N.B.A. Restart Preview: The Lakers and Clippers Stare Down the West

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Almost exactly a year ago, on a sticky summer afternoon in Los Angeles, the Clippers staged a news conference for their two new headliners, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The duo sat on a platform inside a recreation center gymnasium that was packed with fans, reporters and team employees. For a long-suffering franchise, the event had the feel of a genuine celebration.

Around the city, there were dreams of a Western Conference finals held entirely at Staples Center, the downtown arena the Clippers and the Lakers share. At long last, both teams were championship contenders at the same time, their rosters stacked with glamorous stars.

Looking back, the scene that day was like something from a bygone era. It has been a challenging season for the league, and for Los Angeles in particular. Less than two months after an unimaginable tragedy — Kobe Bryant, the retired Lakers star, and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were among nine people who died in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26 — the N.B.A. suspended its season because of the coronavirus pandemic. Staples Center, the site of Bryant’s public memorial, has been empty and silent since March.

On Thursday night, the Lakers and the Clippers will finally share a court again — albeit on the other side of the country and far from their fans — inside the league’s bubble at Walt Disney World.

As the N.B.A. restarts its season, the Lakers and the Clippers are still among the favorites to win it all — a dose of normalcy in these strange times. Here is a closer look at the prospects for the 13 Western Conference teams inside the bubble:

1. Los Angeles Lakers (49-14)

It is championship or bust for LeBron James. Now 35, and in his 17th season, James showed up to Disney with gray in his ample quarantine beard, and he does not seem to be shying away from the symbolism; he is not young anymore. He has no way of knowing how many more real opportunities he will have to win titles, but he has one right in front of him, this time with Anthony Davis as his running mate.

Questions: Avery Bradley, the Lakers’ top perimeter defender, opted out of the restart for family reasons, and Rajon Rondo broke his thumb. Rondo could return during the playoffs, and the Lakers have two new pieces who could help along the perimeter: J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters. But do the Lakers have enough depth to compete with the likes of the Clippers? And can James and Davis stay healthy? Davis already got poked in the eye. If either player were to go down, forget those title hopes.

2. Los Angeles Clippers (44-20)

The restart has been an adventure for the Clippers. Ivica Zubac, Landry Shamet and Marcus Morris Sr. were late arrivals. Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams each left to tend to what the team described as family matters. And while the Clippers are finally (nearly) whole, Williams is under a 10-day quarantine for breaking league protocol during his excused absence by stopping for wings at a strip club. The Clippers, though, are built for the playoffs.

Questions: Is this the year? For so long, the Clippers scuffled along as one of the league’s punch lines. The franchise has never won a championship, let alone made an appearance in the conference finals in its 50-year history. But Leonard is coming off a championship run with the Toronto Raptors, and the Clippers now seem primed for one of their own.

3. Denver Nuggets (43-22)

Overshadowed by all the hoopla in Los Angeles, the Nuggets battled through the early months of the season. Nikola Jokic, their do-everything forward, did not show up for training camp in the greatest physical condition, but he still produced: 20.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.9 assists a game while shooting a crisp 52.8 percent from the field. And there is his on-court partnership with point guard Jamal Murray, one of the league’s more fascinating works in progress.

Questions: Jokic’s arrival in Florida was delayed after he tested positive for the coronavirus, but he showed up as a noticeably trimmer version of himself. How will the weight loss affect his play? Will he be nimbler than ever? More important, do the Nuggets have enough firepower to topple the Lakers and/or the Clippers? Jokic and Murray would love to play the role of spoiler.

4. Utah Jazz (41-23)

The last time we saw the Jazz, they were at the forefront of a brewing pandemic. Center Rudy Gobert’s positive test on March 11 effectively shut down pro sports in North America for several months, and the casual way that he had treated the virus caused friction with teammates, most notably Donovan Mitchell. In truth, their issues had been festering for a while.

Questions: Can these guys get along? Does it matter? The Jazz also lost Bojan Bogdanovic, their best shooter, to season-ending wrist surgery. But Gobert is one of the league’s best defenders, and Mitchell is a dynamic young guard. It is a fragile chemistry experiment that could come together — or blow apart.

5. Oklahoma City Thunder (40-24)

Raise your hand if you thought the Thunder would be 16 games above .500 when a pandemic interrupted the N.B.A. season. Anyone?

About a year ago, the Thunder traded Russell Westbrook to the Rockets and Paul George to the Clippers. Most figured that the Thunder were about to embark on a dramatic rebuild, and that Chris Paul, whom they acquired in their deal with Houston, would land with another team. Instead, Paul dedicated himself to the Thunder — and even made the All-Star team again. The payoff has been huge, as he helped nurture young players like guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Questions: No one wants to face the Thunder in the postseason. They are big, tough and experienced at key positions. But do they have enough pieces? Dennis Schroder, one of the league’s top reserves, has said that he will leave the bubble when his wife gives birth to their second child. She is due in August. His absence will leave the team with a thinner bench than usual.

6. Houston Rockets (40-24)

The mad scientists of the N.B.A. are set to continue with another bold experiment: the small-ball lineup the Rockets deployed in February after trading Clint Capela, their starting center, to the Atlanta Hawks. The general idea is to station five players on the perimeter so that they drag their defenders to the 3-point line and give Westbrook seams to drive to the hoop. Critics consider it a gimmick. But when Coach Mike D’Antoni put the system in place, Westbrook was struggling and the Rockets were losing.

Questions: James Harden is having another all-universe season, scoring a league-leading 34.4 points a game, and Westbrook’s production improved after D’Antoni went small. But will the Rockets be able to defend anyone in the postseason?

7. Dallas Mavericks (40-27)

How dangerous are the Mavericks? Consider that, according to Basketball Reference, they have the highest offensive rating (116.7) of any team since at least 1973-74. Yes, even better than the Warriors and Rockets of recent vintage. Credit the versatility of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Before the season was suspended, the Mavericks were clicking at an even higher level thanks to the emergence of Tim Hardaway Jr.

Questions: For all their scoring pyrotechnics, the Mavericks are a middle-of-the-pack to below-average defensive team. There is room for improvement, but it may not happen soon enough for Dallas to be a contender in the bubble.

8. Memphis Grizzlies (32-33)

The Grizzlies have been one of the league’s more pleasant surprises. Led by the rookie point guard Ja Morant, Memphis has transitioned from the grit-and-grind era while retaining pieces of its ancestral roots. The Grizzlies still play hard. But they are learning as they go, and they have a young core that could cause trouble.

Questions: The Grizzlies thought they would be bolstered in the bubble by the addition of Justise Winslow. But Winslow injured his hip and will miss the remainder of the season. And while the Grizzlies have a lead in the hunt for the conference’s final playoff spot, the team that finishes with the ninth-best record could force a play-in series by finishing within four games.

9. Portland Trail Blazers (29-37)

One year removed from advancing to the Western Conference finals, the Trail Blazers were scuffling along before the lockdown even as Damian Lillard (28.9 points, 7.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds a game) crafted one of his finest seasons to date. But the off-season departures of Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless hindered the team early, as did the absences of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. But Nurkic and Collins are healthy again, and Carmelo Anthony showed up to Florida in great shape.

Questions: Can Lillard pull off another playoff run for the ages? It has been a disheartening season for the Trail Blazers. Lillard has emphasized that he is in Portland for the long run, but rumors about his future will continue to swirl if the team struggles.

10. New Orleans Pelicans (28-36)

Zion, Zion, Zion. Even before Zion Williamson made his long-awaited debut for the Pelicans in January, he was the league’s most magnetic curiosity. In 19 games before the league shut down, he finally delivered by averaging 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game as the Pelicans chased a playoff spot. They are back in the hunt behind Williamson and a young core that includes Brandon Ingram, a first-time All-Star this season.

Questions: Until Williamson proves he can stay on the court, there will be nagging concerns about his durability. He missed the first three months of the season after having knee surgery. Also, not long after the Pelicans arrived in Florida, Williamson left the bubble because of what the team described as an urgent family member. But he is back, and all eyes will be on him.

11. Sacramento Kings (28-36)

In Luke Walton’s first season as coach, the Kings appeared to be moving in the right direction before the shutdown, winning 13 of their final 20 games. Buddy Hield had begrudgingly moved to the bench, but he was scoring and providing depth. De’Aaron Fox, meanwhile, was continuing to play well as the team’s starting point guard, averaging 20.4 points and 6.8 assists a game for the season. The franchise’s first playoff berth since 2005-06 seemed within reach.

Questions: Do the Kings still have a shot at sneaking into the postseason? The compressed schedule has made it more of a long shot, and the Kings have already faced their share of obstacles. Several players tested positive for the coronavirus before the team made its way to Disney World, and Marvin Bagley recently injured his right foot and will miss the rest of Sacramento’s time in the bubble.

12. San Antonio Spurs (27-36)

It has not been a vintage season for the Spurs, whose record-tying streak of 22 straight postseason appearances is in jeopardy. DeMar DeRozan has been terrific, averaging 22.2 points per game while shooting 52.6 percent from the field. But the Spurs are a poor defensive team, and LaMarcus Aldridge, their starting power forward, had season-ending shoulder surgery. Coach Gregg Popovich has suggested that he will use the restart as a chance to develop young players like Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker.

Questions: What changes await the Spurs? DeRozan could become a free agent. And then, of course, there is Popovich, who, at 71, has not revealed his plans for next season. If he does step down after 24 seasons and five championships, it seems likely that he would try to do it in typical Popovich fashion, with as little fanfare as possible.

13. Phoenix Suns (26-39)

The Suns started the season hot, then got cold before settling into a steady rhythm of playing fairly mediocre basketball until the pandemic brought everything to a standstill. But mediocrity counts as progress in Phoenix, where Devin Booker, a first-time All-Star this season, has been doing what he can to drag the franchise toward respectability. Booker is averaging 26.1 points and 6.6 assists while shooting a career-best 48.7 percent from the field.

Questions: It would take a miracle for the Suns to force a play-in series for the conference’s final playoff spot. But for a young squad, there is value in spending several more weeks together — an experience the Suns can potentially use to build on for next season.

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