Only 14 days remain before the NBA season resumes with the top 22 teams set to compete for 16 playoff spots in Orlando, Fla. Many players have chosen to opt out of the restart due to COVID-19 concerns, so some rosters will look quite different when the league tips off again on July 30.
Still, most of the NBA’s superstars are going to suit up to finish the season, and some of them could have a profound impact on their team’s success.
Here are five must-watch players ready to make some noise in the NBA bubble.
5. Jamal Crawford – Brooklyn Nets
The Nets currently own the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, but they’re going to struggle to hold on to it with the roster they brought to Orlando. When the season begins again, they’ll be without Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan, Wilson Chandler, and Spencer Dinwiddie. To help replace some of the production they lost, Brooklyn signed veterans Michael Beasley, Tyler Johnson, and Jamal Crawford.
Crawford in particular will be an intriguing player to watch for the rest of the season. The 40-year-old combo guard has come off the bench for most of his career, but he may be called upon to start for Brooklyn. And, despite his age, he scored 51 points for the Phoenix Suns in his most recent NBA appearance last season. Crawford’s new station with the Nets should offer him a sizeable role on a playoff-bound team and an opportunity to prove to the rest of the league that he can still play at a high level.
4. Ja Morant – Memphis Grizzlies
Ja Morant was the clear frontrunner for the Rookie of the Year award prior to the suspension of the NBA season, and he could secure the honor with more electric play in the coming weeks. Morant is averaging 17.6 points and 6.9 assists per game in his first year in the league, almost singlehandedly putting the Grizzlies in position to make the playoffs. His eye-popping athleticism has been on full display, and he’s also developed uncanny court vision for such a young player.
If teammates like Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, and Brandon Clarke can provide enough support, Morant should be able to lock down the eighth seed for Memphis. Either way, he’ll make Grizzlies games essential entertainment this summer.
3. Russell Westbrook – Houston Rockets
Russell Westbrook tested positive for COVID-19 on July 13, but he’s currently in quarantine and will likely return to the Rockets in time for their first game. Inconsistent play marred the first half of his first season with Houston, but he had really found some momentum before the league shut down in March. Westbrook is putting up 27.5 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists per game, and he raised his field goal percentage up to a career-high 47 percent before the break.
The significant improvement in his efficiency can be attributed to his emphasis on scoring in the paint and in the mid-range area instead of settling for three-pointers far too often. Westbrook is a career 30 percent three-point shooter, so his perimeter jumpers usually marked a victory for the defense. If he can continue to lean on his strengths (driving the ball to score in the paint or kick out to the Rockets’ shooters), Westbrook could help Houston finally reach the NBA Finals again.
2. Jayson Tatum – Boston Celtics
Like Westbrook, Jayson Tatum was in the midst of a career year before the season was suspended. The third-year Duke product has blossomed into one of the premier small forwards in the NBA, averaging 23.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest for the Celtics. He’s improved every facet of his game and proven that he can contribute on both ends of the floor for Boston.
The Celtics have quietly put together one of the deepest rotations in the league, joining Tatum with Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, and Enes Kanter. The Celtics could surprise some fans and make a deep postseason run if Tatum maintains the same level of production and the team’s stars continue to build chemistry.
1. LeBron James – Los Angeles Lakers
All eyes will be on LeBron James this summer. He’s on the tail end of his first fully healthy campaign with the Lakers, and he’s poised to win a fourth championship. The 35-year-old James has presented yet another compelling case for the MVP award, averaging 25.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, and a league-high 10.6 assists per game. The 16-year veteran has shown no signs of slowing down, and his dominance has guided Los Angeles to a 49-14 record and the top seed in the Western Conference.
James will need help from Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green, and the rest of the Lakers to win another title, but he’s turned the team into the league’s prohibitive favorite to win it all in 2020. If he can earn another ring this season and take home Finals MVP too, James would become the only player to ever win the award for three different teams.