Well, that does it, everyone. The NBA is officially coming back.
There are definitely concerns about whether this is going to work and whether the team that wins the title will be considered the legitimate champion of 2020. We’ve had plenty of players pull out albeit, in retrospect, most of them have been on teams that are not likely to make the playoffs or make a serious run in the playoffs. A lot can change leading up to when the season resumes on July 30, but the headline here is, “The NBA has returned!”
Now that the hiatus has an official expiration date, every team, whether they are playing or not, is worth taking a look at from here on out. With that, it’s time to introduce you to Basketball Insiders’ newest series – “Six Situations” in which, as the title suggests, we look at six scenarios from each division in the league that are worth paying attention to.
Oklahoma City Thunder – Do they bring the band back together?
This season worked out about as beautifully as OKC could have imagined. Chris Paul has been awesome when they weren’t even asking him to. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like a franchise cornerstone in the making. Danilo Gallinari’s continued comeback is an amazing story that continues to fall under the radar. The supporting cast has done everything that’s been asked of them. Billy Donovan is a dark horse candidate for Coach of the Year. As an added bonus, they are the team that nobody in the Western Conference wants to face in the first round.
We already knew that the future would be bright for the Thunder. We didn’t know that the present would be bright enough that the future has somehow become somewhat of an afterthought. This has been the Thunder’s most entertaining season since 2016. They’ve been so much fun to watch that seeing a team that plays so cohesively well together would be a shame to break up.
But, they have to be realistic about this too. This team could throw some good punches, but the odds of winning a title are very much not in their favor. Paul will only continue to age, and despite an All-NBA-caliber performance, it’s going to be even harder to get rid of that contract. Gallo will be on the open market coming off another classic Gallo performance – minus the injuries. Steven Adams and Dennis Schroder are transitioning from young guns to veterans.
Their competitors are only going to get stronger too. Golden State and Portland will be at full strength next season. Memphis and New Orleans will only get better as their youth movement progresses. Sacramento, Phoenix and Minnesota will do everything in their power to take another step forward. It may not be worth making a playoff push when pretty much everyone in the conference will be doing the same — especially when the future draft picks coming your way is basically your ace in the hole.
However, because of their ace in the hole, there’s no wrong answer here for the Thunder.
Utah Jazz – Is the tiff over between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert?
This might be the most dysfunctional a fourth seed in the Western Conference has ever looked. Despite the impressive 41-23 record, the body language the Jazz have displayed has not been too pleasant to look at. They just don’t play like a unit like they did in the last two years. Something is very, very off.
The hiatus has only made things worse it seems. This all started with Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test, which made for an awful PR storm on his behalf seeing how days earlier, he demonstrated how careless he was in preventing the spread. Then, Mitchell’s positive test came to light. It then became pretty telling that none of his teammates stood up for Gobert when this all blew up. All of this came to a head when it was revealed that Gobert and Mitchell were at odds with each other.
Since then, Jazz management have stressed that the two have kissed and made up, but in case you don’t remember, things weren’t going all too swimmingly before the hiatus. Now, the Jazz are coming back, but without Bojan Bogdanovic, who was a rare positive for them — and that badly damages their floor spacing. This could be a lone hiccup in a long and prosperous partnership, or it might be the beginning of the end for them. We won’t know until the rest of the season unfurls, but these are not easy times for Jazz fans.
Times like these also go to show that just because you have developed a winning culture does not mean that it will stay that way.
Minnesota Timberwolves – How do they correctly build around Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell?
So much has gone wrong for the Timberwolves since the Jimmy Butler fallout that they should take every little victory they can get. They acquired Towns’ best friend, and they followed that up by acquiring Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, both of whom were playing the best basketball of their careers. Even then, none of them were altering the Timberwolves’ chances one bit.
Appeasing your franchise player is always a good move because it keeps his head on straight, but if the losing continues, there’s only so much he can take before he decides being loyal just isn’t worth it. We’ve seen as much over and over again over the past decade. Towns has been a good soldier in Minnesota, but before the shake-ups they made, his frustration on the court was as clear as day.
Having Russell around should put his mind at ease for now. But seriously, is anyone thinking that Russell and the other new faces will magically turn everything around in Minnesota? The Timberwolves will have a lot more work to do, and they have a timer on their forehead. Because who knows how long they have before both Towns and Russell realize that they can be teammates on a better team?
As stated earlier, the West is only going to get tougher. Their new additions give them more offensive firepower, but they’ll need defensive personnel to not only match it, but to make progress too. Adding a high lottery pick into the mix could definitely help things out a bit, but the Timberwolves have relied on that strategy before to not so great results…
Portland Trail Blazers – Can they surround Damian Lillard with better players?
Portland has done an excellent job building around Lillard. It only took two seasons for them to build a pseudo-contender around him. Even after they were gutted in 2015, they retooled the team well enough that they’ve won a few playoff series since then and even made a surprise run to the conference finals just last year.
This season’s obviously been a different story, but no one’s really to blame on their end. Better yet, when the season resumes and next season, they should be much better with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back in action. Losing Trevor Ariza will sting a bit, but even if Portland misses the playoffs, they should conceivably play well enough to turn some heads.
With a full squad, the Portland Trail Blazers are good…not great. Damian Lillard is a top-10 player in the league, and he’s put up the finest regular-season performance he’s ever had in his career. It’s evident that as he approaches 30, he’s entering the very top of his game. A talent like that can only do so much though. Guys like Nurkic and CJ McCollum are great surrounding pieces, but as guys who are next in command, comparing them to the likes of others in the same role such as Anthony Davis and Paul George is downright laughable.
Now that he’s in his prime, Lillard doesn’t have years to waste. Portland needs better talent surrounding him if they both want to go on deep playoff runs as well as keep Lillard happy. How they do that is anyone’s guess. They don’t exactly have a ton of assets at their disposal, but they have a good executive running the show in Neil Olshey, so don’t count them out.
Lillard has never complained once since being drafted by the Blazers in part due to them putting a solid team around him for most of his tenure. That could change if, well, nothing changes.
Utah Jazz – What do they do about Mike Conley Jr?
This really isn’t anyone’s fault. Conley just has not been a good fit with the Jazz for a combination of factors. At 32 years old, it’s possible his best days are behind him. It’s also possible that the Jazz have realized that Mitchell is best used as a point guard, as he’s played 49 percent of his minutes there — a career-high — which is Conley’s position. Whatever the case is, the Conley experiment has been a failure.
With Bogdanovic down for the count, Conley’s role on the team has become more crucial than ever before. This is his chance to prove that the Jazz didn’t waste assets when they acquired him from Memphis, but his season output should not make anyone optimistic. There’s still hope for him, as he’s had his moments, but expecting him to get his old groove back might be wishful thinking.
If the Conley we saw throughout the season is what we get when the season resumes, that puts Utah in somewhat of a bind. Conley has a player option at the end of the season for upwards of $34+ million, which he is definitely going to take given how uncertain the market is going to be. Should Utah make Mitchell the team’s starting point guard full-time, there’s not much use in having another point guard that’s being paid a near-max contract to come off the bench.
If they were to trade him, teams wouldn’t be interested in Conley for his services at point guard but more for his expiring contract. The real conundrum would be what to trade Conley for. Would it be for defensive help — Utah’s defense suffered when Gobert sat on the bench — or maybe for more scoring/playmaking that Conley was originally supposed to provide.
Then again, with the salary cap presumably going down with all that’s happened over the past year, it might be best for Utah to just ride this wave until it passes over.
Denver – Does Michael Porter Jr. make Paul Millsap expendable?
You gotta love when the low-risk/high-reward scenario actually comes to fruition, and thus far, it looks like that’s exactly what happened when Denver took Porter 14th overall in the 2018 draft. The young stud definitely has some kinks to work out in his game, but there’s a lot to like when it comes to Porter’s upside as a scorer. Denver already made some accommodations like trading Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley to open up some room for Porter. It looks like they’ll have no regrets for doing so.
It’s clear they view Porter as part of the future, and even though he hasn’t been able to escape the injury bug entirely just yet, they clearly believe he’s worth the risk. Enter Paul Millsap.
Despite being paid $30+ million annually for the past three years, you don’t hear a lot of complaints coming from Denver regarding Millsap’s production. He’s not putting up the same numbers he did during his days in Utah and Atlanta, but his reputation as a sturdy reliable veteran on both ends of the floor has been a welcome addition to the young Nuggets. With him entering the last days of his prime combined with Porter prepping as his heir, it’s clear that it’s only a matter of time before the youngin’ usurps good ol’ Millsap.
Whether that will be after this season or later is up to Denver. Millsap’s contract is up after this summer, so who’s to say that he couldn’t be an important fixture while the team simultaneously develops MPJ? It’s also possible the team may view the younger, more defensively versatile Jerami Grant over Millsap, but again, that’s up to them.
No matter what direction they go, Denver selecting Porter will more than likely go down as yet another brilliant move since they started the Jokic era. Should he live up to his potential, there may not be much else Denver needs before they go on their most extended run ever as a franchise.
A fair amount of these questions are for teams that don’t have to worry about that in quite some time. Even so, they are something they will have to keep in mind when they see how their players do once the season resumes.