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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