The first game of the 2019-20 season was played 282 days ago. On Thursday, we have a second season opener of sorts that none of us could have possibly seen coming. Following a 20-week shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the season will continue in the Disney bubble with two games on Thursday. The NBA recently reported a second straight week with zero positive coronavirus tests from players within the bubble -- a promising sign as the NFL and MLB battle infections. Things can go south quickly, but for now at least, the NBA bubble experiment is working.
Since you may have forgotten since the last time you watched NBA action, here are a few key storylines to watch as the league's restart begins on Thursday night with the Utah Jazz vs. New Orleans Pelicans, followed by the Los Angeles Clippers vs. the Los Angeles Lakers.
Embrace the awkwardness
For those of you who haven't been locked into the recent scrimmages (and who can blame you?), NBA basketball looks a little bit different in the bubble. The setup is probably the best you can expect from this type of environment, as they've eliminated the empty seats (and cardboard cutouts) by surrounding the court with monitors that display the "home" team's fans, dancers and logos. Some of the scrimmages had fake crowd noise while others didn't, so it will be interesting to see how they handle things for opening night. Players are spaced out on the benches. Some are wearing masks. There's no getting around it -- it's weird.
That said, you should probably mentally prepare yourself for some awkwardness. You're going to hear players cheering (or noticeably not cheering) for teammates. There will be some inevitable screw-ups with the remote broadcast. But hey, it's NBA basketball and it will get better as things get figured out.
Star-powered Lakers-Clippers redux
The Western Conference's two best teams, who happen to both hail from Los Angeles, will meet for the fourth time this season on Thursday, though the circumstances will obviously be completely different. In the NBA you often hear about "schedule losses," meaning that due to travel circumstances, game frequency or quality of recent opponents, teams are unable to put forth maximum effort in certain games. That will not be the case on Thursday, which is an incredibly exciting prospect for NBA fans.
LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are all healthy and ready to go (Davis said he expects to play after being poked in the eye during a Lakers scrimmage game), and they all have the added benefit of four-plus months of rest from competitive basketball. Both teams are missing key players (namely Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams for the Clippers, Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo for the Lakers), but the stars should shine brightly on opening night -- something we've been waiting to see since the hiatus began in March.
Zion's 'short bursts'
NBA fans have been waiting for over four months to get another look at manchild Zion Williamson's uniquely effective style of play -- picture a bowling ball with wings -- and we'll officially see him in action after the Pelicans announced he will play in Thursday's bubble opener. Williamson reportedly won't have a minutes limit per se, but he will play in short bursts as he gets his conditioning back up following a departure from the Disney campus for a family emergency.
This is great news for the Pelicans, who are fighting for a playoff berth and need every seeding game win they can get. They had an absurd net rating of plus-13.9 points per 100 possessions with Zion on the court in 19 games this season, and have a chance to take advantage of a Jazz team in just their second real game all season without 20-point-per-game scorer Bojan Bogdanovic, who is out for the restart following wrist surgery. The NBA is a more fun place when Zion plays, and he makes our re-opening night a lot more exciting.
LeBron on a mission
LeBron was reportedly one of the most vocal supporters of resuming the NBA season, which makes sense since the Lakers are the odds-on favorite to take home the title and we're not sure how many more seasons the 35-year-old superstar can keep performing at an elite level. He may have little more gray in his beard, but James is still arguably the best player in the league, particularly when it comes to the playoffs. Expect him to come out with energy to try to set the tone for his teammates in his first real NBA game since March.
AD vs. PG
The LeBron-Kawhi matchup will get the headlines, but success for the Lakers and Clippers -- on Thursday and beyond -- could come down to the teams' overqualified secondary stars, Anthony Davis and Paul George. Both players battled nagging injuries throughout the season before the shutdown, and now appear to be healthy and in top form. Assuming LeBron and Kawhi are both their normal, excellent selves, the difference between the teams could come down to how dominant Davis and George can be when the other stars are resting or slowed by overloaded defenses.
This season the Lakers have a minus-3.2 net rating when Davis was on the court without LeBron, with the offense basically falling off a cliff. The Clippers drop from plus-11.6 with both Leonard and George on the court to plus-2.2 when George plays without Kawhi. There are plenty of other factors that contribute to the teams' performance without their best players, but it will be interesting to see how Davis and George play on re-opening night and later in a potential playoff matchup.
The Zo Show
Those who wrote off Lonzo Ball as a bust after his first two injury-plagued seasons with the Lakers may want to revise their position. Our very own Brad Botkin detailed Lonzo's significant improvement this season, with averages of 13.8 points, 8.1 assists and 7.2 rebounds on 41 percent 3-point shooting (nearly seven attempts per game) since joining the Pelicans' starting lineup for good on Dec. 23. Over that stretch New Orleans has a plus-7.8 net rating with Ball on the court, adding credence to the idea that he also does the little things on both ends of the court to help his team win. Ball's improved shooting form gets most of the attention, but his overall game is one of the most entertaining in the league -- now's a good time to start paying attention.
Jazz in need of fine-tuning
As mentioned earlier, Bojan Bogdanovic missed only one game this season before undergoing season-ending wrist surgery following the NBA shutdown, so the Jazz have just eight games before the playoffs to figure out their best approach to playing without him. Bogdanovic is the team's second-leading scorer at 20.2 points per game, and their only reliable high-volume 3-point shooter, hitting 42 percent on over seven attempts per game. This season Utah leaned into a smaller, more spread offense, which has worked (from 14th in the NBA last season to eighth this season), but Bogdanovic was a huge part of that. Utah's offensive rating plummeted from 113.5 with Bogdanovic on the court to 105 with him off. Now even more responsibility will fall on Donovan Mitchell, while Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson will need to step up their perimeter scoring.