Whatever one thinks of the plan to resume the 2019-20 season, it is worth pointing out that the NBA has been consistent. On March 18, a week after the shutdown started, commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that the league would “try by every means we can to play basketball again,” adding that games would be played only when public health officials say it is safe and possibly without fans in attendance.
As strange as it sounds, it’s time to get used to the idea of Disney World soon being the center of the NBA universe. It is also time to start thinking about present-day basketball again, rather than ’90s nostalgia. Here are eight big on-court questions heading into the stretch run, whatever that looks like:
1. What’s the Clippers’ killer lineup?
The Los Angeles Clippers’ first five months shouldn’t discourage any of us who picked them to win the title. In the playoffs, they should be even better: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will play big minutes every night, and the roster’s depth gives Doc Rivers’ coaching staff the ability to make meaningful adjustments.
If there’s any lingering doubt, it is about how Rivers will use that depth. When the Clippers find themselves in a tough spot, who will be on the floor with Leonard and George? Their other three starters before the shutdown were Patrick Beverley, Marcus Morris and Ivica Zubac, and while that lineup was awesome (net rating: plus-19.4), it has only logged 124 minutes over eight games.
Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell often close games, but they’re not the duo you want defending pick-and-rolls in high-stakes situations. Landry Shamet is another option to consider, as is going small with Morris or JaMychal Green at center. This kind of versatility is practically a prerequisite for competing for a championship, but in the Clippers’ case it can also make things complicated.
2. Are the Bucks meaningfully different than they were last season?
I feel like I have written variations of the same Milwaukee Bucks take a million times: They are undeniably one of the best regular-season teams ever, but their margin for error will be smaller in the playoffs, just like it was in 2018-19.
Skeptics can easily rattle off the rationale for betting against this juggernaut. The half-court offense is vulnerable when Giannis Antetokounmpo is facing double-teams and their best shooters aren’t getting clean looks. The half-court defense is vulnerable when opposing bigs are making 3s. Will Eric Bledsoe make the defense pay for completely ignoring him on the perimeter? Khris Middleton and George Hill can’t possibly keep this up, can they?
The pro-Bucks argument, however, is just as straightforward: They came extremely close to taking a 3-0 lead in last year’s Eastern Conference finals, and statistically they’ve improved in Year 2 of the Mike Budenholzer era, even without Malcolm Brogdon. Antetokounmpo is a year wiser, and has made progress as a facilitator. If he is more prepared and Milwaukee is a bit luckier than last year, maybe that will be enough.
3. Is the Lakers’ offense playoff-ready?
My concerns about the Los Angeles Lakers are similar to the ones I have about Milwaukee, and they’re easier to explain using regular-season stats. In 2019-20, Los Angeles is 15th in half-court offense, per Cleaning The Glass. Its ability to get stops and run has obscured its extreme dependence on LeBron James’ playmaking and the fact that it doesn’t shoot 3s particularly well or often.
Maybe this will all fix itself when James is averaging 40-plus minutes in the postseason. No one controls the game like him, and, if need be, Frank Vogel’s coaching staff could juice the offense by playing Anthony Davis at center and prioritizing spacing. (Every nerdy Lakers fan wants more Alex Caruso and less Rajon Rondo.)
Downsizing will make Los Angeles’ life harder defensively, though, especially if it means more minutes for Kyle Kuzma. This conundrum is why there was so much noise about the Lakers trying to acquire another creator before the trade deadline.
4. Are the Celtics as good as their numbers suggest?
The 2019-20 Boston Celtics are not only fifth in offense and fourth in defense, according to Cleaning The Glass, they rank second offensively against top-10 defenses and first defensively against top-10 offenses. Translation: They haven’t just bullied bad teams; they’ve beaten up the league’s best.
And yet the sentiment persists that the Celtics aren’t true contenders. While they’ve beaten the Bucks, Lakers and Clippers, handling any of them in a seven-game series might be a different story — Jayson Tatum is just 22, Kemba Walker is small and their bench is iffy.
As optimistic as I am about Tatum, I understand the reluctance to prematurely anoint Boston based on its regular-season track record. I could not be more impressed by this team, but I’m not sure it has another gear to reach in the short term.
5. Can the Rockets defend like they did in 2018?
By exchanging Clint Capela for Robert Covington, the Houston Rockets challenged NBA orthodoxy. They bet that perimeter defense was more important than rim protection, and that their improved switchability would make up for their lack of size.
Early on the results were encouraging, but the 14 games with Covington in the lineup were a mixed bag. The Rockets went 8-6, including a six-game winning streak that immediately preceded a four-game losing streak. Their offense was predictably superb, but it was the worst defensive rebounding team in the league and had a defensive rating of 111.2, which, meh.
Covington has not been the problem. Already one of the premier help defenders in the league, in Houston he has gotten his Dikembe Mutombo on, swatting 2.5 shots a game. When Covington and Tucker have been on the court, the Rockets have surrendered just 107.4 points per 100 possessions, a slightly better mark than the Philadelphia 76ers’ sixth-ranked defense. If they’re going to win a title though, they need to defend at that level consistently, the way they did when they came so close to knocking off the Golden State Warriors a couple of years ago. That will be physically taxing, and it will require guys like Danuel House and Thabo Sefolosha to step up when Covington or Tucker are on the bench.
A rejuvenated Eric Gordon could help, too.
6. Does Toronto have enough firepower against top-tier teams?
The hacky question is unavoidable, even though the Toronto Raptors are second in the East, with a three-game cushion on Boston: How much are they going to miss Kawhi in the playoffs?
Defensively, the Raptors have overcome the loss of Leonard and Danny Green with creative schemes, high basketball IQ and contributions from unexpected sources. They’re second in defense, despite almost everyone in their rotation getting injured at one point or another. They might miss Kawhi if they get another shot at the Bucks, but O.G. Anunoby has made a leap and their team defense should present the same problems it did last May.
The issue is firepower. If Toronto’s system sputters, can the yet-again-improved Pascal Siakam bail it out? Can Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet run the show so well that they don’t have to worry that much about late-clock offense? The Raptors rank 12th in offense, per NBA.com, and they’ve had some stinkers against the Clippers, Bucks, Celtics and Heat. In 16 games against teams in the top 10 in net rating, Toronto is 5-11, thanks to an awful offensive rating of 103.9, per CTG.
7. Can the Sixers function outside of Philly?
I have no idea what the 76ers’ home/road splits mean now that every game will be played at a neutral site. I just know that those splits are mind-boggling:
At home, Philadelphia ranks second in net rating, 11th in offense and second in defense, and its bully-ball unit — Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Joel Embiid — has a plus-20.2 net rating. On the road, it is 24th in net rating, 24th in offense and 20th in defense, and that lineup has a minus-3.1 net rating.
There are other basketball questions to ponder: Does Shake Milton stay in the starting lineup? Will Simmons once again be relegated to the dunker’s spot in the playoffs? Can coach Brett Brown find a way to make the Simmons-Horford-Embiid trio viable offensively? But I just can’t wrap my head around the Sixers being such a different team at home. I wonder if they’re allowed to bring Franklin, their mascot, to Orlando.
8. Could we see Kyrie and K.D.?
I’d be stunned if Brooklyn Nets stars Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving returned from their respective injuries before the 2020-21 season. But you never know. What a story that would be.