Folks gravitate to Walt Disney World annually for the thrills, wild rides and unforgettable memories that result from a trip to a unique place, which means the NBA chose appropriately when it decided where to restart the 2019-20 season.
Nobody knows what to expect from inside the Disney snowglobe from the start on July 30 until early Oct. 13, the final possible day for Game 7 of The Finals. In the meantime, we do know 22 teams will represent and … that’s about it, really.
Here are 10 questions and 10 guesses about what happens next:
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That’s a major question mark. From a fitness standpoint, and it’s just a hunch here, the NBA players will be better than you think. This is mainly based on their supreme conditioning and because during the pandemic, teams sent equipment to those players who didn’t have any. But there’s a difference between being in shape and being in basketball shape.
Also, you wonder how many teams who are safely in the upper half of the standings and don’t really care about seedings since there’s no home-court advantage -- think the Los Angeles Lakers, LA Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks, etc. -- might be tempted to load-manage their stars in the eight restart games. Perhaps the team that adjusts best from the pandemic (and not necessarily the best team) wins the title this season.
This is the elephant in the bubble. The 22 teams will open training camps starting on July 9 and will also participate in three inter-squad scrimmages in final preparation for the resumption of the season. All that said, the playoffs are traditionally demanding. The players are being asked to press the accelerator right away and raise the level of their games and intensity. Until we see the playoff schedule, there’s also the chance of not getting two and three day’s rest between playoff games as per usual. Again, these are unprecedented times, so there’s no clear-cut answer.
And if that’s the elephant, this is the Mastodon: Someone contracting COVID-19. If it’s an A-lister like LeBron James or Giannis Antetekounmpo, that ruins the entire vibe, both dampening the postseason and potentially dictating who wins the title.
The New York Knicks experimented with a noise blackout game at Madison Square Garden in March of 2017 against the Golden State Warriors -- no music from the overhead speakers during play and timeouts for the first half -- and the reviews were harsh. Warriors coach Steve Kerr said it “felt like church.” Players felt abandoned, none more than Draymond Green, who said: “That was pathetic. It was ridiculous. It changed the flow of the game. It changed everything.”
There’s no official word yet whether the league will do away with all the usual game-night pomp and ceremony in Orlando. But without the need to entertain fans, why bother? It will feel empty without cheering, booing, dee-fense chants, pump-up music and whatnot … and in a weird way the players will need to adjust.
Think of this as a pickup game at the YMCA or NBA Summer League games that used to take place, curiously, in Orlando. No fans were allowed into those games held at the Magic's old practice facility, and there was no artificial noise, either. Just the squeaking of sneakers, the bellowing of coaches and the referee’s whistle.
Without fans and music, expect any preening and chest-thumping to dry up considerably, too.
The question an entire basketball nation is asking is up to Zion Williamson and the Pelicans. It won’t be easy, as they’re 3 1/2 games back of the No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
Williamson and the Pelicans were rolling before the pandemic hit, going 8-5 over their last 13 games. After missing the first three months following knee surgery, Zion hit the floor running. He scored at least 20 points in 16 of his 19 career games and quickly began commanding double teams in certain situations, especially near the rim.
With Brandon Ingram having an All-Star season and Jrue Holiday bringing playoff experience, the Pelicans have a shot to steal a playoff spot. Much will depend on whether the layoff helped or hurt Williamson, whose weight and conditioning has been a topic of conversation if not concern.
Back on May 7, 1995, Nick Anderson picked Michael Jordan clean in the open court. It was Game 1 of the 1995 Eastern Conference semifnials with the Chicago Bulls -- Jordan was making his return to basketball after a fling with baseball while wearing No. 45 -- and it symbolized an era that the Orlando Magic couldn’t recapture for another decade.
Anderson snuck up from behind Jordan and knocked the ball away. Penny Hardaway scooped it up, fed Horace Grant for the dunk and Orlando had the lead with six seconds left. The Magic won that series 4-2 and it was the final time that a Jordan-led Bulls team ever lost in the playoffs.
Those Magic of Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal lost to Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler in The Finals. After a dry spell caused by the defection of Shaq, the franchise returned to The Finals with Dwight Howard in 2009. Still, that win over Jordan remains the biggest basketball moment in Orlando until now. Who knew the city would host The Finals this season?
Mike Conley, Utah Jazz: He has struggled to make the leap from Memphis to Utah in one of the great mysteries of this season. The addition of Conley seemed to perfect for the Jazz and for Donovan Mitchell, who would be unburdened from some playmaking chores. But Conley’s shooting percentage (40.5%) is his worst since 2017-18 and direction of the club was faulty all year, to the point where he was essentially demoted at one point.
Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks: You can excuse his slow start because “The Unicorn” was returning from a serious injury suffered almost two seasons ago. When All-Star guard Luka Doncic was mending from an ankle injury, Porzingis got on track in February, averaging 25.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game while shooting 48.3% overall and 38.9% on 3-pointers. Will the layoff disrupt that rhythm, and if not, can he quickly bond with Doncic?
Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers: The season was tailored to help him soar as “Kuz” would be the beneficiary of all the attention paid to James and Anthony Davis. Yet, he never gathered any steam, was certainly not in any All-Star conversations and, for ample stretches seemed invisible. There’s no time better than now for him to become that anticipated third wheel.
Al Horford, Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers dropped big money and years on Horford to pry him from the Celtics last summer. The theory then was Philadelphia helped itself and hurt a fellow competitor. But Horford has been a disappointment, with decreased production across the board. He seemed to play better whenever Joel Embiid wasn’t on the floor, but that’s the point -- he was supposed to be solid next to Embiid.
The excellence of the Spurs can be pinpointed to their five NBA titles as well as their impressive habit of consistent winning. They’ve made the playoffs in 22 consecutive seasons, which ties them with the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers for longest playoff streak in NBA history. But that stretching sound you hear in the near distance is a streak being pulled to its limits. Not only are the Spurs in 12th place and four games back of Memphis, LaMarcus Aldridge is done for the season (shoulder surgery). Chances are the only thing that will be a snap will be the streak itself.
The Sixers’ puny road record (10-24) was a poor excuse for a title contender. They had a .641 difference between home and road winning percentages. No longer will they fear the TD Garden, or the rowdiness of Scotiabank Arena, or the mean green at Fiserv Forum. Of course, they also won’t enjoy the comforts of their Wells Fargo Center -- where they were an NBA-best 29-2 -- either.
Zach Collins only played the first three games and Jusuf Nurkic didn’t play any this season. Yet both players are mended, rested and ready for Orlando. That, on the surface, is good news Portland, whose chances of gaining the final playoff spot can only be enhanced.
That said: Only Collins can be expected to play significant minutes. It’s risky to assume Nurkic can go from zero to 60 after missing so much time, and anyway, Hassan Whiteside has played well at center all season. Collins is a different situation. With Trevor Ariza electing not to play in Orlando for family reasons, Carmelo Anthony can shift to his more natural small forward spot after playing much of the season at power forward. That allows Collins to see ample time at power forward and perhaps even start.
The accusations of Harden losing steam came earlier than usual this season when the former Kia MVP began sputtering in late winter instead of late spring. Harden had a historic two-month run, averaging 37 points from early November to early January. After a 34-point game vs. the Lakers on Jan. 18, Harden cooled to 29.2 ppg and hit just 31.2% of his 3-pointers.
Harden hints that he used the time off to sharpen his body and mind and that we’ll see a prime Harden in Orlando. It’s up to him to salvage Year One of his tandem with Russell Westbrook, who handles the ball less and shoots even poorer than ever from 3-point land.
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