Orlando is prepping to host the NBA's return. Players are gearing up for a rare 22-team fight for an NBA championship. And a weary fan base, finally, can look forward to some hoops and the conclusion of the season.
We're exactly 50 days out from the NBA's resumption at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. To help bridge the time, and because we can't wait to get there, here are 50 things - storylines, questions, players, matchups and more - we're looking forward to once the game gets going again.
1. What the basketball itself looks like
When July 31 hits, we'll be staring at almost five months without NBA basketball. That's a very, very long time for players to be off, semi- or totally quarantined, separated from their teams and training and time in the gym.
Will the basketball be any good? Will players with access to gyms these past few months be markedly sharper than those without them?
Remember, in April, Giannis Antetokounmpo said the following on a conference call with reporters: "So, I don't have access to hoop. A lot of NBA players have a court in their house or something, but now I just get home workouts. Ride the bike, treadmill, lift weights and pretty much stay sharp that way, but I don't play basketball."
By September, the game should look as sharp and focused as we're accustomed to in the playoffs. But it's unclear what the quality of play will look like early on.
2. Games. All. Day. Long.
The condensed time frame means we're going to get the NBA-meets-first-week-of-the-NCAA-tournament style days. Think of the NFL owning Sunday with nonstop games, over and over. Can't. Wait.
3. With no home-court advantage, what exactly are the incentives for those eight regular season games?
Sure, Memphis out West and Orlando out East need to keep their no-need-for-a-play-in-series distance from a prospective challenger for that last playoff spot. And Washington, Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento and San Antonio will infuse each of their games with a playoff intensity as they try to finish within four games of the eight-seed and thus a shot at a double-elimination playoff series.
But, without home-court mattering one iota, and with several teams from the Bucks and Lakers to the Raptors and Mavs likely locked into their respective seeds, it's an open question to what degree those games will matter to many of the teams playing.
Will they be carefully calibrated tune-ups? Or will the layoff, and the time away, mean a sudden return inspires a rapid level of competition the moment we're back?
4. Getting Sports back, and having them matter almost immediately
Despite No. 3, the NBA returns mere games from its postseason. Unlike Major League Baseball or the National Football League, basketball's return will go from the starting line to the playoffs in record time -- and intensity.
5. Which brings us to who, exactly, has the advantage in a neutral site playoff scenario?
Some NBA executives and scouts I've talked to are sure that young teams with fresh legs will find a serious advantage in what's going to be before them starting July 31. Others suggested veteran teams -- especially those infused with stars boasting deep playoff experience -- have the edge. Still, others pointed to chemistry and long-term roster continuity being the key.
Which means we don't know.
With home-court advantage wiped away, keep an eye on Dallas. Luka Doncic is a player that can carry a team on any given night against any given team. That alone is huge. But look at the NBA's best road records this season, a possible insight into who may have a leg up without home court playing a role:
Lakers (26-6, .813)
Bucks (25-9, .735)
Raptors (23-9, .719)
Thunder (20-11, .645)
Mavericks (21-12 .636)
Celtics (20-12, .625)
Jazz (20-13) .606
The Western Conference's likely 7-seed has the NBA's fifth-best road record.
This seems like a good time to get to ...
6. Luka Doncic
He's a force of nature, and the reason Dallas is so imperturbable away from home.
Dallas may be only a seven-seed, but Luka alone makes them a sneaky team heading into Disney. Lots of love for the Celitcs, sure, but if you're so inclined, a bet or two on Dallas might be in order.
Speaking of which ...
7. Betting on basketball!
Someone get my (legal) bookie on the line ...
8. The Celtics
I love Boston's 16-1 championship odds. They play great on the road, Jayson Tatum is an emerging superstar, Brad Stevens is brilliant, they're top 5 in both offensive and defensive rating (more on that later), and sans Kyrie Irving they were a back-to-back Eastern Conference finals team.
Very, very interested in watching their playoff run.
9. There's an inside-out version of the Mavs upside, and it looks exactly like the 76ers.
Philly was a sensational home-court team. They were 29-2 in Philly. 29-2! But that's now about as meaningful as what I had for breakfast this morning. At 10-24, Philly has, by far, the worst away record of any of the top 16 teams in either conference.
This does not bode well, Philly fans.
11. How much will the remainder of the season be shaped by injuries and -- gulp -- the virus
Macabre though it is, it's still going to shape the unusual path to this season's NBA champion: What teams -- what players -- will return only to miss time after testing positive for the novel coronavirus? Or simply find themselves felled by injuries given the long layover? This is happening. To what degree is still a huge unknown.
12. Can Jamal Murray and his teammates back up these recent words with reporters: "We know we can go win the title."
There's a lot to like about the Nuggets. They're young. They have two blossoming stars. Their playoff run last season surely serves up the kind of experience, good and bad, helpful in climbing the playoff ladder.
13. Kawhi the playoff assassin
14. LeBron post "The Last Dance."
Prepare for LeBron James at his uber-competitive, and best, fueled by this stoppage and Jordan's doc filling him with a sense of both purpose and the notion that you cannot play it at the level he does forever.
I need some Greek Freak in my life. And I need it now.
16. While we're on Giannis: I'm ready for an MVP coronation that also gives us the first back-to-back winner since Steph Curry ...
LeBron, I believe, would have chased Giannis down had the season not abruptly been put on pause, and shortened. But that was then. This is now. Giannis will be your 2020 NBA MVP.
17. Even Damian Lillard's big chip on his shoulder, coupled with that super long shot
So, yeah, Denver, we hear you. But the West is a murderer's row of teams. And speaking of Dame and his team ...
18. It'll be fascinating to see how the healing power of the past five months shifts the balance of power in the postseason.
Giannis has had time to let that knee mend. Ben Simmons is back. But maybe most interestingly, Portland gets Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back from injury, an act of good fortune that my colleague Colin Ward-Henninger dove into.
19. Another layover question: Can momentum last nearly five months long?
The easy answer is that it cannot, right? But does that mean the Lakers are a lesser version than they had been in March, when they went on a tear and beat the Bucks and Clippers in back to back games? Or do they pick up where the left off? The flip side is the Rockets. They started the season 14-2, cooled off significantly, and lost four in a row in March before getting a win against Minnesota before the season was halted.
How much of the previous season, exactly, transfers when we get started again July 31?
20. A 9-seed forcing a double-elimination shot at stealing that 8-seed.
I want to see this. Sorry, Memphis, but I do. So go Blazers.
21. Ja -- in the playoffs
That said, I want to see Ja Morant in the playoffs. So, upon further review, sorry, Blazers, but Memphis beating you in the second game of that play-in series would be incredible. Morant's explosiveness pales in comparison only to how a rookie took a team most of us relegated to the dustbin of this season and transformed them into a playoff team.
He's a big part of the future of the NBA, and I want a glimpse of it this postseason.
Even for just eight games, I'm in.
23. Getting to hear the players chatter to one another
I don't want crowd noise. I want Kawhi barking "board man gets paid!" to a bemused nation.
24. Crowd noise pumped in anyway
Don't do it! Adam Silver, for the love all that is holy, please no. Can someone send the commissioner a Bundesliga match with the abhorrent, unnatural sounds of "noise" that feels as authentic as a Dwight Howard apology?
25. What play-by-play sounds like from the studios in Atlanta and beyond ...
Kevin Harlan told Sirius XM Radio this week that's what to expect, at least early on. Fans aren't going to game. If the broadcasters aren't, either, much of our experience will be based on how well this works.
26. The NBA's powerful, important voice on social justice -- amplified by games.
The NBA's players, as always, have been at the forefront of speaking truth to power. The return of hoops will amplify those messages and messengers -- about Black Lives Matter, police brutality, George Floyd, racism in this country and what must change.
27. The NBA in August, September and October
NBA playoffs mixed with basketball, the NFL and college football sure sound beautiful to me.
28. Writing about actual games
Sure, it's selfish, but I can't wait to be writing about, you know, actual games.
29. The possibility of a spring training/NBA playoff vibe
Covering spring training during my newspaper days at The Kansas City Star was among the most enjoyable of my reporting experiences. Fewer media meant you could actually talk with players -- as people, about the sport, in a casual way that has largely been lost as athletes and media have been separated by the fame and money that has come to define sports the post 40 years.
In a bubble-like setting, with fewer media and athletes away from their families, it'll be interesting to see if a similar, more casual -- and candid -- vibe emerges.
30. The NBA On TNT
Give me Ernie, Chuck, Shaq, and Kenny, and do it stat.
31. Thin slice of normalcy.
Nothing will change 2020, for all its struggles and hardships and horrors and moments of beauty. But we still need, and love, sports, and those moments that transport us temporarily to the comfort of some normalcy. The NBA offers that, among things, and I welcome it.
32. The NBA as a test case and leader for other sports
Unless MLB quickly gets its act together, the NBA will be the canary in the coal mine for the return of major American sports. Just as they led the way in shutting down the country, they appear to be America's sports leader in returning.
33. First anonymous complaints from NBA players or officials about no family and friends in the early stages of the return.
Embrace the inevitable.
34. Disney shoving Mickey mouth down our throats.
35. Can Chris Paul's quest to get over the hump. Or just make a Finals.
There's a strong case CP3 is the most talented player to never make, let alone win, an NBA championship. No, I don't think the Thunder go deep this postseason. But 2020 has shown us that nothing is certain, and the fact is that the NBA playoffs could easily be turned upside down by players testing positive for the coronavirus.
And that, in turn, could open some doors we don't yet see.
36. How will role players play in neutral sites
Role players have always played much better at home in the postseason than on the road. How a neutral site affects them could have an under-the-radar impact on some close series.
37. James Harden's shot at some rarefied, historically-great air.
Harden is currently averaging 34.4 points per game. If over the eight remaining regular season games he averages 40 -- a lot, but not impossible -- Harden would raise that season-long scoring average to 35, his second consecutive season averaging 35-plus points per game.
Only two players have ever (almost) done that: Michael Jordan in the late '80s (37.09 in 86-87 and 34.98 in 87-88) and Wilt Chamberlain for five straight years in the '60s.
38. The Rockets trying to prove everyone -- certainly me -- wrong
Do I believe in Houston? No. No I do not. But, again, this is the year of surprises and uncertainty. It's also looking like Mike D'Antoni's last shot with Houston, and maybe anywhere, to turn his genius into a Finals appearance or win.
39. Clippers-Lakers Western Conference finals
The most anticipated series of the postseason.
40. Boston-Philly facing off in the first round
Boston in five.
41. Davis Bertans shooting 3s
42. Victor Oladipo
Oldadip was just finding his groove when the season came to an abrupt halt. The influx of ridiculous talent across the league, coupled with the injury that sidelined him for much of the season, may have obscured his greatness to some. But he is a star, and if he's able to get back to form fast Indy could be sneaky dangerous.
43. The Miami Heat.
Defense. A brilliant coach. Jimmy Butler and a slew of young, budding stars. Yes, please.
44. Trend of top 5s and top 11s.
I'm fascinated by this.
In the past 20 years, 18 of the 10 NBA champions were in the top 11 in both offensive and defensive rating during the regular season. The only exceptions: The 2004 Pistons, and the 2001 Lakers team smack dab in the middle of their Shaq-Kobe three-peat.
Three of those teams -- the '15 and '17 Warriors and the '07 Spurs -- beat a LeBron James-led team.
All of which is to day: These two metrics have always been an interesting metric by which to judge teams that have a great chance in the postseason, and a possible harbinger of greatness.
This season, there are five teams currently in the top 11 in both offense and defense: The Bucks, Boston, the Lakers, the Clippers and Utah.
Three of those teams are in the top 5 in both. The Lakers and Clippers, as expected ... and the Celtics.
Boston has the game's fifth-best offense and fourth-best defense.
I broke this down last season, saw the Raptors staring me in the face as a top 5 offense and defense, and nearly put some sizable money down on them to win it all. Then I talked myself out of it. I'm not making that mistake this season with Boston.
45. Pop being Pop to some reporter.
Before all this, I was over the Spurs legendary head coach acting like some can't-spare-the-time grumpy old man when having to go through the indignity of answering two questions during a game for the NBA's television partners. But what can I say? A quarantine makes the heart grow fonder, even here.
Bring on Angry Gregg Popovich ....
46. The Spurs long shot at keeping its remarkable playoff streak alive.
They've made the postseason for 22 straight seasons. They're the last of the Western Conference would-be 9-seeds, they've lost LaMarcus Aldridge for the rest of the season, and they're simply not as talented as the competition.
But you also underestimate the Spurs at your own risk.
47. The June 22-July 1 transaction period
This'll be fascinating. Will a Jamal Crawford or JR Smith find a home on a team weary about injuries or coronavirus depleting their depth? Any other surprises lurking out there?
48. Toronto's quest to repeat
The Raptors are still the defending champions. They have the game's second-best defense. Pascal Siakam has continued to emerge as a superstar. They're the two-seed in the East right now, and have a better record than Kawhi's Clippers.
Just how for real are they?
Your guess is as good as mine. On the one hand, there was a lot of tension over Gobert's flippant response to the virus. On the other, the injury to Bojan Bogdanovic requires the Jazz's two stars to step up, together.
50. Who's legacy jumps through the roof with an NBA championship
LeBron, with his fourth ring? Kawhi, after becoming the first player in NBA history to a Finals MVP with three different teams? Giannis, lifting his name into the possibly all-time great conversation?