With the NBA season restarting inside Orlando bubble, it is time to revisit a few of the major storylines that were halted when the season stopped due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When two positive COVID tests derailed the NBA on the fateful night of March 11, 2020, basketball was in the middle of its most competitive and exciting season in years.
For as eager as we all are to watch basketball again, it is undeniable the NBA sits in the shadow of the movements promoting social justice in this country. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, NBA players wanted to keep the focus of the restart on social justice. Throughout much of the training and exhibition period in Orlando, many of the league’s most prominent players used their press conferences to speak about Breonna Taylor, the emergency medical technician shot in her home by Louisville police.
On the court, there are a couple things to keep an eye on as the players use their platform to place social justice in the conversation. Every player has the opportunity to replace their last name with a league-approved message on the back of their jersey. Examples of the NBA’s social justice messages include: equality, vote, say her name, enough, and black lives matter. Some players, such as LeBron James, are opting out of a jersey message. It is also expected that many players and coaches will perform some kind of demonstration during the National Anthem. The league does not yet know if teams will kneel, but Commissioner Adam Silver said on Good Morning America he will support those who do. Black Lives Matter has also been painted in the center of every court.
When it comes to revisiting stories of the 2019-2020 NBA season, none is bigger than the battle for Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers stoked the flames of their rivalry this past offseason with the acquisitions of Anthony Davis (LAL) and Kawhi Leonard (LAC). Heading into the restart, the Lakers lead the Western Conference with the Clippers in second place, trailing by 5.5 games.
The Lakers found near-instant chemistry between LeBron and Davis and have been bolstered by big performances by Dwight Howard and Alex Caruso. Meanwhile, injuries and rest days have hampered the on-court time for Kawhi and Paul George. The Clippers have only played 18 games with their core duo together. Both teams’ depth has been challenged by the restart. Lakers’ Avery Bradley opted-out and Rajon Rondo broke his thumb, while Clippers’ Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, and Patrick Beverley are quarantining from leaving the bubble.
The NBA Champion Toronto Raptors came into the season counted out by fans and analysts alike. Losing Kawhi Leonard was supposed to be a death knell. Instead, every Raptor showed up more seasoned after a championship run. Pascal Siakam has become the de facto face to Toronto, reflected by his dominant play. Toronto is a mix of solid veterans, like Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, and budding, young stars, such as OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet. The Raptors are poised to make another deep playoff run in their quest to repeat. Toronto is largely ignored by analysts, but they might just be the silent killer in the Eastern Conference.
Like the Raptors, there are a group of secondary teams in the Eastern standings that still pose a sizable threat to the conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks. The Bucks have a superstar in Giannis Antetokounmpo and great core of role players around him; however, the Bucks also have a history of not reaching the NBA Finals. This season, the Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, and Philadelphia 76ers can all upset the Bucks from the middle of the Eastern standings.
All three are powered by superstars surrounded by young talent and have already beaten the Bucks during the season. Boston has elite shooting, Philadelphia brings a dominant presence in the paint, and Miami has been bolstered on both sides of the ball by a mid-season trade. The Sixers are building a new offense into the bubble, having switched Ben Simmons to power forward, making Shake Milton a full-time starter. A healthy Celtics starting lineup may be the scariest of them all, given the sheer amount of points Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward put up. If any of these three teams find momentum and study the Bucks’ tape from last year’s conference finals, they might be able to knock off the heavy-favorite Milwaukee Bucks.
Finally, there is an intense Rookie of the Year battle in the Western Conference. As the Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans duel for the eighth seed, Ja Morant and Zion Williamson are competing for the coveted award. In his first season, Morant has placed the Grizzlies on his back to put them in playoff contention. Zion has battled knee injuries and faced strict minutes limits. Though Ja Morant has played more minutes that Zion has, they have similar stat lines. Zion has 23.1 points and captured 6.5 rebounds, while Morant has 17.6 points with 6.9 assists. Ja Morant has emerged as the better overall players, but there is no competing with the fandom surrounding Zion Williamson. It will be interesting to see how the race for the playoffs end and if voters take Zion’s popularity into account.
The biggest story all remains whether or not the NBA will be able to complete its season in the bubble. The good news is that no players have tested positive for COVID since July 13th. The path to an NBA Champion rests solely in Orlando, so here’s hoping the bubble survives.