NBA Restart Part 1: Top storylines to follow

We remain in unchartered territory as far as the NBA season goes. 

Make no illusion of it, players and teams continue to bear tremendous risk in moving forward with the restart. 

But there is also something heartwarming about it all – teams, players, coaches, league and support staff putting it all on the line for the love of the game. 

Despite the uncertainties, the restart guarantees tremendous excitement, and here is part 1 of my favorite storylines to look forward to, when the action resumes in Orlando. 


THE BATTLE FOR LOS ANGELES

While this match-up may not quite live up to the spectacle it was pegged to be at the start of the season – as both teams will now face off in Orlando – there’s still enough star power involved to make it one for the ages. 

The last couple of months prior to the closure saw both teams ramp up their rosters. The Los Angeles Clippers pulled off a three-team deal at the trade deadline with the New York Knicks and Washington Wizards to land scrappy shooting forward Marcus Morris and guard Isiah Thomas (later waived) for forward Mo Harkless and guard Jerome Robinson.

They would later sign 6-3, 208-lbs combo guard Reggie Jackson to bolster an already strong backcourt. 

Behind a strengthened roster, increased depth and flexibility, the Clippers mustered a 7-1 record over their final eight games including victories over the Philadelphia 76ers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Houston Rockets. Their singular loss ironically coming against the Lakers. 

All this is not to discount the stellar play of wings Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, who seem to have finally settled into a good rhythm together. Over the same eight-game stretch, these two combined for averages of 42.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 3.2 steals on a scorching 48.6 percent shooting from the field. 

The Lakers meanwhile, signed Markieff Morris and guard Dion Waiters to deepen their rotations and steamrolled their way to an 8-2 finish over their last ten games. 

Guard Avery Bradley will not join the team in Orlando but his spot will be taken by J R Smith, who accompanied teammate LeBron James to four straight finals appearances that culminated with a title in 2016 – which could only bode well for the team. 

The regular season record between the two teams currently stands at 2-1 in the Clippers favor with a must-watch final showdown scheduled for the first day of the restart on July 30. 

There’s no doubt that LeBron James will do everything in his power to give the Lakers an edge, but with the teams’ near-identical placements in the advanced standings (both are top five in Net, Offensive and Defensive ratings), this matchup is one for the ages. 


THE DARK HORSE HEAT

When the Miami Heat completed a four-team trade to acquire Jimmy Butler and Meyers Leonard last July, the hope was that Butler would help one of the league’s youngest teams develop a high-quality, hard-working culture epitomized by a strong work ethic. What culminated pleasantly surprised fans and league pundits across the association. 

Butler, known for a career replete with routine fall outs with his teammates, coaches, and team brass, had a tremendously positive impact on this group. Bam Adebayo prior to a February matchup with the Chicago Bulls said, “He’s way different than some of the media portrayed him to be. He’s not a cancer. As you can see, we’re winning. He’s one of the leaders on this team, and that’s what we need from him. He’s going to keep doing it. I’m gonna stay on him to keep doing it.”

The Butler led Heat went into the lockdown period sporting an above-average 41-24 record (14-10 against teams at .500 or above) and were only one of two teams (Denver Nuggets being the other) to better the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks twice.  Defensively, the Heat held teams to 44.7 percent shooting from the field – good for seventh in the league. At an individual level too, the team’s talent shined. 

Per Basketball-Reference, forwards Butler (8.5) and Bam Adebayo (8.1) rank eighth and ninth in win shares respectively but the biggest surprise this season has been second-year guard Duncan Robinson. 

Miami’s space creating dribble handoff style of play saw Robinson knock down 243 shots from deep (third in the league) at a scorching 44.8 percent clip (fourth in the rankings).  In fact, the Michigan Wolverine alum was so hot from the field before the league closure that he averaged six three-point shots from the field in five games in March including a 9-12 performance in a March 4, 116-113 victory over the Orlando Magic. I’m expecting a deep run from the Heat in the postseason. Don’t be surprised to see them in the Eastern Conference finals.   


WESTERN CONFERENCE BATTLE FOR THE FINAL PLAYOFF SPOT

Prior to the league’s closure in March, the Memphis Grizzlies (32-33) held the eighth seed in the playoff standings but faced the very real threat of losing it to any one of the four teams in pursuit – Portland Trailblazers (3.5 games behind), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5), Sacramento Kings (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4). 

The resumption of play should see this battle pick up from where it left off. Theoretically, the Pelicans have an easier schedule, with just two out of their remaining eight games coming against opponents having a .500 record or better. While the Grizzlies and Blazers have a much tougher road ahead. But optimism reigns high in the Blazers’ camp, with the expected return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins providing a much needed vertical boost. Only time will tell if there are any positive gains from their return that will offset any negative impact that a missing Trevor Ariza will have on the team. Let’s not forget, the Blazers have not missed the playoffs since the 2012-13 season, so expect the team to be up for the fight.