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What to expect during the NBA’s return, in a 5-minute read

A quick scan of where all 22 teams stand ahead of the league’s return.

The NBA is almost officially back, kicking off its season on July 30. Teams have been playing in scrimmages over the last week and we are already drooling over Bol Bol balling (nods to the Pun Master Prada) and shaking our heads at Lou Williams “dining” decisions. This is your standard mix of on-court small sample size overreaction and off-court drama stories providing some measure of normalcy in these un-normal times. Thank you, NBA!

To figure out where the league stands after a four-month hiatus, we checked in with our NBA team sites from around the SB Nation network. Their intimate familiarity with their franchises, gives us an inside look about what to expect when the league kicks back off.

Eastern Conference:

The Bucks’ time has arrived

Everything in the East starts in Milwaukee which is so much fun to say after years and years of everything in the East starting in LeBron. And, of course, everything in Milwaukee starts with the MVP Giannis. But as Brew Hoop points out, the real strength of this team is its league-leading defense that dominates at the rim, hates committing fouls and gobbles up defensive rebounds. And yeah, if they turn you over good luck stopping Antetokounmpo in transition. If they have an Achilles heal (obligatory greek reference) on that end it’s allowing three-point shots. They are 13th in opponent accuracy from deep but third in attempts allowed. The Celtics, Raptors and Sixers are 3rd, 4th and 5th in three-point percentage so that might be a real problem for the Bucks.

The Raptors are still confident

The reigning NBA Champion Raptors beat the Bucks in the playoffs last year and think they have the identity, cohesion and team defense to compete again if they can muster enough offensive punch. Daniel Reynolds from Raps HQ explains the identity advantage:

There are likely to be some kinks to work out as every team retakes the floor after a months-long lay-off. Players will have to get back into their shooting groove, get their conditioning up, remind themselves of what they’re doing at any given time. The Raptors? Well, they’ve been playing this kind of defense for some time now — I’m of the opinion it won’t take as much or as long to bring it all back.

What about the Celtics and the Sixers?

Boston Exceptionalism is still very much a thing and CelticsBlog is putting their high hopes on the now broader shoulders of Jayson Tatum who reportedly from a couple of Zoom calls, is noticeably bigger and defined in the upper body area. #NBAMuscleWatch lives! Health is once again a concern for the C’s with Kemba Walker’s knee and front court size is an issue to watch.

The young Sixers benefited from the long break to rest Joel Embiid who, according to our friends at Liberty Ballers, has a “long … storied … frustrating injury history towards the end of the season” and even more notably saw Ben Simmons use the time to fully recover from a back injury suffered in February and move to power forward. The mismatches he’ll create will be pure NBA gold.

Okay, now for the rest of the East?

When you get past the top four teams in the East things get...less virulent (too soon?). And by top four we clearly are leaving out the Miami Heat who hold the actual fourth seed. Maybe we’re disrespecting Spoelstra’s squad but it’s hard to see how that roster makes much noise in the playoffs. Per Hot Hot Hoops, the Heat had success throughout the regular season by being a tough defensive team with great three-point shooting and will stick to that plan.

As for the rest, the Nets are in Orlando missing eight (8!) roster players so get ready for a lot of Caris LeVert and Jamal Crawford playing with G-league guys. At least expectations are low. Orlando is in Orlando with slightly higher hopes thanks to their depth and Aaron Gordon’s improved playmaking which, per Orlando Pinstriped Post, showed great improvement before the pause. The Pacers roster has been in flux with the maybe healthy Victor Oladipo and the sore-footed Domantas Sabonis among the many questions Indy Cornrows has for the restart. And then there’s the Wizards. They are fourth-best at forcing turnovers so that’s good but there’s everything else like having the worst NBA defense this season and other interesting facts you can read about at Bullets Forever should you be a Wizards fan or one of Bradley Beal’s large siblings.

Western Conference:

Welcome to the battle of Los Angeles

I’m a “journey is better than the destination” person but the one thing that I dislike the most about the NBA is how predictable the playoffs usually are. And this year we are on a predetermined course to the Battle of LA featuring two amazing basketball teams. It really is a shame this inevitable series won’t be played in front of a gazillion rabid Lakers fans and noted Clipper celeb Billy Crystal. But before we get to that series there are games to be played and the Lakers, according to Silver Screen and Roll, have three glaring weaknesses. 1) Team LeBron has been a below average team in the half court and 2) ranked 20th in three-point shooting accuracy (35.8%). Those could be real issues against a good defensive team like the Clippers and even more so in a Finals matchup against the Bucks. Oh, and 3) the Lakers are not great (73%) at the free-throw line but I wouldn’t lose sleep over that. On the plus side, of course, is the star power for both of these teams which is the oil that lubes the NBA machine.

For the Clippers the difference could be their depth and front court versatility with centers Ivica Zubac if they want to play big and Montrezl Harrell if they want to go small and athletic. Plus they now have Joakim Noah if they want to play a bit crazy. Combine that with noted playoff overachiever Kawhi Leonard and a fully healthy Paul George on the wing and it’s pretty easy to see how the Clips make their first conference finals in franchise history. All that depth could be a problem though. Sabreena Merchant at Clips Nation explains:

More talent is always a good thing, but Rivers will have to keep a lot of egos in check to manage his rotations.

The next four teams in the West are good. Really good.

...But they all have significant questions. Denver brings a top-ten offense lead by Nikola “Skinny” Jokic and a host of young talent. It should be a big progression year for the Nuggets but as Denver Stiffs explains they are lacking in big defensive wings to matchup with the Los Angles stars. The Rockets are famously small but The Dream Shake thinks they also suffer from a case of hot/cold shooting which doesn’t bode well for a team that can’t rebound. Chris Paul has exceeded every and any expectation in OKC but even Welcome to Loud City is worried about rust for a Thunder team with a new look and lack of three-point shooting. This brings us to the Utah Jazz who saw their two stars feuding, lost a key player to injury and per SLC Dunk aren’t exactly stable:

The Jazz apparently decided to spend 2020 doing their best audition for the title character in a stage play production of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Utah’s heavily inconsistent nature, going from great team to league bottom feeder was giving fans serious tonal whiplash.

Our friends at Mavs Moneyball, Grizzly Bear Blues and The Bird Writes will probably not enjoy being lumped together in this category of “others” but that’s just the reality in the West. Ja Morant, Luka Doncic and Zion Williamson are great fun but they do not (yet!) make great basketball teams. Sorry, friends. Meanwhile, the mature Spurs and Blazers have been pushed below the cutoff line for the playoffs but Blazers Edge rightly isn’t ready to give up on Dame Lillard, “With the Blazers’ sights set on the playoffs, their backcourt will go down fighting.” I’m sure that’s true. Also, there’s Suns and Kings who are easy to mock but never forget either of these teams in the East would be very much in the playoff hunt and fans of bad teams do interesting thing.