Top 7 Storylines entering the Orlando Bubble: Darkhorses and rotation flux to watch

The NBA is finally back and after what seemed like endless speculation and negotiation regarding a potential restart, actual basketball has begun. Even if this resumed season won't have fans and will take place in Orlando, there are still plenty of storylines and things to watch, ranging from the emergence of certain players to the race for the eighth seed in the West. Obviously, the top storyline for any Orlando Bubble talk begins and ends with the safety of the bubble and, hopefully, the lack of COVID-19 cases within the bubble, but the seven storylines that were selected for this piece all relate to the game itself. So what's really driving debate in central Florida?

  1. The Race for the Eight Seed in the West

The inclination of any person who is asked why the NBA brought 22 teams instead of just the 16 teams currently in playoff spots is probably to dismiss it as a money grab and effort to thrust Zion Williamson into the spotlight. However, some of the teams who were brought alongside the first 16 have a real shot to make some noise. With these six extra teams the NBA decided to add some complex rules to try to make it easier for the extra six to make the playoffs by adding a play in series for the nine and eight seed if the nine seed is within four games. The nine seed has to win two before the eighth seed wins one, but it is certainly conceivable that a nine seed could make the playoffs. The first “extra” team that comes to mind is the rejuvenated Blazers, who will be joined by key rotation players Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins, who were injured during the regular season; with the extended rest time the expectation is that both will be ready to go when the games that count begin. The importance of these two cannot be overstated, as each minute that Nurkic and Collins play take away from one Hassan Whiteside, who despite his block numbers is a true abomination defensively.

The Blazers are obviously headed by their dynamic guard duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. Mcccollum, but with the addition of some frontcourt help in Collins and Nurkic, don't be surprised if they get to the playoff game as they are only three and a half games behind Memphis right now and have a lot to play for. If Portland does make the actual playoffs, they won't be an easy out for the Lakers — the current top seed — as the Lakers primary guard defender, Avery Bradley, opted out of the bubble and left a large gap for point of attack defense.

The Pelicans will certainly be a competitor as well as they are also only three and half games out and a healthy and in shape Zion could wreck havoc upon the rest of the league. The Pelicans also have the benefit of having an extremely easy schedule and should definitely push for the nine or even eight seed. The Kings, the third team within 3.5 games of the final playoff seed have a harder case to make. While they were playing very well before the break, injuries seem to be plaguing them as both De'Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley have faced injuries that could jeopardize their season and the Kings playoff hopes. The Suns and Spurs both sit farther out than the primary three, and according to both have a less than 1% chance of making the play in game. In the East the Wizards were the only extra team who was brought to Orlando, and they have a total of two league-competitive NBA players on their Orlando roster. Both Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans got ahead of any concept of wasted time and decided they would rather stay home in their mansions than head to Orlando to battle for the right to be massacred by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. 

  1. Lakers Figuring out their Lineup

The Lakers are the very definition of a top-heavy team as they cruised to the best record in the west courtesy of  two of the top seven players in the NBA in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The rest of the Lakers' roster was desolate from the start, as their offseason pursuit of Kawhi Leonard hindered their ability to sign quality role players. Luckily for them, basketball as much as it is a team sport is truly a game about the superstars, and its hard to beat the Lakers on that front. Still, the Lakers will need quality production from guys who you normally would not expect if they are to beat the Clippers and Bucks in the playoffs. The Lakers more importantly need to find their closing group of five, and while LeBron and Davis are shoo-ins and three-and-D wing Danny Green is probably a lock as well, the other two spots are very much up for grabs. The loss of Avery Bradley will be crucial, as the Lakers relied on him to guard opposing point guards and high pick and rolls. It's likely the Lakers will need some form of a point of attack defender to replace Bradley and the most likely candidates could be Alex Caruso or the recently injured Rajon Rondo. Caruso provides more defense and had the more productive season, but the legend of prime time Rondo is certainly real, and when his injury heals he could be in position to be a key member of the rotation. For the fifth spot there's certainly a ton of options, as the Lakers could stick with being big as they did for much of the regular season and play Javale McGee or Dwight Howard or they could play an extra wing and give Kyle Kuzma, or the newly signed J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters a shot. The Lakers finishing five will likely be matchup dependent, but they still need to figure out who they will play come crunch time and who is going to be in the rotation before they face the Clippers or another Western Conference powerhouse.

  1. The Sixers' Redemption

Who would have thought starting two centers and two power forwards leads to a lack of spacing and room for offensive creation? Well, apparently not the Sixers. Their season this year was a disappointment to say the least, as both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid did not take the step towards being the number one guy and new addition Al Horford failed to contribute in the way management hoped. With four months to reassess and think over how to salvage the season, the Sixers have made a bold move, shifting Ben Simmons to power forward and putting Shake Milton into the starting lineup, thereby making Al Horford a $109 million sixth man. The Sixers still have the potential to be an all-time great defensive team, and if they can figure out their offense they could be a darkhorse for the title. The key to figuring it out, however, is unclear. Does Ben Simmons have to shoot threes? What level does Shake Milton have to reach? How much can Al Horford and Joel Embiid play together? Whatever the solution may be, Brett Brown has a lot of tinkering to do to optimize the Sixers offense and get their ducks in a row for a championship run.

  1. Rockets Small Ball Experiment

The Rockets went all in on their small ball in February and initially surged. Russell Westbrook took full advantage of new found spacing and James Harden proved that he could still be dominant without a rim running big in Clint Capela. However, after the initial success that they found with their small ball lineup it seemed that the opposition adapted to the new style and the Rockets started to slow down. The Rockets will now bring this experiment to the playoffs, where teams will have plenty of time to game plan, and the shock factor of playing a team that plays differently than everyone else in the regular season will be mitigated. The Rockets brass clearly believe that this style can win a title and now it's up to the players to prove them right. Possibly the most crucial part of this experiment besides Harden and Westbrook is P.J. Tucker. The former Isreali League MVP will be tasked with guarding players six inches taller than him on a nightly basis, but also will need him to be a functional shooter and continue to produce offensively. That's a lot of trust placed on Tucker's shoulders, especially if you consider the potential ramifications of an early exit on the roster, given Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta’s unwillingness to go into the luxury tax and the impending free agency of head coach Mike D’Antoni. Next year the Rockets could look very different and a deep playoff run could do a lot to change that. 

  1. The Clippers Finishing Lineups

    The Clippers came into this season being many experts' favorites to win the title, and one could argue that they have only got better since the beginning of the season.

    The Clippers still have a lot of questions to answer, however it feels like they have too many role players for their own good. Before the season was suspended, the Clips added Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris and Joakiam Noah

    to the already strong supporting cast of players like Lou Williams, Patrick Beverely, Landry Shamet, Montrez Harrel, Jamychal Green, and Ivica Zubac all of whom expect to play decent minutes.

    The Clippers obviously have their superstar duo of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard who will play a majority of the minutes and be on the floor for crunch time.

    The Clippers have a lot of things to figure out about their crunch time lineup as no doubt, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverely, Marcus Morris, and Montrezl Harrell all think they are shoo-ins to play alongside their dynamic wings.

    Lou Williams specifically may be headed towards a smaller role in the playoffs due to a plethora of reasons.

    First, Williams is great at providing a scoring jolt especially when he is the primary option, but in the playoffs he will be always playing next to Kawhi and/or Paul George which lessens the need for his ball dominant game.

    Secondly, the amount that Lou gives up defensively could be catastrophic for a team with basically no other weak links defensively and having him on the floor could lead to bigger teams like the Lakers or Nuggets continuously picking on him in crunch time.

    Lastly, Williams has historically been worse in the playoffs and while occasionally he can breakout and drop 40 in a win his overall play has fallen off significantly in the postseason. 

  1. The Bucks Supporting Cast 

The Bucks were a juggernaut this season and are the runaway favorites in the East. Their consistent and dominant play was extremely impressive and led them to the best record in the league. Their best player, Giannis Antetokounmpo is projected to win his second-straight MVP and could be in contention for Defensive Player of the Year as well. Few pundits doubt Giannis’ superstardom, but despite having the best record in the league many experts believe the Lakers or Clippers are more destined to succeed. The reason for this is not because of Giannis (in most cases), it is because of his supporting cast. Last year the Bucks looked unstoppable after only dropping one game in the first two rounds and getting ahead to a 2-0 lead against the Raptors in the conference finals. However, after the second game every thing fell apart. Eric Bledsoe forgot how to shoot, firing below 20% from three in the series, Khris Middleton was no longer the bonafide second star and looked more like an out of place role player. Possibly worst of all was that the one auxiliary star who played well was Malcolm Brogdon, but now he is Indiana after Bucks ownership decided to maneuver to stay under the luxury tax.

This is a crucial season for the Bucks as, with Giannis’ free agency looming and next season looking like a question mark, this could be the one chance they get to prove to the Greak Freak that Milwaukee is a suitable place to spend his prime.

  1. The Next Generation of Stars

Everyone remembers Kawhi’s 2014 run, Kevin Durant’s in 2013, or even Lebron’s in 2007. Big playoff runs can do a lot to boost a young players legacy and solidify them as a future superstar and generational talent. Right now, a lot of young players have the opportunity to make a run this postseason and solidify themselves as a legitimate superstar. Take Luka Doncic, the sophomore who shocked the world and became a legit MVP candidate. The Mavericks superstar is in position to make some real noise. If the Mavs can get to the No. 6 seed and avoid the Clippers, they will have a real shot of winning a series and could do some serious damage. A player like Zion or Ja Morant could take the eighth seed and maybe take a few games off the Lakers, which would bode well for their future prospects as stars. Out East, the opportunity to make noise is much greater, as there is only one powerhouse compared to the West’s two. The Celtics have both Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who have already made lengthy playoff runs in the past, and another could help cement their status as clear stars (and in Tatum's case, potentially a top-10 player league-wide). Tatum was surging before the season abruptly ended, and if he can tap back into that juice in the playoffs it could be a big problem for the rest of the East. In Philadelphia, both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid want to make clear that they are a force to be reckoned with, and a good run could solidify their places as franchise players.