Once Again It's On: Here Are the Storylines to Keep an Eye On as the NBA Makes Its Triumphant Return

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Photo: Al Bello (Getty Images)

Damn, the NBA is back already?!

I know, I know. It’s only been 72 days since the Lakers emerged victorious over the Miami Heat, but when your 2019-20 season is derailed by a global pandemic, you’ve gotta make some major sacrifices to get the NBA schedule back on track. And in this case, that means that players, coaches, and everyone else are back at it after the shortest offseason in NBA history.

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With the coronavirus still looming as the league attempts to return to some sense of normalcy, this season will look unlike any other. So here are a few things to keep an eye on as the league kicks off what promises to be another compelling season of NBA basketball.

No Fans, No Problem—But What Else Is New?

If last season’s bubble taught us anything, it’s that the league can adapt on the fly and still deliver quality basketball—even without fans in the stands. But will fans be allowed to attend games this season? Ummmm, that depends on the team. The Jazz and Hawks (of course) have announced plans to open their arenas to reduced seating capacity, but the rest of the league is assessing the situation on a team-by-team basis (just don’t expect to attend any Clippers or Lakers games anytime soon).

As to what other changes you can expect, this season has been truncated from 82 games to 72, and rosters have been expanded from 13 players to 15 so that teams can be better prepared for the inevitable COVID-19 outbreak—as we’ve seen throughout other sports.

On a similar note, while the league has been vehemently against resting healthy players in the past—remember when former NBA commissioner David Stern smacked fire out of the Spurs for doing that shit in a past life?—it will be easing up on that policy due to the short offseason and the possibility of players recovering from COVID-19. But don’t get it fucked up; healthy players are still subject to six-figure fines for skipping out on nationally televised games.

There’s also the play-in tournament, which was introduced to rave reviews during the NBA bubble. Last season, it was the 8th and 9th seeds in each conference that dueled for the right to take their talents to the playoffs, and this year it will be expanded to include the 7th to 10th seeds. So if you thought the Western Conference was a dog fight last year, it’s gonna be next level come playoff time next summer.

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Welcome Back, Kotter

Between the coronavirus and major injuries, last season was a hot mess. Thankfully, some familiar faces will be returning to the court to shake shit up and keep things interesting.

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While I’m not particularly fond of the trade, John Wall has finally escaped Washington and more importantly, will finally return to the court after battling what feels like an endless succession of major knee injuries.

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With his game so heavily predicated on speed, the jury’s still out on if he’ll be able to regain top form—his last regular-season game was on Dec. 26, 2018—but at the very least, Houston will afford him the opportunity to continue his career without the same expectations—or baggage—he had with the Wizards.

Some other big-name players nipping at the bit to get back on the court include Steph Curry, who played a grand total of five games last season due to a broken left hand; Kyrie Irving, who always misses at least 437 games a year; and Kevin Durant, who missed the entire season after tearing his Achilles in the 2019 playoffs. There’s also Zion Williamson, who’s finally healthy after giving us a glimpse of his tremendous potential with the Pelicans.

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Each of these players has the talent to tilt the balance of the entire league, so things can get very interesting for the Lakers as they make a valiant attempt to run it back.

Is James Harden Staying or Nah?

In case you missed the memo, the Rockets have a James Harden problem.

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Sure, they’ve won plenty of games together—excluding the playoffs—but the 31-year-old seems to have absolutely zero interest in doing anything conducive to playing the type of team ball that produces NBA championships. As a result, tensions have escalated, perennial failure has become commonplace, and now Harden is mapping out his grand exodus.

Part of the problem is that not only will it cost a king’s ransom to trade for the eight-time All-Star, but the dude isn’t exactly the easiest player to build around either. So do you really want to trade for an all-time talent just to end up exactly like how the Houston Rockets already are now? Harden being on the wrong side of 30 doesn’t help matters either, but in a league short on superstars, there will always be somebody willing to pull the trigger.

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The Heat, Boston, Raptors, and 76ers have been in the mix as potential landing spots, so it will be interesting to see how this all plays out—especially since Harden is reportedly cussing out teammates, throwing balls at rookies, and becoming more combustible by the day.

Can the Lakers Run It Back?

Once the Temecula Clippers embarrassed themselves in the Western Conference Semifinals last season, it was a foregone conclusion that the Lakers would win their 17th NBA title.

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But after an offseason in which they added spark plug Dennis Schroder, a gracefully aging Marc Gasol, and stole Montrezl Harrell from the Clippers, how in the hell is anyone supposed to beat these niggas? I really don’t see how, but my life-long disdain for all things purple and gold would love to be wrong.

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Boston and Denver are on the brink of a championship leap, Doc Rivers joining the 76ers makes things interesting, the Nets are gods on paper if healthy, Giannis Antetokounmpo is foaming at the mouth for his first championship, and the Clippers and Heat are out for redemption, but I don’t see any of the above giving the Lakers the business in a seven-game series.

I’m just glad the NBA is officially back and look forward to another season of NBA basketball.

DISCUSSION

By
IlliniMike

Other random thoughts:

-I do not get the James Harden trade rumors, as recent photographs suggest there’s plenty of James Harden for everyone. But I think it’s a mistake to think that Harden can only play like he’s playing now. He played at a superstar-level efficiency in a smaller, conventional role in OKC, and played at a near-MVP level in a much more conventional, regular-ass shooting guard-type of role his first few years in Houston. I actually think he’d be a perfect on-court fit with Kyrie and Durant, but Toronto or Boston makes a ton of sense, too.

-The Bucks now have two legit, will-definitely-be-on-the-floor-in-crunch-time guys to play alongside Giannis. Neither Middleton or Holiday are superstars, but having two no-brainer, high level crunch time guys is huge. If Dante (not looking up the spelling, the white guy from Villanova) and Lopez can make 35+ percent of their threes, I think they’re capable of beating the Lakers.

-I think the Clippers solved their biggest issue with Ibaka. Now they have a legit two-way big who can stretch the floor and also do actual big guy stuff. I think he’s a big upgrade over Harrell and Green come playoff time, and the Clippers are a lot closer to the “you can’t mismatch us with anything” ideal that you’d hope for when building around two superstar wings.