A weekly dive into the NBA’s hottest topics.
1. Bol Bol’s debut was the perfect way for basketball to return
The backdrop was discordant: coaches separated by empty chairs, wearing masks, the Black Lives Matter logo parallel to the sideline — reminders of the conditions outside the Disney campus, how perilous and fragile a distraction the NBA’s return is.
But the game was the game — the same give or take some rust.
At 11 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Denver Nuggets rookie center Bol Bol, 7-foot-2 and spindly, shifted from one foot to the other at the center line before a referee threw a basketball into the air, initiating the first NBA action in 131 days.
Bol — playing in his NBA debut, his first game in 588 days — was everything we’ve been missing: a revelation, something new to get unreasonably excited about.
Happy accidents are the best part of sports — the odd calamity that is Mario Hezonja doing too much in a crowd; the stupefying, unpredictable miracle of Bol’s second professional basket being a pull-up transition three on a makeshift campus. The Nuggets, down practically every guard, started what coach Michael Malone said “might have been the biggest lineup in NBA history” with Bol at center.
Five minutes into the game, he blocked a shot and tapped the ball back to himself from a dimension of the floor only his 7-foot-9 wingspan could access, like a teenager playing keep-away while towering over a bunch of sixth-graders. It made me nervous. How were all those limbs ruled by just that core?
Nikola Jokic, Denver’s superstar and the world’s best passer, motioned for the ball. Bol insisted he had this one though, charting the court in four dribbles, pulling up and canning a long three. He finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks, popping in a way only the unexpected does. He is teeming with possibility, for himself, for the Nuggets, for the game.
There’s a chance he won’t play at all once the scrimmages turn into real games. There’s a chance he might. Speculating over whether the Nuggets (+2200 to win the NBA title at BetMGM) should eat into Paul Millsap’s minutes to give Bol the floor, whether they should just play tall ball (Bol ball?) all the time, whether it would be too much and too soon for a young, raw prospect on a team trying to win now is where the fun lies: This is a future that’s reliable enough to speculate on.
I realize that this is basically an advertisement for the return of sports — Serendipity for these Monotone Times! — but I can’t help myself. Basketball is back. I’m weary. I’m happy. It’s nice to have something to look forward to.
2. Watch out for the Blazers
Jusuf Nurkic was supposed to make his return inside the Moda Center.
On March 25, 2019, the Portland Trail Blazers big man shattered his leg in gruesome fashion on live TV. March 15, 2020, was the return date he focused on. It would, alongside all manner of things, be delayed.
Instead, Nurkic quietly returned Thursday, opening the Blazers’ first scrimmage against the Indiana Pacers with a post-up bucket. No fans. No applause — an unceremonious return for a player whose impact could have ripple effects in the playoff race.
In what is definitely not (read: definitely not) a wishful attempt to deliver a Zion Williamson vs. LeBron James showdown in the first round of the playoffs, the NBA introduced a play-in scenario to determine the eighth seed in the playoffs — if the ninth-seeded team is within four games of the final slot when the regular season ends.
As it stands right now, the Blazers would play the eighth-seed Grizzlies. Despite that, FiveThirtyEight’s playoff odds tracker gives Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans the best shot of sneaking into the playoffs, at 47 percent.
This, despite the return of the “Bosnian Beast,” whose mere existence will have a multiplying effect on a team that has held it together by the seams despite gradually losing all of its depth.
When Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Nurkic shared the floor last season, they outscored opponents by 10.6 points per 100 possessions. The trio has the luxury of reps, operating with winks and nods on screens and hand-offs. Nurkic tallied five screen assists, fourth best in the NBA, last season. This season, the Blazers have a 3.7 net rating when Lillard, McCollum and Nurkic’s de facto replacement, Hassan Whiteside, share the floor. Nurkic and Whiteside have talked a good game about working together, but more of the former inevitably means less of the latter, which is good news for Portland.
There was a time it looked like the Blazers (+400 to earn the eighth seed at BetMGM) were completely out of the playoff race, but they have a chance to make up for all the ground they lost. Nurkic’s return balances out an attack that has relied too heavily on the emergence of Anfernee Simons and the brilliant variance of Dame Time.
3. LeBron James, young and old
In the eight seasons before joining the Lakers, LeBron James played basketball games for nine out of 12 months. But the Lakers missed the playoffs last year, and the pandemic chewed more than four months out of this season. That means James has played in just six of the last 15 months.
The Lakers (+250 to win it all at BetMGM) returned to action Thursday and James — with squiggly gray hairs crawling out his beard — looked like his not-so-old-looking self, activating the jet fuel and windmill-dunking all over the Dallas Mavericks, summoning what will be a peculiar, thrilling contradiction of watching him in the twilight of his prime. He is old enough to confidently wear his age on his face, but his body — and the million-dollar medical brain trust behind it — could be the most rejuvenated it’s been in years.
The extenuating circumstances of finishing the season in Disney World won’t hit every player the same, and unknown factors that nobody can predict will inevitably creep in, but you’d think the time off and the elimination of air travel would likely serve the older players more. James has always been battling age. This time, fate might lend him a hand.
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