10 storylines to watch during the NBA’s Disney restart

Keith Smith
·8 min read

The NBA restart is full of great stories. Can Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks continue their dominance? Does LeBron James have another title run in him? Can the L.A. Clippers make an NBA Finals push after barely playing together?

Beyond the title favorites, there are a lot of fun stories to keep an eye on for the other teams, too. Here are 10 we’ll be monitoring as the season resumes.

Ben Simmons is a power forward now?

Right as things got started with practices at Disney, Brett Brown announced a lineup change. Ben Simmons was moved from point guard to power forward. That’s generally reserved for when that kid in high school grows six inches in one summer. Shake Milton will stick as Philadelphia’s starting point guard and Al Horford will move to the bench.

The Sixers are making the change because they had to do something. Milton provides shooting and the ability to adequately defend opposing point guards. Despite a good defense overall, Philly had struggled some with defending point guards. Horford gives the bench some necessary big-man depth and removes the clunky fit alongside Joel Embiid up front. But it all hinges on Simmons. Look for the 76ers to use him like Draymond Green. He’ll still have the ball plenty, but when he’s off the ball, it might not be quite as damaging to the 76ers as it used to be.

An empty entrance to Walt Disney World on March 24, 2020. The NBA is looking at using the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World as a possible venue to complete the season if conditions permit during the coronavirus pandemic. The Miami Heat are adjusting to the new normal, as unique as these times have been, during the coronavirus pandemic. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
It's a different world for the NBA. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Is ‘Skinny Melo’ a thing?

The Portland Trail Blazers are a trendy pick to upset the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round. One problem? Portland has to get to the play-in games first and then needs to beat the Memphis Grizzlies to even get there.

The reasons the Blazers are so trendy? Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, healthy big men and the emergence of Carmelo Anthony as “Skinny Melo.” Anthony slimmed down after Trevor Ariza opted out of playing in the restart and with Portland returning players at the four and five. Anthony’s path to playing time is at small forward. If Anthony can play passable defense at the three, it will supplement his still-potent offensive game. That’s reason enough to check in and see if yet another iteration of Melo works.

The Nets need name tags

No team has more players out of the restart than Brooklyn. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are out due to injury. Wilson Chandler opted out. Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and Taurean Prince are all out due to contracting the coronavirus. Even if you take out Durant and Irving, who weren’t expected to play, that’s four key rotation players out for the Nets.

Brooklyn signed Jamal Crawford, which is fun. Last time we saw Crawford, 40, play, he dropped 51 points in his final game of the 2018-19 season. He’s likely to back up Chris Chiozza, who was getting minutes at point guard as a two-way player when the season paused. Caris LeVert will have to carry the Nets’ offense with all the others out. Keep a roster handy to figure out who the rest of these guys are.

Bubble babies

The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Same with NBA players. No less than four players will leave their teams at some point during the restart to be with their significant other as they welcome a baby into the world. Dennis Schroder, who may be the Sixth Man of the Year for the Oklahoma City Thunder, will leave first in early to mid-August. Mike Conley will head out in late-August. And the Boston Celtics will have a double-dip, as Gordon Hayward and reserve center Vincent Poirier will both leave in September.

Because all four will be excused absences, the players will only have to undergo a four-day quarantine upon return to Florida. That’s assuming they keep up their testing while gone and each register negative tests. It’s a tough time to leave, given it’ll be the playoffs, but it’s the right decision for each player and his family.

Are we going to see some play-in madness?

The ninth seed needs to be within four games of the eighth seed to force a play-in. In that scenario, the ninth seed has to beat the eighth seed twice to claim the final playoff spot. If the eighth seed wins once, it’s in.

Let’s start in the Eastern Conference … who cares? Whether Washington can force a play-in against Brooklyn, or less likely Orlando, doesn’t really matter. Milwaukee is stomping either team anyway.

In the Western Conference it’s far more interesting. You have the New Orleans Pelicans chasing down the Memphis Grizzlies, with the Portland Trail Blazers right there as well. A couple of extra games of Zion Williamson against Ja Morant is something we’d all love to see. We already covered that many like Damian Lillard and the Blazers to upset the Lakers, if that matchup comes to pass.

Ultimately, we want a play-in in the West. It’ll be fun. In the East? Let’s just move along and sacrifice whoever to the Bucks as quickly as possible.

The Spurs are all guards

We didn’t mention San Antonio as chasing Memphis, because no less an authority than coach Gregg Popovich already said the playoffs are not really a thing for his team. The Spurs are missing their best player in LaMarcus Aldridge and lost another starting big when Trey Lyles came down with an appendicitis. That makes an already guard-heavy bunch even more so.

The Spurs don’t really have guards that can masquerade as wing forwards either. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Bryn Forbes, Patty Mills and Lonnie Walker IV are all true guards. Pop is going to have some fun with his lineups. DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay will be the forwards of course, but look for the Spurs to roll with four guards around a single big, like a mid-major NCAA tournament team.

Rested Rockets

Russell Westbrook has joined the Rockets for the restart after a bout with the coronavirus, and that means Houston is relatively whole. That could be bad news for the rest of the NBA.

When the season paused, Mike D’Antoni was rolling out a starting group that featured no one taller than 6-foot-7 Robert Covington. Everyone was playing up a position or two. In addition, the Rockets were running a short rotation of only seven to eight players. They were visibly wearing down. The pause gave them a chance to rest and heal, and that makes Houston dangerous in this restart. James Harden and Westbrook can win games almost by themselves. With the way the Rockets shoot threes, that’s another upset factor. Give Houston a look as a long shot to win it all.

Victor Oladipo might play?

The Pacers got their All-NBA guard back about a month-and-a-half before the season was suspended. Oladipo’s play was up-and-down, but he was showing signs of being himself the last couple of weeks of play. His presence changed Indiana’s upside in a big way.

When the restart was announced, Oladipo said he wasn’t quite confident in his still-recovering knee and that he was going to sit out. Then the team got to Walt Disney World and Oladipo decided to practice. Then he looked and felt really good in practice. Now it seems likely he’ll play. That gives the East six really interesting playoff teams, and that’s a win for all basketball fans.

Bol Bol time?

Remember Bol Bol? No worries if you forgot about him, as he hasn’t played at all for the Denver Nuggets yet, and only logged eight G League games. When Bol slipped to the middle of the second round of the 2019 NBA draft due to concerns about his knee, Denver pounced on a multi-year project.

Now, Bol might play for the Nuggets. He’s had a full season to heal, and he looked good in his limited G League appearances. Bol has flashed in highlights from practices at Disney. With half the Denver roster arriving late due to positive coronavirus tests, Bol is going to get run in at least the scrimmage games. Who doesn’t want to watch a 7-2 small forward?

Players back from injury

While we have no idea what the lengthy break and playing at a neutral site will do for the games, we know some teams have players back that wouldn’t have been back in a normal season. Ben Simmons was out with a back injury when the season was paused, but now he’s a full go. Boston was managing Kemba Walker through some knee soreness, and Brad Stevens now says he has no worries about Walker’s availability. Malcolm Brogdon is back for the Pacers, possibly alongside Oladipo in the backcourt.

There are some others to keep an eye on too. Jonathan Isaac of Orlando may make a return. The Grizzlies have both Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke fully healthy. Even MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo is ready to roll after a knee injury right before the shutdown.

A handful of key players are missing, but that’s outweighed for most teams by the guys who are at Disney and ready to go.

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