We’re just over two weeks out from the official restart of the 2019-20 NBA season, and hey, there are actual basketball things to talk about! On July 30, play will begin with the Utah Jazz taking on the New Orleans Pelicans at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers at 9 p.m. ET. On July 31, six more games will take place, and we’ll be off and running with each team concluding the regular-season portion of its schedule with eight seeding games before the playoffs begin.
Between now and then, here are five big questions to chew on.
1. Will Lonzo Ball’s hot shooting continue?
If the Pelicans are going to crack the postseason, it needs Ball to keep making shots. When the season was suspended, Ball was shooting a career high 39 percent from 3, per Cleaning the Glass, on over six attempts a game. He’s become a far more viable threat off the ball, and with multiple creators on the New Orleans roster that keeps the floor optimally spaced.
Ball has changed his form and upped his aggression, and the question is: Will he keep knocking these shots down? When the Pelicans retake the court on July 30, it will have been almost five months since they last played a real NBA game. This is effectively a brand new season. Can Lonzo pick up where he left off? The answer to that question will go a long way in the Pelicans’ quest to crack the playoffs from three games back of the No. 8 seed.
2. Who gets the Lakers’ open minutes?
When Avery Bradley — a Lakers starter all season when healthy — opted to sit out of the Orlando restart, the assumption was his 25 minutes per game would be accounted for in the aggregate, divvied up among Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo. But now Rondo is out six-to-eight weeks with a broken thumb, and Caruso and KCP probably can’t account that big an uptick in their minutes. Danny Green will go up some, but this likely brings J.R. Smith and/or Dion Waiters into play. Are either of those guys ready to consistently contribute at a championship level?
Lakers fans will clamor for Caruso to see the biggest uptick in playing time, and you can consider me in line with that hope. CBS Sports’ Sam Quinn recently broke this situation down, pointing out that Caruso might provide diminishing returns as his playing time increases due to his penchant for short, high-energy bursts, but to me Caruso is more than a high-energy player. He just does smart things, with and without the ball, on both ends. An impromptu screen or switch. A hockey assist. A cut at the right time. This is a big opportunity for him on a team with championship aspirations and a shrinking margin for error.
3. Is Jayson Tatum ready to be a playoff star?
Most close followers would tell you Tatum has surpassed Kemba Walker as the Celtics‘ No. 1 option, to the extent that such a designation exists in Boston’s collaborative attack. From Feb. 1 to the shutdown on March 11, Tatum registered as the fifth-leading scorer in the league at 29.2 PPG on just under 47 percent 3-point shooting while firing almost nine triples per game. That is superstar efficiency and production, obviously, but it’s a small sample at that level.
Tatum, to be fair, is averaging 26 points on 43 percent shooting since Jan. 1, and 23.8 points on almost 40 percent 3-point shooting for the season, so this doesn’t feel like an implausible leap. Honestly, you don’t even have to look at the numbers; just watch him play and it’s clear you’re watching a future superstar.
But is he ready to remove the future part of that equation and be the No. 1 guy on a team that could threaten to win the Eastern Conference and perhaps compete for an NBA title? That’s a big step for a guy who averaged 15 points on 32 percent 3-point shooting in last season’s playoffs, and hasn’t felt the burden of being the defense’s full-time No. 1 priority in the playoffs, but it feels right there for the taking.
4. Can Ben Simmons‘ move to PF unlock 76ers?
Brett Brown told reporters on Monday that he’s been playing Simmons “exclusively” as a four man during practice in Orlando, and the expectation is that Shake Milton will replace Simmons as the Sixers’ starting point guard. While capable, Simmons has long been miscast as a true lead guard. He’s tailor made to be a hyper-athletic Draymond Green — a power forward with guard skills who can rebound, push and distribute before ceding to better-suited half-court initiators. From there, Simmons becomes a screener, roller and cutter.
Spacing and half-court offense, which go hand in hand, are Philly’s main problems, and if Milton continues to shoot and create the way he did while Simmons was out with a back injury — shooting 46 percent from 3 and 70 percent at the rim in 29 games, per Cleaning the Glass.
There are still issue with the coexistence of Simmons and Joel Embiid, who both need to live in the paint to be optimized, but it’s a more manageable situation with Simmons getting creatively lower on the floor than it is having him run point as a complete non-shooting threat. It’s not perfect, but in theory this is the most optimized version of the Sixers, who perhaps don’t need to be perfect given their considerable talent to compete for an Eastern Conference title.
5. Will Russell Westbrook pick up where he left off?
We’re going to assume Westbrook recovers from the coronavirus and is able to join the Rockets at least by the playoffs. When the season was suspended, Westbrook was arguably playing the best basketball of his career. Since Jan. 1, Westbrook is averaging 31.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.9 steals on 52 percent shooting.
Over that span, Westbrook got to the free-throw line just under seven times a game and knocked them down at a 75 percent clip. He’s attacking the rim relentlessly while almost completely removing 3-pointers — particularly the ones he has too often settled for in the past — from his arsenal, an approach the Rockets doubled down on by trading Clint Capela for Robert Covington to space the floor as much as possible. With no big man in the lane, Westbrook is poised to dominate this postseason as long as he doesn’t revert to settling for 3s and finds the proper your-turn-my-turn balance with James Harden.