On Thursday the NBA will make its long-awaited return when the Utah Jazz face media darlings the New Orleans Pelicans and their superstar in the making, Zion Williamson. It will be roughly four and a half months since the league suspended action when Utah’s Rudy Gobert became the first player to test positive.
(Most) of the playing and coaching staff are currently in the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida where they will play out the rest of the regular season in a condensed fashion before moving to the play-offs.
Without further ado, let’s get going.
WAIT YOU SAID CONDENSED?
Yep that’s right. Of the 30 NBA teams 22 have been invited back to take part in the play-in tournament to organise the play-offs. The eight bottom teams, unceremoniously labelled the ‘Delete Eight’, have been eliminated and not invited to Orlando. Those teams are the Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors.
The remaining 22 teams will play out eight matches each, and the top eight seeds will qualify for the play-offs as per usual. However if a team in ninth is four games or fewer behind the eighth seed when the eight games are over those two teams will have a play-off game of their own to decide who will make the play-offs. The eighth seed would only need to win one game whilst the ninth seed would have to win two. This is to provide incentive for the six teams coming to Orlando who currently sit outside the play-off spots. Once the play-offs start they will proceed as usual.
OKAY, SO WHO’S GOING TO MAKE THE PLAY-OFFS?
Let's start with the East. Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston, Miami, Indiana and Philadelphia are all in. Brooklyn and Orlando currently sit seventh and eighth whilst Washington are ninth. Not only are the Wizards 5.5 games back of the Magic they are going to be without Bradley Beal along with the already out John Wall. Brooklyn may be missing Kyrie Irving but it’s hard to see Washington making up the gap.
The West is far spicier. The two LA teams, Denver, Utah, Oklahoma City and Houston are all in. Barring the most spectacular collapse Dallas are also in. Then you have Memphis in eighth. 3.5 games back of them are Portland, New Orleans and Sacramento. San Antonio are half a game further back and Phoenix two more off that. If any of those last five teams can get a small enough gap to the Grizzlies they’ll trigger a play-in tournament. Given they have one of the easier schedules the Pelicans are currently seen as one of the favourites to do just that, and for those conspiracy theorists out there plenty of people who have speculated whether that decision was made to get Zion Williamson into the play-offs to help ratings…
Having said that, Memphis were superb before the shutdown so they will feel confident of making it but Portland and New Orleans are legitimate threats.
SO WHAT’S THIS BUBBLE THING?
In order to make this safe the NBA has put all the teams inside a ‘bubble’ in Orlando. What that means effectively is that they control who goes in and who goes out and keep everyone tested regularly. That means that there should be no outbreaks in the bubble and will allow the league to play out the season without interruptions. It’s a pretty sensible idea, particularly when you look at the chaos that MLB is going through right now with their more haphazard approach. Players are tested everyday and constantly monitored for symptoms. They have been in the bubble since July 7 and had to self-quarantine upon entering. If they leave and re-enter (as some players have done for family emergencies) they will have to self-quarantine again. That will be for 48 hours until they return two negative tests. If someone contracts the virus they will have to isolate for longer, again until they return two negative tests.
HOW HAS IT GONE SO FAR?
Pretty good. Credit to the NBA because this isn’t something you can have complete control over, but they have done a good job thus far. There is also an anonymous hot-line where people can report to the NBA if they feel that people aren’t following the restrictions. Obviously they can’t litigate for someone like Lou Williams..
WAIT, WHAT DID LOU WILLIAMS DO?
Oh man. Take the time to do some reading on Sweet Lou Williams because he is a character but put simply he left the bubble. Rather than a player like Williamson who left for a family emergency Williams left to go to strip club Magic City to get some of their chicken wings. Williams has now had to self-isolate for 10 days but has said the wings are the best around to try and justify his decision. So you know, make your own judgement on that. The NBA are not impressed and are looking into proceedings.
WILL THERE BE FANS?
Nope. There is a small selection of the media.
SO WHO’S GOING TO WIN IT?
The Milwaukee Bucks are currently the number one seed, albeit in a slightly softer Eastern Conference, and are most people’s tip to reach the final from their side. In the West all signs are pointing to a divisional showdown between the Lakers and the Clippers. Those are the three favourites and in all likelihood the winner will come from those three.
Giannis Antetokounmpo | Milwaukee Bucks
Image credit: Eurosport
But this is not a normal season, it’s a weird scenario and if someone copes with the situation better than we thought they could make a surprise run. The Raptors, 76ers and Celtics are all examples of such teams.
WHO SHOULD I BE WATCHING?
There are the obvious names. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the league and is on a tear. Kawahi Leonard is aiming to win back-to-back titles with different teams whilst LeBron James continues to defy his age and is coming off an MVP-calibre stretch before shutdown.
Image credit: Getty Images
Other than that, James Harden, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, Nikola Jokic, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul and Joel Embiid are all going to be well worth your viewing time as you would expect. along with countless other superstars.
But there are plenty of players to keep an eye on who are just starting to make a name for themselves. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been superb for the surprise-package Thunder whilst Bam Adebayo has taken the league by storm with the Heat. Bol Bol made his long awaited Nuggets debut in a scrimmage whilst the Blazers are getting Jusuf Nurkic back from the devastating leg injury he suffered over a year ago.
ANY EUROPEAN PLAYERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON?
Luka Doncic is the obvious one of course. The new golden boy of the NBA has followed up his rookie season by being even better, somehow. Meanwhile, Serbian superstar Nikola Jokic drew plenty of attention during the off-season after pictures of him considerably slimmer emerged. Previously a player who used his size and weight to bully people this new version of Jokic is going to be extremely interesting.
Image credit: Getty Images
London-born OG Anunoby missed most of the Raptors title run with injury last year but this season he has been an integral part of their surprise challenge despite losing Kawhi. Anunoby, who moved to the US at the age of four certainly doesn’t get the attention he deserves in the country of his birth but is a wonderful talent nonetheless.
Despite the reported issues with team-mate Mitchell, France’s Rudy Gobert remains one of the very best defenders in the league whilst there is also Doncic’s Latvian team-mate Kristaps Porzingis. The Thunder will also be counting on two European imports, Danilo Gallinari of Italy and Germany’s Dennis Schroder.
AND WHEN DOES IT ALL KICK OFF AGAIN?
It starts on Thursday evening when the Jazz play the Pelicans at 23:30 GMT. There will be games every day after that for the foreseeable future before September 30 when the NBA finals will begin.