It appears the stars are in alignment for the NBA’s long-awaited return to play this week.
Pelicans star Zion Williamson cleared quarantine after leaving the NBA bubble to tend to a family matter. The star rookie will be available if New Orleans wants to give him minutes when regular-season play resumes just outside of Orlando on Thursday.
That piece of good news is the latest for a league that is spinning gold even as coronavirus-related chaos unfolds throughout the rest of Florida.
Showcasing Williamson played an enormous role in the league deciding to include 22 teams instead of returning with the 16 teams that would have qualified for the playoffs on March 11, the night the league suspended play. The NBA views the 2019 Draft’s top pick as a LeBron James-level star and took notice of the ratings boost he provided when he debuted on Jan. 22.
With Williamson back and a clean slate of positive testing successfully fostering a sterile environment at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, the NBA has enjoyed a great run ramping up towards a restart. There’s optimism that its meticulous planning will pay off in crowning a champion in October without any significant glitches.
We haven’t heard much about the snitch line being used, but social media served to catch Clippers guard Lou Williams in a compromising position. The veteran guard was at Atlanta’s Magic City Gentlemen’s Club getting some of their reportedly fabulous chicken wings while on an excused absence. One of his “friends” snapped a photo and sent it out on its internet journey. The NBA responded by telling L.A.’s three-time Sixth Man of the Year he’d have to quarantine for 10 days, the harshest sentence possible in bubble land, before being able to rejoin teammates.
Kings forward Richaun Holmes was the first to be served up the punitive 10-day reminder that the bubble can’t be compromised after he crossed a boundary to receive a Postmates delivery. The league isn’t tolerating nonsense, which bodes well for the likelihood of being able to get through the next few months without incident.
Players will no longer have much idle time to kill, making it easier to follow protocols. With restrictions and mandates in place and travel issues mitigated, pro basketball looks better suited to manage being able to play amidst a pandemic than baseball and football.
Scrimmage play was encouraging. Although it’s true that a handful of guys were unable to touch a basketball and work on their skills during the hiatus, most returned in fantastic shape and have added wrinkles to their games. Fresh legs and the luxuries they provide will be prevailing theme over the coming weeks.
It’s important to be wary of how teams plan to dispense minutes prior to the start of the playoffs in mid-August when betting these seeding games. Franchises that aren’t at risk of missing the postseason may give their best players time off to ease them back into action. We’ll likely see expanded rotations early as coaches try to get everyone re-acclimated.
Those on the outside looking in out West are taking a different approach since they’re under immediate pressure to get results. Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard is returning from a foot issue and Suns forward Kelly Oubre Jr. hopes to make it back from a knee injury. Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox came back from a moderate ankle sprain.
Orlando appears likely to claim the East’s No. 7 seed after getting talented forward Jonathan Isaac back from a knee injury as the Nets and Wizards waved the white flag due to almost all of their top scorers sitting out.
Back a healthy sense of urgency when going to make your bets.
Trail Blazers -2 vs. Grizzlies: To celebrate the NBA’s successful bubble run, I’ve got three winners to lock in on between now and next issue. On Friday, I think we’ll see the Blazers send the Grizzlies the message that they’re coming for No. 8, covering as a small favorite. Center Jusuf Nurkic looks fantastic in his return from a broken leg and should be a force. TRAIL BLAZERS
Nuggets -2 vs. Heat: Saturday’s five game slate tips off with the Heat facing the Nuggets at breakfast time on the West Coast. Denver is favored by a bucket, but I like Miami to win outright with Bam Adebayo containing a slimmer Nikola Jokic. Both were stricken with COVID-19 over the past month. HEAT
Spurs vs. 76ers: The Spurs play the 76ers in a matchup where Gregg Popovich’s team will be a heavy underdog against former assistant Brett Brown’s squad. Expect Pop to employ zone and bog things down in order to give San Antonio a chance. UNDER