After so many months of waiting, the NBA is back, although not quite as normal.
Commissioner Adam Silver announced a 22-team plan to return to play and crown an NBA champion by October, housing all 22 teams that were invited to continue the season at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, with each team playing eight seeding games before the playoffs begin. This plan has proven to be extremely effective, with no one at the NBA campus returning a positive test for two consecutive weeks. This allowed the season to begin yesterday, July 30, with two Western Conference nail-biters: the Utah Jazz defeated the New Orleans Pelicans 106-104, while the Lakers won Battle of LA: Episode 4 against the Clippers 103-101.
Such excellent games propelled by stellar individual performances, such as Anthony Davis’ 34-point haul and Rudy Gobert’s clutchness adding to his 14 points and 12 rebounds, got us wondering who each Western Conference team needs to rely on in order to determine whether or not they have a successful season. Here is each Western Conference bubble team’s true difference maker during the NBA restart.
Dallas Mavericks: Seth Curry
Dallas have quickly passed the rebuilding stage to become a potential perennial playoff contender with the European star duo of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. However, they’re missing that third piece to make some noise in the playoffs, and Seth Curry could be that guy.
I know it sounds far-fetched, but the younger Curry brother shoots 45% from three-point range and has been brilliant in scrimmage play. If he can still be prolific from downtown and support Luka and Kristaps offensively, the Mavericks could look like a serious problem when the season comes down to the wire.
Denver Nuggets: Nikola Jokic
A slimmed-down Jokic is an exciting prospect in what feels like a brand-new season. He’s been brilliant all season. Can he continue?
The Nuggets have already clinched a playoff position, but they face a potential dangerous playoff series against the sixth-seeded Houston Rockets. Even with the rise of Jamal Murray, Jokic is the star of the team and the guy they look to for a big performance, so he needs to be on top of his game to lift up the Nuggets to a potential Western Conference Finals.
Houston Rockets: James Harden
James Harden is one of the greatest scorers of all time. He is lethal offensively. Clutch? I don’t know.
Harden is ridiculously talented and he doesn’t deserve the hate he seems to get from people who don’t recognize how good he really is. But he hasn’t shown up in big moments when his team has needed to, particularly in the playoffs, when he and his Rockets went cold in Game 7 against the Golden State Warriors in the 2018 Western Conference Finals. With Russell Westbrook this time around, Houston looks just as dangerous as ever, but Harden needs to step it up and show he can shine when it matters the most.
Los Angeles Clippers: Paul George
Paul George put on a show against the Lakers last night, regardless of the result, with 30 points and an 80% true-shooting percentage. He’s also going to be the key player for what truly is the deepest team in the league.
We all know what Kawhi Leonard can do in clutch moments; he showed it to us during last year’s playoffs. But last night was George’s game. He was an offensive monster, showing that teams will have serious trouble finding an answer for him. He’s had to deal with injury issues this season, but when healthy is a scary prospect. He’ll be the main guy for the Clippers, one of the three serious title contenders this year.
Los Angeles Lakers: Anthony Davis
LeBron James’ clutch moments at the end of the Lakers-Clippers game won the purple and gold the game after he scored the game-winning bucket and locked down Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on the last play. But it was Anthony Davis who was the shining light in the Lakers team last night.
In what is a crucial season for both him and the Lakers franchise, AD has clicked on all cylinders. Offensively, defensively, you name it. He is killing it. The Lakers have already clinched their playoff berth, but just like Paul George with the Clippers, Anthony Davis is the most important guy right now for the Lake Show, and if he is on top form (we already know LeBron is going to come out going hard), it’s going to be difficult to stop the Lakers, who we predict will win the title this year.
Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant
This is the (should-be) Rookie of the Year’s chance to truly make his mark in the league and prove that he’s here to stay.
Morant is a special talent. Coming out of a mid-major university (Murray State of the Ohio Valley Conference), Ja got to the league the hard way, and has been showing everyone how skilled he is. He is the centerpiece of what is a resurgent Memphis Grizzlies team, who currently hold the highly sought-after eighth seed. The Grizzlies need him to perform the way he has all season to lift them above the rest of the candidates for that final playoff spot in the West.
New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson
Here we have the other Rookie of the Year candidate.
Zion Williamson is a physical freak. He’s also pretty good at basketball, too. The 2019 first overall draft pick out of Duke has averaged over 23 points and six rebounds since his true arrival in the league on January 22 in a 121-117 loss to San Antonio (he put up 22 points and seven boards in that game). Morant edges him out for the ROTY award this year, but imagine how dominant he would’ve been if he never got injured before the season began. Now in the bubble, the Pelicans have a second option behind their All-Star, Brandon Ingram. And given the fact that he’s shaped his body to even more freak standards during the league’s four-month-long shutdown period, both fans in the Bayou and across the NBA are expecting big things of him, especially if Alvin Gentry plays him more, unlike in the loss against Utah last night.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
In both of the ridiculous trades that the Oklahoma City Thunder won in the 2019 off-season, the Thunder won. Yes, that’s right. The Thunder won both trades, especially the one where they dealt Paul George.
In that trade, they got Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, one of the potential young superstars in the NBA for years to come. The sophomore out of Kentucky has averaged almost 20 points and has been a stellar two-guard along with Chris Paul in the OKC backcourt. In a season where they were projected to focus on rebuilding, the Thunder are back where they were last year, if not better. SGA is the most exciting player the Thunder have right now, one of the most exciting in the league, and the key to the Thunder’s success in the bubble because of his offensive support.
Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker
Let’s be real. The Suns have probably the smallest chance, along with the Washington Wizards, to even get close to the playoffs.
That’s why this is the easiest choice of the video. Phoenix are so much stronger than last year and have a respectable team. But for the past few seasons, Devin Booker has been the main man. Finally an All-Star this season, Booker is one of the most elite scorers and explosive talents the “Valley Boyz” have to offer, and he doesn’t look like slowing down. He’s already been off to a fast start offensively, after dropping 27 points in Phoenix’s 13-point win over the Wizards on Friday. If the Suns have any chance to get into the play-in tournament and make some noise, it’s going to come down to Booker’s efforts. Maybe even another 70-point game.
Portland Trail Blazers: Jusuf Nurkic
In what’s been a more-than-rough season for a team that finished as the runner-up in the conference last season, finally, the missing pieces are back.
We all know how Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have performed for Portland this year and throughout their careers, and their effectiveness as a duo, making them arguably the most lethal backcourt in the NBA without Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Warriors being around. However, the Blazers’ frontcourt has had holes due to injury for months and months and months, but Jusuf Nurkic, who was injured in March 2019 and has been out ever since, returned Friday against the Grizzlies. Nurkic’s return has been highly anticipated for the Trail Blazers, and along with Zach Collins, his defensive ability and rebounding will put the Blazers back in the playoffs, as that’s the one area of the court they’ve been absent of all year.
Sacramento Kings: De’Aaron Fox
With New Orleans’ loss on Thursday, Sacramento are right behind Portland in the tenth seed. Aiming to make the playoffs for the first time in 2006, there’s only one guy they can truly go to.
People sleep on De’Aaron Fox, and it’s a basketball crime. He’s a 20-points-per-game scorer, a solid playmaker, and the best player that Sacramento has had since DeMarcus Cousins. There’s really no other guy that Sac Town can fully turn to. Fox will be an All-Star one day, but whether or not he can lead the Kings to the postseason for the first time in 14 years is an important question for him to answer.
San Antonio Spurs: DeMar DeRozan
Just like the Suns, the Spurs’ playoff chances seem to be slimmer than paper. We say every year that no matter how lacking of true talent the Spurs are, they’ll make the playoffs, but this year, it doesn’t look like even the brilliant mind of Gregg Popovich can get them over the hump.
Still, the Spurs do have a lot of talent, of which the main source is DeMar DeRozan, especially since LaMarcus Aldridge is out for the rest of the season. Even without their star big man, the Spurs, led by DeRozan, are more efficient and a pretty underrated team. DeRozan has fell out of popular relevance compared to his days with Toronto, which is disturbing, given that he still has been excellent, averaging 22.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 5.6 assists. Just like with Booker and Fox, if the Spurs have any chance of getting into the playoffs, it’s DeRozan they have to look to to push them there.
Utah Jazz: Rudy Gobert
This guy has a lot to prove after what transpired on the night of March 11, when the NBA shut down its normal season for four months before the approval of the bubble plan.
But stop with the social media jokes. Aside from the rift he may have had with Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell, Gobert is arguably the best defender in the league and a top-10 center, and he came in clutch for the Jazz in that narrow victory over the Pelicans. Not only did he sink the opening bucket, but he hit two game-winning free throws which topped off his double-double performance (14 points, 12 rebounds). Donovan Mitchell will score a ton and be the excellent playmaker he has been throughout the season, but Gobert is going to be doing the dirty work for a very talented Jazz team who is being slept on. They could make serious noise in the bubble, and Gobert is going to be the difference-maker for them.
Which team do you root for? Who do you have winning the title? Let us know in the comments or reach out to us on Facebook (@yoursportsauthority) and Twitter (@yoursportsauth1)!