NBA debate: Breakout stars, best matchups and free agents to watch

Who will be the most important and exciting players to watch when the NBA returns next month?

The league is set to restart action on July 30 in Florida with eight seeding games for each of 22 teams before a potential play-in series and then the standard playoffs. LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard will look to repeat historic playoff performances, while Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler and Anthony Davis headline a class of players looking to make deeper postseason runs than ever before.

Our experts break down the players who matter most in each conference, the first game they want to see in Orlando and the promising stars most likely to have a breakout performance.

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1. You get to make the NBA schedule. What’s the first game you want to see?

Andre Snellings: Milwaukee Bucks vs Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers are talented enough to compete for a championship, but they haven’t played at that level for most of the season. Will they come back at their best, with Joel Embiid rested and Ben Simmons healthy? If so, the Bucks are the perfect measuring stick.

Nick Friedell: New Orleans Pelicans vs. Portland Trail Blazers — a possible play-in game before the play-in games, featuring Zion Williamson and Damian Lillard. Watching those two go back and forth would be a lot of fun, especially given how important it would be in the standings.

Kirk Goldsberry: Los Angeles Lakers versus LA Clippers. LeBron vs. Kawhi. These guys will likely battle for the Western Conference crown, so let’s see a preview right away.

Bobby Marks: I want to see an elimination game off the bat, so I’ll choose either the Orlando Magic vs. the Washington Wizards or the Memphis Grizzlies vs. the Phoenix Suns. The Wizards and Suns will be in desperation mode right away, giving these matchups high stakes immediately.

Tim MacMahon: You can never go wrong with Lakers vs. Clippers, now that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George give L.A.’s other team a pair of franchise players. This has become the NBA’s premier matchup, and it’s surely a West finals that the league office would love to see. It would also probably be the first Lakers-Clippers matchup in which the Lakers didn’t have home-court advantage.

2. Which player do you expect to have a breakout performance?

Friedell: Jimmy Butler. The All-Star swingman has already established himself in the league, but I really expect him to perform well in the bubble. His game and personality are suited well for an all-basketball, no-frills environment. I don’t think he can carry the Miami Heat all the way out of the East, but I do think he’ll have some great performances under these circumstances.

MacMahon: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander‘s talent isn’t exactly a secret. He was the centerpiece of the massive haul the Oklahoma City Thunder received for Paul George, and he hasn’t disappointed, averaging 19.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. He was solid in the playoffs for the Clippers last season in a smaller role, and he’ll likely leave no doubt that he belongs high on the list of the league’s rising stars once the Thunder’s run in Orlando ends.

Marks: Victor Oladipo. By the time he steps on the court in late July, Oladipo will be a year and a half removed from right knee surgery. While he struggled after his return — shooting 39% from the field and averaging 13.8 points — the former All-Star was finding his footing when the season was interrupted. He has the talent to help Indiana surprise teams in the East.

Snellings: Nikola Jokic has played at a star level for a few years now. When he’s on, he’s a true rarity, a walking triple-double who can run the offense from the center position. His recently slimmed physique suggests that he may be in the best shape of his life. If he plays to his full potential in Orlando, he has the chance to enter his name on the short list of the greatest in the game today.

Goldsberry: Bam Adebayo. Miami is incredibly dangerous, and Adebayo could be a huge factor on defense against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Not only is Miami 2-0 against Milwaukee this season, but Adebayo has been brilliant against Giannis. In fact, of the 15 defenders who have guarded Antetokounmpo at least 50 times, nobody has held him to fewer points per possession than Adebayo, per Second Spectrum tracking. That sample of 66 matchups is small, but if the regular season is any indication, Adebayo and Miami could shock the world in the second round.

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3. Which 2020 free agent will you be watching most closely?

Goldsberry: Gordon Hayward, who has a player option coming up. Hayward is a huge X factor in the Eastern Conference. When he’s playing well, the Boston Celtics are stacked offensively. When he’s not, it can get really bad for the guys in green.

Marks: While it is unlikely that the San Antonio Spurs will advance past the seeding games, DeMar DeRozan is of interest because of his $27.7 million player option. A strong showing in Orlando could have DeRozan looking to opt out, even with so much uncertainty surrounding the 2020-21 salary cap and a lack of teams with cap flexibility. And even if DeRozan elects to opt in, a solid performance could interest teams in a trade.

MacMahon: Josh Jackson has flown under the radar lately, but he’s an intriguing 23-year-old talent. The Suns parted with the former No. 4 overall pick because of off-court issues and subpar performance, but he has taken advantage of a second chance in Memphis (following a prove-it G League stint) by establishing himself as a key reserve. Can Jackson create an offseason market for himself with a strong finish?

Friedell: Montrezl Harrell. With a strong performance in the bubble, the Clippers big man is going to set himself up for a big payday. He also may help the Clippers earn a title in the process.

Snellings: Anthony Davis, because his decision affects the entire NBA landscape. If he stays a Laker as expected, then they are championship favorites for as long as LeBron remains near his prime. If Davis departs, he leaves the Lakers with a huge void and presumably makes his new team a contender. If the Lakers run into a red-hot team that takes advantage of the neutral site and knocks them out early, then Davis’ decision could become more interesting.

4. Which Eastern Conference player will have the biggest impact on the NBA title chase?

MacMahon: I’d love to come up with an outside-the-box answer, but how could you possibly pick anyone other than Antetokounmpo? He’s about to win his second consecutive MVP award and perhaps his first for Defensive Player of the Year. If the Bucks don’t win the East, it’ll probably be because a team manages to force the Greek Freak to rely too much on his one flaw: an iffy jumper.

Marks: Butler. While he has never reached the conference finals, his play in last season’s loss to the eventual champions is an indication that Butler can carry a team if needed. Butler led the Sixers with a team-high 22 PPG and put up 10 points in the fourth quarter of Game 7.

Friedell: Antetokounmpo. Will he be able to take the next step in his development and lead the Bucks to the title? This is his time to put the Bucks on his back and carry them across the finish line.

Goldsberry: It’s gotta be Giannis, who might be the best two-way player in the world right now. If he’s able to play his game, get to the rim and control the action on both ends of the court, the Bucks are going to the Finals. But if someone like Adebayo can contain him, the Bucks are beatable.

Snellings: Embiid. If he plays to his potential, the Sixers could win the Eastern Conference title. He is the wild card who could swing the conference in either direction based upon his performance.

5. Which Western Conference player will have the biggest impact on the NBA title chase?

MacMahon: As the reigning Finals MVP and a two-time winner of that honor, Leonard can rightfully claim the crown. But this is still LeBron James’ league. After all, in his past eight postseason appearances, James led his team to the NBA Finals.

Marks: Jokic. While everyone expects an all-Los Angeles conference finals, don’t sleep on the Nuggets, especially with Jokic’s leaner frame and the experience gained from last year’s postseason. In addition to averaging 25.1 points in 14 games, Jokic already has played in two Game 7s.

Friedell: Kawhi Leonard. He will presumably be healthier after the hiatus and have a chance to show he’s the best player in the game. Winning titles with three different teams would be an incredible accomplishment, and doing so while likely going through LeBron and the Lakers would make it that much sweeter.

Snellings: James Harden. The Rockets are such an unorthodox team, but they have the punching power to beat any team in the NBA if they are operating at a high level. Their team is built to allow Russell Westbrook to thrive, giving him easy lanes to the rim where he can flex his talents. If Harden is able to play his very best in the postseason, the Rockets have the potential to disrupt the entire Western Conference.

Goldsberry: Davis. I see the West coming down to an L.A. matchup, and while LeBron and Kawhi are easy picks here, I’ll go with Davis. The Clippers lack a true rim protector, and Davis has the opportunity to exploit that and propel the Lakers to the Finals. We’ve never seen that from him in the playoffs, but this could be the year.

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