfcourt, but he’ll get his timing right soon enough. We don’t fully understand the pulmonary implications of the coronavirus -- and that’s scary -- but Westbrook’s high-octane attack remains part of the Rockets’ arsenal even after he battled COVID-19. With Eric Gordon’s ankle injury, Westbrook’s health only becomes more critical.

Dallas Mavericks: Please, Seth Curry, stay healthy

You thought the Mavericks were hard to guard with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis? Good luck defending them with Seth Curry finally healthy and mobile. It feels strange that I have to mention this, but the 29-year-old sharpshooter is second all-time in 3-point field goal percentage behind Steve Kerr. Yes, better than his older brother, Stephen.

Seth Curry has looked phenomenal in the restart so far and it’s sort of odd we don’t talk more about Curry in the context of the Mavs’ unstoppable offense, which, by the way, pulled itself away from the rest of the NBA this season at a league-high 115.8 points per 100 possessions. Here are Seth’s 3-point percentages by month with the Mavs since November: .364, .397, .434, .591, .526 (three games in March). He’s a 6-foot-2 flamethrower.

Curry, like his brother, has battled ankle injuries over the years and it’s great to see him healthy thus far. The Mavericks have been running off-ball actions involving Porzingis and Curry with ridiculous results. When Porzingis dives toward the rim, both defenders in the action sink to the paint to thwart the 7-foot-2 Porzingis, leaving Curry open for the long-ball. How do you guard that? The NBA doesn’t have much of an answer. Since Jan. 1, the Mavericks have a blistering 124.1 offensive rating with Doncic, Porzingis and Curry on the floor. This is going to be fun to watch.

Denver Nuggets: Is Bol Bol ready?

Credit to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps for clarifying whether Bol Bol’s play in the seeding games would exclude him from the 2020-21 Rookie of the Year race (it won’t). Trying to follow what counts and what doesn’t in this resumption feels a bit like climbing the Penrose stairs

The Bol Bol bubble (bolbol?) hype train slowed down a tad after his 16-point, 6-block debut last week, but he’s still the breakout star of the scrimmage play. The 20-year-old, who slid to No. 44 overall in last June’s draft, possesses other-worldly skills on a 7-foot-2 frame that can’t be ignored at this point. He hilariously didn’t have any assists in eight G-League games this season, but at that size, I’m not going to blame him. The bigger question is whether his body can withstand the rigors of the NBA.

We had the same questions about Porzingis, and he’s thriving at the five for the Mavericks after playing a lot of forward in New York. I could see a similar trajectory for Bol, who has been playing the three-spot for the Nuggets. With the NBA trending to small-ball for many teams, Bol won’t be crushed in the post by many teams. He’s long enough that he can probably block shots from out of bounds anyway. I can’t wait to see how he does when the games count. Or don’t. I can’t remember.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Andre Roberson back

Andre Roberson is battling Jusuf Nurkic for the comeback story of the bubble so far. On Friday, Roberson made his first appearance in an NBA game since he played the Detroit Pistons on January 27, 2018. Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley started for the Pistons against OKC’s Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Yeah, it’s been that long.

And what a return it was. Before his knee surgeries, Roberson (pronounced ROBBER-son, by the way) was regularly receiving the Tony Allen treatment on the perimeter, but the former All-Defense team member has been willing and able to shoot in his three scrimmages. In Tuesday’s scrimmage against the Blazers, Roberson not only took the game’s first shot -- but it came in the left corner. Later in the game, he hit a deep ball straight away as a trailer in transition, showing again that he is launching with confidence. The form is much improved, so this isn’t just blind luck.

Even before Roberson’s return, the Thunder were already a sexy pick to win it all in this wonky bubble. If you’re a Vegas bookmaker, you have to be sweating a little bit. I’m told by Jeff Sherman, the VP of risk management at Westgate’s SuperBook, that the sportsbook took multiple bets back in October on OKC to win it all at 1000-1 odds. If Roberson can be half-decent from beyond the arc, the Western Conference got that much tougher -- a confident Roberson is a game-changer.

Utah Jazz: The renewed Mitchell-Gobert connection

The rest of the NBA will be watching closely to see if the next disgruntled star on the trade market will be coming out of Utah, or if there will be two of them. If I’m Utah, I do everything in my power to thaw the icy relationship between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert that took a turn for the worst after Gobert’s COVID-19 infection in March.

Opposing teams hoping that Mitchell would freeze out Gobert in Orlando have been sorely disappointed. In the scrimmages, Mitchell has been feeding Gobert consistently to the point that the guard is sometimes over-probing for the big man underneath. Credit to coach Quin Snyder and the squad for putting that behind them. At least so far.

It’s a good sign for Utah that the two have gotten back to being a terrifying pick-and-roll lob threat. Mitchell and Gobert have already connected for four alley-oops in the bubble and the Jazz have treaded water offensively without Bojan Bogdanovic, who’s out for the entire restart after wrist surgery. Now if they can keep Mike Conley hot, that’ll do wonders for the team’s morale. Don’t count out the Jazz just yet.

New Orleans Pelicans: The Zion now vs. future dilemma

The New Orleans Pelicans certainly want to make the playoffs. Playing Zion Williamson as much as possible will help them achieve that objective, but considering his injury history and zero scrimmages ahead of Thursday’s kickoff, is that the smart move?

To steal a Pat Riley line, the Pelicans have to keep the main thing, the main thing. And that’s to win a championship one day with Williamson hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. In all likelihood, that’s not happening this year, so I get why the organization has been mum about Williamson’s availability for the season restart. 

I’ve already outlined why Zion makes the Pelicans the most compelling team in the bubble, but with no scrimmages under his belt, I have a hard time seeing the Pelicans pushing Williamson beyond 20 or 30 minutes per game in the early going. With his immense impact on the scoreboard, a few Zion minutes here and there might move the needle enough for New Orleans to earn a play-in opportunity. The margins are that small in the West. 

I fully expect a “Are the Pelicans holding Zion back too much?” debate to be raging in the next week or so. I don’t envy coach Alvin Gentry’s job at the moment. Restricting a player’s minutes -- even if the player stays successfully healthy in those minutes -- never seems to be a popular move in this microwave society. Even if it is better for the long haul.

Portland Trail Blazers: The Triumphant Return of Jusuf Nurkic 

Bol Bol may be the story of the bubble, but Jusuf Nurkic should be a close second. Nurk has been phenomenal. In his first game action following a gruesome compound fracture last March, Nurkic has been tremendous in three games, averaging 20.4 points, 14.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists per 36 minutes. Most notable? The 7-footer has taken eight 3-pointers and splashed two of them.

That last thing is essential for the Blazers, who have boldly relied on a twin-tower attack in scrimmages. Nurk has taken turns bludgeoning smaller defenders in the post, feeding teammates with nifty passes and launching from deep with confidence. The Bosnian Beast is a career 3-for-42 from downtown, but coach Terry Stotts has genuine belief in his floor-spacing abilities or else he wouldn’t be trotting him out there alongside Hassan Whiteside and Zach Collins. Nurk is extremely skilled for a player his size. (We talked more about this on the Habershow with Blazers president of basketball ops Neil Olshey.)

Damian Lillard’s foot issues remain a little unsettling heading into the restart, but the return of Nurkic should have Portland feeling extra bullish about next season. Hell, with Nurkic looking this good, I wouldn’t want to face a healthy Portland team in the first round. The Nurk story is remarkable.

Memphis Grizzlies: Is Ja Morant already the best passer in the NBA?

I’m not willing to go there yet -- maybe not until Chris Paul and LeBron James hang ‘em up for good -- but some of the passes that Morant pulls off just melt my brain. He catches the defense sleeping before their eyes even get heavy. His innate sense of timing and touch are just insane.

Morant is one of the few players that use a no-look pass to great advantage. It’s gotten to the point that defenses are sometimes starting to shade off players that he’s actively looking at so they can try to anticipate the fake-out pass. And he’ll take that extra beat to feed the easy target. 

The kid registered 29 assists during the Grizzlies’ three scrimmages compared to just four bad-pass turnovers. It’s unfair what he’s able to do at such a young age. He’s White Chocolate Jason Williams with Derrick Rose’s bounce. He turns 21 in, like, two weeks.

Sacramento Kings: Is Buddy Hield a foundation piece?

Man, Luke Walton has some stones for demoting Hield to a supersub role just months after the Bahamian-born scorer signed a four-year, $94 million extension. Not many head coaches would do that in their first year with a new club, but here we are.

In the Orlando scrimmages, the Kings have continued to start Kent Bazemore and Bogdan Bogdanovic on the wing even though Hield has been their most reliable scorer this season. With the pandemic tightening budgets around the league (see: Phoenix selling off their G-League team), the Kings will have a tough decision this fall when Bogie becomes a restricted free agent. 

WiIth $46 million due to Barnes and Hield, the Kings may be hard-pressed to match a big offer for Bogdanovic, considering neither of those three players are All-Star caliber. These things add up and Sacramento could find itself in a Charlotte Hornets West situation if they can’t pair De’Aaron Fox with another star co-pilot.

The Kings’ front office felt that Hield could take another step toward star status this season, but the move to the bench makes it hard to see how Hield fits into their long-term plans. With the NBA allowing non-bubble teams to send scouts to Orlando, I suspect Hield is one of the more interesting players to watch. If I’m Hield, I’m busting my tail defensively in Orlando to try to prop up my trade stock.

San Antonio Spurs: Who are the Spurs?

I don’t know what the Spurs are doing in the bubble. They might not know what they’re doing there either. LaMarcus Aldridge is not in Orlando. Patty Mills is there but not playing. Dejounte Murray is the only player on the roster with guaranteed money past the 2020-21 season. If Gregg Popovich weren’t in line to coach Team USA next summer in Tokyo, I wouldn’t be surprised if he just hung it up this summer and lived on a vineyard for the rest of his days.

Alas, they’re in Orlando, with little to play for beyond the experience itself. I don’t know who the next Spurs All-Star will be. DeMar DeRozan can leave as a free agent this summer and we aren’t sure how good Murray is yet, even 21 months after he tore his ACL. While I like Derrick White’s game, he just turned 26 years old. I don’t know if you can classify him as a prospect anymore.

It’s hard to get excited about the Spurs right now. I guess after 22 straight years of playoff appearances, they’ve earned the right to just … be.

Phoenix Suns: The Mikal Bridges Breakout

Um, what did the Suns do to Mikal Bridges during the shutdown? The guy is playing out of his mind during the scrimmages, averaging 25.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.1 3-pointers every 36 minutes. Did he steal Cam Johnson’s shooting ability Monstars-style? In those scrimmages, he shot 7-for-13 from downtown including 5-for-6 on corner 3s. 

Seriously, this guy has been a revelation, or maybe this is just a continuation of where he left off. In the 15 games before the break, the defensive stopper made 43.5 percent of his 62 3-point attempts and started really filling up the scoring columns. His dribble-drive game has been really impressive in Orlando.

It’s weird to say but Orlando Mikal Bridges is basically what I’ve always wanted to see Otto Porter become. Let’s see if Bridges can keep this up once the seeding games begin. At this point, if I’m running a front office, I’m trading back and just drafting all Villanova players. 

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