It has been 141 days since the test “heard round the world” that shut down the NBA and the entire sports world.
On March 11, the NBA received word immediately before tipoff of the Utah Jazz-Oklahoma City Thunder bout that Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19.
The league canceled that game and suspended the season later that night. A day later, all major professional and collegiate sports leagues followed suit, and the sports world became as dark as a house at night.
While the MLB and MLS have reemerged in the past few weeks, the league that started it all will make its triumphant return Thursday night in a bubble from the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.
Twenty-two teams made the trek to the “Most Magical Place on Earth,” and everyone knows the powerhouses who will be there.
There are the Lakers, led by Lebron and AD, the Clippers, led by Kawhi and Paul George (and a man who loves his chicken wings), the Bucks, led by reigning MVP Giannis Antetotokounmpo, and the defending champion Raptors.
Even though those teams are rightly the favorites to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy, there are less-respected teams that can make a run for it, or at least be a thorn in the side of said contenders.
Here are the five teams that can make the bubble the place where their “dreams come true.”
Miami Heat: 41-24, No. 4 in the East
If there is one player who is perfectly equipped to spend months stuck in one location, it is Jimmy Butler. Butler is known for his training regiment, which has included getting noise complaints in his room at Disney World. Butler’s squad is known for its toughness and physicality, traits that could work well in a situation where teams may be sluggish offensively considering there haven’t been meaningful games in over four months.
Besides Butler, Miami has an All-Star center in Bam Adebayo, superb rookies in Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro and playoff experience with Goran Dragic and Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. The Heat have been decimated by injuries, but now everyone is back healthy, and they seem ready to make a splash, especially since their two likely playoff opponents – Philadelphia and Milwaukee – are teams the Heat have excelled against this season, going 3-1 against Sixers and 2-0 against the Bucks.
Philadelphia 76ers: 39-26, No. 6 in the East
When the NBA season all the way back in last October, it would have seemed absurd to put Philly on a list of dark horse contenders. There was nothing sleeper about them. With the acquisition of Al Horford and Kawhi Leonard moving to the City Of Angels, it seemed like the Sixers had a real shot at their first finals appearance in 19 years.
But this season hasn’t been too friendly to those in the City of Brotherly Love. Horford has struggled to fit in, and Ben Simmons is still missing shots (and the water) left and right.
However, a lineup change could be the difference as Simmons will start at power forward, moving Horford to the bench. This should improve Philly’s spacing, which was worse than the line to get into a football game at the Swamp.
Of course, this lineup hasn’t gotten any time playing together this season, but if it works, Simmons and Joel Embiid can finally get past the giants of the East – Boston and Toronto.
Houston Rockets: 40-24, No. 6 in the West
Perhaps the most scrutinized team in the NBA this season has been the Houston Rockets. Led by GM Daryl Morey, Houston has fully embraced its small ball mantra. After the trade deadline, the team began to start 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker at center. The results before the shutdown were mixed, with wins over Boston and the Lakers, but also losses to cellar-dwellers New York and Charlotte.
A big reason for the subpar play was the struggles of James Harden. Harden didn’t look like himself before the shutdown, shooting just 37.4% from the floor in his last five games. Now, he returns fully rested and ready to make his first NBA Finals with the Rockets.
However, given that this is the Rockets, they could crash and burn and get eliminated in the first round, but if they knock down those triples, Harden and Westbrook can get back to the Finals for the first time since 2012.
Oklahoma City Thunder: 40-24, No. 5 in the West
Just like with the 76ers, no one would have expected the Thunder to be on this list in October. However, instead of not living up to expectations like Philly, OKC exceeded them. After trading All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Paul George (and building up draft capital in the process), the Thunder seemed like they were heading straight for lottery town.
And the prognosticators seemed right after a month and a half, but since Dec. 1, the Thunder have gone 33-13. Led by Chris Paul, they developed one of the best offenses and defenses in the NBA, ranking in the top 10 in both.
This is a team without a bonafide superstar – Paul is 35 and not the same player he once was – but they have excellent chemistry and strong supporting pieces, including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder.
In a Western Conference where no team this season has seemed poised to challenge the Lakers and Clippers, the Thunder can potentially do just that.
Portland Trail Blazers: 29-37, No. 9 in the West
They always say save the best for last, and while the Blazers aren’t the best team on this list, putting them on it was certainly the boldest choice.
Portland is the only squad on this list not currently in the playoffs. In fact, it isn’t even very close, sitting three and a half games behind the Memphis Grizzlies. But the NBA announced that, in the restart, if the nine seed is within four games of the eight seed, there will be a play-in tournament to see which team makes it. If the Blazers get into the playoffs, they will have the opportunity to upset the Lakers and could do it.
Now in a normal season, it would be crazy to think a team with Portland’s record can unseat the mighty Lakers, but this isn't a normal season, and the Blazers haven’t had a normal team all season.
They have been killed by injuries arguably more than any other contender, losing starters in Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic.
But both have currently returned, and the Blazers have a wealth of talent unfamiliar to an eighth seed. And needless to say, they still have arguably the best backcourt in the NBA in C.J. McCollum and Damien Lillard.
With Dame and C.J. at the helm last season, Portland went all the way to the Western Conference Finals, and although a return trip seems unlikely, if they sneak into the postseason and get past the purple and gold, the rest of the West will certainly be shaking.
Follow Noah on Twitter @Noah_ram1. Contact him at [email protected].