By Nesta McGregor BBC Sport- BBC.COM
The LA Lakers ended a decade-long wait for a 17th NBA title in October
When the NBA season tips off on Tuesday – with the Los Angeles Lakers among the teams in action as they face the Los Angeles Clippers – it will mark the end of the shortest pre-season in US professional sporting history.
Just 72 days earlier, the Lakers – led by LeBron James – had celebrated winning the NBA title at Disney World in Florida. Now, they are getting ready to start again.
As is tradition, the members of the title-winning team will each be given a diamond-encrusted ring on opening night to mark their achievement. Yet Covid-19 restrictions mean the celebration will be a quiet one – as the Staples Center will be empty.
This will be an NBA campaign with a difference. There will be 72 regular-season games instead of the usual 82. Some arenas will have fans while others won’t. Only the first half of the season’s schedule has been published. And the season is scheduled to end in May.
Here are a few of the narratives, players and teams that may play a key part in where the championship trophy ends up.
King James’ reign set to continue?
It’s testament to LeBron James’ natural-born talent and his documented hard work that, at the age of 35, he is still considered the league’s best player. This will be his 18th season as a professional.
When James signed for the Lakers in 2018, he said trophies would follow. Last year, he delivered on that promise. A large portion of the credit, though, must be awarded to his running-mate Anthony Davis.
The Lakers have refreshed their roster – with some believing the team is better than last year. The talk around the league is that this title is theirs to lose rather than anyone else’s to win.
Indeed, the biggest threat to the Lakers’ championship credentials could be the team they share a building with – the Los Angeles Clippers.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have a point to prove after their push for glory ended in September. The bookies’ favourite last season, they limped out of the play-offs against the Denver Nuggets – losing the best-of-seven series 4-3.
Southern California News Group Lakers reporter Kyle Goon: “The Lakers have added scoring, especially off the bench, to a unit that needed that. And I think their passing has got better too, if you look at guys such as Dennis Schroder and Pau Gasol. So, I like the punch-up offensively.
“Their problem may be on the defensive end; they have lost a few guys who were very good defenders. Another thing that’s important: they won it last year, so the pressure is off them in that aspect. They have plenty of guys who know how to win, and that counts towards a lot.”
The return of the ‘Unicorn’
There are some in basketball circles who believe the title of best player in the game is a direct toss-up between James and Kevin Durant.
While James has the better all-round game, Durant is considered by far the better scorer. The Brooklyn Nets forward is listed at 6ft 10in and is at times referred to as a ‘unicorn’ – someone equipped with an almost mythical skillset.
Durant is deadly from almost anywhere on the court and has the ball-handling skills some smaller guards could envy.
But he has been out of the sport for a long time. When Durant made his debut for the Nets on 13 December in pre-season, it came 552 days after he last graced an NBA court.
The 32-year-old suffered an Achilles tendon injury while playing for the Golden State Warriors, his previous team, in June 2019. He signed soon afterwards for the Nets, who have been waiting eagerly to discover just what he can produce for them.
His on-court chemistry with Nets point guard Kyrie Irving could be the difference maker – but all eyes will be watching to see if Durant is anywhere near the player he was before the injury lay-off.
It would take a brave man to bet the house on the Brooklyn Nets being championship contenders. However it may take a braver man to bet against Durant.
Giannis’ getting the big bucks from the Bucks
A decade ago, Giannis Antetokounmpo was selling sunglasses and trinkets on a beach in his native Greece to raise money to help support his family. Earlier this month, he signed the richest deal in US basketball history – a five-year contract extension worth $228.2m (£170.1m) with the Milwaukee Bucks.
The 26-year-old could be the face of the NBA for a long time to come. He is the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player (MVP) and defensive player of the year. Now the challenge for him is to prove he can do it when it counts most – in the post-season. Without an NBA title since 1971, the Bucks have made a huge investment in the power forward.
And while success may not come immediately, Antetokounmpo’s place among the greats might be questioned if he cannot at least get them close to a title.
Jim Owczarski, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel/USA Today: “To keep the two-time MVP on the team for the foreseeable future helps solidify their chances to remain a true Eastern Conference contender. He is ostensibly just hitting his prime at 26 years and has already built a Hall of Fame resume.
“It took Michael Jordan seven seasons and LeBron James nine [both were 27 years old] to win their first titles after long runs of individual dominance. It’s about that time for Antetokounmpo and, really, playing for rings is what separates the top 1% of the 1% in sports.”
The other guys…
Stephen Curry is thought of as the best shooter the game of basketball has ever seen… and it appears he has been using the pre-season games to remind the world that he’s not done yet.
The 32-year-old is a three-time NBA champion and the key to any hopes of a resurgence from the Golden State Warriors.
His ‘Splash Brother’ Klay Thompson is likely to miss another season through injury, so Curry’s leadership skills will be tested as he attempts to guide a relatively young team through the ups and downs of an NBA season.
Luka Doncic is the early bookies’ favourite to be the upcoming season’s MVP. The 20-year-old Slovenian led the Dallas Mavericks further into last year’s play-offs than anyone expected.
In just his second season he averaged 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists. Anything close or even better than that and the best player award could be his.
James Harden is another contender, with a commentator once joking that he scored 25 points just by getting out of bed.
The Houston Rockets’ talisman has led the NBA in scoring for the past three seasons, and is much loved in the city – but there is talk he wants out of the franchise, with Brooklyn or the Philadelphia 76ers possible destinations.
Still if the Rockets refuse to trade him, expect another year of raining buckets.
Black Lives Matter
In a year which saw athletes from across the sporting spectrum use their voices to highlight social injustices, basketball and the NBA were on the frontline of that charge.
After discussions between the players and league representatives, all courts were emblazoned with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ logo and players wore anti-discrimination slogans in place of their names on their jerseys after the death of American George Floyd.
Floyd, 46, died after being arrested by police outside a shop in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Footage of the arrest in May showed a white police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck while he was pinned to the floor.
Play was also suspended for three days at Disney World in Florida – starting on 26 August and led by the actions of the Milwaukee Bucks – in direct response to the shooting of Jacob Blake.
Earlier that month Blake, a black man, was left paralysed after being shot multiple times by a white police officer in Wisconsin.
After games resumed, entire teams took the knee during the US national anthem.
Going into the new campaign, the NBA pre-season games have been played without any slogans on the courts or player jerseys.
However, much work is being done behind the scenes. After several meetings between executives and player groups, NBA teams have made a commitment to speaking up against social injustices and discrimination.
As part of that commitment, several arenas were used as polling stations
in the November 2020 US elections, with the NBA explaining this was intended “to allow for a safe in-person voting option for communities vulnerable to Covid”.
Teams also regularly take part in initiatives aimed at supporting local communities.
The 2020 NBA Draft may have lacked a standout name this year. Yet the general consensus was that there is plenty of talent out there.
James Wiseman, drafted by the Golden State Warriors, stands 7ft tall, and is seen as a player who could prove there still is space for the big man in a game increasingly dominated by long-range shooters.
LaMelo Ball, working under the tutelage of Michael Jordan at the Charlotte Hornets, has looked exciting in pre-season with his vast array of flashy passing.
But the name we are likely to hear most is Anthony Edwards at the Minnesota Timberwolves – the 2020 draft first overall pick.