NBA Return: Nine Big Questions Heading Into Orlando

NBA Return: Nine Big Questions Heading Into Orlando

The NBA announced last week that play will resume in Orlando on July 31 – or maybe July 30. It depends who you ask.

The league will bring 22 teams to Orlando, with each team playing eight regular season games before a (mostly) traditional postseason format that could include a play-in "tournament" for the eighth seed in each conference.

As teams begin to call players back and ramp up their preparations for Orlando, here are nine questions in need of answers once play resumes.

Will the Bucks resume their dominance of the East?

Sure, the Bucks did begin to look somewhat-mortal after the All-Star break, but Giannis Antetokounmpo missed two of their three consecutive losses leading up to the shutdown. Heading into Orlando, Milwaukee holds a 6.5-game cushion over Toronto for the one seed, so anything short of a massive collapse should secure an easy first-round matchup against Brooklyn or Orlando (or, technically, Washington, I suppose).

Rounds 2 and 3 are where the Bucks will have to prove their mettle. Milwaukee will be heavily favored in every Eastern Conference series it enters, but all three of Boston, Philadelphia and Miami have given Giannis and Co. varying degrees of trouble this season. The Bucks split their two regular-season games against Boston and went 2-1 against Philly but dropped both matchups against Miami. Most recently, the Heat held Milwaukee to just 89 points in a Mar. 2 blowout. 

Over the course of a full series, the Bucks' depth and discipline should win out, but a four-plus-month hiatus could be enough of a variable to crack the door open for an upset.

Can the Mavericks avoid the Clippers?

Currently sitting at 40-27, the Mavs are not your typical No. 7 seed. They're just 4.0 games out of third place and 1.5 games from jumping Oklahoma City for the fifth seed. Ideally, the Mavs will use the eight-game regular season to attempt to avoid a first-round clash with the Clippers. That matchup would likely be a death sentence, but if Dallas can position itself against the Nuggets, Thunder, Jazz, or Rockets, things could get interesting.

Dallas leads the NBA in offensive rating this season, scoring nearly three more points per 100 possessions than the second-place Rockets. The Mavs are only a middle-of-the-road defensive team, but you can afford to give up some things on that end of the floor when you're putting up 116.7 points per 100. Using Doncic as somewhat of a James Harden-lite, Dallas can run defenders through a Doncic-Porzingis pick-and-roll, forcing difficult decisions at all levels. But the Mavs are also elite at spacing the floor. They lead the league in total made threes, while ranking behind only Houston in three-point attempt rate.

Will LeBron James look like MVP LeBron?

When we last saw LeBron James, he'd led the Lakers to consecutive wins over the Bucks and Clippers, in the process bullying his way into an MVP race that was firmly Giannis Antetokounmpo's to lose. Even if the season had continued as normal, Antetokounmpo likely would've cruised to his second consecutive MVP with relative ease. But the fact that James – in his 17th NBA season – made it a debate speaks volumes about how well he was playing before the shutdown.

After Christmas Day (31 games), James averaged 25.7 points, 10.6 assists, 8.2 rebounds and 1.3 steals, while shooting better than 50 percent from the field. The Lakers went 23-8 during that span. In his final 10 games, James was even better, posting 30.2 points, 9.9 assists, 8.6 boards, and shooting 55 percent from the floor. 

Ultimately, the season shutting down slammed the door on James' chances to surpass Antetokounmpo, but it goes without saying that James' focus has shifted squarely toward securing his fourth NBA title. 

Will Jayson Tatum return to being an All-NBA-caliber player?

It wasn't all that long ago that we debated Jaylen Brown versus Jayson Tatum for an All-Star spot. With all due respect to Brown, the run Tatum embarked on in mid-January essentially put any debate to rest. Over his final 20 games before the shutdown, Tatum averaged 28.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.0 block, all while hitting 46 percent of his 8.3 three-point attempts per game.

Arguably the hottest offensive player in the league three months ago, can Tatum pick up where he left off, or will he look more like the borderline-All-Star we saw for the first 40-odd games of the season?

Can Jusuf Nurkic be a difference-maker?

When play resumes in Orlando, it will have been 495 days since Nurkic played in an NBA game. After having the best regular season of his career, Nurkic fractured his leg on Mar. 25 of last year, keeping him sidelined for Portland's run to the Western Conference Finals.

Without the big man – and a few other key contributors – the Blazers scuffled to a 29-37 record, 3.5 games behind Memphis for the eighth seed in the West. Re-integrating multiple starters – Zach Collins is also expected back healthy – won't be an easy task, but Portland's talent level is inarguably higher than it was three months ago. If Nurkic can come back as even 75 percent of the player he was a season ago, the Blazers could surpass New Orleans as the team Memphis should fear most down the stretch.

Portland also has one other distinct advantage in the race for a playoff spot: After the eight-game regular season, final standings will be determined by win percentage. By virtue of having already played more games (66) than the other teams vying for that final playoff spot, the Blazers would win a tiebreaker – by .001% – should they finish with the same win/loss differential as Memphis, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, or Phoenix.

Do the Kings have some fight left in them?

Following a slow start and injuries to De'Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley, the Kings were essentially written off as the same old Kings after a short-lived revival last season. But after starting 15-29, Sacramento very quietly went 13-7 over its final 20 games to pull even with Portland and New Orleans at 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies. With Richaun Holmes and Marvin Bagley likely back to full strength, the Kings' frontcourt depth issues should be mostly solved. The question is whether a team that didn't win more than three games in a row all season can put together a consistent two-week stretch.

What does a neutral site mean for Philadelphia?

The Sixers have no shortage of questions to answer once play resumes. Can Joel Embiid stay healthy? Will Ben Simmons' back hold up? Can this team spend eight weeks in a hotel together without killing each other?

Those questions aside, Philly will also have to prove it can win NBA basketball games that take place in cities other than Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Sixers only did that 10 times in 34 tries this season. They'll head to Orlando with a worse road record than – and I can't stress this enough – the Knicks. The New York Knicks. Luckily, the Sixers put together an incredible 29-2 record at home, with both losses coming in back-to-back games in mid-December.

Typically, home court advantage is only amplified in the postseason, but this will be far from a typical NBA playoffs. Even if the league does grant minor privileges like artificial crowd noise or transportation of real home courts to higher-seeded teams, every game played in Orlando will be about as close to neutral as the league will ever get.

Losing home court advantage is a killer for teams like the Sixers, Heat, and Bucks, each of which lost five or fewer games at home this season. But for Philly, the coin is two-sided: the lack of travel also means no more road games. For as dominant as the Sixers were at home, they were nearly as poor away from Wells Fargo Arena – particularly against Eastern Conference opponents. To a lesser degree, the same goes for Miami, which went 27-5 at home but just 14-19 on the road. For those teams, the neutral atmosphere could end up being just that: neutral. 

Will the time off benefit Victor Oladipo?

As well as Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis have played this season, the Pacers' ceiling will be determined by Oladipo. Last year's torn quad tendon kept Oladipo on the shelf until January, and he never truly regained his pre-injury form before the shutdown on Mar. 11. To be fair, Oladipo's final five games – 18.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 47% FG – were much better than his rocky start, but he was still under a minutes restriction and missed four of Indiana's 10 games after the All-Star break.

Maybe the lengthy hiatus means Oladipo re-accumulates some of the rust. But there's also the possibility that a four-plus-month break gives the two-time-All-Star the equivalent of another offseason to build strength and confidence in his quad. He'll likely need some time to work back up to speed, but if the Pacers arrive in Orlando with the Oladipo of old, they'll be an extremely tough out in Round 1.

Can Utah hang on without Bojan Bogdanovic?

The Jazz may have some mending to do with the Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert relationship, but they'll have another problem on their hands: how do you replace a 20-point-per-game scorer who hit 41 percent of his threes this season?

Without Bogdanovic, who underwent season-ending wrist surgery in May, Utah's depth will be put to the test. The Jazz weren't exactly going 12-deep before losing Bogdanovic, and they'll now lean heavily on Joe Ingles, Royce O'Neale, and Georges Niang for productive minutes on the wing. Midseason addition Jordan Clarkson will also be asked to step up, but there's no simple way to replace Bogdanovic's value as a floor-spacer.

The one saving grace for Utah might be Mike Conley, who battled injuries and never truly found his footing with his new team. If the veteran can finally click alongside Mitchell and Gobert, it could shift the Jazz's fortunes.

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Nick Whalen
RotoWire's NBA Editor and host of the RotoWire NBA Podcast. Nick was awarded the FSWA Best Podcast -- All Sports award in 2017 and 2018. Many years ago, Stromile Swift gave Nick his unbelievably sweaty headband after a preseason game. Despite its failure to match his school colors, Nick went on to wear that headband for the entirety of his sixth grade basketball season. Catch Nick on Twitter @wha1en.
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