FOUR months after the coronavirus pandemic halted the 2019/20 season just as it was approaching its crescendo, the NBA is finally set to return on Thursday.
The action resumes with the Utah Jazz taking on the New Orleans Pelicans as the warm-up to the night’s main event, the battle of Los Angeles between the title-favourite Lakers and reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers.
Basketball will look very different upon its return. Only 22 of the league’s 30 teams have been invited to join “The Bubble” at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where the rest of the truncated season will take place in its entirety. And, as with all other major sports to have resumed play post-pandemic, there will be no fans in attendance.
Here, we take a look at the six frontrunners for this most unusual of NBA championships, looking at what has changed for them while they’ve been gone and where they stand in the race for the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
It is the superstar duo of LeBron James – still in a class of his own at 35 years of age – and Anthony Davis that means the Lakers are title favourites this season. Despite comfortably topping the Western Conference, the Lakers are not without their flaws – namely a lack of quality depth compared to the other top contenders and a dearth of ball-handling expertise in the backcourt that has led to James effectively playing point guard this term.
But with James’ elevated playmaking skills – the four-time MVP leads the league in assists – and Davis’ unstoppable power and agility at both ends of the court, it’s hard to see how anyone handles the Lakers at their best. The biggest question for the Lakers coming into the restart, however, is: how do they replace Avery Bradley?
Bradley might not be a household name on the level of James and Davis – not even close – but he has been crucial to the team’s balance this year, a tenacious defender with a reliable three-point shot. He’s opted out of joining The Bubble to remain with his family.
Championship odds: 12/5
The good news for the Bucks is that star man and reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is back and healthy. A knee sprain was set to sideline the Greek forward for a couple of weeks before the shutdown, but now Milwaukee can count on their prized asset to be at full strength from the moment they tip-off against the Boston Celtics on Friday night.
Antetokounmpo is almost certain to retain his MVP award this year, while also being likely to become only the third player in NBA history – after Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon – to claim the Defensive Player of the Year crown in the same season, such has been his historically impressive form in 2019/20.
The Bucks will also be able to count upon the playmaking presence of Eric Bledsoe, who has recovered from COVID-19, as has guard Pat Connaughton. The league’s strongest team through this regular season seem set to be at full, formidable strength for the restart.
Championship odds: 5/2
Like the Lakers, the Clippers also boast two genuine superstars on their roster in the form of Leonard and Paul George. Perennially in the shadow of their glamorous neighbours, the Clippers’ acquisition of the pair ahead of the 2019-20 season was a signal of their intent to claim a first-ever championship.
In addition to their two key men, the Clippers have unparalleled strength in depth, augmented by the mid-season additions of Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson.
THROW IT DOWN, KLAW! ️
— NBA (@NBA) July 27, 2020
They will miss Sixth Man of the Year contender Lou Williams’ impact from the bench in the early restart games, with the sharp-shooting guard placed in a 10-day quarantine after being seen at a strip club while granted leave from The Bubble to attend a funeral.
But with arguably the best post-season player in the game in Leonard, a wealth of outstanding defenders and four or five players capable of scoring 20-plus on any given night, the Clippers fear no one.
Championship odds: 33/10
Houston Rockets (40-24)
The big news surrounding the Rockets as the season’s resumption neared was star point guard Russell Westbrook’s positive COVID-19 test. After recovering, Westbrook joked he might not be able to make a layup when he returns to play, but Houston coach Mike D’Antoni insists the 2017 NBA MVP looks as strong as ever.
“He looked pretty athletic, didn’t he?” D’Antoni said after Westbrook’s 16-minute cameo in last week’s warm-up scrimmage against the Toronto Raptors. “He must have been working on his athleticism.
“He did that the very first practice. He came in and it didn’t seem like he missed a beat. He’s coming at you and you know his game. His heart is unbelievable.”
There is no shortage of talent among the Rockets’ roster, but the main question mark that has hung over their season revolves around whether the club’s two main men, Westbrook and league scoring leader James Harden, can play to the peak of their potential simultaneously. Thus far, the pair have seemed to alternate periods of stellar form.
Championship odds: 12/1
Before the pandemic hit, Boston’s Jayson Tatum was in the form of his nascent career. The 22-year-old forward’s run after the turn of the year saw him deliver on the potential that convinced the Celtics to take him third overall in the 2017 draft, racking up 25 points or more in 15 of his last 20 games.
Whether Boston are simply a very good team or a side capable of challenging for the championship rests on Tatum’s ability to rediscover and maintain the level he had taken his game to before the shutdown, and whether point guard Kemba Walker can stay injury free.
Their lack of an elite big man to guard the likes of Antetokounmpo or Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid could end up being the glass ceiling they bump up against this season, but this is a young, confident and ever-improving Celtics team. A first Finals appearance in a decade wouldn’t be a complete shock.
Championship odds: 17/1
The reigning champions are flying somewhat under the radar this season as the Lakers, Bucks and Clippers dominate title discussions.
Yet, despite losing Finals MVP Leonard to free agency and facing injury layoffs to several key pieces as the season has worn on, the Raptors are holding strong as the Eastern Conference’s second seed.
Pascal Siakam has, as predicted, emerged as the club’s new star in the absence of Leonard, while veteran point guard Kyle Lowry remains the team’s beating heart and the young supporting cast has stepped up and exceeded expectations.
No Leonard? No problem. The Raptors have a higher win percentage (.719) and average scoring margin (+6.5) this season that they did when they took the title last year.
Championship odds: 18/1