Carlson: OKC Thunder and the NBA restart — 22 things you need to know
The 2019-20 NBA Season 2.0 is ready for launch.
I'll be honest: there's no way this version will be better than the original when every team was playing and games were happening in home arenas. But the reality is, the NBA had to do something different if it wanted to finish the regular season and stage the playoffs during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Bubble was born.—
Twenty-two of the league's teams have been living in it for three-plus weeks, eating and sleeping, practicing and scrimmaging. But Thursday, they'll start playing, eight seeding games each followed by the playoffs.
So, in celebration of the restart getting its start and the 22 teams who will provide the fun, here are 22 questions we'll soon begin answering.
1. How will injured superstars play?
Lakers big man Anthony Davis suffered an eye injury in a scrimmage while Celtics point guard Kemba Walker (knee) and Sixers big man Joel Embiid (calf) have been limited during scrimmages. All seem likely to play, but a prolonged absence for any could have serious ramifications on their teams, each of which has NBA Finals aspirations.
2. What will Andre Roberson's role be?
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Most intriguing question of the restart. The Thunder guard started the team's third scrimmage after playing late-game minutes in the first two. If Roberson has a big role, what a story it would be.
3. How will absences — planned and unplanned — affect teams?
We already know Thunder guard Dennis Schröder is going to leave the bubble at some point for the birth of his second child. But what about unexpected departures? What about unplanned hiccups? Adapting and filling in the gaps will be crucial.
4. Will we get a playoff play-in?
Doesn't seem all that likely in the East — the Bradley Beal/John Wall-less Wizards would have to put together a miracle run — but in the West, the struggle is real. The Grizzlies, Blazers, Pelicans and Kings all have a legit shot at the eight seed, and all we need to trigger the play-in tournament is for the ninth-place team to finish within four games of the eighth-place team. Count me in for must-win games to make the playoffs.
5. What will the Zion Effect be?
There were lots of reasons to play seeding games in the bubble instead of going right to the playoffs, but high on that list was having Zion Williamson involved. The Pelicans rookie is must-see TV. (No coincidence New Orleans is in the lead-off spot with Utah on Thursday.) Now, can he catapult his team to the playoffs?
6. So, who does get that eighth seed in the West?
If the Grizzlies hold onto the spot or the Pelicans snatch it away, that would likely set up a first-round series against the Lakers. What an old money-new money series that would be. LeBron and the Lakers vs. Ja Morant and the Griz or Zion and the Pels. Zowza.
7. Speaking of LeBron, will he show his age or his agelessness?
The King is sporting some new gray patches in his beard, reminding us he isn't a kid anymore. Still, the 35-year-old seems ever-young when he's on the court.
8. What will rest do for Russ and The Beard?
Houston superstars Russell Westbrook and James Harden are high-usage guys. Lots of minutes. Lots of shots. Will four months off recharge their batteries for the playoffs?
9. Will Luka and Kristaps start to click?
Another Western Conference duo that bears watching. Even though Doncic and Porzingis were stellar during the first part of the season despite the big fella not yet being a full go since returning from an ACL injury, they haven't come close to maxing out their potential as a complementary offensive combo.
10. What about the Mitchell-Gobert rift?
One more duo to watch in the West, but for entirely different reasons. Descent between Jazz stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert bubbled over after coronavirus night at The Peake. It's anyone's guess if they've really, truly fist-bumped and made up.
11. Can the Thunder's clutch clutchness continue?
OKC was so good late in ballgames, but if the shutdown threw off its chemistry, that may be most noticeable in the last five minutes of games.
12. What role with the Thunder rookies fill?
Normally, a couple weeks out from the playoffs, we'd have a sense where rookies Lu Dort and Darius Bazley were in Billy Donovan's rotation. But with the restart, all bets are off. Either could start. Neither may play. After the way the rookies looking in the scrimmages, I tend to think both will play sizable roles, but anything seems possible.
13. What role might past OKCers have?
And I'm not talking about guys like Russell Westbrook and Paul George. What about Reggie Jackson, now with the Clippers? Or J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters with the Lakers? Cam Payne with the Suns? Corey Brewer with the Kings? Bet you hadn't thought about some of those guys in a while.
14. Can Houston's small ball really work in the playoffs?
Since shipping out Clint Capela and selling out to small ball, the Rockets have remained one of the best teams in the NBA. But can it work in a best-of-seven playoff series? Can P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington really handle Nikola Jokic or Rudy Gobert every night for a couple weeks?
15. Will Denver ever use its tall-ball lineup?
I hope we get to see it at some point. In the Nuggets' first scrimmage, Mike Malone started Jokic at point guard, Jerami Grant at shooting guard, Bol Bol and Paul Millsap at forward and Mason Plumlee at center.
16. Is it Bol Bol's time time?
I didn't just include this question because it's fun, though it is. Bol, a rookie, missed all of the regular season after foot surgery. If not for the restart, he never would've played this season. But he showed in Denver's scrimmages he's for real. No one may turn the more heads in the restart.
17. How will social justice messages be shared?
We've seen some of the ways already, including BLACK LIVES MATTER being painted on the courts. But players wearing social justice messages on their jerseys and kneeling during the national anthem is sure to drive lots more conversation.
18. What opt-out player will be missed most?
No superstars stayed home, but the Nets are going without DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie and Wilson Chandler. The guy who may leave the biggest void, though, is Avery Bradley, a do-everything starter for the Lakers.
19. Will the shutdown slimdown be a help?
We've seen more svelte versions of some of the league's big guys coming out of the break. Jokic. Marc Gasol. Thunder big man Steven Adams looks trimmer, too.
20. Will the Raptors get back to the NBA Finals?
Toronto is the East's version of OKC. The Raptors lost Kwahi Leonard, and everyone thought they'd fall apart. Instead, they're 46-18 with a team that might just be able to oust the Bucks.
21. Will anyone stop Giannis and the Bucks?
Milwaukee was on pace to win 70 games this season. Giannis may well win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. For all the talk about LeBron and the Lakers, the best team with the best player is the Bucks.
22. Will anyone stop LeBron and the Lakers?
No team has more to lose in the restart. LeBron isn't getting any younger — though he doesn't seem to be getting any older, either — so the window of opportunity may never be any wider for the Lakers. They have been spectacular this season. But they will have an extremely tough road just to get to the Finals. And they'll have to maneuver through the West's landmines without home-court advantage.
Can they do it?
We'll start getting answers to that and many other questions soon. Very soon.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.