The NBA season will finally resume on Thursday night. In store, hopefully, will be a few months of basketball at Walt Disney World that can’t be compared to anything we’ve ever seen before. What will the level of play be after four months off? Who’s in shape, and who’s rusty? Who’ll have the worst excuse for leaving the bubble? And who will, you know, win the title? Everything we’re about to see is unprecedented, and so are these predictions.
1. Ja Morant will recreate Vince Carter’s Dunk of Death. The Memphis Grizzlies point guard’s mentality is that of a professional wrestler who exclusively looks to leap from the top turnbuckle: There is no hesitation or fear. He lives off the ground. And inside the bubble, four long months removed from a season in which Morant separated himself as the NBA’s top rookie, he’ll pick up where he left off: ferociously airborne.
For those who aren’t aware, the Dunk of Death refers to Carter’s unforgettable evisceration of French big man Frederic Weis during the 2000 Olympic games. It’s widely accepted as the grimiest, most savagely unforgiving in-game dunk in the sport’s history. Morant has tried to pull off his own version on a few occasions, most notably over Anthony Davis and Kevin Love. And on August 2, when Memphis goes up against the San Antonio Spurs, he’ll get the chance to chop down Jakob Poeltl and/or Tyler Zeller. Don’t miss it.
2. At least one player will draw attention to Black Lives Matter by boycotting a game. Refusing to enter the bubble and participate in basketball games that may divert attention away from the momentous fight for racial equality that’s being waged across the world would be a significant decision. But it might be even more powerful to watch an actual act of defiance that’s broadcast to millions of people. So far, we’ve seen a coordinated effort by players to speak up about Breonna Taylor’s need for justice. Now imagine one player publicly stating that he won’t take the floor until legal action is taken against the police officers who murdered her. It’d be nothing short of remarkable.
3. After the Clippers advance to the second round, Lou Williams will have Magic City wings flown in for a team dinner. Williams claims he just stopped by the legendary Atlanta strip club for a quick dinner while on an approved trip outside the bubble this weekend. His love of the restaurant and its wings is documented, and he does have his own signature wing flavor on the menu, but that makes this excuse only slightly more plausible.
4. More innocently, The Lopez Twins will sneak out of the bubble just to experience Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance for the 300th time. They will then be forced to quarantine, cost Milwaukee the title, then circle back and ride it two dozen more times.
5. The Heat will beat the Bucks in Round 2. I could probably write 1000 words alone on this hypothetical matchup and why Miami is built to upset Milwaukee, but let’s simplify it by just saying if there’s one player in the NBA I’d want matched up against Giannis Antetokounmpo for an entire playoff series it’d be Bam Adebayo.
6. There might not be any Game Sevens. Strip travel away from a playoff series and what happens to the back-and-forth momentum that typically takes place? Normally, teams that trail in a series can look forward to a trip home, and the myriad benefits that come from waking up in their own bed on game day, playing in front of a supportive fanbase. Since home-court advantage doesn’t exist at Walt Disney World, what happens when a team goes up 2-0 or 3-1? How does the losing team mentally recover without an opportunity to protect their home floor?
7. Three-point percentages will be higher than normal. A lot of threes are about to be launched. They’ll probably make up over half of Houston’s total shots. The Mavs will dine from distance. The Nets and Wizards and Suns and every other team that has nothing to lose will bombs away with the hope that a few of their shooters simultaneously get hot at the right time. The question is, will they go in more frequently in a serenely empty gym than one with crowd noise? The guess here is that they will.
8. Kyrie’s WNBA donation will inspire other players. When the season first went on hiatus back in March, we saw numerous players spread some of their wealth to arena workers who suddenly found themselves out of a job. Kyrie Irving has admirably taken this generosity to another level by creating a $1.5 million fund to help WNBA players who chose to sit out their season. The money will come from Irving’s Empowerment Initiative. It wouldn’t be surprising to see other players—particularly those who are outside the bubble—create programs that will support the many different populations across the United States who are ailing, financially and physically.
9. Houston will tally 160 points in a single game. Remember when they dropped 159 on the Wizards back in October? Well, that performance came against a very bad defensive team before Houston embraced small-ball to the degree it eventually did. The Rockets treasure threes, and after essentially trading Clint Capela for Robert Covington, will now always have five players on the floor who can shoot them (Russell Westbrook included). Many, many, many points will be scored.
10. Donovan Mitchell will average over 30 points per game. While on my honeymoon in Morocco a couple years ago, my wife and I spent a day riding camels through the Sahara desert. I wore a dark grey t-shirt with an outline of Donovan Mitchell’s face on it, and at one point our tamer—who barely spoke English—pointed at my chest, gave a thumbs up, then mimed a jump shot. There’s no real point to this story beyond the fact that months removed from a pretty good rookie season, Mitchell was already a legitimate famous person and extremely good at basketball. Fast forward a few years and he’s on the cusp of superstardom. And with Utah’s second-leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic out with an injured wrist, the Jazz need to lean on Mitchell even more than they probably want to. He’s gonna light the bubble up.
11. Luka Doncic will have multiple 10-turnover games. Even though, as an unfazed 18-year-old, Luka led Real Madrid to the Euroleague title, this will be his first taste of the NBA playoffs, where intensity, focus, and possession-by-possession urgency goes up a level. The playoff atmosphere obviously won’t be what it normally is, but how opposing defenses treat him will be new. As incredible as Luka is, he averaged 4.2 turnovers per game during the regular season, which was more than every player in the bubble except James Harden and Russell Westbrook. There will be mistakes. Lots and lots of mistakes.
12. Matisse Thybulle and JaVale McGee will battle for the Best Bubble Vlog title. The Sixers rookie and Lakers center JaVale McGee are already producing great bubble content, with fascinating insights and impressive production values. Guest appearances by Embiid and Tobias Harris are priceless, as was Thybulle’s first bubble dinner, eaten without any utensils. Now, for the record, if we’re power ranking bubble Vlogs so far, real and hypothetical, they’d go: 1) Matisse Thybulle 2) JaVale McGee 3) Troy Daniels 4) Troy Brown Jr. 486) Dwight Howard. Don’t be like Dwight. Please wear a mask and listen to science.
13. Melo will stay skinny. Carmelo Anthony turned up to the bubble looking surprisingly svelte. Anthony says he only lost about five pounds while quarantined, but he’ll need to make sure that new muscle doesn’t revert back to fat, because with Trevor Ariza unavailable and big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins both healthy enough to play for the Blazers for the first time this season, Anthony will likely spend a majority of his minutes at small forward, his first love. He seems reinvigorated already: In one of Portland’s first scrimmages, I actually saw him close out on two different shooters during the same possession, which, I mean, 2020 was already surreal.
14. Mo Bamba will become Wilt Chamberlain (for 10 seconds). Bamba, on the other hand, had the most tantalizing body in the league before he packed on 25 pounds of muscle during the season’s hiatus. In basketball, size matters. And Bamba is larger than everybody else. I want to see him break the stanchion.
15. Point Jokic will average a triple-double. Nikola Jokic is arguably the single most engrossing human being you can watch on a screen, and thanks to Jamal Murray’s tight hamstring, we actually got to see him play point guard on a full-time basis during Denver’s first scrimmage. It was glorious. If you know anyone who’s down on the NBA, tell them to watch a Nuggets game. Nothing in this universe compares to the pleasure derived from a Jokic no-look bounce pass.
16. Zion Williamson will lead New Orleans to the playoffs. The other day I found myself spiraling down a Zion highlight rabbit hole when I realized just how lucky we are to have a player who can unleash a true element of shock and awe whenever he checks into a game. There are things he does that transcend the laws of physics and bend our conception of reality. It’s literally human evolution in real time. Go have a look and treat yourself for the next 20 minutes.
Zion’s Pelicans have a lot of ground to make up on the Grizzlies to reach the playoffs, but they also have one of the easiest schedules—six of their eight opponents for the last regular season games are under .500. If Zion averages 35 minutes per game, there’s a conceivable timeline where the Pelicans finish 8-0 and the NBA’s own Eighth Wonder of the World establishes himself as an actual top-15 player.
17. The Spurs will be the Western Conference’s worst team, and Gregg Popovich will coach his last game (for the Spurs). Either the Spurs will do Spurs things, prove everyone wrong, and make a valiant run at the eight seed, or get blown out in their first game, shut DeMar DeRozan down, and take a long hard look at up-and-comers like Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, and Luka Samanic. I lean towards the latter.
And a few months after San Antonio misses the playoffs, Brooklyn will offer Pop an unseemly amount of money to coach Kevin Durant. Now that I have your attention, please pay attention whenever Popovich speaks about the various forms of racial discrimination and social injustice that plague this country. Few are able to deliver a more concise, clear-eyed message.
18. Kawhi Leonard will dunk with his left hand. If I could sit down with Kawhi Leonard the first question I’d ask is “Why do you dunk with your left hand instead of your (dominant) right, whether nobody is around or you’re going through traffic?” This is not the “correct” first question, but throughout Toronto’s very first championship run last year, these dunks kept happening, this one being his piece de resistance. The habit carried over to Los Angeles, but never quite exploded into the public talking point my brain feels it should. Anyway, Kawhi is awesome and I miss his southpaw smashes.
19. Danny Green will be the third most important Laker (J.R. Smith, who last played real NBA minutes 616 days ago, will be the least). Apologies to Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Dwight Howard, and, of course, Dion Waiters, but the Lakers aren’t winning anything meaningful if Green isn’t consistently able to stay in front of the opposing team’s most threatening guard and/or drill a majority of his open shots. Of all LeBron James’ three-point assists, no Laker was at the receiving end more often than Green. He’s reliable and has championship experience. L.A. can’t have too many of those two qualities.
20. T.J. Warren vs. Jimmy Butler will be worth all the popcorn GIFs. Last time Miami played Indiana, T.J. Warren and Jimmy Butler decided they were not friends. Afterwards, Butler poured kerosene on their beef, lit a match, and then threw it onto a grill. The BBQ is scheduled for August 10.
21. Marcus Smart’s trash talk will be even more entertaining than his basketball. This is more a plea than a prediction, but one can only pray that TV broadcasts from inside the bubble will let us hear the epic trash talk that’s continuously spewed from some of the league’s most heroic characters—like the Celtics’ Marcus Smart, arguably the most confident person who’s ever lived. Time will tell just how loud voices carry in an empty gym, but every time play halts (especially when someone is shooting a free throw) you can be sure Smart will do everything in his power to piss off every player on the opposing team. He’s like the CEO of making people mad.
22. The Celtics will finally go small. Boston has Daniel Theis, Enes Kanter, and Rob Williams to cycle through the center position. But they’re also built to go small, with Grant Williams, Semi Ojeleye, and even Romeo Langford able to round out some versatile lineups. Boston also has the NBA’s most talented unit that essentially never plays: Marcus Smart, Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward. It’s a way to get their five best players on the floor at the same time, and assuming Walker’s knee is fine, Brad Stevens will finally lean on them in decisive minutes. It will be glorious.
23. Kemba Walker’s knee will be fine. Praying hands emoji.
24. Jayson Tatum will make another leap. After a disappointing second season, Tatum got back on track to superstardom this year. It won’t be easy for him to improve numbers that leapt off the page after the All-Star break, but, whether because Kemba Walker’s knee isn’t 100 percent or Gordon Hayward has left the bubble to be with his pregnant wife, there will be plenty of late-game opportunities for the All-Star to shine in the playoffs. The Celtics now know what they have with Tatum, and Brad Stevens likely spent the past four months creating new schemes to get him the ball in advantageous spots. If all goes according to plan, he’ll be a top-five two-way player on the 2019-20 NBA champs.
25. Hassan Whiteside will be the first player ejected from a game. Whiteside started 61 games this year for the Trailblazers and quickly became Damian Lillard’s top pick-and-roll partner. But now that Josef Nurkic and Zach Collins are both back in the fold, Whiteside’s role is unclear—which, as a free-agent-to-be, is probably a tad frustrating. Whiteside needs to reassert himself over the next few weeks, but with limited minutes to do so we could see some of that frustration simmer into a boil. He was charged with 10 technical fouls before the season was suspended (tied for eighth-most in the league) And if he never even gets the chance to draw two technical fouls, best believe he’s the number one contender to use the NBA’s anonymous “snitch line” to his own benefit.
26. Ben Simmons won’t launch threes when it counts. Simmons has otherworldly open floor speed, unteachable defensive instincts, and prodigious vision. He also has a clear mental block when open jump shots enter the equation; nevermind the few threes he’s finally launched in meaningless warmup games inside the bubble. This wouldn’t all feel so desperate if Simmons played for a team strategically built to complement all of his strengths, but the Sixers aren’t that team. They’re monstrous, intimidating brutes that would probably win the NBA title if the year were 2010. In 2020, they’re awkward, claustrophobic, and cluttered, ultimately way too reliant on Shake Milton and Joel Embiid’s patience in the post.
27. Al Horford will not be happy. Relatedly, the most unfortunate victim of Simmons’ shortcomings is Horford, a proud, perennial All-Star who just signed a nine-figure, multi-year contract because he believed Philadelphia was a title contender that needed the exact brand of savvy intuition he could provide. Instead, Horford will come off the bench because Sixers head coach Brett Brown believes Simmons is the team’s best power forward. It’s all very strange and uncomfortable.
29. OG Anunoby will be the bubble’s Most Improved Player. His emergence won’t be as stark as Pascal Siakam was during last year’s playoffs, but Anunoby will demand attention. All he does is shoot threes, dunk, and pulverize whoever he’s asked to defend, which can be anyone the other team has, on any given play. His handle is tighter than you think, too. After missing all of last year’s title run, Anunoby now has an opportunity to build on a regular season that saw him become a full-time starter, and log over 10 more minutes per game than his career average.
30. Myles Turner will play his last game with the Pacers. With Domas Sabonis out for the season, Turner will have enough space and time to up his trade value. He’ll pick-and-pop as often as he wants. It’ll be fun. And soon after the Pacers bow out in Round 1, some rival GM will make an offer for him that the Pacers can’t refuse. See also: Magic forward Aaron Gordon, Nets wing Caris LeVert, and (hot take coming up!) Spurs guard Dejounte Murray.
31. Tacko Fall will dunk without jumping. We know he can do it. It’s highly unlikely that Tacko ever matches up against Boban Marjanovic in a jump-ball situation, so we’ll have to settle for this instead.
32. Nick Nurse will do something crazy. I wonder how inspired/jealous Nurse was watching Denver throw out their all-big lineup in a scrimmage last week. There’s a 100 percent chance he tries to one up them. Don’t be surprised when Nurse—the most experimental and accommodating coach in the NBA—decides to play a jumbo-sized lineup of Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher, and OG Anunoby. Or swings the other way to throw out the smallest possible unit he has, with Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norm Powell, Terence Davis, and Matt Thomas. The Raptors are fun.
33. Zone defense will be uncommonly common. Before the season was suspended, several teams started embracing zone defense as a last resort response to the three-point revolution. Miami and Brooklyn are two teams that broke it out fairly often. But in the bubble they won’t be the only ones who use it to disorient and confuse offenses that just want to run some pick-and-roll.
34. Duncan Robinson will make 15 threes in a game. The Heat guard is a blowtorch, and sometime very soon an opposing coach will consider defending him with a fire extinguisher. Until Klay Thompson (who currently holds the record for most threes in a game, with 14) comes back, Robinson is the game’s most effective off-the-catch weapon, a roaming nightmare who knows how to utilize his height and quick shot release in an offense that maximizes every chance to let the ball fly.
35. Miami will be better when Andre Iguodala is on the floor. The Heat were outscored during the regular season with Iguodala in the game, but even if he’s 36 years old, Iguodala’s brain is still a microsecond ahead of the competition after five straight Finals appearances. In Miami’s chaotic system, his natural instincts will be a perfect fit—especially when the Heat go small and play Bam at the five.
36. Someone on the Wizards will score a hole-in-one. No team has less meaningful stakes inside the bubble than Washington. But what they do have is an opportunity to play some golf over the next couple weeks. I’ve yet to notice any of them actually taking advantage of the perk, but we do know what Mo Wagner’s swing looks like and yikes. Here’s hoping someone on that roster gets lucky with their 7-iron.
37. De’Aaron Fox will make Sacramento the fastest team in the bubble. When the Kings hired Luke Walton, he decided to pump the brakes on a team that was seemingly built to turn basketball games into track meets. The idea was to instill smart defensive habits and make sure his young players could crawl before they could walk before they could run before they could fly. In a vacuum that’s not a terrible idea, but when you’re coaching a human blur like Fox it’s objectively silly. Here’s to hoping Walton spent the past four months reconsidering his approach, and will instead instruct his guys to mimic a shot cannonball on every possession. Free Fox.
38. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will finally have a relevant NBA performance. For those who forgot, Kidd-Gilchrist now plays for the Dallas Mavericks. His jump shot is still broken, and there’s no obvious role for him on a good NBA team. This all makes me sad. As a long-time MKG supporter and humongous fan of the energy he injects into the game, the bubble feels like one last opportunity, playing for a team that’s thin at the five and in serious need of tenacious versatility on the defensive end. The mutually beneficial answer here is to play MKG at center, surround him with shooters, then let him screen, role, cut, and wreak havoc whenever Dallas needs some juice. Writing this made my blood pressure rise. Long live MKG.
39. The Suns won’t make the playoffs, but Ayton and Booker will belong there. How do you stop Phoenix’s offense when Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker run a high pick-and-roll with three respectable outside shooters dotting the perimeter? The answer is we’re about to find out there is no answer.
40. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will don Chuck Taylors in an actual game. He’s already the most stylish player of his generation. But SGA’s trendsetting flair will be unparalleled across the entire league if, as Converse’s newest signee, he rocks original Chucks on the court. What kid is not buying a pair after they see Shai lithely Eurostep through the paint wearing them? The only way to be cooler is to sleep in a refrigerator.
41. Giannis’ Zoom Freak 2 will include the bubble’s best new sneaker colorway. Antentokounmpo’s second signature shoe recently dropped and I’m not 100 percent sure how I feel about it. That said, the “Naija” colorway is fire and don’t let anybody tell you different:
42. You will miss the Golden State Warriors. If only for a second. Not having Steph Curry or Draymond Green or Steve Kerr or Klay Thompson in our lives this long has been stranger than I thought it’d be. They’re some of the most famous figures the NBA has, responsible for the popularization of numerous league-wide trends that we’ll see copied ad nauseum over the next few months. Watching Golden State dominate as long as they did eventually grew tiresome, but at the same time it feels sacreligious to hold a postseason (while they’re all in their primes!) and not include them.
43. LeBron’s beard will rule them all. LeBron’s latest beard is the most inspirational NBA facial hair I’ve ever seen. In the past it was typically sheared thin and tight, shiny, jet black, a hairy ornament to accentuate the perfect 90-degree angles that mark his jawline. Now, it’s grown out from his ears to several inches below the tip of his chin, with silver wisps peppered freely along his cheeks. The man looks stately, as if basketball—the very sport itself—were his personal opus. James was already the King but now he also has big Zeus energy. He looks like the Level-75 final boss who demands your best because he’s already overcome everybody else’s.
44. But he might not make the finals—or even the Western Conference Finals. Anthony Davis is a top-five player. He’s also only played in a handful of consequential NBA games on teams that never got past the second round. Now he faces a championship or bust reality. Either Davis crushes everyone in his path, cements himself as the sport’s premier defender, and grows more confident with each passing game, or he realizes how heavy title expectations truly are and is unable to carry the Lakers whenever LeBron needs a rest. Both possibilities feel realistic, especially because in the second round, the Lakers might square off against a team that’s built to make their life miserable. Which brings us to…
45. The Rockets will win it all. Before this season began I predicted that Houston would win it all. This was my third straight year riding with the Rockets and I’d be a coward to back out now, even if my instincts, brain, and heart all tell me differently.
46. James Harden will be your Finals MVP. The first title Harden, Daryl Morey, and Mike D’Antoni win will double as the easiest in league history to dismiss. Of course. It’s fate. Let this be the cherry on top of all our 2020 sundaes.