If all goes smoothly over the next few weeks—which, in the grip of a pandemic, is a mighty big “if,” but such is life right now—NBA basketball will return at the end of the month. After a 141-day shutdown prompted by the onset and spread of the novel coronavirus, 22 teams—many of whom will look quite a bit different than when last we saw them—will embark on a two-and-a-half-month sprint to try to complete the suspended season and crown a new champion.
As we try to get our arms around the idea of watching NBA hoops again, let’s get ready for the planned restart by taking a look at the five most interesting teams (to me) that are heading to Disney, starting with … well, the guy everything still starts with, 17 seasons later:
Los Angeles Lakers
A brief reminder: When last we saw LeBron James, he was rampaging through fellow contenders and metahumans, piloting the Lakers to a commanding 5.5-game lead over the rival Clippers in the race for the West’s no. 1 seed, and cruising toward his first-ever assist title on the strength of magic, whimsical shit like this:
It’s possible that going from the peak of his present-day powers to a forced four months on ice will elide LeBron’s effectiveness, diminish his ability to be the force multiplier who elevates his teammates, and derail the Lakers’ bid for their first championship in a decade. Then again, the last time LeBron got an extended rest—which was just last spring and summer, as you might remember—he came back with a vengeance to remind anyone who’d doubted just how much he can still control the NBA, on and off the court. Besides, it’s not like he and the rest of the Lakers have just been sitting around eating Funyuns and binge-watching prestige TV during the hiatus:
Bill Simmons and JJ Redick hint that the Lakers have been secretly scrimmaging throughout quarantine at a mansion in Bel-Air with a replica Staples Center court. pic.twitter.com/WCdSTaS1Wu
— ³ (@33643pts) June 19, 2020
Anthony Davis—a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and surefire All-NBA selection after a brilliant first season in Hollywood—thinks the Lakers might be even better positioned for a title run now than they were in March, even without starting guard Avery Bradley, thanks to all that extra rest and recuperation time. There might be something to that: L.A. blitzed opponents by 10.4 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with its two top dogs on the court this season, according to Cleaning the Glass, putting up crooked numbers whether they were flanked by JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard in more traditional big lineups, or by three wings/guards in smaller configurations.
It’d be overly simplistic to say that a fully operational LeBron and AD is all head coach Frank Vogel needs to get the Lakers through the postseason gantlet—though maybe not by much. While the Lakers’ chances will rise and fall based on the health and performance of the NBA’s no. 1 assist combination, how the rest of the rotation shakes out and returns to form does loom large.
Bradley’s exit opens the door for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who shot 39.4 percent from 3-point range and defended well in a bounce-back year, to step into a larger role on the wing; the Lakers went 17-3 in KCP’s 20 starts this season. But elevating Caldwell-Pope into the starting lineup means back-filling his role on the second unit, and no matter how loudly the internet screams, Alex Caruso won’t be getting all of those minutes. (Though giving him more of Rajon Rondo’s might not be a bad idea.) In theory, late-season addition Dion Waiters and pre-Orlando signing J.R. Smith profile as experienced perimeter options capable of stroking catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, offering complementary playmaking, serving as screeners to help LeBron ruthlessly target smaller guards on switches, and defending multiple positions on the wing. In practice, Waiters has been largely injured or ineffective ever since he signed his big deal in Miami in 2017, and Smith has played just 11 games in the past two seasons (and, if we’re being honest, wasn’t particularly productive on either end the last full season he did play).
Throughout the season, Vogel has preferred bigger lineups featuring a rim-protecting big like McGee or Howard alongside Davis and James, helping produce a defense that ranks first in the NBA in blocks, third in defensive efficiency, and sixth in defensive field goal percentage. Against elite opposition in the West, though, he’ll have to more frequently use Davis and James as his bigs, and find three perimeter answers he’s comfortable with in crunch time. Ever-stalwart 3-and-D man Danny Green will take one spot; Caldwell-Pope, whom Vogel recently called “one of the brightest parts of the season” for the Lakers, seems a good bet to take another. Can Smith or Waiters prove sharp and sound enough to earn the third? Will Caruso, one of the highest-impact defensive reserves in the league this season, win Vogel’s trust when it counts? Will Kyle Kuzma’s size and natural scoring talent outstrip concerns about how well he’ll hold up in a more perimeter-defense-oriented role in the postseason crucible?
LeBron made it clear months ago that, come hell or high water, he and the Lakers intended to finish this season. You can understand why: After the disappointment of last year’s 37-45 campaign, he’s built this team into one that might represent his best chance for a fourth ring. Whether or not he’ll get there remains to be seen, but there won’t be anybody in Orlando more motivated than James to see this thing through, and a King with something to prove sure seems worth watching to me.
My Ringer teammate Zach Kram was exactly right in reminding us that the Milwaukee Bucks, all else equal, remain the clear favorites to win the whole stinkin’ thing. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the best player in the league this season, on both ends of the court, and he’s surrounded by a pitch-perfect supporting cast featuring a brilliant second banana in Khris Middleton, All-Defensive Team–caliber bookends in Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez, and a coterie of competent, professional role players throughout Mike Budenholzer’s rotation.
If the Bucks wind up breezing through conference play and knock off the best of the West to hoist the Larry O’B, I won’t bat an eye. I’m just hoping that the basketball gods conspire to put the Raptors in their path. “To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man,” and all that.
I’ve loved watching Toronto this season. It’s been awesome to see the Raptors respond to the loss of Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard by collectively raising their game—to see Pascal Siakam build on his Finals turn with an All-Star breakout, Kyle Lowry get the flowers he deserves for his constant positive contributions, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby cement themselves as difference-making starters, and a slew of lightly regarded and little-known reserves coalesce into one of the league’s best benches under the watchful eye of Nick Nurse. Eight of the Raptors’ top 10 players missed at least 10 games this season, often in frustratingly staggered fashion, and they still had the same record through 64 games as they did last season and the league’s no. 2 defense.
The Raptors enter Orlando with a full, healthy, and rested squad—and, perhaps most notably, with a recharged Marc Gasol. The Spaniard missed 28 games while battling a nagging left hamstring injury, and hasn’t seen regular action since January 28. The silver lining: The shutdown gave the 35-year-old, who went straight from Toronto’s title run to leading Spain to FIBA World Cup gold and right back into Raptors camp for the 2019-20 season, his first extended break in more than a year and a half. From the looks of things, the time off agreed with him:
“Maybe a leaner Marc gets him to more rebounds, gets him to better defensive positions more quickly—not that those are a problem—but maybe he’s going to produce more in those things,” Nurse recently told reporters. “Maybe his legs stay in there late in the games for some 3-balls. I don’t know. If his conditioning improves him as a player, it’s going to be a super added bonus for us.”
How big a bonus? Toronto had its preferred starting lineup—Lowry, VanVleet, Gasol, Siakam, and Anunoby—for only 280 minutes over 17 games this season. In those 17 games, the Raptors crushed opponents by 12.3 points per 100 possessions with that lineup on the floor. Gasol’s combination of frontcourt passing genius, back-line defensive acumen, floor-spacing shooting, and experience helps unlock the best version of these Raptors—an unselfish, smart, ferocious gr