NBA·Analysis

What you need to know for the NBA's return

Because everyone's memory is a little foggy these days, here's a quick catchup on the big stuff to know ahead of Thursday night's NBA re-openers.

Bucks are crazy-good, Lakers are favourites and Raptors won't go without a fight

If Kyle Lowry and the Raptors don't win the title again, you know they'll go down swinging. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

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Remember Wednesday, March 11? That's the day the World Health Organization declared the worldwide coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. And yet, for most North Americans, the virus remained a distant (if growing) concern as they went about their days. But a lot of people's wake-up call came that night when an NBA game between the Jazz and the Thunder in Oklahoma City was called off moments before tip-off because someone involved had tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. That someone turned out to be Jazz centre Rudy Gobert, who not long before had mocked virus concerns by touching a bunch of reporters' microphones and recorders at a press conference.

The NBA also hastily cancelled that night's game between the Pelicans and Kings in Sacramento, and announced almost immediately that its season was suspended indefinitely. The next day, the NHL and Major League Baseball followed suit. Suddenly, no one — sports fan or not — could ignore the pandemic. Canadians abroad scrambled to get home. Within a few days, the country was on lockdown, along with much of the world.

Four and a half months later (or four years — who can tell anymore?), the world has opened up quite a bit, for better or worse. And the NBA is ready to resume on Thursday night with two games: Jazz (fittingly) vs. Pelicans at 6:30 p.m. ET and Lakers vs. Clippers at 9 p.m. ET. 

Because the pandemic is still very much alive (particularly in large swaths of the United States), the NBA has moved into a protective "bubble" on the Disney World property near Orlando, Fla., where players and staff are sequestered from the public and tested daily. Today, the league announced there were zero positives in the latest round of testing among 344 players.

Since everyone's memory is a little foggy right now, here's a quick catchup on some stuff you should know for the NBA's comeback:

Not everyone was invited

Only teams who currently occupy a playoff spot or are within six games of one are participating in the restart. That's 22 of the NBA's 30 teams. The most notable cut is the Golden State Warriors. They appeared in the last five NBA Finals and won three of them. But the free-agent departure of Kevin Durant combined with long-term injuries to Steph Curry and Klay Thompson led to a league-worst 15-50 record.

The playoffs don't start right away

First, everyone plays eight times. The NBA is branding these as "seeding games," implying that their primary purpose is to decide playoff spots. More likely, they're to fulfill obligations to TV rights holders. But there are a few things at stake. Records from before the hiatus carry over, so teams whose playoff spots are secure may be looking to either hold their positions or move up to earn the most favourable possible matchup. Further down the pecking order, teams will be trying to either force or avoid a play-in series. If the No. 9 seed in either conference finishes four or fewer games behind the No. 8 seed, the 9 can steal the final playoff spot by beating the 8 twice in a row. If the 8 wins one of the games, it gets the spot.

The seeding games run through Aug. 14. If a play-in(s) is needed, those games will happen Aug. 15-16. The standard playoff tournament (16 teams, best-of-seven series) opens Aug. 17. A champion will be crowned by Oct. 13.

The Bucks are crazy-good

For the second straight year, Milwaukee has the NBA's best regular-season record. The Bucks went 53-12, which puts them three games up on the Lakers and 6.5 ahead of third-overall Toronto. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ranks third in the league in both scoring (29.6 points per game) and rebounding (13.7) and is likely to win his second MVP award in a row (though there's some talk that LeBron James could steal it). He could also win the defensive player of the year award. Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only guys ever to pull off the double.

With the Greek Freak leading the way, Milwaukee has been crushing opponents this year. Its plus-11.2 average point differential is nearly four points better than anyone else's, which is absurd. The Bucks have one of the league's better offences and the best defensive rating by a wide margin. That's a championship formula.

But Milwaukee flopped against the Raptors in last year's Eastern final, and there are still questions about whether the supporting cast can step up when opponents ratchet up the defensive pressure on Giannis in the playoffs. Perhaps for that reason...

LeBron's Lakers and Giannis' Bucks could meet in October's NBA Finals. (Harry How/Getty Images)

The Lakers are the favourites

Most bookmakers give them a slight edge in a triumvirate that also includes the Bucks and the Clippers, in that order. Then there's a big drop-off to the rest of the field.

Like the Bucks, the Lakers have a questionable supporting cast. Unlike the Bucks, they have two superstars: LeBron and Anthony Davis, who form a complementary (and borderline-unstoppable) ballhandler/big-man combo. As long as they stay on the floor and get a modicum of support from the likes of rejuvenated big man Dwight Howard, former Raptors three-and-D specialist Danny Green and (gulp) newly acquired wild card J.R. Smith, that's enough to carry an NBA team to the title.

Basketball's most exciting rookie is in the mix

Zion Williamson arrived in the NBA with tremendous hype after New Orleans picked him first overall in last year's draft. A knee injury delayed his debut until late January, and the Pelicans have limited his minutes, but Zion still looks like a superstar in the making (if he can stay healthy, which has been a problem dating back to college). He's averaging 23.6 points per game, shooting efficiently and showing off the jaw-dropping mix of athleticism and bulk that makes him so interesting.

Catch him while you can, though. The Pelicans are 3½ games out of a playoff spot, so Zion might not last past the seeding games.

The Raptors have a legitimate chance to repeat

Much of the basketball world wrote them off after reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard left for the Clippers. A superstar player is usually a prerequisite for winning an NBA championship, but Toronto has fashioned the third-best record in the league by leaning into its depth, teamwork, toughness, defensive commitment and the creative coaching of Nick Nurse.

To name just a few standouts: Pascal Siakam has blossomed into the Raptors' leading scorer post-Kawhi, continuing his remarkable rise to stardom. Thicc point guard Kyle Lowry remains the heart and soul of the team, Fred VanVleet built on last year's playoff breakthrough and Norman Powell made the leap to reliable scoring option.

Most sportsbooks have Toronto as the No. 4 favourite to win the title (behind the Lakers, Bucks and Clippers). Tough to argue that, but it still feels like the Raps are being underestimated by too many people. They'll fight to their last bullet.

Toronto's first game back is a good one: Saturday at 8:30 p.m. ET vs. the Lakers.

Some Canadians could have a say in who wins the title

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is on the verge of stardom as the leading scorer on a fascinating Oklahoma City team. The Thunder have shocked everyone by posting the NBA's ninth-best record after trading away stars Paul George and Russell Westbrook last summer. OKC will be a tough out with SGA and the great Chris Paul forming an excellent backcourt tandem.

Point guard Jamal Murray is the second-leading scorer for Denver, which is currently seeded third in the West (behind only the Lakers and Clippers). In Toronto, young forward Chris Boucher has emerged as a herky-jerky, long-limbed weapon who can do damage on both ends of the floor in limited minutes off the bench.

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