The NBA is Back. Sam Smith breaks down the teams in Orlando

NBA basketball returns in Orlando this week
LeBron driving for the Lakers
Remind Me Later

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The NBA's restart in the Orlando bubble poses some interesting questions for teams.

They're back, the LeBron and Zion Basketball Association, which restarts half of the rest of its regular season Thursday with LeBron James facing the Clippers and Zion Williamson playing the Jazz. How fortuitous that those two popular icons happened to be featured in the NBA's first games that sort of count after a 20-week break. Go figure. Just how lucky is that NBA, or what?

The 22-team NBA which temporarily contracted eight teams, including the Bulls, will play an eight-game "seeding" schedule to select the 16 playoff teams. That extends through August 14 with five or six games every day. NBAmania! The records pick up from when play stopped March 11 because of the coronavirus with the Bucks and Lakers virtually assured of the No. 1 seeds, the Bucks with a six and a half game lead over the Toronto Raptors and the Lakers with a five and a half game lead over the Clippers in the Western Conference.

There is a so called play-in tournament for the final playoff spot if the ninth place team is within four games of the eighth place team. This is informally called How Do We Get Memphis Out of the Playoffs tournament.

The Grizzlies currently have a three and a half game lead over Portland, Sacramento and New Orleans with the Spurs four games back. The league also let the Suns come to its bubble-campus at Disneyworld since it had to make up some justification to leave out the other eight teams. The league decided if a team was more than six games out of the playoffs it could not make the playoffs. So those teams were told to come back in 2021. It's colloquially known as the Zion Rule to give the Pelicans popular rookie a chance to be in the playoffs.

In the Eastern Conference, the Wizards were in ninth place five and a half games behind Orlando in eighth. With Bradley Beal not playing, the Wizards probably will not be favored to win any quarter in any of the eight games they play. But the league had to let them in because of its Zion Rule. So the eight East playoff teams basically are set with games essentially for positioning.

There's not actually a conspiracy to keep Memphis out of the playoffs since the record in the NBA for anyone keeping a secret is 10 minutes. So the race for eighth in the Western Conference probably is the only drama for the next two weeks. The ninth place team then would have to win two games against the eighth place team to jump them. The eighth place team needs to win once to keep its position. Dallas in seventh has a seven game lead over Memphis.

The NBA's enclosed "bubble" concept in Orlando appears to be working well for player safety compared with baseball after some initial complaints about the quality of food, the rooms and the lack of large walleye in the lakes.

But this being the NBA, there's plenty of drama and questions to come.

LeBron James in action for the Lakers in Orlando

Will LeBron win his fourth championship and force Magic Johnson to make a 10-part documentary?

Get ready for the asterisk debate if the Lakers win. Hey, Michael never won a title in October! I'd watch out for the Lakers. I wasn't so sanguine about them when the season started. You know, Anthony Davis would be out with a bad eyebrow tweeze and Rondo still can't shoot and Dwight Howard? Who's idea what that? But LeBron is quiet. Too quiet. He seems to be taking this a lot more seriously than most. He may even love the food. And the West suddenly isn't so all that like it's been without Golden State. Closing March strong with those wins over the Bucks and Clippers doesn't mean anything now. But it does mean something when LeBron sees an eight-game warmup to then a sprint for another title.

Giannis Antetokounmpo glides to the hoop

Can Giannis Antetokounmpo get past the first round of the playoffs twice?

Giannis is starting to make Steve Nash look like a Finals MVP candidate. Actually, Giannis soon should join Nash as the only multiple MVP never to appear in an NBA Finals game. It's time for the Bucks and Giannis no matter the length of the season. This is Giannis' seventh season, that being when Michael Jordan, a one-time MVP at the time who'd never appeared in the Finals, won his first title. Jordan did win his second regular season MVP that 1990-91 season. Giannis in six years has been out of the first round just once. Last year, his Bucks lost in six to the eventual champion Raptors and Giannis was the problem. The Raptors came up with a smothering defense challenging Giannis to make shots and he couldn't. And often wouldn't even try, averaging about five points below his season average. Unacceptable for an MVP. Now it's his time to at least get there. The Bucks added enough shooting around him and another Antetokounmpo to keep him company. But this is his time. And the Bucks'. He's an unrestricted free agent after next season and the desire of everyone. Without a long playoff run, Milwaukee may as well be in Wisconsin.

Lou Williams attacks on the dribble

Is it because they're the Clippers? Like being the Cleveland Browns or Buffalo Bills?

It seems like the Clippers have done everything to escape the Donald Sterling curse with excellent coaching, the top talent and financial support. But Clippers players have been the most in and out of the Orlando "bubble" with Montrezl Harrell still out, Patrick Beverley maybe and Lou Williams certainly. Williams, of course, provided the highlight of bubbleville with his dog-ate-my-homework excuse of stopping at an, ahem, gentleman's club for the food during his excused absence. He's now back in a 10-day time out. Still missing David Letterman, here's how perhaps Letterman might have viewed that episode in a top ten excuses for why Lou Williams stopped at that club:

  1. Checking for masks as part of community control.
  2. Thought I saw Kawhi and was trying to warn him.
  3. Just asking for help with a flat tire.
  4. Couldn't stand watching another one of those Liberty insurance commercials.
  5. Thought those fishnets they were advertising would be good for netting bass back at the bubble.
  6. Those darned GPS directions.
  7. Thought it was a Mike Tyson presidential campaign rally.
  8. Wanted to surprise the guys with Magic City golf shirts.
  9. It's really the best place to practice origami.
  10. And the number 1 reason why Lou Williams food stopped at the Magic City club: Supposed to have the best New York strip.
Russell Westbrook at the rim

Can the Houston Rockets truly turn the NBA into a 6-5 and under league?

The NBA has been heading this way in recent years with the emphasis on shooting and passing on open layups. Houston coach Mike D'Antoni, who's been rumored to have a heating pad on his chair, looks like he's going all in. Much of the NBA's evolution to its pick and roll/find a three offense can be attributed to D'Antoni, who was much reviled. Until Tim Duncan retired. D'Antoni was close with the early 2000s Suns when he started this revolution. His one regret was listening to others. Everyone said he couldn't get by the Spurs without size, so he agreed to the trade for Shaq. Which basically destroyed the team. Never again. So D'Antoni is all in—at least as much as James Harden allows—of everyone in pick and roll and shooting. Around "center" P.J. Tucker. There's a lot of Don Nelson there, also, who'd virtually challenge teams to forfeit their offenses to chase a matchup by putting 5-7 Keith Jennings on Mark Eaton. Will the Lakers post up Dwight Howard every time? The way Houston plays they'll take 10 post up dunks and run back at you and shoot threes. They haven't been making them in the playoffs in recent years. Is this the time?

Joel Embiid in Orlando

For the Philadelphia 76ers when does a process become a problem?

The 76ers seemed the model, albeit criminally, for the recent NBA rebuilding phenomenon. But now Brett Brown also is trying to avoid sitting on hot coals, Joel Embiid when he's in shape or healthy, has been advising Ben Simmons, who seems now to be a point power forward. They're the latest potential great duo who could become a solo act. There's much more than Brown riding on these playoffs. Would they restructure around Embiid and cash in Simmons for shooting? Or take a chance leading with Simmons? They've spent a lot of money with Al Horford and Tobias Harris and talk about Shake Milton. There seems a lot of stuff going on there we'll hear about later if this is a short playoffs.

Defending Champion Kyle Lowry in action for the Raptors

Seriously, the Toronto Raptors are defending champions?

The joke about Canada is its inferiority complex. Many say they have one. But they say it's not a good one. Look, how important can you be when Alaska is looking down on you. So Kawhi Leonard left with his four bounce winners and they were done, right? So they pretty much have second wrapped up in the East and the Giannis stopper in coach Nick Nurse. Back to back without a lottery pick? They're even more amazing now with OG Anunoby at No. 23 their highest draft pick among their top seven players. It is the real process. But don't let the Canadians know we know and respect and admire it.

Zion Williamson at practice in Orlando

Zion's the Big Z everywhere but in Cleveland.

The story of this NBA eight-game rehearsal for the playoffs is basically just to find out if Williamson and the Pelicans, who do have an intriguing young team with the breakout season of Brandon Ingram and the silence of Lonzo Ball's family, can make the playoffs. Though the NBA experiment in Orlando is working out the best among the major sports, the league really should have just ended the season and played the 16 teams for the playoffs. The eight in the East are set with ninth place Washington having no chance to break in. The eighth place Grizzlies in the West have a three and a half game lead. But the NBA and its TV partners want the dunking attraction of Williamson. So they imagined some formula to justify adding six teams and an ersatz tournament in hopes of ousting Memphis, which has a big time attraction in Ja Morant. But he's no Zion. Memphis also came up with the sixth toughest schedule in the eight-game close of the regular season. By chance New Orleans came up with the easiest. What luck.

Bol Bol in action for Denver

Will the Denver Nuggets dedicate the 2020 championship to architect Arturas Karnisovas?

Some looking for clues about how the Bulls could change or play suggest watching the Nuggets, where the new Bulls boss was second in command. But the Nuggets have been hard to figure despite an MVP candidate in Nikola Jokic, a second round pick (my suggestion is to get another of him). They've won a lot of games the last few years and lost all the big ones, an overtime playin playoff game in 2018, a blown lead seventh game in the conference semifinals last year. This season they were a game behind the Clippers for second in the West and no one gives them much chance. They run everything through Jokic, who has been their closer, though often out of shape. Though not as badly as Embiid. Jamal Murray's hit some big shots, but also fades often. They're hoping the Michael Porter Jr. risk finally pays off. It seems like it is now that Porter is insisting on social media the virus is a conspiracy aimed at global population control. It is a little early for these guys to be having too much time on their hands. I thought there was fishing and golf. Like Denver, the Nuggets seem about 500 miles from anything else, Porter, a bit farther out. Seriously, how could you not love this league.

Portland's Jusuf Nurkic in action

Can the Portland Trailblazers become the center of the NBA's greatest fear?

While we all watch Zion's Climb, it's actually the Trailblazers, last year's Western Conference finalist, in ninth in the West. And perhaps best served by these nearly five months off. Their injured centers, Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins (with Hassan Whiteside still around), are recovered from what were season ending injuries. So suddenly a final four team is back at full strength. Can they make a run and ruin TNT's day? And remember that Portland is the Rose City and not some today version of rip city.

Celtics in action in Orlando

Since the Celtics have basically cinched a playoff spot how long before we long for Tacko Fall?

There are other teams that are possibilities, like Jimmy's Heat, Luka's Mavericks and Rudy's Jazz. But the Celtics without Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have been so overlooked you'd think they play in Canada. Imagine being quarantined in the bubble with Kyrie? It's perhaps one reason the Celtics have a chance. Imagine how relieved those guys are. Though Jayson Tatum has been the designated star, it's Jalen Brown who's really broken out this season with Gordon Hayward seemingly healthy. If Kemba Walker also is they'll be wondering more than how you stay six feet away from Tacko.

Ball in.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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