7 NBA Restart Questions: Will a Raptors vs. Bucks rematch decide the East?

We look back at all the ups and downs from the Toronto Raptors 2019-20 season before the NBA pause, and look ahead to a healthy return in Orlando, and a chance to repeat as world champs!

Basketball has a way of re-imagining what’s possible.

Players float, a second longer than gravity says they should, before thundering home dunks. Shots bounce, one, two, three, four times on the rim before becoming history. In 2020, maybe more than any year we’ve lived through before, re-imagining what can be done is essential.

When anything is possible, though, the questions are boundless. And the NBA’s pending resumption has no shortage of unknowns to consider.

How will players’ social justice advocacy evolve?

Black Lives Matter. How many more. Say their names. Justice. Freedom. Equality.

These are among the phrases you will see on the back of players’ jerseys when the NBA season resumes this Thursday. Essential messages, all deserving of a spotlight that will force onlookers to see them, to hear them, to reckon with their truths — even, and especially, as box scores and wins and losses tempt attention away from this moment.

“We had so many players who spoke up on different issues,” Oklahoma City Thunder point guard and NBPA president Chris Paul told ESPN recently. “Rightfully so, there was a lot of back and forth. We’re speaking about Breonna Taylor right now, right? So what we do is we try to have as many weekly calls as possible. …having that dialogue with players, we’ve realized that our voices are so much stronger together than one individual voice.

“We’re gonna be down here hoopin’, but at the same time, we’re gonna keep it on the front of everybody’s minds. I know that’s a lot. But that’s what we’re going to do.”

More than one event can be important at once, but one of them is still always mentioned first. The basketball itself matters, too. Players’ evolving advocacy, though, will shape the way social justice remains at the forefront of post-season conversations.

Watching how that plays out in practice will be captivating. When professional basketball returned this past weekend, the WNBA — as it often has — showcased what player-led advocacy can look like.

All members of the New York Liberty and the Seattle Storm wore jerseys with Breonna Taylor’s name stitched across the back. They held a 26-second moment of silence — Taylor’s age when she was fatally shot by ‎Louisville police in her home in March — and dedicated the season to her memory. They walked off the court prior to the playing of the national anthem.

“We worked with Breonna Taylor’s mother Tamika Palmer to approve and consult on everything we did involving her daughter,” Liberty’s Layshia Clarendon, who delivered a speech prior to the moment of silence, wrote on Twitter. “The words I used to describe Breonna came directly from a call with Tamika. We are not only activists but we are slowly becoming organizers.”

A similar growth appears to be taking place in the NBA’s Orlando bubble.

Players have access to links to online lectures, classes and organizations; curated reading lists and Black cinema are available through the league’s campus smartphone app. Teams have held movie nights and roundtable discussions about racial inequality. Young players who are just finding their voice in the league are learning in real-time from those who’ve been around longer.

“We’re trying to be proactive, create different avenues to be able to continue conversations, to continue to educate guys on different issues, provide different things that we can read or things we can watch,” Anthony Toliver, Memphis Grizzlies veteran and NBPA secretary said. “Just continue to help guys identify what their mission is. I think there are a lot of guys here that want to do something.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, part of that something will happen during the national anthem on Thursday, when players plan to kneel.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of people being willing [to hear us],” Paul said. “It’s about us being forceful. That’s the power we show as players, making sure everyone hears our voice.”

The Toronto Raptors team bus, emblazoned with the words ‘Black Lives Matter,’ drives through Florida. (Raptors/Twitter)

Can the NBA’s bubble experiment work long enough to crown a champion?

America’s COVID-19 response has been worse, much worse, than anyone can reasonably expect to wrap their mind around. At least 149,000 Americans are dead, more than 4.3 million people have been infected. The grief alone is incalculable.

Staging a return-to-play in Florida, the epicenter of America’s COVID-crisis, tempted disaster.

So far that hasn’t happened. The NBA’s bubble withstood its initial test when players from all across North America made the pilgrimage to Disney World, and no cases of COVID-19 were found within the Orlando campus itself.

“You bring in people from so many different cities and states and there’s no control over it,” Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard said recently. “But I think that we’re doing the best that we can. The NBA put together this process, this quarantine, and we’re doing everything under the guidelines — testing every day, trying to keep ourselves social-distanced from everyone.”

In a year where the unthinkable has happened more often than it hasn’t, it would be arrogant to assume knowing the ending to this experiment.

Confetti could fall on a 2020 champion. One wrong person could pass through the bubble at the wrong time and it’s all derailed, because a COVID-19 infection — or cluster of infections or, in a doomsday scenario, a full-on outbreak — within the bubble could lead to cascading health problems even if a player recovers.

“Who knows what’s going to happen,” Leonard said. “All we can do is try to stay optimistic about it and be positive and hopefully we can finish this season.”

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Will players’ off-court transformations translate into post-season wins?

Marc Gasol shed weight, so did Nikola Jokic. Zion Williamson‘s off-season workouts mean we’ll get a glimpse of how it would look if The Rock played basketball.

“Consistency goes with everything,” Gasol told reporters recently, when asked about his new physique. “It goes with training regimen, goals, sleeping habits, everything. Obviously when you’re at home, everything is a lot easier than when you’re on the road and travelling and trying to make everything work and winning games, which at the end of the day, that’s what you’re judged for.”

So, winning games. The Raptors are already meaningfully better, by the numbers, with lineups featuring Gasol. Is a slimmed down, healthy Gasol the difference-maker on enough possessions to swing a game? A series? A title defence?

The Pelicans’ offensive rating with Williamson on the floor relative to when he sits is a staggering 13.6 points per 100 possessions. Will his quarantine conditioning lead to longer stretches of him being able to play at his max level? What will that new max level even look like?

Jokic is the biggest wild card here. There’s no precedent to inform predictions — we’ve never seen him play in peak physical shape, and in sub-optimal shape he’s already a fringe MVP candidate. His prior brilliance made the most of his size, using his frame to create space and invent passing angles other players simply couldn’t. Will his change give his first step space-creating power it didn’t have before, leading to new forms of offensive magic? Will his conditioning keep him on the court for longer stretches? Will more agility, mixed with his basketball genius, make him a serviceable defender?

Is there a surprise team lurking in either conference?

The Milwaukee Bucks spent 2019-20 being the best team in basketball. They have the presumptive league MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Toronto is the reigning champion, healthy after season-long injury struggles — none of which prevented a second-place regular-season finish — and have the depth to construe lineups for any situation.

Bucks versus Raptors in the Eastern Conference Final would be a logical East endpoint to an illogical season. A similar plot exists in the West, with a duel between Leonard and LeBron James to decide who rules Los Angeles being a plausible outcome all season long.

But the unexpected happens.

Will the Philadelphia 76ers‘ decision to move Ben Simmons to power forward give them new life? Will Bam Adebayo’s ascendent season take another leap for the Miami Heat in the playoffs, giving Jimmy Butler the co-star he needs to shock the basketball world? Which Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward will the Boston Celtics be getting?

Is there enough magic in the Luka DoncicKristaps Porzingis duo — a duo that scored at an obscene clip of 122.9 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage-time minutes — for the Dallas Mavericks to be more than a must-watch show? Could an all-big lineup led by skinny point-Jokic be the wrinkle Denver needs to advance? Did the time off give Houston a chance to invent counters for teams stopping their micro-ball strategy?

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Who makes it into the Western Conference playoffs?

Six teams are, on paper, in contention for the final Western Conference playoff spot — the Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans.

For both Phoenix (six games back) and San Antonio (five games back), small miracles — or tragedies, depending on your point of view — would have to take place during the eight seeding games to pull them past the incumbent Grizzlies.

The Pelicans’ upside is undeniable. It doesn’t take much to imagine Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday taking a collective leap that ends with a playoff date against the Lakers.

Led by a young core of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes and Bogdan Bogdanovic, the Kings went on a 9-5 run after the trade deadline — fifth-best in the NBA, trailing only the Lakers, Bucks, Raptors and Thunder. That momentum won’t survive a five-month pause, but if Sacramento can avoid the slow start that handicapped their 2020 season, and go on a similar run, an eighth-seed finish could be within reach.

Portland’s edge lies where it has since Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum took over the franchise: having a duo singularly capable of getting hot and stealing or sealing any game. Across a smaller sample of games, that possibility carries even more gravity, and the return of Jusuf Nurkic — who scored 17 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in an uncommonly competitive scrimmage against the Raptors — gives Portland a stabilizing third wheel to round out their playoff pursuit.

Memphis isn’t without its question marks, either. Justise Winslow’s hip injury will sideline him for the NBA’s restart before he even had the chance to make his Grizzlies debut, dashing any hopes the team had that a training camp may unlock his potential, and forcing them to figure out who will slot in as a fifth starter on the wing next to Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas. Morant, a rookie of the year candidate whose scrimmage dunks treated the rim like a mortal enemy, will dictate their ceiling. And their fate is largely in their own hands. A 3-0 start to their seeding games would give them wins against Portland, New Orleans and San Antonio — all but securing a playoff spot.

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What are the Wizards, Suns and Nets playing for?

The Spurs could be included on this list, too. LaMarcus Aldrdidge is sidelined for the season, as is Tyler Zeller — who the Spurs signed to fill Aldridge’s minutes — rendering any hope San Antonio had of a playoff run all-but obsolete. But a 22-year playoff streak, the longest in North American professional sports, is still something to play for. So too is the possibility of seeing Becky Hammon take control of the clipboard for a game and make history by becoming the first woman to be a head coach.

The Washington Wizards, Suns and Brooklyn Nets can’t say the same.

Washington won just 24 games this year, Bradley Beal and John Wall are sidelined with injuries and pending free agent Davis Bertans opted out of the season’s resumption. Brooklyn, decimated by COVID-19 tests and injuries, will be missing a starting lineup’s worth of players — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and Wilson Chandler. Phoenix won only two more games than the Wizards and enter the bubble six games back from the eighth seed, in need of a miracle to make up the ground.

The Suns will likely use their eight games at Disney as additional data points to evaluate the Devin Booker-DeAndre Ayton duo. The Wizards and Nets don’t even have that, though. Watching how they make the most of their less-than-fortunate circumstances will be fascinating.

How will the bubble shape off-season decisions?

Using last year as a reference point, the Raptors won their first-ever NBA Championship on June 13 and on June 30 Kevin Durant signed a four-year deal with the Nets. This season? There’s a scenario where the Finals go seven games and end on Oct. 13 and, five days later, teams and free agents can begin negotiating.

That’s barely long enough for the champagne to dry.

A condensed decision-making schedule lends itself to the possibility of snap-choices that hindsight won’t look kindly on. Who among us hasn’t wished for one more night to sleep on it before making a commitment? Less time for deliberation amplifies the need for real-time evaluation — no simple task in a post-season swirling with never-before-seen elements.

Would an eight-game hot streak from Evan Fournier during the seeding, leading the Orlando Magic to a seventh seed, earn him a lucrative long-term deal to — probably — keep leading Orlando to seven-seed playoff berths? Playoff performance often has a disproportionate impact on player market value. Adding a seeding-games sprint round exacerbates that.

But the off-court factors could play a part, too. How will five months of uncertainty shape players’ contractual desires? Will short-term deals with player options still be fashionable or will long-term, guaranteed money start to look better because, after 2020, you just never know? Did five months of quarantine Zoom calls fortify players’ connection to their current team, or incite yearning to call somewhere else home?

Which leads to perhaps the biggest wild card of all: Will NBA campus conversations lay the foundation for the league’s next super team?

When the uncertainty of if the season can finish ends, the uncertainty of what transformations the off-season will bring begins.

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