The NBA is back
The NBA returns tonight with a Western Conference doubleheader — Jazz vs. Pelicans and Clippers vs. Lakers — kicking off a 10-week race to the finish, all within the friendly confines of what's become an exceptionally well-run Disney World bubble.
The state of play: 22 teams made the trip to Orlando, and for the next two weeks they'll each play eight "seeding games" to determine the playoff field.
- Seeding games count toward regular season records, after which the top seven teams in each conference automatically earn a playoff berth.
- The eighth seed must be more than four games up on the ninth, otherwise a "best of two" play-in series will determine the final playoff berth (No. 8 would need to win just one game; No. 9 would need to win both).
- Milwaukee Bucks: They're so far in first they'll likely use the seeding games as a tune-up, easing players into the new environment ahead of the playoffs.
- Toronto Raptors: The reigning champs have moved on nicely after Kawhi Leonard's departure, avoiding the infamous championship hangover.
- Boston Celtics: Kemba Walker's leadership and huge leaps from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have the Celts ready for a deep run.
- Miami Heat: All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo lead the way, but their depth sets them apart.
- Indiana Pacers: Victor Oladipo is fully healed, but All-Star center Domantas Sabonis was forced to leave the bubble for treatment on his plantar fascitis.
- Philadelphia 76ers: With Ben Simmons' back no longer aching, every team's going to want to avoid the Sixers.
The remaining teams include the Orlando Magic, Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards
- Los Angeles Lakers: Like the Bucks, the Lakers have a big enough lead to use these games as a tune-up, and it looks like Anthony Davis should be good to go on Thursday.
- Los Angeles Clippers: The layoff appears to have done wonders for Paul George's surgically-repaired shoulders, to say nothing of Leonard's chronic quad issue.
- Denver Nuggets: Depth was already a strength — but then they added seven-foot-two-inch rookie phenom Bol Bol.
- Utah Jazz: Their best shooter is out for the season with a wrist injury, but an elite defense gives them some wiggle room.
- Oklahoma City Thunder: Despite losing Russell Westbrook and Paul George, they're better than they were a year ago thanks to Chris Paul's mastery and a breakout year from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
- Houston Rockets: Houston's still trying to shoot its way to a title, which is entirely possible, though Eric Gordon's ankle injury doesn't help.
- Dallas Mavericks: Luka Dončić and Kristaps Porziņģis fuel the league's top-rated offense.
Intriguing fringe teams:
- Memphis Grizzlies: Likely ROY Ja Morant has been as impactful as he is entertaining.
- Portland Trail Blazers: The return of injured bigs Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkić could make Portland a legit upset pick.
- New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson only played 19 games. Imagine where they'd be if he'd been healthy all year.
The remaining teams include the Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns.
Voting for the NBA's end-of-year awards has concluded, after the league announced that the upcoming seeding games in Orlando won't factor into who wins the hardware. Winners will be announced during the playoffs.
MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL), LeBron James (LAL), James Harden (HOU), Leonard (LAC), Damian Lillard (POR) and Davis (LAL) are the favorites.
- Our pick: LeBron. 25.7 pts, 7.9 reb and a league-high 10.6 ast, playing 35 mpg in his 17th season for the first-place Lakers.
- Likely winner: Antetokounmpo. Supremely deserving back-to-back wins for the Greek Freak on the strength of absurd numbers (29.6/13.7/5.8) and an NBA-best 53-12 record.
Defensive Player of the Year: Antetokounmpo (MIL), Davis (LAL), Rudy Gobert (UTA), Leonard (LAC) and Simmons (PHI) are the favorites.
- Our pick: Antetokounmpo. The anchor of the league's best defense can guard all five positions equally well.
- Likely winner: Antetokounmpo.
Rookie of the Year: Morant (MEM), Williamson (NOP), Brandon Clarke (MEM) and Kendrick Nunn (MIA) are the favorites.
- Our pick: Morant. He wasn't just a walking highlight reel — he also led Memphis to nearly as many wins in 65 games (32) as they had all of last season (33).
- Likely winner: Morant.
- First team: James (G), Harden (G), Antetokounmpo (F), Leonard (F), Davis (C)
- Second team: Paul (G), Lillard (G), Dončić (F), Jimmy Butler (F), Nikola Jokić (C)
- Third team: Tatum (G), Simmons (G), Pascal Siakam (F), Khris Middleton (F), Gobert (C)