Wizards

Wizards

Unlike Major League Baseball, the NBA has seemingly figured out how to play games safely amid the coronavirus pandemic. They set up a bubble in Orlando, FL and so far, so good. Their most recent round of testing yielded zero positive results.

What that means is that we can actually focus on some basketball without far more important concerns clouding the league's efforts. For now at least, we can enjoy the game.

With that in mind, here are the biggest NBA storylines as we look ahead to games getting started on Thursday...

LeBron's quest for ring No. 4

No one arguably had more riding on the NBA's restart plan than LeBron James, who at 35 years old only has so many more opportunities to chase rings. Fair or not, titles are separators in the greatest of all-time debate and James getting a fourth would give him more rings than any active player. He would be just the third player to win titles with three different teams, joining Robert Horry and John Salley.

The odds are good James and his Lakers will make it far. They already have the best record in the West and now get to go into a sprint to the finish line season well-rested. Given James' age, and the past durability issues of Anthony Davis, it seems like the Lakers could be big benefactors of the time off.

Giannis' rise as NBA's new king

James is the most accomplished player in today's game and is already a certified all-time great, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is the league's best player and could very well win both the MVP award and defensive player of the year. Only four players - Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Kevin Garnett - have won both in their careers. Only Jordan and Olajuwon have done it in the same season, Olajuwon in 1993-94 being the last time it occurred.

 

It could be Antetokounmpo's league for the foreseeable future, but he needs to do more than dominate the regular season for that to be the case. It's not that he hasn't won anything yet; he did make the conference finals last year in just his Age 24 season. But winning a title this year would install him as the undisputed king of the league. Even an NBA Finals berth would go a long way towards boosting his profile in the game's history.

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Zion and Ja in a playoff race

It's not often the NBA gets two budding superstars as rookies and both of them are in the middle of a playoff race. No. 1 pick Zion Williamson's Pelicans are 10th in the Western Conference and No. 2 pick Ja Morant's Grizzlies are in eighth. The No. 9 team is the Damian Lillard-led Blazers. So, basically a play-in tournament in the West to determine the eight seed would be amazing.

And whichever team gets the eighth-seed will likely face the Lakers in the first round. LeBron vs. Zion; can you imagine? What about LeBron vs. Ja or Dame? All of those scenarios sound like must-see television. Lakers-Pelicans would also include Davis, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram against their former teams.

Brodie and the Beard... well-rested

The time off is expected to be an equalizer of sorts. Teams that were banged up in March are now mostly healthy. Older players should be rested and fresh. And those that thrived off chemistry will have to start anew.

Some of those factors have people saying the Houston Rockets are a team to watch. They rely heavily on two players - James Harden and Russell Westbrook - who are top-five in the NBA in usage percentage. They were likely going to feel the effects of that by the end of a normal, marathon season. But now they have the advantage of taking time off and rejuvenating. As long as they can get back up to speed and in shape, the Rockets could be a wild card in the postseason and maybe rewrite some legacies in the process.

Simmons as a PPF (point-power-forward)

The 4 1/2 months off in between games was apparently enough time for Ben Simmons to change positions and add a three-point shot. He also healed his back which had been bothering him before the league shut down. Though the Bucks are heavy favorites in the East, they should have a few legitimate challengers. The Raptors, Heat and Celtics are seen as their biggest threats, but Philly can't be counted out.

 

Simmons was already a very good player, but if they can minimize the dead space he becomes on the perimeter sometimes on offense, that's a big deal. They already have Joel Embiid, a top-10 player in the league, and a deep lineup with a very high ceiling on defense. The Sixers may have a real chance to go deep this year.

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