After Friday’s release of the new 2020 NBA schedule, it’s time to look ahead at the games, players and teams that will be most compelling when the season resumes on July 30 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida.
Which playoff races are most important, which teams are the ones to watch and who are the new title favorites?
Our experts answer the big questions, make their predictions after the unveiling of the schedule and break down what will happen inside the bubble.
1. What’s one game you’d circle on the calendar?
Kevin Pelton: Memphis Grizzlies vs New Orleans Pelicans on Aug. 3, the biggest swing game in the play-in matchup race. According to my simulations of the seeding games, New Orleans is the team with the best chance to pass Memphis for eighth, and doing so will almost certainly require winning this game. (Plus, you know, Zion vs. Ja.)
Royce Young: Definitely the LA Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers on “opening night.” It’s a premier matchup with megastars, combined with the curiosity of how the restart will all look and feel. It’s going to be a can’t-miss game on the scale of a playoff showdown.
Eric Woodyard: Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers on July 31. Ja Morant versus Damian Lillard will give us a fun point guard matchup involving a rising star and one of the game’s great manipulators. With both teams vying to secure the final playoff spot in the West, the first seeding game for each matters greatly.
Ramona Shelburne: I almost want to throw out every game of the first week, just on principle. It’s bound to be fairly ragged after such a long layoff, and I know teams are going to want to ramp up carefully to avoid injuries. But I can’t see either team taking it easy in that Lakers-Clippers game on July 30. Not after all the smack talk that has gone on, all season, involving the Western Conference favorites.
Andre Snellings: I want to see the Blazers play the Grizzlies. Behind the eighth-place Grizzlies and their electric Rookie of the Year favorite Morant, the Trail Blazers are extremely dangerous as the next team out. Portland has been the third seed in consecutive postseasons, was a Western Conference finalist last season and should get a big boost when big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins return from injuries. That matchup could easily be a preview of the play-in tournament, should have playoff intensity and features two of the more exciting point guards in the NBA.
MORE: Current NBA standings
2. Which West seeding race will you be watching most closely?
Young: Is it possible for the Mavericks to bump the Houston Rockets into a conference quarterfinals matchup with the Clippers? They’re tied in the win column at 40, but the Mavs have three more losses than the Rockets. Houston’s small-ball approach would benefit from drawing the Denver Nuggets in the conference quarterfinals rather than the versatile Clippers.
Woodyard: The eighth seed in the Western Conference. The Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, Pelicans and Kings will be clawing for the final playoff spot, but I like the Trail Blazers to get back to the postseason. The return to health for Collins and Nurkic could be just what Portland needs. Damian Lillard should be especially motivated after proclaiming he wanted the chance to play meaningful games.
Shelburne: The Rockets were basically tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder for fifth in the West, but just 2 ½ games back of Denver for the third spot. Home-court advantage doesn’t really mean anything now, but I’m sure they’d like to get on a hot streak and move up in the standings.
Snellings: I’m watching the race for the 2-seed, because it puts a team in the pole position to make the conference finals without having to deal with the Lakers. The Clippers are currently in that spot, but there are four teams within four games of them. The seeding of those five teams shapes key playoff matchups to determine who would likely face the Lakers in the West finals.
Pelton: Who ends up stuck in seventh, which probably means facing the Clippers in the conference quarterfinals. The drop-off in talent from the Clippers to whichever team finishes third probably will be sizable, making this the spot nobody wants. And though the Dallas Mavericks are currently slotted there, they move up from seventh in more than half of my simulations.
3. Which East seeding race will you be watching most closely?
Woodyard: I’m interested in seeing who is able to secure the second seed. If it is Boston, with Kemba Walker stabilizing the team and four players who can get their own shot, then I think that the Celtics look poised to make a return to the conference finals.
Shelburne: I’m sure the Heat would love to move out of the No. 4 spot to avoid a second-round matchup with the Bucks. They’re 2 ½ games back of the Celtics — a real challenge for just an eight-game stretch, especially with the tough schedule Miami has been given.
Snellings: I’m watching the race for seeds 4 to 6, where the Heat, Pacers and 76ers are within two games of one another. Being the 6-seed means a team avoids a potential Bucks matchup until the East finals. With home-court advantage no factor, the Sixers in particular are a threat to make a serious run through the playoffs if healthy.
Pelton: Not so much where the Philadelphia 76ers are seeded as who they face in the conference quarterfinals. It’s not clear that the Sixers are better off moving from sixth to fifth if it means facing the Miami Heat — against whom they’re 1-3 this season — rather than the Boston Celtics, a season series they won 3-1.
Young: Watching how the 76ers approach the schedule now that they don’t have to consider home-court advantage will be interesting, as they’re currently tied with the Pacers for No. 5 in the East. Should Philadelphia try to land the No. 6 spot to avoid a likely conference semifinals showdown with the Bucks? Or will the Sixers focus on finding their best basketball form ahead of the postseason?
4. Which team’s chances will get the biggest boost from the hiatus and the new schedule?
Shelburne: I am probably destined to be the last person left on Sixers Island. But they just have so much talent, I think they’ll be dangerous on a neutral court with no expectations now. A healthy Ben Simmons helps a ton too. I suppose I could make the same argument for the Clippers, who now have a healthy Paul George and Kawhi Leonard and one of the deepest teams in the league.
Snellings: The Rockets get the biggest boost from the hiatus because their team is uniquely built. They have a powerful backcourt in James Harden and Russell Westbrook, but with their lack of big men, their forwards were getting run down with the amount of effort required to play their style. The hiatus should have allowed them to feel fresh again, and the short schedule lets them ramp back up in time for the playoffs. And Harden tends to be worn by the postseason; he has had the chance to not only rest but also reportedly get in excellent shape for the summer.
Pelton: Dallas. As I mentioned earlier, the Mavericks have a reasonable chance to move up from seventh, and they’re no longer affected by being shut out of the race for home-court advantage in the conference quarterfinals. That means the team with the West’s third-best point differential this season is a scary opening-round opponent.
Young: The 76ers are a logical choice, considering Ben Simmons had the chance to get healthy and they no longer have to play true road games (they were 10-24 on the road this season). The layoff probably didn’t fix their inconsistencies, however, so I’m going with the obvious: LeBron James just got a three-month break and has a maximum of 28 playoff games between him and another title.
Woodyard: The Trail Blazers. They were injury-riddled before the season paused, but the return of Collins and Nurkic should be huge. We already know what we’re going to get from Lillard and CJ McCollum, but if the supporting cast can shake off the rust and click right away, this team will be scary.
5. Which team was your title pick before the hiatus, and have you changed your mind?
Snellings: The Bucks were my pick as the clear favorite in the East, but the gauntlet in the West is more difficult. I still favor the Bucks, but the hiatus has helped their opponents more than it has helped Milwaukee. The Bucks are deep and their best players weren’t required to play huge minutes, while each of the Lakers, Clippers, Rockets and 76ers had the chance to get healthier and close the gap. But the Bucks are still dominant at both ends of the floor, and have the best chance to take home the title if playing to their potential.
Pelton: The Clippers. I would change my pick if Lou Williams decides not to participate in the restart. Otherwise, I think their combination of depth and star talent should play well in this environment, and the Clippers no longer have to deal with the potential of having more Lakers fans than Clippers fans at Staples Center during nominal home games if the teams meet in the conference finals.
Young: It has reinforced my confidence in the Clippers. Maybe the Clippers will take a step back in on-court chemistry, trying to sort out their impressive depth, but they’ve had three months to get Paul George fully healthy and let Kawhi Leonard rest. It’s impossible to anticipate how much the new environment will alter the outcome, but LA’s depth should be an asset. And in a possible West finals matchup with the Lakers, the Clippers would’ve had a series with seven de facto road games. Now they’re on a neutral court.
Woodyard: Before the hiatus, I picked the Clippers. Now, I’m in on the Lakers to win their 17th title. They were clicking so perfectly before the season ended, and LeBron James seems to be on a mission to get back on the court with his window for a championship slowly closing.
Shelburne: I picked the Lakers to start the year and I’m sticking with it. But I feel as if Toronto has a great shot in the East now. The defending champion Raptors have that playoff experience, are well coached and should be healthy after the long break.