Despite the ever-evolving landscape, the NBA continues to work through the countless steps required before the 2019/20 season can resume. A late July restart, featuring 22 of the 30 teams, is becoming increasingly likely, but there are a number of key hurdles still to clear. A four-month hiatus, just a very brief training camp and the absence of fans in the arena are major variables in the race for the 2019/20 championship, but a wide open playoff picture should add another fun layer.
As we gear up for an abridged finale to the regular season – eight games for each team plus the potential for a play-in tournament for the eighth seeds – and then the usual playoff format, we are doing a quick pulse check on those teams that are entering the NBA bubble.
Record: 43-22, third in the Western Conference
Biggest question: Is Jamal Murray ready to be a consistent number two option in the postseason? Murray had a rollercoaster playoff run last season, but that experience should translate to more composed performances this summer. While the offense will continue to flow through Nikola Jokic (sidenote: keep an eye on what the Serbian’s new slimmer physique means for his post game), the Nuggets need Murray to knock down triples (his three-point percentage dipped to 34.5% this year) and attack off the dribble if they are going to reach the Western Conference Finals. At 23, there are understandably still areas of his game to refine, but Murray appears primed to take another step forward in Orlando.
X-factor: Jerami Grant. Grant is already a key part of the Denver rotation, averaging 26 minutes a night and shooting 40% from deep. But he could become even more valuable in certain matchups with his size and versatility defensively. Against the array of big wing scorers in the West, Grant is arguably the best option for head coach Mike Malone, especially with the 35-year-old Paul Millsap no longer the same force.
Record: 41-23, fourth in the Western Conference
Biggest question: Can the Jazz rebuild their chemistry in time to put together a title run? The string of days just before and just prior to the NBA suspending the season surely took a heavier toll on the Jazz than any other team in the league, with Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell hitting the headlines amid speculation over whether they would be able to co-exist moving forward. Perhaps enough time has passed now, but watch for how cohesive Utah look when the action tips off. If there are any cracks in the Jazz locker room, the challenging conditions in Orlando are likely to bring tension to the surface – and, after Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist surgery, Utah have no margin for error.
X-factor: Mike Conley. He has endured a rough first season with the Jazz after his offseason move from the Memphis Grizzlies, but Bogdanovic’s injury removes any selection headaches over whether Conley starts or comes off the bench. Conley will be reinserted in the starting five and now has a chance to press the reset button on his frustrating 2019/20 campaign. With Utah needing his offense even more now, their postseason fortunes may come down to whether Conley can re-emerge as a 20-points-a-night scorer. His averages from the year to date – 14 points and four assists – are not going to cut it.