The NBA is finally returning on Thursday and it’s been a long time.
Since March 11, players have been out of court and fans have seen official matches due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But after months of waiting, clashes between New Orleans Pelicans-Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers-Los Angeles Clippers will headline the restart of the 2019-2020 season in Orlando, Florida.
In the Walt Disney World Resort bubble, 22 teams resume their regular seasons for the playoffs.
The Milwaukee Bucks topped the NBA rankings at the time of the delay, while the Los Angeles Lakers flew in the Western Conference.
Using STATS data, we look at the top performers ahead of the break as LeBron James sees a fourth champion ring and Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo pursues a title for the girl.
Red hot LeBron
After a tough first season in Los Angeles, James has returned to his brilliant best in 2019-20. Before the interruption caused by the coronavirus, the four-time MVP catapulted itself into the mix for a fifth Most Valuable Player honor by the Lakers – who have played 63 of their 82-game regular season – to a Western Conference best 49-14. lead entry.
As the 35-year-old superstar prepares to resume his bid for a new NBA crown, James leads the league in assists per game at 10.6. If he kept pace, James would be the third-oldest player to lead the NBA in assists per game behind two-time MVP and Phoenix Suns major Steve Nash – both in 2009-10 (ages 35-36) and 2010 did -11 (age 36-37). The former striker of Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers also scored an average of 25.7 points and 7.9 rebounds per game this season.
James, whose first campaign at Staples Center was cut short by a Christmas Day injury almost two years ago, played some of his best basketball alongside All-Star recruit Anthony Davis before suspension in March. In five games that month, James averaged 30.0 points and 10.6 assists per game, shooting 55.7 percent from the field. It’s the only time in the past 30 years that an NBA player has given an average of 30.0-plus and 10.0-plus assists on 55.0-plus-percent shots in a calendar month (minimum five games played).
Giannis – The Greek Freak
The Eastern Conference-leading Bucks (53-12) are on track for their first NBA title since 1971 thanks to superstar MVP Antetokounmpo after Mike Budenholzer’s team lost in the Conference Finals last season.
Antetokounmpo – expected to be close to winning back-to-back MVPs – has not stepped back since he was crowned the best of the league in 2018-19, averaging 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game for the high-flying Bucks this season.
The only players with an average of 25/13/5 in a season are Elgin Baylor (1960-61), Wilt Chamberlain (1963-64 and 1965-66) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1972-73 and 1975-76).
Firing hard rockets
James Harden’s position among the greats is often discussed, but there is no question about his quality and importance to the Houston Rockets.
Harden has established himself as a scoring machine in Houston since joining the Oklahoma City Thunder Rockets in 2012, mostly from outside the arc, and after an average of 36.1 points last season, the 2018 MVP is back .
In 2019-20, Harden – now with fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook – averages 34.4 per game. The only players with an average of 34 positives in consecutive seasons are Wilt Chamberlain (six consecutive from 1959-60 to 1964-65), Baylor (three consecutive from 1960-61 to 1962-63) and Michael Jordan (1986 -87 to 1987 -88).
The Rockets – sixth in the west with a record of 40-24 – rely heavily on Harden to lead the two-time champion to their first NBA Finals appearance since 1995.
The dazzling Doncic of Dallas
If you thought Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic was a one-season wonder, think again.
Reigning Rookie of the Year continues to take the NBA by storm, making the Mavericks (40-27) a legitimate playoff threat after Dallas missed the postseason for the third consecutive year last season.
Doncic, a first All-Star this season, has an average of 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game for the vastly improved Mavs in 2019-20.
The 21-year-old Slovenian sensation – who makes a formidable combination with international fellow star Kristaps Porzingis – is looking for Oscar Robertson (five times), Jordan (1988-89), Harden (2016-17) and Westbrook (2016 -17) as the only players with an average of 28/8/8 in a season.
Williamson follows in MJ’s footsteps
When it comes to number one concept, choose Zion Williamson, believe the hype.
The Pelicans rookie hasn’t missed a beat since his debut in January, making his presence known around the NBA league quickly.
Compared to James during his college days at Duke, Williamson averages 23.6 points per game in his first 19 games – the highest number of players through 19 career games since Chicago Bulls and NBA legend Jordan (25.6).
Williamson has helped fill the void Davis left in New Orleans and the Pelicans – 10th in the Western Conference with a record 28-36 – hope the 20-year-old can lead the organization to just their second playoff appearance in five seasons.
Keep an eye on the LeVert from Nets
The Nets will be far from complete in the NBA bubble. Superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are both on the sidelines due to an injury, while DeAndre Jordan, Spencer Dinwiddie, Wilson Chandler and Taurean Prince have signed out.
Step up Caris LeVert.
LeVert has improved significantly since re-entering the starting line-up with the playoff-chasing Nets. In his first 14 games on the bench, he averaged only 11.1 points, 2.7 assists and 2.6 rebounds when Brooklyn went 5-9.
Since returning to the starting five, the 25-year-old has averaged 24.1 points, 5.3 assists, and 4.8 rebounds in his last 16 games. More importantly, the Nets (30-34) had a record 7-7 in a congested Eastern conference.