Remember when there was a 2019-20 NBA season? Remember when all we had to worry about was who we thought deserved the MVP? Or whether the Rockets’ Super Small Ball was awesome or a basketball abomination? And whether the Clippers’ chemistry issues were nothing but noise or a red flag? Ah, those were simpler times.
Let’s get you caught up on some of the major storylines from a season that will have begun in October 2019 and ended in October 2020.
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NBA at the forefront of BLM movement
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Following the horrific death of George Floyd, a close friend of former-NBA player Stephen Jackson, the Black Lives Matter movement and other social justice reform efforts took center stage around the world. Former players like Jackson and Matt Barnes helped lead peaceful protests. Current players (Steph Curry, Jaylen Brown, Malcolm Brogdon, Avery Bradley, to name a few) participated in protests and other efforts for the cause. LeBron James, Trae Young and others started the More Than A Vote voting rights group. Countless others — players, coaches, front office people, owners, etc. — chipped in as well. The league and its players also will undoubtedly ensure that the world doesn’t forget about this ongoing battle while they’re in Orlando.
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On Jan. 26, 2020, Kobe Bryant and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gigi, tragically perished in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. The tragedy sent shock waves around the globe as Bryant had had a massive impact on athletes and fans alike — perhaps an even greater impact than anyone ever realized. There was about a week where you couldn’t mention Bryant without getting a little choked up. The NBA, the Lakers and its other 29 franchises honored Bryant over the next month with everything from memorials to pregame moments of silence to taking eight and 24-second violations to begin games in his honor. Among the most moving moments were the Lakers’ first home game following his passing and Michael Jordan’s teary-eyed speech at his funeral.
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The King reclaims his throne
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LeBron James‘ groin injury and a strange detachment from his teammates caused him to relinquish his crown as the best basketball player on the planet last season as he went from making the Finals eight straight seasons to missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005. With the whole basketball world questioning whether Father Time had finally caught up to James, he engaged #washedking mode and didn’t just dominate but also turned into a full-time point guard and led the NBA in assists (10.6) while he was at it. Just before the league shut down, James had outplayed the likes of Zion Williamson, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard all in the same week — leaving no doubt as to who wear’s the crown.
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The New Showtime Lakers
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It all seems so long ago now, but the Lakers took a huge risk this past offseason when they traded essentially every asset they had for Anthony Davis. For one, Davis had always had some issues staying healthy for an entire season. For two, even if Davis performed up to his lofty expectations, L.A. still needed LeBron to get back to being the LeBron we saw in Cleveland from 2014 to 2018. Fortunately, both of those things happened and the Lakers were the best regular-season team in a brutal Western Conference. The Lakers were able to dominate opponents with their massive size advantage on both ends of the court (fourth-best offensive rating; third-best defensive rating), and score easy transition baskets with LeBron’s fade routes to Davis and JaVale McGee. They may not be as flashy in the open court as Magic’s Showtime Lakers, but they were arguably just as good as those legendary teams.
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The Clippers detached dominance
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With the most talented roster in the NBA (seriously, check out their roster heading into Orlando — it’s loaded!), we always knew the Clippers would be an elite team this season. However, we didn’t know exactly how it would look since Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the team’s two best players, had never played with the team’s best players from the previous season (Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams, Pat Beverley, etc.). Turns out, we still don’t really know exactly how it’s supposed to look because Kawhi missed 13 games, Beverley missed 16 and George missed 22. And while the team was dominant whenever its key guys played, there were certainly some locker room issues throughout the season — highlighted by Harrell publicly calling out the team in early January and Rivers subsequently lighting into him behind closed doors. Does the long break expose that lack of chemistry? Or is chemistry overrated because of the unique circumstances under which the league is finishing its season?
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The Greek Freak followed up his first MVP season with an even more impressive MVP defense, averaging 29.6 ppg., 13.7 rpg., 5.8 apg., 31.6 PER in only 30.9 mpg. Those are prime-Shaq numbers, plus the assists! His per-36 numbers — 34.5 ppg., 16.0 rpg., and 6.7 apg. — were damn near as impressive as Wilt Chamberlain’s were (37.4 ppg. 19.0 rpg. and 1.8 apg) during his famous 50.4 ppg., 25.7 rpg. season in 1961-62. When the 2019-20 MVP is announced, it almost certainly will be Giannis for the second consecutive season.
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The Bucks’ quest for 70 falls short
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On March 1, the Bucks defeated the Hornets to improve to 52-8 on the season. At that point, there started to be some buzz that the team might win 70 games…maybe more. Milwaukee ended up dropping four of the next five games (Giannis missed the last two with an injury) and now sit at 53-12, still the best record in the league. We now know that they never would have had a chance at 70 because of the coronavirus, but people should not look past how dominant this team was all regular season — they had the top defense in the league and the seventh-best offense. Their defensive rating (101.9) was the second-best in league history (only the 72-10 Bulls had a better rating, at 101.8). Going strictly off the numbers, this Bucks team should cruise to a championship this season as it’s quietly had one of the best regular seasons ever.
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Most players make the leap from big-time prospect to star in the offseason, but for whatever reason — likely because the Celtics have a number of talented players that need the ball — Jayson Tatum made his leap midseason. Over the last 23 games he played before the shutdown, he was averaging 27.9 ppg., 7.3 rpg. and 3.1 apg. with blisteringly efficient shooting splits (49-46-75). He also was playing excellent defense, making for a dominant defense along with Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis. Tatum’s leap could lead to a surprise run to the Finals for Boston in the bubble.
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Philadelphia’s bizarre home and road splits
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Based upon roster talent alone, this season (so far) has been an abject failure for the 76ers. They enter Orlando with a 39-26 record and sit in sixth-place in the Eastern Conference. Sixth place!! They’ve got the talent to be the best team in the league. What’s crazy about the Sixers’ season is that when they play at home, they are the best team in the league, sporting a 29-2 record. But then, on the road, they’re one of the worst teams in the NBA (10-24). They’re worse in terms of road winning percentage than the friggin’ Knicks (10-23)!!
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As a rookie, Luka Doncic was better than advertised, averaging 21.2 ppg., 7.8 rpg. and 6.0 apg. on his way to winning Rookie of the Year. As a sophomore, Luka was one of the five best players in the NBA for most, if not all of the season, averaging 28.7 ppg., 9.3 rpg. and 8.7 apg. while leading Dallas to a presumptive playoff spot in the challenging Western Conference. Doncic’s rapid assent to superstardom as a 21-year-old puts him in rarified air alongside some of the NBA’s best players ever.
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Zion Williamson lives up to the hype
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As great as Ja Morant was all season, Zion was so damn good in the 19 games he played that he’ll probably still get some Rookie of the Year votes. Williamson averaged 23.6 ppg. and 6.8 rpg. on an eye-popping 58.9 percent from the field. And that’s with playing less than 30 mpg.! He’s not putting up empty stats either — most of his advanced numbers indicate that he’s having a huge impact on winning when he’s on the court. Put simply, he’s already an All-Star-level player despite being 19 and having played less than a quarter of an NBA season. He’s lived up to the hype and will exceed it if he’s able to stay healthy.
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Everyone was so focused on Zion Williamson’s rookie season heading into the 2019-20 season that they slept on the No. 2 overall pick and Zion’s former AAU teammate, Ja Morant. Morant had a phenomenal rookie season, averaging 17.6 ppg. and 6.9 apg. while trying to baptize anyone and everyone in his way with monstrous dunks. And these weren’t just empty stats and highlights like, say Dennis Smith Jr.’s rookie season, Morant actually led the Grizzlies to a 32-33 record (eighth in the Western Conference). Pretty damn impressive, considering most expected the Grizzlies to be the worst team in the NBA before the season!
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The All-Star Game might finally be fixed
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The NBA decided to get weird with the All-Star Game this season and implemented the Elam Ending in an attempt to get players to try harder. Well, it worked! After the third quarter ended, the target score became 24 points more than the score of the higher scoring team through three quarters. Team LeBron mounted a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Team Giannis in a thrilling finish, 157-155. The target score clearly invigorated players and got the competitive juices flowing as we saw LeBron and Giannis going one-on-one, 35-year-old Chris Paul dunking and Kyle Lowry trying to draw charges all over the court down the stretch.
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On paper, Trae Young is the second coming of prime Steph Curry. Young put up 29.6 ppg. and 9.3 apg. with 44-36-86 shooting splits and all of the crazy deep heat check shots that make the Curry comparison so easy. Unfortunately for the Atlanta Hawks, Young isn’t even close to as efficient or impactful of a player as Curry due to his matador defense (he’s probably the worst defensive player in the NBA) and overdribbling. (He led the league in time of possession and was second in average seconds per touch.) To help him become the type of impact player Curry is and was, the Hawks will need to surround Young with elite three-and-D wings and high-level rim-runners/rim-protectors.
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Injuries catch up to Warriors
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After five straight trips to the NBA Finals, the Warriors were due for some bad injury luck to catch up to them at some point. Unfortunately the injuries all occurred within six games of one another. KD tore his Achilles in Game 5 of the 2019 Finals. Klay Thompson tore his ACL in Game 6. And Steph Curry broke his hand in the fourth game of the 2019-20 season. The Dubs finished 15-50 and with the worst record in the NBA.
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The Raptors’ impressive title defense
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Though I expected the Raptors to come out of the gates hot this season — most championship-winning teams start the next season with the best chemistry in the league and grab a bunch of easy wins — I did not expect them to be legitimate contenders. Kudos to coach Nick Nurse for the job he’s done in Toronto after losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency. Kudos to Pascal Siakam for making a run at Most Improved Player in back-to-back seasons. Kudos to Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry for building off the confidence they gained in the conference finals and finals. And kudos to any team that beats this tough, efficient Raptors team in the playoffs — because it’ll have to earn every win.
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In the 20 games he played this season, Kyrie was statistically spectacular, averaging 27.4 ppg., 6.4 apg. and 5.2 rpg. on 48-39-92 shooting splits. Those numbers put him right in the Steph Curry-Damian Lillard zone as an offensive force. However, unlike Curry and Lillard, Irving has no idea how to be a leader. In Cleveland, he’d go weeks without talking to his teammates. In Boston, he’d call out his younger teammates through the media and self-sabotage the team’s defense in the playoffs. In Brooklyn, it’s been more of the same — bizarre Instagram posts, strange quotes and, lately, an attempt to undermine the NBA Players Association in its restart in the bubble in Orlando. Expect Brooklyn to give him next season, but if all of his extraneous nonsense doesn’t start leading to winning soon, my Stephon Marbury theory will look prophetic.
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James Harden’s quest to get all the buckets
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I know it seems like ages ago, but there was a stretch at the start of the season where it looked like Harden was going to average 40 points per game. Though he’s down to 34.4 ppg., his early dominance proved that a team could, in fact, have an elite offense centered around one player essentially going one-on-one every single possession on offense. And while the Rockets have a better-performing roster than they had earlier in the season — specifically, Russell Westbrook — look for them to unleash the Harden offense for entire games, maybe even a series at a time in Orlando.
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Super Small Ball rejuvenates Russell Westbrook
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It’s been a tale of two seasons for Russell Westbrook in his first season in Houston. During the first 20 games, he was an inefficient mess, averaging 21.9 ppg. with 41-22-74 shooting splits. He was looking like the former superstar struggling to cope with his waning athleticism that literally all of the media tried to make him out to be before the season . Then something clicked, and over his next 33 games he went back to the Westbrook we remembered from the Thunder, averaging 30.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg., and 6.7 apg. More importantly, his shooting splits improved to 51-30-80, and he reduced his three-point attempts from 5.3 to 2.9 per game. What really happened was the Rockets went all in on small ball and stopped playing (then traded) Clint Capela, leaving Houston with zero big men. Westbrook essentially turned into the Rockets center, as he was the only player on the court who wasn’t a decent three-point shooter. The move rejuvenated Westbrook and the Rockets, and it has them emerging as a sleeper in Orlando.
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The Heat have been lurking ever since LeBron James left in 2014. Hamstrung without any superstars, they remained impressively frisky and competitive from 2014 to 2019 mostly because of the program they’ve built in South Beach centering around coach Erik Spoelstra, Yet they never could land a superstar talent who could vault them into the contenders tier. This past summer, they found the perfect alpha-dog: Jimmy Butler. Butler (20.2 ppg., 6.6 rpg. and 6.1 apg.) had a great statistical season, but perhaps his biggest contribution to Miami thus far has been the badass attitude he’s breathed into the franchise, which has trickled down to talented youngsters like Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson. The Heat currently sit in fourth place in the East with a 41-24 record and will be a tough out in Orlando, especially if Adebayo makes another leap.
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Chemistry problems in Salt Lake City
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By now everyone is familiar with the Rudy Gobert-Donovan Mitchell beef. Utah had done a nice job keeping the discord between its two best players quiet, but after both tested positive for COVID-19, the feud became public. Gobert, who notoriously mocked the seriousness of coronavirus (touching microphones and everything in the locker room), may have been the reason Mitchell caught the virus. This was clearly a breaking point for Mitchell, who apparently had been bothered by Gobert’s antics and complaining for some time. The two have apparently made peace, but the conflict is now public knowledge and a quick bow-out in the playoffs could lead to one of them ending up on the trading block this offseason.
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Video Game Dame’s lost season
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Damian Lillard had the season most were expecting from Steph Curry, averaging 28.9 ppg. and 7.8 apg. on 46-39-89 shooting splits. He kept the Blazers afloat (they’re currently the nine seed heading into Orlando) despite the team not having Jusuf Nurkić, Zach Collins and Rodney Hood for the majority of the season. Now with Nurkić and Collins healthy, the Blazers have a chance to salvage what should have been a lost season if Dame hadn’t single-handedly kept them in contention.
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Chris Paul’s “Forgot About ‘Dre” season in OKC
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Much like the man he was traded for (Westbrook), the media seemed to be in a race to declare CP3 washed up and an albatross contract this past offseason. Welp, Paul gave his haters and doubters a big ole’ middle finger this year as he led the young Thunder to 40-24 record and averaged 17.7 ppg., 6.8 apg. and 4.9 rpg. with 49-36-90 shooting splits. The Point God wasn’t just a veteran leader, but he also was the heart and soul of a team that’s capable of winning at least a playoff series. As we saw him do in Houston, Paul adjusted his game and allowed his coach to play a three-point guard lineup (CP3, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schröder) that developed into the best closing lineup in the NBA. Here’s to you, Point God. You don’t look like you’ll be washed up until you’re in your 40s.
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Brutal year for Karl-Anthony Towns
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It’s been a rough year for the Wolves’ franchise player, but he should be commended for the resolve he’s shown throughout it all. This was supposed to be a breakout year for Towns, who still managed to put up a gaudy stat line: 26.5 ppg., 10.8 rpg., 4.4 apg. and 51-41-80 shooting splits in 35 games. Unfortunately, the Wolves simply weren’t ready to compete in the West. On Nov. 27, the Wolves beat the Spurs by 12. They’d go on to lose their next 17 games in which KAT played, and, at one point, KAT went over two full months without playing in a game where the Wolves won. (He missed 15 games during that stretch). Then, after the team acquired his good friend and point guard, D’Angelo Russell, Towns suffered an injury after only playing one game with Russell. If that wasn’t bad enough, both of Towns’ parents contracted the coronavirus, and his mother tragically passed away due to complications from it. Despite this year from hell, Towns remained a model citizen and even participated in the George Floyd protests with Stephen Jackson in Minnesota. Wolves fans should at least find solace in knowing that their franchise man is a great player and even better person.
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The depleted 2020 NBA Draft
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In most NBA Drafts, there’s usually a couple of exciting prospects with clear All-NBA-level potential. The 2020 Draft is not most NBA Drafts, however. There’s no clear top prospect. There are no “can’t-miss” prospects. And there are no top prospects who are even guaranteed to be high-end starters. Anthony Edwards (pictured) has an NBA body (6-foot-5, 225 lbs.), NBA athleticism and some go-to scoring potential. Yet something about him screams Dion Waiters. LaMelo Ball could develop into a taller D’Angelo Russell. Or he could be Greivis Vásquez. Onyeka Okongwu might end up being the top pick because of his defensive prowess and athleticism, but he probably isn’t even as good a prospect as Wendell Carter Jr. was in 2018.
Published at Mon, 06 Jul 2020 18:28:12 +0000