The Top Storyline for Every NBA Team in Orlando
A lot has changed since the NBA closed its doors March 11. Too much. But as the league prepares to resume play at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, the stakes remain the same, and so do many of the subplots that go with them.
These are those subplots.
Every team has, in theory, entered the Disney bubble with the intention of winning a championship. In theory. But we know better. This is not a level playing field. Injuries have depleted certain rosters. Others shouldn't have been invited in the first place.
Our dive into the biggest, most interesting, most important storylines will seek to differentiate these situations. And there will be no cop-outs. "Can they win a title?" or "Will they make the playoffs?" will not be the default response.
For many teams, those will be factors that determine this season's ceiling. For others, it will be inquiries into their futures. But every topic you see here, regardless of what it may be, is worth monitoring as the NBA gets back to business July 30.
Boston Celtics: Is Jayson Tatum Ready to Spearhead a Legit Title Contender?
This is not a question of Jayson Tatum's rise. It is immense, and it is real. This season's top-10-player case is born slightly from convenience, after so many megastar staples battled injuries and zero availability, but it lays the groundwork for the no-strings-attached one that will come soon enough.
That's different from saying Tatum is ready to headline a genuine championship contender. To believe that is to, at minimum, believe the Boston Celtics are the biggest threat to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference. They might be. It may also be the Toronto Raptors. A case can still be made for the Philadelphia 76ers. The Miami Heat loom.
Tatum's place in the superstar pecking order is the heartbeat of Boston's title chances. Kemba Walker is coming back from a left knee injury and exploitable on defense. (Fully healthy Kemba tries at that end.) Jaylen Brown isn't the requisite kind of shot creator. Gordon Hayward remains an effective player, but like Brown, he's best suited to tip the Celtics' scales as a No. 3.
It might instead be fair to focus on the performance of Boston's third-best player (and who it is), or the state of Walker's knee. But the Celtics are being billed as threats to win the East, and they are Tatum's team.
To this point, that's come as a comfort. He's turned into one of the league's premier offensive hubs. Boston has more than doubled his pick-and-roll volume from last season, and his off-the-dribble three is officially a superpower. Among everyone attempting at least three pull-up triples per game, only Damian Lillard and Caris LeVert are downing theirs at a better clip.
On the flip side, the playoffs are just different, and Tatum isn't perfect. His incumbent shot selection will get harder, and his playmaking still trails expectations for someone with his ball-handling volume. He's flashed the capacity to toss complicated passes, but he has the lowest assist rate of anyone with his usage.
He's getting to the hoop more in recent months, but is it enough? Boston is running about a league-average offense when he plays without Walker. That's good. Is it good enough?
Brooklyn Nets: Caris LeVert Goes It Alone(ish)
Props to the Brooklyn Nets for arriving in Florida with actual players. Plural.
Joining the NBA's bubble whole was out of the question. Kevin Durant (Achilles) and Kyrie Irving (shoulder) were never going to play. But the Nets are also missing Wilson Chandler, Nicolas Claxton (shoulder), Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and Taurean Prince. They're about as far from whole as they can be without forfeiting games.
Expectations shouldn't be tapered in the face of Brooklyn's roster crunch. They should be erased entirely. Signing Justin Anderson, Michael Beasley and Jamal Crawford doesn't drastically alter their trajectory.
Never mind avoiding the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. Sticking inside the Eastern Conference's playoff picture would be a pretty significant accomplishment, even with the ninth-place Washington Wizards competing without their three best players.
Brooklyn's time in Florida, however long it lasts, is instead about gauging Caris LeVert's fit for the future. Can he be their third star to partner with Durant and Irving? Come close to approximating one? If so, does that make him a long-term piece? Or just a better trade chip? Someone, perhaps, capable of anchoring a package for Bradley Beal?
LeVert has the tools to drive up his stock without a safety net by his side. He's not the most efficient scorer, but he has an operable off-the-dribble jumper that's worked for him in the playoffs before. He averaged 21.0 points and 3.0 assists on a 61.2 true shooting percentage through five postseason tilts last year while splashing in 40.0 percent of his pull-up treys.
Can he finish better at the rim? Get to the line more often? Defend bigger guards and wings when the Nets are running smaller, which, frankly, they sort of have to now? Disney World will be a good barometer for how LeVert fares without help and how valuable he is to the Nets' larger picture, be it as an eventual sidekick to KD and Kyrie or the asset they use to land another supporting piece.
Dallas Mavericks: How Far Away Are They from Contention?
It is difficult to turn the Dallas Mavericks' first playoff bid since 2016 into anything profound. Luka Doncic is a top-five-ish player already, and they have the league's best offense, but their journey into the postseason remains more about self-exploration than meeting a concrete set of expectations.
As The Ringer's Rob Mahoney wrote:
"Dallas has the profile of a plucky, well-coached team that could stir up some trouble in a seven-game series. They also have a roster composed almost entirely of playoff novices; of the team’s expected rotation, only Tim Hardaway Jr., Seth Curry, Delon Wright, and J.J. Barea have playoff experience. So begins the Mavericks’ practical exam, where in going about their postseason education, they just might ruin the stay of a few more veteran teams.
"Luka Doncic working in space is inherently dangerous. The next few months should demonstrate that, while also peeling back the layers of this Mavs roster to make clear what it needs going forward. Can Kristaps Porzingis be a reliable secondary creator? What combinations of role players will get exposed by playoff competition? The only way to know for sure is to put the whole team to the test."
Figuring out whether Porzingis—or someone else—can be that dependable secondary creator tops Dallas' to-do list. Doncic is in his bag ferrying an exorbitant workload but has his limits.
Look no further than Mavs' crunch-time struggles to gauge his need for a sidekick. They're 14-21 in games when neither team is ahead or behind by more than five points during the final five minutes, and their offense ranks 29th during those stretches.
Doncic specifically owns a true shooting percentage of 41.9 in these situations, the second-lowest among 54 players with at least 20 crunch-time appearances and a usage of 20 or higher. He's canning 50 percent of his twos, but almost half his shots are coming from downtown, where he's shooting 17.1 percent. He's not getting to the foul line as much, a side effect of taking more looks outside the restricted area, and failing to capitalize when he does reach the charity stripe (65.1 percent).
Leaning on his step-back three and bailing out before sniffing the basket is often a choice for Doncic. Better decision-making can help his clutch play. He also needs another ball-handling outlet. Hardaway and Porzingis are obvious candidates, but they're more play-finishers than creators. If that doesn't change, the Mavs will have a relatively tall order to fill over the offseason.
Denver Nuggets: Slim Nikola Jokic
The Denver Nuggets have plenty of storylines worth following as a should-be contender that isn't considered a consensus title threat.
Will Jamal Murray go boom? Or play more consistently than he did last postseason? Do the Nuggets have enough shooting? Enough depth and size on the wings? Can Michael Porter Jr. be a difference-maker for a team that needs another self-sufficient scorer who also works within the flow of the offense? Will head coach Mike Malone even play him?
MPJ's spot in the rotation and potential impact are a close second to this obligatory selection. Nikola Jokic is the Nuggets' constant, their megastar through and through, but he reportedly lost 40 pounds during the league's hiatus. Any material change in how he might play matters.
This isn't an indirect way of saying Jokic will be worse. Maybe he's better. His conditioning is forever overblown, with the exception of the start to this season, and a stark weight loss should theoretically make him lighter on his feet. Perhaps he's quicker when running fast breaks or getting pulled into space on defense.
Conversely, Jokic could surrender an advantage down low. He ranks second in elbow touches and fifth in post-ups per game. Finesse and vision are instrumental tricks of his trade, and he doesn't even always dribble in those spots. But what if he can't create as much space with his shoulders? Or back down and displace his opponents as easily? Does height alone give him enough leverage?
Post-ups aren't the most efficient form of scoring, even for Jokic. His 1.06 points per possession rank in the 84th percentile of the play type but equate to a below-average offense. That's hardly a license to abandon them. More than that, post-ups aren't purely a scoring mechanism for Jokic. They are a vehicle through which he generates offense for everyone else. Denver could be worse for wear if his power on the block is at all compromised.
Indiana Pacers: Ceiling Without Victor Oladipo
Editor's Note: Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium is reporting that there is a "growing belief" that Victor Oladipo will attempt to play in Orlando following "multiple strong team practices."
Victor Oladipo's decision to not play in Disney World and continue recovering from last year's right quad injury could turn the Indiana Pacers into a first-round steppingstone.
Just don't tell them that.
"We still feel that we can move up in the standings," head coach Nate McMillan said, per Forbes' Tony East. "Our approach is going to be to try and win games."
Whether trying to move up the standings makes sense is a matter of preference. The Pacers are fifth in the East, two games behind the fourth-place Miami heat. Snagging a top-four seed would have more curb appeal if it actually resulted in home-court advantage. It doesn't.
Dropping down to sixth would allow Indiana to delay a prospective clash with the Milwaukee Bucks until the conference finals. The Philadelphia Sixers currently hold that spot but enter the bubble with the same overall record as the Pacers. Watch out for some seeding shenanigans over the course of these eight regular-season games.
Anyway, Indiana isn't entirely out of line for fancying itself a potential irritant without Oladipo. The Pacers are 32-20 in games he doesn't play, and their vitals are pretty good whenever he's not on the floor. In the 5,500-plus possessions they've logged without him, their offensive rating places in the 55th percentile and their defensive rating lands in the 69th percentile.
Jeremy Lamb's absence (torn left ACL) could change the calculus, but Indiana's performance without both he and Oladipo is essentially the same. Malcolm Brogdon's play is the bigger swing factor. He was out indefinitely with a torn left quad when the league closed its doors and has battled back, right hand and left hamstring issues this season. He's apparently good to go now, but the Pacers need more than baseline availability. He has to power the entire offense.
Indiana still has depth on the roster. A rotation built around Brogdon, Aaron Holiday, Justin Holiday, T.J. McConnell, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and T.J. Warren can eke out wins...in the regular season. The playoffs are a different beast. From-scratch shot creation comes at a premium. So while the Pacers retain the look and feel of a team that will be a tough out, it isn't yet clear whether they have the juice to peak as something more.
Houston Rockets: Fate of Microball
Microball has thus far panned out for the Houston Rockets. They are 11-6 with a top-five offense and top-12 defense since Clint Capela was last in the rotation. Lineups with P.J. Tucker manning the 5 are scoring 116.7 points per 100 possessions (93rd percentile) and have thrived at both ends when Robert Covington is at the 4.
No one has benefited more from this stylistic shift than Russell Westbrook. He's averaging 31.0 points and 5.8 assists with a 57.5 true shooting percentage in the after-Capela era. Almost 56 percent of his looks are coming inside five feet over this stretch, compared to 46.3 percent beforehand, where he's shooting 63.4 percent (up from 58.8 percent).
This is more than enough to validate Houston downsizing to a new extreme. It doesn't mean microball is an unmitigated success.
Postseason matchups pose different dilemmas. The Rockets will be able to dictate the terms of play in some instances but risk getting overpowered versus certain opponents.
They're effectively punting on the rebounding battle in every series. Lineups with Tucker at the 5 and Covington at the 4 have a defensive rebounding rate in the 10th percentile. Maybe they'll spread and run the floor so much and create so many mismatches this won't matter. Or maybe they'll fall to a team built to rival their pocket-sized stasis (Los Angeles Clippers) or exploit it (Los Angeles Lakers, the Clippers again and maybe the Denver Nuggets).
Claiming the NBA's restart will act as a referendum on the Rockets' new world order goes too far. The sample size will be too small, and the circumstances are unprecedented. Their play style is not doomed if they flame out early. The same open-endedness doesn't apply if they underwrite a long playoff run or title push. Microball will be vindicated, deemed worth more serious exploration and, inevitably, incite at least a handful of copycats.
Los Angeles Clippers: What's Their Closing Lineup?
Optionality is the Los Angeles Clippers' crunch-time curse. This is to say: They're sitting pretty.
Injuries and maintenance programs prevented the Clippers from cobbling together a consistent closing five. Granted, this assumes they would've ever subscribed to crunch-time continuity. They're more so built to shape-shift depending on their matchup.
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are the only surefire constants. Patrick Beverley should be a close third. He doesn't need the ball on offense and can spare George or Leonard from covering smaller guards. The final two spots are up in the air.
Lou Williams is a certified bucket, but his defense is a caps-lock problem. The Clippers won't be hard up for from-scratch scoring if both George and Leonard are available. Playing him may only prove viable if he's scorching hot or the other team has a convenient spot in which to stash him.
Montrezl Harrell has the statistical cachet to be a crunch-time staple. But Los Angeles can downsize with one or both of JaMychal Green and Marcus Morris Sr. up front. Harrell's status isn't necessarily more secure when facing traditional bigs, either. Ivica Zubac provides more backline resistance in those situations.
Landry Shamet might even have some claim to this discussion. He offers functional shooting, tertiary ball-handling and more size than Lou Williams. Beverley-plus-four-wings (George, Leonard, Morris, Shamet) is a unit worth testing out if the other team is rolling small.
Champagne problems are champagne problems. The Clippers' lineup malleability is truly terrifying and part of their championship appeal. Still, it'll be interesting to see whether head coach Doc Rivers ends up favoring any particular closing five or is inclined embrace a more matchup-based approach.
Los Angeles Lakers: Replacing Avery Bradley
Avery Bradley's absence throws a real wrench into the Los Angeles Lakers' rotation. They need to replace more than 25 minutes per game—he was averaging over 27 minutes in the 15 tilts leading up to the hiatus—of someone who defended all guards and some wings while shooting better than league average from three.
JR Smith and Dion Waiters aren't going to cut it.
Leaning harder on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope might. He was at around 25 minutes per game right before the break. He has the runway to take on a few more ticks and pretty much matches Bradley's defensive range.
But that accounts for, what, another 10 minutes or so per night? That alone doesn't do it. The Lakers can expand Danny Green's playing time (25.4 minutes right before the break), but that still leaves somewhere between five and 10 or more minutes to fill.
Alex Caruso feels like a natural endpoint here. He's an advanced-metrics darling and fan favorite, and his defensive hustle is palpable. He leads all Lakers rotation players in steals per 100 possessions (2.8) and deflections per 36 minutes (4.1). Los Angeles' defensive rating improves by 3.4 points per 100 possessions with him in the lineup, the second-best swing on the team, trailing only LeBron James.
Will Caruso's heart's-desire status hold up in a larger role? Can the Lakers trust him on offense, where he's shooting a combined 34.6 percent on open and wide-open threes? Even if his time on the court overlaps with more of Rajon Rondo's minutes? (Los Angeles is, somewhat surprisingly, a plus-4.7 points per 100 possessions with both on the floor.)
Do the Lakers instead try supersized lineups with Kyle Kuzma or Markieff Morris? Is that a stupid suggestion? This team will go as far as James and Anthony Davis can carry it, and a title remains the ceiling, if not the expectation. But the load L.A.'s stars are carrying could wind up being exponentially heavier without Bradley.
Memphis Grizzlies: Justise Winslow's Fit
Back issues have limited Justise Winslow to just 11 games this season, none of which came with the Memphis Grizzlies. They'll be integrating him almost on the fly, an impromptu process with no obvious outcome.
Last year's Winslow profiles as exactly what the Grizzlies need: a wing who defends, can initiate the offense and knocks down his threes. But his 11 games with the Miami Heat this season weren't nearly as promising. Both his three-point volume and efficiency (22.2 percent) dipped considerably.
Dropping him into the rotation introduces problems if he's not closer to the player he was in 2018-19. And even if he is, the Grizzlies have to grapple with some functional overlap. As The Athletic's John Hollinger wrote:
"Start mixing lineups, however, and things get tricky. The Grizzlies already are undermanned in the shooting department (stop me if you’ve heard this before), ranking 21st in 3-point percentage and 27th in frequency, despite (Jaren) Jackson’s high-volume 40 percent marksmanship. Memphis’ two best wing reserve—De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson—are both minus shooters as well, leaving Taylor Jenkins to ponder some unwieldy lineup combinations.
"Additionally, Winslow’s best stretches in Miami came with the ball in his hands, something that’s highly unlikely to happen on a Memphis team that features Ja Morant (and ought to)."
Miami ran into similar issues following the arrival of Jimmy Butler. More than 70 percent of the possessions Winslow logged came without him on the floor, and the offense was nothing special (34th percentile) when they played together.
Jackson and Morant are better shooters than Butler and Bam Adebayo. That gives the Grizzlies a leg up when sticking Winslow beside their two best players. His fit is also far from assured, and if he struggles out of the gate, Memphis will have a decision on its hands: cater to the bigger picture and play him anyway, or restrict his court time in favor of protecting its postseason stock.
Miami Heat: Integration of Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala
Jae Crowder (13 games) and Andre Iguodala (14 games) didn't have a ton of time to acclimate themselves to the Miami Heat's rotation before the league shut down. What little time they spent in their new digs, though, was encouraging.
Iguodala is knocking down 37.5 percent of his threes, finishing well at the rim and adding another ball-handler to lineups without Jimmy Butler—though, the offense isn't great during those stretches (30th percentile). Crowder is hitting 39.3 percent of this threes and a whopping 60.0 percent of his twos and has given Miami another defender to move around the wing spots.
The Heat still have to figure out what all this means.
Can Iguodala take on a larger role in the playoffs? Or will he remain a sub-20-minutes-per-game player? Will Miami give him more burn next to Jimmy Butler? Can they close games together? Is this duo more tenable on offense than the early returns suggest or must these two be strictly staggered?
Will Crowder's offensive efficiency stand? Or will he regress to his usual erratic, lower-than-you-think mean? Does he provide enough resistance at the 4 to play—and close games—with Bam Adeabyo at the 5? Or should the Heat be concerned they're hemorrhaging 119.2 points per 100 possessions and 64.8 percent shooting at the rim in the short time these two have played together?
Miami is toeing the line of conference finals contention. It won't get over the hump if both Crowder and Iguodala fail to register as net positives.
Milwaukee Bucks: Postseason Eric Bledsoe
We're cheating here.
National coverage of the Milwaukee Bucks inside Disney World is bound to hone in on Giannis Antetokounmpo's future. What happens if the team bows out before the Finals? Or even earlier than that? Is he less likely to sign his supermax? More likely to request a trade ahead of 2021 free agency?
Harping on Antetokounmpo's future—and how Milwaukee's performance the rest of this year impacts it—isn't out of bounds. He's the league's best player and one year away from free agency. This stuff matters. But he's under contract next season. Riding the "Will he leave?" wave skips too many steps.
It also completely ignores that the Bucks have the league's best record, are heavy favorites to come out of the East and could be in line for their second-ever championship. Focus should be devoted to what impacts their title push. And Milwaukee has no shortage of options for that.
Some will gravitate toward Antetokounmpo's own performance and whether his game is more playoff-proof. That's fair. It just feels like a borderline non-issue. He has baked more pull-up jumpers and fadeaways into his arsenal. Preventing him from reaching the bucket is no longer a death knell.
Questioning Khris Middleton's second-option viability feels similarly icky. He struggled in last year's Eastern Conference Finals matchup against the Toronto Raptors, but so did everyone else. He's kicked butt in the postseason before, and this is the second consecutive season in which Milwaukee crushes opponents when he plays without Antetokounmpo.
Zooming in on Eric Bledsoe is more holistic. His playoff struggles have been less case-specific and more comprehensive. His efficiency has cratered over the past two postseasons, most notably from beyond the arc, where he shot a combined 25.5 percent. And though he managed to put down more than 50 percent of his twos, he didn't reach the rim nearly as frequently.
More of the same will put the Bucks in a tough spot, even after factoring in the emergence of Donte DiVincenzo. Bledsoe is still converting just 34.9 percent of his wide-open threes (up from 33.2 percent last season). Defenses will gladly surrender uncontested jumpers if it means cutting off his drives.
Similar to Antetokounmpo, though, Bledsoe may have safeguarded himself against situational or long-term meltdowns. Specifically, he's shown more confidence going one-on-one. His 62.0 effective field-goal percentage in isolation is the league's best mark among 65 players to attempt 50-plus shots in these situations.
Does that make Milwaukee's half-court offense hard to gum up? Is this the year Bledsoe doesn't devolve into a liability when it matters most? The Bucks are about to find out.
New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson, Zion Williamson, Zion Williamson
Big surprise, I know.
Picking anyone or anything other than Zion Williamson never crossed my mind. He is the NBA's most magnetic rookie since at least Anthony Davis and perhaps LeBron James. The right knee injury he suffered before the start of the regular season has only added to the intrigue. His career isn't yet 20 games old.
Questions loom in the face of this small sample. For starters: How much Zion will we actually see? He worked his way up to playing 30-plus minutes per game before. Will the New Orleans Pelicans do the same again after a layoff that lasted longer than four months? Even with a playoff bid on the line? And will he still be as utterly dominant when he's on the court?
The latter ties directly into the Pelicans' pursuit of the eighth seed. They're outscoring opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions with Zion on the floor. If that holds against their, erm, less-than-strenuous schedule, they'll seem like postseason shoo-ins.
Something else to watch: How Zion is deployed. Or rather: Will he play more center?
Derrick Favors is a difference-maker on defense when he's healthy. Even if lineups with he and Zion remain hunky-dory, the backup-5 situation is much less rosy. Jaxson Hayes fouls way too much, and somehow more than 40 percent of opponent shots still come at the rim with him manning center. New Orleans is getting straight blasted with Nicolo Melli at the 5. Jahlil Okafor is not the answer for a team with playoff aspirations.
Zion has spent just over 100 possessions at center, and the Pelicans don't have a ton of combo wings who can step up to the 4. At 6'5", Josh Hart has played nearly 600 possessions as the power forward. But the idea of surrounding Zion with a mix of four shooters and ball-handlers tantalizes. And with zero mega-tempting alternatives, perhaps that's a model the Pelicans go to after maxing out Favors' court time.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Can They Play Themselves into a Different Timeline?
Despite being 16 games over .500 and in contention for a top-three Western Conference playoff seed, the Oklahoma City Thunder's direction feels temporary.
That their present core lasted this long is a surprise. So many assumed they would reroute Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari, jettison Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder and begin a more gradual rebuild following the exits of Paul George and Russell Westbrook. Even now, after this year's success, this scenario feels in play, if inevitable.
Gallinari is a free agent this summer. Paul is 35 and has two years and $85.6 million left on his contract. Adams and Schroder will be on expiring deals next season. Keeping the band together beyond 2019-20 will be expensive, and the Thunder are already in the tax this year. They seem to be playing both with found money and on borrowed time.
Or maybe not.
Taking a stick of dynamite to this core gets a lot harder if they piece together a convincing playoff push. Their 9-17 record against squads above .500 is troubling, but they're also 17-5 with a top-four offense and top-10 defense since Jan. 18. And while small samples can be telltale of little, they have the league's best crunch-time net rating by a mile, to go along with the Association's third-highest winning percentage in those situations.
Pulling the right first-round opponent will be key. The Thunder haven't played particularly well against either Los Angeles team. But they also don't seem entirely overmatched against any squad. If they win a first-round series, who knows what happens. Maybe they cause a ruckus in the second round. Or pull off an upset. And if that's the case, maybe this roster isn't a collective placeholder. Maybe the Thunder are just ahead of schedule, not only tempted to stand pat into next year, but compelled to enter the offseason as trade-market buyers rather than sellers.
Orlando Magic: A Roster at a Crossroads
Jonathan Isaac's return from a left knee injury will take center stage...if it actually happens. It doesn't sound like it will. As Magic president of basketball operations Jeff Weltman told reporters, per Orlando Pinstripe Post's Mike Cali: "We're planning on life without Jonathan."
Isaac seemed more optimistic about playing when talking to ClickOrlando.com in June, but handling him with kid gloves is the right call. He's 22, a defensive mover and shaker and the closest this team comes to a cornerstone for the future. Even if he does play at Disney World, the Magic don't have an incentive to roll him out for too many minutes when they're so far away from title contention.
Then again, any time Isaac can log would be useful in evaluating this roster against the future. Orlando is in an unenviable position: not good enough to win and not bad enough to tank, with a cap sheet that only complicates matters.
Evan Fournier (player option) and Michael Carter-Williams are slated for free agency over the offseason. Markelle Fultz is extension-eligible. The Magic reinvested in the roster last summer and may have to do so again this year.
Ponying up for incumbent players is a lot easier when teams know the current core is the core. Orlando doesn't. It has yet to functionally figure out the Isaac-Aaron Gordon partnership. One has to play like a wing so long as the other's around, or until the team commits to going smaller at the 5.
Gordon has amped up his decision-making out of the pick-and-roll, but he doesn't have the pull-up jumper to masquerade as a full-time 3. Isaac is in a similar boat. He's yet to prove he can be much more than a play-finisher.
Billing either one as a center is off the table with both Mo Bamba and Nikola Vucevic on the docket. Meanwhile, the Magic's awkwardness on the wings will only get more weird next season when Al-Farouq Aminu (right knee) and redshirt rookie Chuma Okeke (torn left ACL) join the fold.
Tearing this nucleus down to the studs and rejiggering the core around Isaac and maybe Fultz has its merits—insofar as its possible. Moving Vucevic (three years, $72 million) and Terrence Ross (three years, $37.5 million) won't be effortless. Gordon will have his suitors, but will he return a fringe star or prime-time draft equity? Debatable.
Disney is, by necessity, a chance for the Magic to undergo wholesale self-evaluation—and to, at minimum, see whether they envision a scenario in which they can build an above-average offense around all three of Fultz, Gordon and Isaac.
Philadelphia 76ers: So, Like, Can This Roster Work?
Few teams stand to benefit more from the NBA's hiatus than the Philadelphia 76ers. They needed a reset. Al Horford (left knee) and Ben Simmons (back) were banged up, and even after acquiring Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III, the roster had the appearance of an experiment gone wrong.
Philly has enough talent at the top to overturn the monopoly of doubt. Horford, Simmons, Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson have a plus-9.2 net rating in the 511 possessions they've played together. Getting more reps from them should be a good thing.
At the same time, the Sixers don't have a huge margin for error, even if they're successfully uglying up games and entire series. They're still too light on functional shooting and secondary ball-handling, and their five-star lineup has an offensive rating that places in the 21st percentile.
Juggling the Embiid-Horford-Simmons dynamic remains head coach Brett Brown's biggest hurdle. Philly is scoring just 101.5 points per 100 possessions (5th percentile) with Embiid and Horford on the court across a large sample size. The team's offensive rating drops to 99.3 (3rd percentile) when adding in Simmons.
Stringently staggering Horford's minutes from Embiid's helps iron out some of the wrinkles but isn't a panacea. Embiid-less stretches could shrink in number when the games matter most, and if they don't (they might not), the Sixers didn't give Horford four years and $109 million ($97 million guaranteed) to only play when their best player is on the bench.
Perhaps they don't care. The offense rates in the 93rd percentile when Embiid and Simmons run without Horford. Maybe the Sixers deploy their two bigs more independently and then figure out the rest later. Or maybe Horford has a breakthrough. He's shooting 37.7 percent on spot-up threes and 41.8 percent on wide-open triples since the start of February. Philly might yet have a higher offensive ceiling with him beside Embiid and Simmons.
Except, what if they don't? What if none of this works? What if, no matter how they handle this awkwardly built roster, they're bounced in the first round or without much of a fight in the second? Heads will roll, but which ones? Will Brown fall on the sword? Can the Sixers find takers for Horford or Harris (four years, $147.3 million)? Do they dare look at moving Embiid or Simmons? (Disclosure: They should not.) So much is up in the air for Philly. What happens in Disney will have a huge say in how the team handles itself over the offseason.
Phoenix Suns: Mikal Bridges' Arrival(?)
Kelly Oubre Jr. remains out for the season after having right knee surgery in March. Or actually, maybe he'll play. He and general manager James Jones should really sync up about his potential availability.
Regardless, the Phoenix Suns will need their other wings to handler larger roles, at least in the interim. That should translate to, among other things, more Mikal Bridges.
Color yours truly extremely interested. Bridges has quietly turned in a nice season. His defensive intensity is unfair to his opponents. His arms go on forever, and he knows how to use them. He breaks up plays from all angles and creates this force field on-ball with his wingspan that makes it difficult for anyone to get around him. He doesn't close out so much as he teleports.
Bridges' hustle visibly impacts how the Suns defend. It is almost infectious, and he'd receive more attention for his contributions if Phoenix was a better defensive squad overall. But it isn't hard to comprehend his utility now. He is the common denominator in many of the Suns' best defensive lineups, and they're allowing 2.8 points per 100 possessions fewer when he's on the court, the third-largest swing on the team, behind only Deandre Ayton and Ricky Rubio.
Phoenix cannot be as certain about Bridges' performances at the other end. He can devastate off duck-ins to the basket, but he has often disappeared, seemingly allergic, at times, to putting up shots or any sort of volume. And his three-point splits have historically been all over the place; they rise only to fall.
Whatever time the Suns spend in Disney is an opportunity for Bridges to render himself an offensive constant. Since entering the starting lineup on Jan. 28, he's averaging 11.7 points and 2.6 assists while splashing in 40 percent of his three-pointers. His drives haven't climbed relative to his minutes, but his assist rate has more than doubled. Among everyone who has churned through at least 50 drives over this span, he's one of four players with an assist percentage of at least 17 and turnover percentage of 7.5 or lower.
The immediate future in Phoenix looks a lot different if this is Bridges' new normal. Upping his numbers and volume won't put him in star or even fringe-star territory, but it amounts to the next best thing: a defensive linchpin on the wings who provides both spacing and playmaking.
Portland Trail Blazers: The Returns of Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic
Getting back Zach Collins (dislocated left shoulder) and Jusuf Nurkic (compound fractures in left leg) is huge for the Portland Trail Blazers. They need bodies. They're thinnest on the wings, but any depth will do, and Nurkic, above all, is a more organic fit alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum than Hassan Whiteside.
And yet, amid these returns are a swathe of unknowns. Chief among them: What will Nurkic look like? He hasn't played since March 2019. Will he move as well on defense? Finish out of short rolls as effectively? Collins is working his way back from a less serious injury, but he still hasn't taken the floor since Oct. 27. Portland faces similar uncertainty with his return.
This says nothing of the trickle-down effect both players have on the rest of the roster. Lillard believes they'll be in the starting lineup. Their frontcourt partnership is a rarity in itself. They've logged a grand total of 231 possessions together over the past three seasons.
Collins is now arguably the key to the frontcourt rotation. The Blazers can weather an imperfect fit between he and Nurkic in a vacuum, but he'll have to be a genuine threat from long range to play beside Hassan Whiteside.
Treating Collins as a 4 also means moving Carmelo Anthony to the 3. That is, let's say, less than ideal. A 27th-ranked defense that shifts Anthony to small forward has the potential to get worse. Portland cannot spare him from certain wing assignments unless Gary Trent Jr. is on the floor.
Let's not forget about Whiteside, either. How will he react to coming off the bench? Nurkic will likely be on a minutes cap, which helps. Whiteside's playing time shouldn't suffer a massive hit unless the Blazers want to see Collins at the 5. But what happens if his minutes are slashed? Or if he's not closing games?
Portland will be navigating this minefield of question marks while trying to snag the West's eighth seed or force a play-in tournament. That's hardly favorable timing, but it makes for a compelling stay inside the NBA's wannabe bubble.
Sacramento Kings: Marvin Bagley III's Place in the Pecking Order
Marvin Bagley III's return itself is an event. A left knee injury has kept him off the floor since Jan. 20, and though the Sacramento Kings never provided an official timetable for his return, he's declared himself fully healthy for the restart—and 10 pounds of muscle heavier.
Simply staying on the court would be a victory for Bagley. He's now missed 71 of a possible 146 games—or nearly 49 percent of his career. That time away from the court gives people cause to overthink. His extended absence this season is particularly problematic. The conversation has shifted from "Is he a 4 or 5?" to "Is he even good?"
Just so we're clear: Bagley is a really good offensive player. He can finish in transition, and this season's shooting slashes in limited action don't accurately reflect the depth of his armory. He has a feel for the game inside. What he lacks in heft he makes up for with touch. Last year, he sank 54.2 percent of his hook shots and 51.6 percent of his turnaround hooks.
His 18.2 percent clip from downtown this season is an eyesore. His 31.3 percent conversion rate as a rookie also isn't that encouraging. But he drilled 40 percent of his threes on 2.1 attempts per game after the 2019 trade deadline and flashed better speed moving without the ball. And while Sacramento can't yet count on him to create and nail his own jumper, last year's closing kick saw him improve his touch on catch-and-fire opportunities inside the arc.
Coaxing more facilitation from Bagley is a must if he's getting actual touches. That feels possible. Bagley's rate of under 1.5 assists per 36 minutes is scary bad, but he's thrown some interesting passes from face-up spots.
Hashing out his defensive position is a larger concern. He's fared OK around the rim in spurts despite an underwhelming wingspan, but he'll have to more consistently hold his ground and tussle with behemoths to play the 5. Perhaps packing on that extra 10 pounds of muscle helps. If it doesn't, he'll have to get used to guarding 4s who can work from the outside-in. And if he can't do either, well, the Kings have bigger problems than their nanoscopic chances of making the playoffs this year.
San Antonio Spurs: The End of Their Postseason Streak(?)
Twenty-two. That's how many consecutive playoff appearances the San Antonio Spurs have made.
Odds are they won't get to 23.
Winning the eighth seed outright is a borderline impossibility. The Spurs are four games behind the incumbent Memphis Grizzlies, with three other teams in front of them. Their schedule isn't exactly conducive to shooting that gap. They play the Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings once apiece and won't face the Portland Trail Blazers.
Finishing in ninth and forcing a play-in tournament is the more plausible path back to the postseason. The outlook on that path is still bleak. San Antonio needs to usurp three teams while remaining inside four games of the eighth seed, all without LaMarcus Aldridge, who is done for the year after having surgery on his right shoulder.
Loosely translated: Welcome back to the draft lottery, Spurs! It's been a minute.
Also: Now what?
Do the Spurs just keep on keeping on and angle for a return to the playoffs next year? When the Western Conference will be largely the same, only with a fuller-strength Golden State Warriors, presumably better version of the Minnesota Timberwolves and more seasoned iterations of the Grizzlies, Kings, Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns? And when San Antonio doesn't have an appreciable means of improving its own roster beyond the mid-level exception and this year's draft pick?
Yeesh. The prospect of standing relatively pat and reentering the West's bloodbath doesn't sit right. But the Spurs may not have a choice. Forget about whether head coach Gregg Popovich has the stomach for a reset. Controlled demolition isn't a given even if the Spurs choose that route.
Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan (player option), Rudy Gay and Patty Mills will all be on expiring contracts. That doesn't make them eminently movable. Aldridge and DeRozan are on the books for superstar money, and both Gay and Mills, though much easier to relocate, are probably a hair overpaid.
Equally important: Trading anyone won't bring back a bounty. The Spurs don't have that kind of blue-chip asset who can net them a building block in return. They'll have to believe that player is already in place. Is it Dejounte Murray? Lonnie Walker IV? Derrick White? San Antonio is speeding toward a tough offseason no matter what. That this day of reckoning approaches without a strong possibility of a playoff berth makes it much harder to reconcile.
Toronto Raptors: State of the Half-Court Offense
Wondering whether the Toronto Raptors are actual threats to come out of the East is tired. They are. They have the defense to muck up any offense, two stars in Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam and an enviably deep supporting cast.
Like most other contenders, the Raptors' primary concern heading into the season's restart is more granular, albeit a prospective undoing: the half-court offense.
They rank 18th in points scored per half-court possession, a below-board standing that isn't so damning during the regular season. They make up the difference with the league's best transition attack and top-10 three-point volume and efficiency. But a dodgy half-court offense is harder to overcome in the playoffs, when teams have more time to plan and are generally stingier. It takes at least one elite from-scratch option to effectively counteract defenses that neutralize opportunities on the break.
Toronto specifically needs to put more pressure on the basket. As The Athletic's Blake Murphy wrote:
"While they’re fourth in the league in the frequency with which they shoot at the rim, they rank 24th in field-goal percentage there. Their transition success also floats those numbers a bit, and if we had more finely filtered data, I’d guess they rank even worse finishing at the rim in half-court scenarios.
"In the half court, the Raptors are one of the least-threatening teams to drive to the basket, scoring the third-fewest points off the drive per-game. No team uses the drive to pass more than the Raptors, and while that’s a healthy part of their motion offence, it can lead to stagnation. That’s exacerbated by a pick-and-roll attack that’s designed primarily to get their bigs popping (or passing) opportunities with little roll threat, and two pick-and-roll operators who either don’t go to the rim a ton (Kyle Lowry) or really struggle to finish there (Fred VanVleet). Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell are the only heavy users of possessions who grade well by frequency and effectiveness at the rim."
Remedy by committee will demand more volume from Lowry and better overall finishing from VanVleet. It might also entail unleashing Terence Davis more often. It definitely includes Powell continuing to play career-best basketball.
On a singular level, the Raptors have Siakam. He cannot replicate what Kawhi Leonard gave them last year. The two-time Finals MVP is the league's consummate bailout option and has rarely structured his game around high volume at the basket.
Siakam is different. Forty percent of his looks are coming at the rim—and that's a career low. Maintaining, maybe amplifying, that level of pressure is mission critical to matchup-proofing the Raptors offense. They've tried to prepare him for it. The ball is in his hands more than ever, not just to initiate pick-and-rolls and dribble into threes, but to actually manufacture something out of nothing. If he looks more at home in those situations during the restart, it says both a great deal about his ceiling and Toronto's immediate championship chances.
Utah Jazz: The Rudy Gobert-Donovan Mitchell Dynamic
Look, the Utah Jazz have plenty of pure basketball storylines to follow—an unsettlingly high number, in fact.
Who fills the gaping offensive void left by Bojan Bogdanovic? Is Mike Conley going to be Mike Conley again? Will he have better pick-and-roll chemistry with Rudy Gobert, particularly if and when Donovan Mitchell isn't on the floor as a buffer?
How does Royce O'Neale match up versus his invariably, ridiculously difficult defensive assignments? Will Mitchell shed his postseason bugaboo? Will Joe Ingles hit his open threes this time around? How much Georges Niang will we see?
Hanging over all this, though, is the Gobert-Mitchell relationship.
ESPN's Tim MacMahon recently investigated the perceived rift between them, a deep dive that cleared up a lot without coming to a discernible resolution. The state of Gobert and Mitchell's relationship, it seems, can be described thusly: tense and fragile but not beyond salvaging.
Teammates needn't be besties to win. Utah's situation is not unique. It is fundamentally navigable. But the strain that exists between Gobert and Mitchell, however slight or stark, will only be magnified tenfold if the Jazz get sent packing early in the postseason without much of a fight. In the meantime, every on-court idiosyncrasy—every slumped shoulder, every glare and frown, every remotely animated reaction—will be dissected and interpreted as evidence of something bigger.
Certain leeway should be granted in the wake of Bogdanovic's right wrist injury. Utah was on the fringes of contention with him. Expectations should be significantly altered without him. A first-round exit would be a disappointment but not a total surprise. And so, it will not be the length of the Jazz's postseason push that determines how much focus is expended on the Gobert-Mitchell relationship. It will be the manner in which it ends: with fight or futility.
Washington Wizards: Who Emerges Without Beal, Bertans and Wall?
Nobody will resume the season with more firepower on the sidelines than the Brooklyn Nets. But the Washington Wizards are giving them a run for their money.
Not one of their three best players will be available in Disney World. John Wall is still recovering from a torn left Achilles. Davis Bertans opted out of the restart with free agency right around the corner. Bradley Beal is out with a right rotator cuff issue. Oh, and on top of that,Thomas Bryant and Gary Payton have since tested positive for COVID-19.
All of which begs the question: Who is the Washington's best available player? Ish Smith? Or...Yeah, it's Ish Smith.
On the bright side, the Wizards can play what's left of the season under the pretense that they have eight games to leave an impression and nothing more. If the Nets implode, great. Otherwise, Washington's Disney World stay will be all about plumbing the depth of its youth.
Can Rui Hachimura develop a consistent command over the offense? And hit more threes? Can Troy Brown Jr. get to the foul line more often? Is his recent uptick from deep for real? Can he handle more point guard responsibility?
Will Isaac Bonga get a chance to handle the ball more? How many different positions will he defend? Can Jerome Robinson improve his scoring efficiency from just about everywhere? Will Moritz Wagner take more threes? Or take threes at all? Can he contest more shots at the hoop?
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale.