2020 NBA restart: The 5 most fascinating veterans in Disney World, starring Al Horford

2020 NBA restart: The 5 most fascinating veterans in Disney World, starring Al Horford

Assuming the NBA season can continue in Orlando (fingers crossed), some of the league’s best players have the chance to add exciting new chapters to their career stories.

Both Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James could become the first player to be named NBA Finals MVP with three different teams. But their legacies as all-time playoff greats are already secure. 

We’ll get our first look at Luka Doncic in the playoffs, but he’s just getting started. It will be fun to see Zion Williamson and Ja Morant in their first truly meaningful NBA games, but they should get plenty of chances in the years to come.

Here are five veteran players with a chance to shine in the playoffs and change how they are viewed around the league.

5. Kemba Walker

Walker missed seven games in February with a left knee injury and didn’t look totally right even when he returned, shooting 28 percent from the field in his final three games before the COVID-19 shutdown. In Walker’s absence, Jayson Tatum ascended to the role of Boston’s top offensive option.

Walker says he is healthy and will head to Orlando with the chance to win a playoff series for the first time in his nine-year career. In Charlotte, he was the proverbial “good player on a bad team.” Now, he needs to prove he can make winning plays in the playoffs.

Tatum’s emergence as a go-to scorer could help Walker immensely. Instead of having to carry the offense, he’s more likely to get some open looks, great news for one of the NBA’s best high-volume three-point shooters (37.7 percent on 8.8 attempts per game).

If he can make some clutch threes, Walker could provide Boston with the perimeter threat that made Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet so crucial in Toronto’s title run last season. The undersized Walker will also need to defend well enough to be on the floor for those moments.

In his only Game 7, back in the first round in 2016, Walker shot 3 for 16 from the floor in a 33-point loss to Miami. There’s no doubt he’d like a chance to redeem himself. 

4. Anthony Davis

Davis is talented enough on both ends of the floor to be the NBA Finals MVP. He just needs to prove himself on that stage.

If the Lakers and Clippers meet in the Western Conference Finals, Davis needs to dominate, because James will have his hands full with Leonard and Paul George. Davis is too big for Montrezl Harrell and too quick for Ivica Zubac. If the Clippers put George on him, Davis has to win that matchup decisively.

The Lakers aren’t going to win a championship unless both James and Davis have incredible playoff runs. The gap is too great between those two superstars and the third-best player on the roster (take your pick of Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma). 

Davis has shown he can be a playoff monster. Two years ago, he averaged 33.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.8 steals to lead New Orleans to a playoff sweep over the higher-seeded Portland Trail Blazers. He may need to put up those numbers for four rounds to win a championship this season.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Antetokounmpo and the Bucks dominated the regular season like few teams before them, winning by an average of 11.2 points per game on their way to an NBA-best 53-12 record.

But plenty of questions loom after their Eastern Conference Finals loss to Toronto last season.

Khris Middleton has had an outstanding season, but can he knock down shots for four rounds? Can Eric Bledsoe erase the memories of that series loss to Toronto, when he shot 29 percent from the field and 17 percent from three-point range in six games? Can Antetokounmpo make enough perimeter shots to keep defenses honest? 

Antetokounmpo may have the most pressure on him of any player going into this NBA restart. He has been, by far, the best player in the Eastern Conference this season. It isn’t even close. There is no proven playoff performer like Leonard blocking his path to the Finals. This is his time.

Antetokounmpo is almost certainly going to win back-to-back league MVP awards. He’s a free agent after the 2020-21 season. If he and the Bucks don’t get to the NBA Finals this season, will Antetokounmpo think about leaving Milwaukee for greener pastures?

2. Russell Westbrook

For the first three months of the season, the offseason trade to bring Westbrook to Houston in exchange for Chris Paul looked like an abject disaster.

While CP3 became one of the league’s best clutch shooters in Oklahoma City, Westbrook struggled to find his footing as the second banana to James Harden, shooting under 43 percent from the field in 30 games through December.

But just as people began to write him off, Westbrook’s efficiency numbers skyrocketed. In his final 23 games before the season paused because of COVID-19, Westbrook shot over 52 percent from the floor and averaged 31.7 points.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey decided to go all-in on the Harden/Westbrook brand of small ball, jettisoning center Clint Capela and bringing in Robert Covington. Either the 6-foot-7 Covington or 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker are tasked with defending opposing big men. We’ll see if that works in a playoff series.

For that style of play to have any chance of succeeding in the playoffs, Westbrook will have to hit the defensive glass like a monster and score as efficiently as he did later in the season. 

1. Al Horford 

There’s no sugarcoating the fact that Horford’s four-year contract for $97 million guaranteed looks like a mistake to this point. But the final three words of that previous sentence are the most important. 

To this point.

Yes, the on-court fit with Joel Embiid hasn’t worked. The Sixers have a negative net rating with Embiid and Horford on the floor together. But that doesn’t mean Horford can’t be valuable when the playoffs begin.

When he was with the Celtics, we saw firsthand how many winning plays Horford made in the playoffs. Maybe he can combine with Embiid and Ben Simmons to frustrate Antetokounmpo just enough to squeak by the Bucks in a series. Maybe he makes a couple of clutch three-point shots to win a key playoff game. 

Or maybe the playoffs show that Horford is simply a square peg in a round hole on this Sixers roster.

But if he has some big moments in a deep playoff run, the narrative of his time with the Sixers will be vastly different than it appears right now. If he plays well, maybe it’s easier to trade him if the front office doesn’t like the long-term fit. 

There’s no use coming to final conclusions on Horford’s time in Philadelphia just yet. 

It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

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Would Joel Embiid have a shot vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo 1-on-1? Shaquille O'Neal wants to see it

Would Joel Embiid have a shot vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo 1-on-1? Shaquille O'Neal wants to see it

Shaquille O’Neal has a few 1-on-1 matchups he’d especially like to see, and one of them happens to be quite the tall task for Joel Embiid. 

In a piece by NBC Sports NBA insider Tom Haberstroh on the story behind a 1-on-1 pay-per-view matchup between O’Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon that nearly happened in 1995, O’Neal said he’d want to see Embiid face Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“I need something that’s even (size),” O'Neal said. “That’s what made me and Hakeem good is that we were 6-11 and 6-10. Giannis is 7-foot and LeBron [James] is 6-9. I want to see Steph [Curry] versus Kyrie [Irving]. [Kevin Durant] and LeBron. [Russell] Westbrook and [James] Harden.”

Antetokounmpo holds a 5-3 head-to-head advantage against Embiid and has averaged 34.0 points, 14.1 rebounds and 6.6 assists against him. Those numbers aren’t too far off his averages this season, in which he’s made a very strong case for a second consecutive MVP award. Embiid has posted 26.5 points, 12.6 rebounds and 5.3 assists in his career against Antetokounmpo.

Of course, Embiid does have one recent decisive win in a high-profile game against Antetokounmpo. He held the Greek Freak to a season-worst 8-for-27 shooting performance on Christmas (1 for 10 when defended by Embiid), scored 31 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the Sixers’ 121-109 victory. 

It still appears to be a very difficult matchup for Embiid, or really any player on the planet. Antetokounmpo leads the league in defensive win shares and could become the first player to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season since Olajuwon in 1993-94. 

O’Neal criticized Embiid on TNT in December for not pushing himself to be dominant and said he should model Antetokounmpo’s drive. 

We’re telling you, ‘You can be great. You ain’t playing hard enough.’ Twenty-two ain’t enough to get you to the next level,” O’Neal said. “Do you want to be great or do you want to be good? If you want to be good, keep doing 22 points. You want to be great, give me 28, give me 30. You want to be great, watch Giannis — he wants to be great.

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Picking MVP, 6th Man of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year for 2019-20 NBA season

Picking MVP, 6th Man of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year for 2019-20 NBA season

If the NBA season had proceeded as usual, the first round of the playoffs would be underway. Since we don’t have any basketball to occupy ourselves with because of the coronavirus pandemic, now is as good a time as any to make our picks for this season’s NBA award winners. (We also did a Sixers-only edition of these awards.)

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

If there was ever any doubt, LeBron James showed this year that he’s a basketball genius and still one of the league’s top players at 35 years old.

Antetokounmpo, though, has had the better year. Only James in 2008-09, Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan have had better single-season PERs than Antetokounmpo’s 31.63 this season. If that’s not your cup of tea, his traditional stats are incredible: 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. And he’s only playing 30.9 minutes a night because of how often the 53-12 Bucks have built commanding fourth-quarter leads.

Rookie of the Year: Ja Morant, Grizzlies 

Nineteen games is simply not enough for Zion Williamson to be a contender for this award. 

Morant’s open-court improvisation is a joy to watch, and he had the Grizzlies on the verge of a surprising playoff berth. 

Defensive Player of the Year: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks 

Antetokounmpo is first in defensive win shares and defensive box plus-minus. Bucks' lineups with Antetokounmpo on the floor have a 96.3 defensive rating, which is over five points better than Milwaukee’s overall NBA-best 101.6 defensive rating.

Ben Simmons also has a good case, as does Anthony Davis, but Antetokounmpo should be the first player to win both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year since Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1993-94 season. 

Sixth Man of the Year: Montrezl Harrell, Clippers

We have Harrell ending teammate Lou Williams’ two-year streak and beating out the Thunder’s Dennis Schroder.

Harrell scores well both in intangible categories like effort, energy and toughness, and in tangible categories like PER and VORP. Though Schroder holds a slim edge over Harrell in scoring, Harrell’s line of 24.1 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes for the second-place Clippers is that of the most valuable bench player in the game.

Most Improved Player: Bam Adebayo, Heat 

There are a few strong contenders for Most Improved Player. Luka Doncic went from Rookie of the Year to legitimate superstar, Brandon Ingram thrived in New Orleans and DeVonte’ Graham increased his scoring average over 13 points per game from Year 1 to Year 2.

We give Adebayo the nod, in part because his improvement went hand and hand with Miami’s. Adebayo ranges from competent to tremendous in so many areas outside of shooting and is now easily one of the best big man passers in the sport. 

Coach of the Year: Nick Nurse, Raptors 

Nurse lost Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers, dealt with a bunch of significant injuries and has led Toronto to the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

He’s helped players like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell have career-best seasons, and his creative, unorthodox defenses are one reason why the Raptors have the second-best defensive rating in the league. 

Coaching isn’t often easy to evaluate in the NBA because of how heavily the league is dictated by superstars and how unusual it is to “trick” the opposition, but it’s clear Nurse has done a great job. 

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