Top NBA Storylines, Players to Watch and More During Orlando Return

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJuly 1, 2020

Top NBA Storylines, Players to Watch and More During Orlando Return

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    The world's top basketball league is on its way.

    On July 30, which will be nearly five months since it shut down, the NBA will give us an eight-game regular-season runway leading to the 2020 playoffs.

    Before the ball is tipped, let's look back on where things stood when the game halted. And more importantly, let's look forward to what's next.

    Who will secure the final playoff spot in the West? Who are the title favorites? Who will win all the league's individual awards? Who are the teams and players to which you should pay special attention?

    Dive in for answers to all of the above and more.

Wild West's Race for Eighth

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    When the season was suspended, the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies were 32-33 with a 3.5-game lead over the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings. The San Antonio Spurs were four games back, and the Phoenix Suns were six games back.

    On March 12, FiveThirtyEight's projection system broke down the possibility of snagging that eighth seed as follows:

    • Pelicans: 60 percent
    • Grizzlies: 15 percent
    • Trail Blazers: 14 percent
    • Kings: 9 percent
    • Spurs: 2 percent
    • Suns: less than 1 percent

    Throw all of that out now.

    Given the restart format chosen by the league (eighth and ninth place will face off in a play-in game if they're within four games of each other when the season ends), that final playoff spot could go to any of the six teams listed above.

    Sure, the Suns leapfrogging four teams and finishing ninth may be a stretch, but it's not hard to imagine any squad keeping the gap in the standings to within four games. And a one-off for the actual playoff berth would be impossible to predict.

    Let's try anyway.

    Zion Williamson and the Pelicans are the only team in the entire reboot whose opponents combine for a sub-.500 record. If they're healthy, staying within four games of eighth place should be a breeze.

    When Zion has shared the floor with Brandon Ingram this season, the Pelicans are plus-14.1 points per 100 possessions (99th percentile). And beyond the two young stars, this roster has playoff-tested veterans (Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors and JJ Redick) who shouldn't shrink from the moment of a potential play-in game.

    Drawing names out of a hat might be the most effective method for predicting how this plays out, but if there is such a thing as a safe pick, New Orleans might be it.

The Title Favorites

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    Before this season even started, it was clear we were headed for a level of parity few of us had ever seen from an NBA season.

    A summer of unprecedented roster turnover led to several teams boasting superstar combinations. The Los Angeles Lakers added Anthony Davis to LeBron James. The Los Angeles Clippers acquired both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Houston Rockets landed Russell Westbrook. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving went to the Brooklyn Nets.

    And other teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets continued to build around pre-prime superstars like Giannis Antetokuounmpo, Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic.

    At the outset, one could have made a reasonable argument for nearly a dozen teams being able to win the title. Fresh off the heels of a Golden State Warriors dynasty, 2019-20 felt like a total reset.

    Over the course of the campaign, though, three teams seemed to emerge and populate Tier 1 of title contention. The Lakers, Clippers and Bucks were the class of the NBA pre-shutdown, and they figure to be prominently featured between now and the October Finals.

    The possibilities for upsets abound, but each of these teams is a juggernaut when healthy. The net ratings of each when featuring its top duo are stellar:

    • Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton: plus-17.3 (99th percentile)
    • LeBron James and Anthony Davis: plus-10.4 (95th percentile)
    • Kawhi Leonard and Paul George: plus-9.9 (95th percentile)

    After all this time off, and with so few regular-season games to worry about, it isn't unreasonable to expect major minutes from these stars in the playoffs. Few teams can counter this level of talent at the top of the roster (at least until they face each other).

The Fringe Contenders

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    Tier 1 is loaded, but it wouldn't be shocking to see any of those three teams knocked off by one of the members of Tier 2.

    Let's look at some candidates for that group through the same lens we used for the Bucks, Lakers and Clippers:

    • Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder: plus-15.3 (99th percentile)
    • Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum: plus-12.6 (98th percentile)
    • Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap: plus-10.7 (96th percentile)
    • Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry: plus-9.0 (93rd percentile)
    • Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis: plus-7.0 (88th percentile, though it jumps to the 97th percentile if you add Tim Hardaway Jr.)
    • Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell: plus-6.8 (88th percentile, though it plummets to the 7th percentile if you remove Bojan Bogdanovic)
    • Domantas Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon: plus-6.5 (86th percentile)
    • Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo: plus-5.7 (82nd percentile, though it jumps to the 98th percentile if you add Duncan Robinson)
    • James Harden and Russell Westbrook: plus-5.2 (80th percentile, though it jumps to the 97th percentile if you remove Clint Capela)
    • Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons: plus-2.0 (64th percentile, though it jumps to the 80th percentile if you remove Al Horford)

    That's an eyeful, but it's tough to omit any of the above. All have a shot to win a first-round series regardless of seeding, and who knows what can happen from there?

    But if we're forced to whittle this field down to the teams that really have a shot at a championship, we can.

    The first we can probably knock off is the Utah Jazz. The fit with Mike Conley was nowhere near as smooth as expected, and losing Bogdanovic to a season-ending wrist surgery was brutal.

    From there, we can probably scratch off the Indiana Pacers. They have young and intriguing pieces, but upsetting the Bucks seems unlikely. Ditto for the Miami Heat despite the presence of Butler.

    Back to the West, there are the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks. Despite some stellar individual lineups, OKC seems a superstar short of being able to upend the Lakers or Clippers, and the Mavs may still be a year or two away from contention.

    That leaves the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets, Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. Barring dramatic developments between now and any potential playoff series, none of them would likely be favored to beat Milwaukee or either L.A. squad. Again, upsets are relatively easy to imagine, though.

Who Is the MVP?

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    Basketball Reference houses a handy MVP tracker that predicts the outcome of the race "based on a model built using previous voting results."

    The formula understandably pegs Giannis Antetokounmpo as an overwhelming favorite to secure his second consecutive MVP.

    • Giannis Antetokounmpo: 50.7 percent
    • LeBron James: 17.3 percent
    • James Harden: 10.5 percent
    • Anthony Davis: 9.8 percent
    • Luka Doncic: 4.0 percent

    The Bucks have the best record in the NBA. Giannis has a 12.1 net rating swing that barely edges LeBron's 12.0. And taking a team from good to historic (Milwaukee is plus-4.0 without Giannis and plus-16.1 with him) is arguably more impressive than taking a team from mediocre to great (L.A. is minus-1.5 without LeBron and plus-10.5 with him).

    But the on-off numbers aren't even the most impressive part of Giannis' MVP resume.

    Much like Stephen Curry in 2015-16, Antetekounmpo's individual numbers have been somewhat suppressed by the dominance of his team. Because the Bucks so thoroughly dominate most of their competition, Giannis has only had to play 30.9 minutes per game.

    When you adjust his numbers for pace and playing time, they leap off the screen.

    He's averaging 32.9 points, 15.2 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks per 75 possessions while leading the NBA in box plus/minus. 

    That puts him on pace for the first season of at least 30 points and 15 rebounds per 75 possessions in league history, and you have to drop the rebounding qualifier all the way to 12.0 before you find a solitary Shaquille O'Neal season (one that featured just 2.5 assists per 75 possessions).

    This campaign from Antetokounmpo should be blowing more minds than it is. This is essentially Shaq-level dominance with the physical frame of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the playmaking of a young Lamar Odom.

    LeBron will surely get some first-place votes. What he's done to carry the Lakers back to prominence is impressive.

    But ultimately, this award belongs to Giannis. And since he's just 25 years old, it's hard to imagine an MVP race without him for the next several years.

Who Is the Rookie of the Year?

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    The return-to-play format is sure to introduce a little chaos to battles for playoff seeding. It could do the same for a handful of award races.

    We haven't had NBA basketball for months, and the eight games (and possible play-in) will be the freshest on voters' minds when they get their ballots.

    If Zion Williamson maintains the absurd level of production he had before the shutdown, and the New Orleans Pelicans wind up with the final playoff spot, it wouldn't be surprising to see him steal some Rookie of the Year votes from Ja Morant.

    But Memphis' dynamic point guard will have a say in this. And as Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman explained, there may be a reason to expect even more from him as the pressure intensifies:

    "Last year, the postseason's spotlight brought out the best in Murray State's point guard as he averaged 27.5 points, 7.8 assists and 7.3 rebounds in four games between the conference and NCAA tournaments. Given his personality and his status leading an underdog Memphis team that's seemingly playing with house money, it's easy to picture Morant continuing to strengthen his Rookie of the Year case at Disney."

    Morant told Bleacher Report's Taylor Rooks that he feels like he's "done enough" to secure the award, but he may need another stretch like the one described by Wasserman to hold Zion off.

The Rest of the Individual Awards

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    MVP and Rookie of the Year are typically the headliners of the NBA's individual awards, but there are plenty of others to get excited about over the next few months:

    Sixth Man of the Year: Dennis Schroder

    The field for this award is packed, but the nod goes to Dennis Schroder. Beyond leading reserves in scoring at 19.0 points per game, his net rating swing is comfortably better than anyone within striking distance of his average.

    The Thunder's net rating is 8.6 points per 100 possessions better with Schroder on the floor. That's rarified air for a bench player, especially when he's on a team that features such good starters.

    Additionally, Schroder is a mainstay in one of the league's most effective, unusual and entertaining trios. OKC's three-point guard attack boasts a seemingly impossible plus-31.4 net rating.

    Honorable Mentions: Montrezl Harrell and Derrick Rose

    Defensive Player of the Year: Giannis Antetokounmpo

    The Bucks not only lead the league in defense, but their minus-8.5 relative defensive rating (meaning they allow 8.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than an average team) is also the third-best in NBA history. Only the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics of 1963-64 and 1964-65 posted better marks.

    Giannis is the best individual defender on this historically dominant defensive team. Milwaukee allows 11.3 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. He's averaging 2.2 combined blocks and steals per 75 possessions, and he leads the NBA in defensive box plus/minus.

    Honorable Mentions: Rudy Gobert and Brook Lopez

    Most Improved Player: Bam Adebayo

    We won't break the unwritten rule outlawing second-year players from consideration here. Otherwise, Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Devonte' Graham would have strong cases. Others to think about include Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

    But the distinction of Most Improved goes to Bam Adebayo, who not only increased his production with more minutes but also expanded his game.

    Adebayo has put up solid increases in points and blocks per possession, and he's currently doubling last season's box plus/minus. But the most important development is likely the passing.

    Adebayo is averaging 5.1 assists per game and is being trusted to run multiple possessions each contest as the de facto 1. That level of playmaking from a center makes life exponentially easier for the guards and wings on the roster. When the big pulls his defender away from the paint, driving and cutting lanes are much more open.

    Honorable Mentions: Brandon Ingram and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

    Coach of the Year: Nick Nurse

    The Toronto Raptors didn't just lose Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green this summer; they have lost more win shares to injury than any other team in the league to this point, per Man Games Lost.

    And yet, head coach Nick Nurse has led the defending champions to the same 46-18 record they had through 64 games last season.

    Nurse has managed to get the most out of seemingly every rotation player on the roster, helping Toronto emerge as perhaps the new organizational standard in the NBA.

    Honorable Mentions: Mike Budenholzer and Billy Donovan

Regular-Season Games to Watch

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    Los Angeles Lakers vs. Los Angeles Clippers, July 30, 9 p.m. ET on TNT

    The intrigue for this one isn't difficult to explain. It's the Lakers and Clippers, two of our three Tier 1 contenders. It's LeBron James vs. Kawhi Leonard. It's a possible Western Conference Finals preview.

    It doesn't hurt that this game is on the NBA's re-opening night. The two squads could help set a tone for the rest of the participants in Orlando, Florida.

    New Orleans Pelicans vs. Utah Jazz, July 30, 6:30 p.m. ET on TNT

    The Pelicans have the easiest schedule of any of the 22 rebooting teams, thanks to a closing kick against six straight teams that are currently below .500.

    If they can steal one of their first two games, overtaking the Memphis Grizzlies for eighth will be a real possibility.

    Of the two above-.500 opponents they face, the Utah Jazz seem much riper for an upset than the Clippers. Utah will be without Bojan Bogdanovic, and it's fair to wonder whether there will be any residual effects to the feud between Gobert and Mitchell.

    Memphis Grizzlies vs. Western Conference Playoff Hopefuls

    Memphis opens its eight-game slate in Orlando with games against the Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs and Pelicans. Those contests carry immense importance for all four teams.

    Every loss, especially to teams chasing them, puts the Grizzlies closer to the dreaded play-in game, during which anything could happen.

    And for those currently on the outside looking in, the quickest way to gain ground in the standings is to beat a team in front of you.

Players to Watch

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    This list is by no means exhaustive. The amount of superstar talent in the NBA is off the charts right now. But here are just a few who are sure to entertain in Orlando.

    Nikola Jokic

    What will Jokic's dramatic weight loss do to his game?

    Before the shutdown, Jokic was posting typically absurd numbers: 20.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 1.2 steals in just 32.3 minutes per game.

    Could a quicker and more explosive Jokic be even better? Is there a chance that less weight means less control in the post? Being something of a bruiser was part of Jokic's success.

    Resuming the season with a completely different body has made the Denver Nuggets center one of the league's bigger question marks.

    Luka Doncic

    Luka is having one of the greatest sophomore campaigns in NBA history, and he's leading an offense that can absolutely get hot enough to run off four first-round victories.

    When he's on the floor, the Dallas Mavericks score 118.5 points per 100 possessions. He's the maestro behind almost all of those possessions, navigating pick-and-rolls with the savvy understanding of a much older player, finding the open man, keeping defenders on their toes with step-back threes and blowing by leaning defenders with a nasty first step.

    Zion Williamson

    If pictures are worth a thousand words, Zion Williamson's highlight reels might defy explanation. But here goes.

    It's tough to find a physical comp for Zion's 6'6", 285-pound frame. And when you just read those numbers, you imagine a ground-bound player.

    Zion is obviously not that. In fact, he explodes off the ground in a way that players 100 pounds lighter than him cannot. His attacks on the rim are, at times, alarming.

    And it's not just raw athleticism that makes Williamson so fun to watch, although that's a huge part of it. His awareness and basketball IQ are incredible for a rookie. He seemingly knows exactly when and where to cut on offense, and he has a knack for playing angles that most players take years to figure out.

    James Harden

    Jokic isn't the only player who lost weight during the shutdown. James Harden is also looking considerably slimmer, and the idea of a more explosive Harden should be pretty terrifying for the NBA's perimeter defenders.

    "I've been doing a lot of cardio," he told The Athletic's Kelly Iko. "I've got treadmills in my houses, weights, and all that good stuff. It really hasn't affected me like it's affected a lot of other players."

    If Harden is right and he hasn't been affected as much as his peers, the Houston Rockets have a real shot at a title. And that would do wonders for his legacy.

    He's already fifth in NBA history in career offensive box plus/minus and 13th in MVP shares. But many will be hesitant to discuss him as a potential top-15 or top-20 player until he secures a ring.

    Harden's focus during this hiatus suggests he's ready to challenge that reputation.

1st-Round Matchups to Pull for

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    Boston Celtics vs. Philadelphia 76ers

    At the outset of 2018-19, shortly after Boston had eliminated the Sixers from the previous postseason, Joel Embiid said the Celtics "always kick our ass."

    Two years later, the division rivals remain an intriguing clash of philosophies. Philadelphia has a bruising, old-school center, his willingness to throw up some threes notwithstanding. The Celtics remain near the forefront of positionless basketball.

    Boston has also been about as good as anyone at defending the game's premier point bigs, Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo. The ability of the C's to form a wall in transition makes it tougher for those players to get to the paint.

    Contrasting styles like this often lead to entertaining series. A little bit of history helps, too. And if the playoffs started today, these staples of the Atlantic Division would play in the No. 3 vs. No. 6 matchup.

    Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets

    There could be plenty of shuffling up and down the Western Conference standings before the postseason starts.

    The second-place Los Angeles Clippers only have four more wins than the seventh-place Dallas Mavericks. Good luck predicting how the six teams in that clump will end up by the time the season is over.

    If there's one potential series among those teams that's more intriguing than the rest, it might be the Thunder and the Rockets.

    Just imagine if CP3 led OKC to an opening-round win over the team that traded him, two first-round picks and two pick swaps for Russell Westbrook.

    While Houston has more star power at the top of its roster, a Thunder win shouldn't be out of the question. That team is deep, disciplined and run by one of the best point guards in NBA history.

Most Impactful Opt-Outs

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    The list of players who are opting out of the league's restart in Orlando is seemingly growing by the day.

    As of June 30, it included:

    • Trevor Ariza (Portland Trail Blazers)
    • Avery Bradley (Los Angeles Lakers)
    • Davis Bertans (Washington Wizards)
    • Willie Cauley-Stein (Dallas Mavericks)
    • Wilson Chandler (Brooklyn Nets)
    • DeAndre Jordan (Brooklyn Nets)

    In terms of on-court impact, the biggest ones there are likely Ariza and Bertans.

    Bertans is averaging 3.7 threes, shooting 42.4 percent from deep and posting a plus-8.4 net rating swing that ranks in the 90th percentile.

    Washington may have initially been a long shot to even force a play-in game in the East, but seventh-place Brooklyn's roster could be thoroughly depleted in Orlando. Bertans playing would've made that race for eighth more interesting.

    Ariza, meanwhile, started all 21 games he played since joining Portland. While he didn't have quite as robust an offensive role as Bertans did in Washington, his versatile defense was a big part of a plus-14.0 net rating swing.

    Without Ariza and Rodney Hood (who ruptured his Achilles early in the season), the Blazers' wing rotation is woefully shallow.

    Losing DeAndre Jordan could be significant for the Nets, as well. They've actually been worse with him on the floor this season, but depth should be a real concern for Brooklyn now. The team is already down Durant, Irving and Jordan, and Spencer Dinwiddie is also considering an opt-out.

    The other three listed weren't likely to have hugely positive on-court impacts during the reboot.

    The Lakers were plus-9.1 points per 100 possessions when LeBron James shared the floor with Bradley, compared to plus-11.7 when LeBron played without him. That and L.A.'s recent acquisition of JR Smith suggest the Lakers should be fine.

    As for Cauley-Stein, he barely played for the Mavericks. When he did, the team's net rating was worse. If that means more stretch-5 minutes for Kristaps Porzingis, so be it.

    And finally, Chandler only appeared in 35 games this season. He averaged 5.9 points and shot 30.6 percent from three for a team that is almost certain to get wiped out in the first round of the playoffs.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass.