The NBA returns to conclude it’s 2019-2020 Regular Season under the most unusual of circumstances in order to crown a champion at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. Here’s what you need to know before the majority of the league officially gets back to business on Thursday.
Thursday, July 30th will mark the long awaited return of the National Basketball Association, who will attempt to conclude their 2019-2020 campaign in a carefully crafted bubble environment, manufactured at ESPN Wide World Sports in Orlando, Florida. Needless to say, the fact that the league has been able to progress to this point without any major setbacks is a testament to the resiliency of Commissioner, Adam Silver, his associates, the owners, the players, and the countless staff that have all made the creation of such a unique environment even remotely possible. Now with hundreds of negative tests in the rearview mirror, all talk about the game can finally return to the action on the hardwood after a four-month hiatus.
So what can we expect to see from the Association over the next few weeks, you ask? Well, you’ll notice that only twenty-two of the NBA’s thirty teams were invited to compete in this bubble. Why only twenty-two? That’s because with most teams having anywhere between eighteen to twenty-two games left in the Regular Season, the Powers That Be ultimately decided that it wasn’t necessary to risk all of their franchises, particularly given that a number of them were already well out of contention for a spot in the Playoffs. After all, this entire enterprise has proven to be unbelievably expensive, so trimming the cost by leaving eight teams out of the equation makes sense for all parties involved. So how did they decide who was getting the invite? Historically, if a team trailed the Eighth Seed in their respective conference by at least six games with eighteen to twenty-two games left in the Regular Season, the majority failed to make up the necessary ground to qualify for the Playoffs, with the eight teams that met that unfortunate criteria left out of this party altogether. And by that math, in addition to the sixteen teams that occupy the eight Playoff Seeds from each conference, a total of five were invited from the Western Conference, while only one was invited from the Eastern Conference. Those teams are the following: the New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings, Portland Trail Blazers, and Phoenix Suns from the West, and the Washington Wizards from the East.
After a series of coordinated scrimmages, the invited teams will finish their respective Regular Season Schedules in the most abridged fashion; they won’t be completing them at all, in fact, with every team playing just eight games, which the Association will use to determine their seeding for the Playoffs. These “Seeding Games” as they’re being called, will be comprised of the next eight contests on a team’s schedule following the shutdown, though they will obviously only be competing against those teams remaining on their schedule that have also been invited to the Bubble, and not the likes of the Golden State Warriors or Cleveland Cavaliers. Granted, this will inevitably mean that by the end of this eight-game jaunt that some teams will have competed in more games than others, which could really create some havoc in regards to tiebreakers, but all signs point to the NBA utilizing win percentage over good old-fashioned wins and losses. And this is where things really get interesting, folks, for after these eight games if the difference between the Eighth and Ninth Seed in either conference is within two games, then there will be a miniature Playoff between the two teams in question. For example, if the gap between the Memphis Grizzlies and the aforementioned Pelicans is within two games following the Seeding Affair, then the two sides will meet in a Best of Three Series to crown the Eighth Seed. Very creative, we know….
From there, the Playoffs will carry on as they typically do, with four rounds of Best of Seven action that only the Association can provide, though there will be no fans permitted in these smaller arenas that the games will be contested within. Though they’ll be significantly larger than your standard Practice Facility, they’ll be nowhere near the size of the average home arena. So now that we’ve established the ground rules and the lay of the land, let’s take a look at the twenty-two teams that comprise the Bubble, where they left off, and what we can expect from them over the coming weeks.
- Milwaukee Bucks (53-12) The Bucks enter the Bubble as the No. One Seed in the East, and No. One Overall in the NBA, despite dropping four of their last five outings prior to the shutdown. Armed with a 6.5-Game Lead, Mike Budenholzer’s charges will almost certainly enter the Playoffs as the Top Seed in the East for the second consecutive year, though will hope to get over the hump and into the Finals for the first time since 1974. Milwaukee may be without Starting Point Guard, Eric Bledsoe (15.4 PTS, 48.2% FG, 4.6 REB, 5.4 AST, 18.1 PER), following his positive Covid-19 test, but thanks to their sizable lead in the Standings, they can afford to rest those that need to be rested, particularly since the advantage of Home Court has been throw out of the proverbial window. Reigning MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.6 PTS, 54.7% FG, 13.7 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.0 BLK, 31.6 PER), looks primed to retain the award, though has his eyes set on delivering the club it’s first Larry O’Brien Trophy since the early 1970’s.
- Toronto Raptors (46-18) Arguably the most surprising team in the league, the reigning NBA Champions have remarkably positioned themselves in an equivalent standing to that of last season, in which they hoisted their first O’Brien Trophy in franchise history. Following the departure of Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, Nick Nurse and his charges have done an amazing job of achieving success without that bonafide superstar that the league has so often demanded of it’s contenders. While Toronto has certainly been a case of a group of players being greater than the sum of their parts, Pascal Siakam (23.6 PTS, 45.9% FG, 7.5 REB, 3.6 AST, 1.0 STL, 18.7 PER) has stepped out of the shadow of Leonard, earning his first All-Star nod this season, while gritty role players such as Fred VanVleet (17.6 PTS, 40.9% FG, 3.8 REB, 6.6 AST, 1.9 STL, 16.0 PER) and Norman Powell (16.4 PTS, 50.2% FG, 3.7 REB, 1.8 AST, 1.3 STL, 17.4 PER) have managed to carve out a name for themselves. With a deep roster full of experience and versatility, don’t be surprised if these dinosaurs once again make some noise in the Playoffs.
- Boston Celtics (43-21) Despite losing four of their last six games heading into the shutdown, the Celtics no doubt benefitted from the long layoff as they look to embark on their journey through the Bubble reinvigorated. All-Star Point Guard, Kemba Walker (21.2 PTS, 42.1% FG, 4.1 REB, 4.9 AST, 20.2 PER), finally looks fit after a dogged February in which he was hobbled with a nagging knee injury, while the continued development of Boston’s young stars of tomorrow figures to dictate just how far they’ll advance in the Playoffs. Chief among them has been Jayson Tatum (23.6 PTS, 44.8% FG, 7.1 REB, 2.9 AST, 1.4 STL, 20.3 PER), who in just his third season has become Brad Stevens’ most indispensable weapon on the offensive end of the court, exhibiting a seasoned skillset beyond his years. If you’re looking for a singular breakout candidate who will use the coming stage as his showcase, then the 21-Year Old is an excellent choice.
- Miami Heat (41-24) After missing the Playoffs in three out of the previous five years, the Heat is on once again down in South Beach, with Erik Spoelstra’s troops looking to climb a little higher in the Standings. One of the most interesting teams in the league this season, Miami has done a tremendous job of developing the younger, unheralded members of their rotation, including Bam Adebayo (16.2 PTS, 56.7% FG, 10.5 REB, 5.1 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.3 BLK, 20.6 PER), Kendrick Nunn (15.6 PTS, 44.8% FG, 2.7 REB, 3.4 AST, 13.5 PER), and Duncan Robinson (13.3 PTS, 46.7% FG, 3.3 REB, 1.4 AST, 12.8 PER). However, the Front Office made it clear that they meant business in the Offseason with the acquisition of All-Star Swingman, Jimmy Butler (20.2 PTS, 45.4% FG, 6.6 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.7 STL, 23.4 PER), who has used the 2019-2020 campaign as his personal revenge tour on the rest of the league. The no-nonsense Butler has fit in seamlessly with the Heat, proving to be the star that the club has lacked in the post LeBron James Era. Though a trip to the Finals may be a bit of stretch for this group, we doubt that anyone in the East will enjoy trading blows with this crew over the course of seven games.
- Indiana Pacers (39-26) No team figures to suffer more comings and goings throughout the Bubble than the Pacers, who will look radically different following the shutdown. Indeed, Nate McMillan & Co have received both great and bad news over the past week, with All-Star Point Guard, Victor Oladipo (13.8 PTS, 39.1% FG, 3.2 REB, 3.0 AST, 12.0 PER), strongly hinting at his long-awaited return from a knee injury that forced him to miss the first forty-seven games of the term, relegating him to just thirteen overall. Initially, the 27-Year Old was primed to sit out the remainder of the season, but that has changed in recent weeks. And quite frankly, it couldn’t come at a better time for Indiana, who will definitely be without the services of Starting Center, Domantas Sabonis (18.5 PTS, 54.0% FG, 12.4 REB, 5.0 AST, 20.7 PER), who will miss the remainder of the term after suffering a significant foot injury. With fellow big man, Myles Turner (11.8 PTS, 45.1% FG, 6.5 REB, 1.1 AST, 2.2 BLK, 14.7 PER), dealing with a bruised calf, the Pacers appear to be shorthanded entering the Bubble, and will need all the help they can get to avoid a precipitous fall down the Standings.
- Philadelphia 76ers (39-26) While the Pacers stand to potentially suffer the largest fall in the East, the club that could make it’s greatest rise is the 76ers, who after spending the majority of the season trying to unlock the conundrum that has been their roster in 2019-2020, have been presented with a golden opportunity to finally get it right. Brett Brown has no doubt racked his brain over and over again in an attempt to find the proper lineup for his charges, who have been wildly inconsistent thus far. Though they’ve been dominant at home (29-2), that’s obviously a nonfactor in the Bubble, and while they appear set to welcome back All-Star Point Guard, Ben Simmons (16.7 PTS, 58.5% FG, 7.8 REB, 8.2 AST, 2.1 STL, 20.8 PER), who missed eight of the final nine games before the shutdown with a back injury, it remains to be seen how he’ll fit alongside fellow All-Star, Joel Embiid (23.4 PTS, 47.4% FG, 11.8 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.3 BLK, 26.0 PER), whose own conditioning and health is an annual point of debate in the City of Brotherly Love. Simply put, if the Sixers play like the team that we all think they can be, then there’s no reason to believe that they can’t climb into the East’s top four seeds, but if they can’t maintain their health and find that necessary chemistry, then this adventure through the Bubble could prove disastrous for Philadelphia, which makes them one of the most fascinating sides in Orlando.
- Brooklyn Nets (30-34) Unlike the six teams in front of them, the Nets are the first team in the East that does not have the luxury of having clinched a seed in the Playoffs. No team has been dealt a more difficult hand than Brooklyn, who have struggled to put together a competitive roster upon their entrance into the Bubble. Consider this, folks; Brooklyn entered the season with former MVP, Kevin Durant, set to miss the entire campaign following a torn Achilles suffered in last year’s NBA Finals, with their other marquee signing, All-Star Point Guard, Kyrie Irving (27.4 PTS, 47.8% FG, 5.2 REB, 6.4 AST, 1.4 STL, 26.3 PER), lasting just twenty outings before undergoing season-ending surgery on his right shoulder. Oh, and did we fail to mention that they fired their Head Coach, Kenny Atkinson, midway through the term? As if that wasn’t enough, the proverbial deck was stacked even further against them when five more members of their rotation were announced to forgo any return to action, including veteran Center, DeAndre Jordan (8.3 PTS, 66.6% FG, 10.0 REB, 1.9 AST, 20.0 PER), emerging Shooting Guard, Spencer Dinwiddie (20.6 PTS, 41.5% FG, 3.5 REB, 6.8 AST, 17.9 PER), and veteran Swingman, Wilson Chandler (5.9 PTS, 40.4% FG, 4.1 REB, 1.1 AST, 7.4 PER). So who the hell will be playing for the Nets, you ask? Well, they managed to coax the ageless Jamaal Crawford out of obscurity, but apart from that your guess is as good as ours. All we know is that Interim Coach, Jacque Vaughn, has his work cut out for him.
- Orlando Magic (30-35) When home court advantage isn’t an advantage at all… That sentiment perfectly summarizes the plight of the Magic as they embark on their journey through the Bubble, which despite being held in Orlando, Florida, will be competed without fans and miles away from the friendly confines of Amway Center. All jokes aside, Steve Clifford’s outfit was one of the low-key risers following the All-Star Break, winning six out of nine games before the shutdown occurred, and though there are really no stars or familiar faces to speak of on this roster, that doesn’t necessarily preclude Orlando from securing a second straight qualification for the Playoffs. Though they certainly struggle on the offensive end of the court, this is one of the better defensive teams in the Association, with the requisite size and length to be a pest on both the perimeter and around the rim. The foreign duo of Point Guard, Evan Fournier (18.8 PTS, 47.0% FG, 2.6 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 16.7 PER), and Center, Nikola Vucevic (19.5 PTS, 47.0% FG, 11.0 REB, 3.7 AST, 21.6 PER), are sneaky good, though Clifford may have a difficult time finding enough support from the rest of the rotation; annual reclamation project and former No. One Overall Pick, Markelle Fultz (12.1 PTS, 47.3% FG, 3.3 REB, 5.2 AST, 14.4 PER), has refrained from any 5-on-5 work in practice and is uncertain to participate in the Seeding Games due to injury, while Rookie Forward, Jonathan Isaac (12.0 PTS, 46.3% FG, 6.9 REB, 1.4 AST, 1.6 STL, 2.4 BLK, 16.9 PER), is expected to miss another two to three weeks with a lingering knee issue, with his veteran counterpart, Al-Farouq Aminu (4.3 PTS, 29.1% FG, 4.8 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 7.6 PER), continuing to be away from the team with a similar malady.
- Washington Wizards (24-40) Rounding out the Eastern Conference and it’s only member residing outside of the Playoff Seeding to be invited to the Bubble are the Wizards, who stand exactly six games out of the final Seed in the East. Let’s be completely honest here, folks, neither we nor the Wizards themselves expected to be included in the NBA’s return in Orlando, as they just happened to meet the required criteria to merit an invitation. As things currently stand, it would take a herculean effort from Scott Brooks’ charges to make up the necessary ground to overtake either Orlando or Brooklyn in the Standings, particularly given that they only have eight games to do so. Making matters even worse is the fact that they’ll be without All-Star Shooting Guard, Bradley Beal (30.5 PTS, 45.5% FG, 4.2 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.2 STL, 23.1 PER), who will forgo joining Washington in the Bubble as he rehabs from an injury to his right shoulder. Beal was in the midst of a career campaign, averaging a career-high 30.5 points and 6.1 Assists, depriving the Wizards of a huge dose of production. If there’s any team in the Bubble that seems content with simply playing out the string with an eye towards next season, it’s the Wizards, who as presently constructed don’t have any other choice.
- Los Angeles Lakers (49-14) No team was more disappointed by the shutdown than the Lakers, who had won eight of ten games heading into the extended break, including victories over the likes of the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers. Furthermore, Frank Vogel’s charges were clicking better than they had at any other point in the campaign, behind the powers of All-NBA Forwards, LeBron James (25.7 PTS, 49.8% FG, 7.9 REB, 10.6 AST, 1.2 STL, 26.0 PER) and Anthony Davis (26.7 PTS, 51.1% FG, 9.4 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.5 STL, 2.4 BLK, 28.2 PER), and a supporting cast that had really found it’s footing. However, they will be without some key contributors for the restart, as Point Guards Avery Bradley (8.6 PTS, 44.4% FG, 2.3 REB 1.3 AST, 8.9 PER) and Rajon Rondo (7.1 PTS, 41.8% FG, 3.0 REB, 5.0 AST, 12.4 PER) will be out of action, with the former choosing not to return over Covid-19 concerns and the latter suffering a significant hand injury that has ended his season. It briefly appeared that backup Center, Dwight Howard (7.5 PTS, 73.2% FG, 7.4 REB, 1.2 BLK, 18.7 PER), would be forgoing the return as well, though he ultimately chose to rejoin the franchise in his old stomping grounds in Orlando. With that said, look for James, who even at 35-Years Old, to take control of playmaking duties in light of their sudden lack of depth in the Backcourt. Aging like a fine wine, the four-time MVP is leading the NBA in Assists (10.6), which marks the first time in his esteemed career that he’s done so.
- Los Angeles Clippers (44-20) Though they’re six games behind their city rivals, nobody is convinced that the gap between the Clippers and Lakers is nearly as wide. Few teams underwent more seismic change during the Offseason than Los Angeles, who added Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard (26.9 PTS, 46.9% FG, 7.3 REB, 5.0 AST, 1.8 STL, 26.7 PER), and All-Star Swingman, Paul George (21.0 PTS, 43.2% FG, 5.7 REB, 3.9 AST, 1.3 STL, 20.5 PER), in one fell swoop. Granted, both players have missed a sizable amount of time this season, but all indications were that they were well on their way towards reaching their lofty potential before the shutdown. Doc Rivers’ troops had won seven out of eight games before the pandemic hit, dismantling the opposition by an average margin of 14.6 Points per Game. With Leonard and George healthy, and a supporting cast that has only grown more capable in their respective absences, the Clippers are easily one of the most formidable groups in the Association on both ends of the floor. An inevitable meeting with their crosstown rivals in the Western Conference Finals has been predicted since last Summer, and barring something surprising happening, may just be a foregone conclusion for the chasm between these two teams and the rest of the West is very noticeable.
- Denver Nuggets (43-22) Hot on the heels of the Clippers are the Nuggets, who just might be the best team in the Bubble that absolutely nobody is talking about. A year ago, Mike Malone’s young charges burst onto the scene, occupying pole position in the Western Conference for the majority of the Regular Season before slipping down the Standings towards the proverbial finish line. The Playoffs were indeed an arduous task for Denver, who barely survived their initial matchup with the Spurs, before falling to the Trail Blazers, with each series going the distance. Armed with a wealth of versatile talent, spearheaded by Serbian sensation, Nikola Jokic (20.2 PTS, 52.8% FG, 10.2 REB, 6.9 AST, 1.2 STL, 25.0 PER), the progression of this team is definitely one of the more understated storylines of the Association’s return. Will the Nuggets make the transition from being a very good team in the Regular Season, or will they once again fail to rise to the occasion in the Playoffs? Malone has had the luxury of incorporating some very creative lineups this term, which could prove advantageous depending on the matchup at hand, but at some point the Backcourt of Jamal Murray (18.8 PTS, 45.5% FG, 3.9 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.2 STL, 17.5 PER) and Gary Harris (10.4 PTS, 42.0% FG, 2.9 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.4 STL, 9.7 PER) will have to find some form of consistency, as both sharpshooters were dogged by injuries earlier in the campaign.
- Utah Jazz (41-22) Another group looking to shed the label of being successful in the Regular Season only to fall on their face in the Playoffs is the Jazz, who found themselves at the eye of the proverbial storm when the Covid-19 outbreak halted the Association dead in it’s tracks. By now, we all know that former Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert (15.1 PTS, 69.8% FG, 13.7 REB, 1.5 AST, 2.0 BLK, 21.7 PER), was one of the first players in the league to test positive for the illness, and through his irresponsible actions spread it throughout the locker room, with a number of his teammates contracting it, chief among them sophomore Shooting Guard, Donovan Mitchell (24.2 PTS, 45.3% FG, 4.4 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 19.1 PER). Reports out of Salt Lake City indicated that the relationship between the two stars has been far from cordial since, though Quin Snyder has bigger issues on his hands thanks to the impact of the team’s two biggest offseason acquisitions, Bojan Bogdanovic (20.2 PTS, 44.7% FG, 4.1 REB, 2.1 AST, 15.7 PER) and Mike Conley (13.8 PTS, 40.5% FG, 3.2 REB, 4.3 AST, 13.7 PER), with the former out for the remainder of the term following surgery to repair his right wrist, and the latter who has been very slow to recapture the form that made him an All-Defensive Second Team selection back in 2012-2013. Point Guard was Utah’s greatest weakness in each of their previous two postseason runs, and the 32-Year Old was acquired with solving that in mind, but has struggled to take control of the position. Unless that happens, it’s difficult to picture the Jazz advancing past the West Semifinals for the first time since 2007.
- Oklahoma City Thunder (40-24) Easily the most surprising team on this list is the Thunder, who quite frankly were NOT supposed to be anywhere near the top half of this field, let alone in the Playoff discussion altogether. In the Offseason, Management parted ways with All-Stars, Russell Westbrook and Paul George, following consecutive exits in the First Round. Lacking star power, Oklahoma City was certainly headed towards rebuilding, with their streak of four straight postseason appearances to come to an end. However, their demise appears to have been greatly exaggerated, as Billy Donovan has done a tremendous job with the young roster at his disposal, all the while linking up with veteran Point Guard and perennial All-Star, Chris Paul (17.7 PTS, 48.9% FG, 4.9 REB, 6.8 AST, 1.6 STL, 21.7 PER), who has been a monumentally positive influence on his teammates. Promising Guards, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (19.3 PTS, 47.3% FG, 6.1 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.1 STL, 17.8 PER) and Dennis Schroder (19.0 PTS, 46.8% FG, 3.7 REB, 4.1 AST, 16.8 PER), have blossomed alongside him, while veteran Forward, Danilo Gallinari (19.2 PTS, 43.9% FG, 5.5 REB, 2.1 AST, 19.4 PER) is finally healthy and making a difference as a prototypical Stretch Four. Could it be that by shipping out the likes of Westbrook and George that the Thunder have better balance and depth? Absolutely, and while we don’t expect them to make a deep run in these Playoffs, we wouldn’t be shocked if they pulled an upset either.
- Houston Rockets (40-24) With each of their last two postseason runs ending in heartbreak, what appears to be the last stand of the Houston Rockets will play out over the next few weeks. As of this moment, Mike D’Antoni’s contract has not been extended, and the midseason transition to go full-on Small Ball looks like the innovative Head Coach’s final attempt at proving it possible to win a championship his way. Houston shook up the deck with the aforementioned Russell Westbrook/Chris Paul Trade, hoping that reuniting Westbrook (27.5 PTS, 47.4% FG, 8.0 REB, 7.0 AST, 1.7 STL, 21.5 PER) with former teammate, James Harden (34.4 PTS, 43.5% FG, 6.4 REB, 7.4 AST, 1.7 STL, 28.4 PER), would bring out the best in both of the former MVPs. However, while the partnership has certainly had it’s moments, this is NOT a team that entered the shutdown with much momentum to speak of, losing four out of five contests following the All-Star Break. The move to a much smaller lineup (seriously, Westbrook is effectively playing Center in some rotations), despite finding initial success, has left them very vulnerable on the defensive end of the court, particularly on the glass where larger teams have manhandled them. As we draw closer to the restart, the question of depth has become underscored, with Westbrook testing positive for Covid-19, Backup Point Guard, Austin Rivers (8.5 PTS, 42.1% FG, 2.4 REB, 1.6 AST, 10.3 PER), forgoing a return to stay with his family, and defensive ace, Thabo Sefolosha (2.2 PTS, 40.7% FG, 2.3 REB, 9.5 PER), out for the rest of the term with for undisclosed reasons. With Westbrook’s conditioning now a concern following quarantine, it once again appears that the Rockets’ hopes of bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to Clutch City will hinge on the exploits of Harden.
- Dallas Mavericks (40-27) Though they technically haven’t clinched a spot in the Playoffs quite yet, all signs point towards the Mavericks returning to the Postseason for the first time in four years. A young, borderline offensive juggernaut, Dallas is a popular choice by many in NBA circles to outperform their seeding and make life hell for any powerhouse that makes the mistake of taking them lightly. Rick Carlisle has had to do more than his fair share of tinkering this season to get the rotation right, but the veteran Head Coach is one of the best in the league when it comes to tinkering, and the fruits of his labor will be on display in the Bubble. Lead by Sophomore sensation, Luka Doncic (28.7 PTS, 46.1% FG, 9.3 REB, 8.7 AST, 1.1 STL, 27.7 PER), and a (FINALLY!) healthy Kristaps Porzingis (19.2 PTS, 42.0% FG, 9.5 REB, 1.7 AST, 2.1 BLK, 19.3 PER), this side can stretch the floor with the best of them, with the former showing an increasing aptitude of taking over games. The only question when it comes to the Mavs is how long they’ll last against bigger, more physical opponents, for they will be entering this return without some grit and physicality; Point Guard, Jalen Brunson (8.2 PTS, 46.6% FG, 2.4 REB, 3.3 AST, 15.0 PER), veteran Shooting Guard, Courtney Lee (4.5 PTS, 48.8% FG, 1.3 REB, 10.9 PER), and Centers, Willy Cauley-Stein (5.2 PTS, 68.9% FG, 4.6 REB, 22.3 PER) and Dwight Powell (9.4 PTS, 63.8% FG, 5.7 REB, 1.5 AST, 16.0 PER), will all be out of action moving forward, leaving Carlisle with a much shorter rotation than he’d prefer.
- Memphis Grizzlies (32-33) Now this is where things expect to get interesting, with as many as six teams vying for the Eighth Seed in the West. Heading into the Bubble, the surprising Grizzlies hold the mathematical advantage, with Taylor Jenkins’ charges needing to win as many as five of the final eight Seeding Games in order to deliver the franchise’s first postseason appearance since 2017. With that said, there is some trepidation in regards to Memphis managing to fend off the competition. As we’ve said already, they’re very young, and the schedule ahead of them is far from forgiving, with their first three contests against their direct competition (Portland, San Antonio, and New Orleans), followed by affairs with Utah, Oklahoma City, Toronto, Boston, and Milwaukee. Rookie of the Year frontrunner, Ja Morant (17.6 PTS, 49.1% FG, 3.5 REB, 6.9 AST, 18.0 PER), has been spectacular all season, and Jenkins will need the young floor general to carry the group, with fellow 20-Year Old talent, Jaren Jackson (16.9 PTS, 46.8% FG, 4.7 REB, 1.4 AST, 1.6 BLK, 16.1 PER), developing ahead of schedule. Does this team have enough energy and toughness to make up for their significant lack of experience? We’ll have to wait and see, folks…
- Portland Trail Blazers (29-37) Closest to stealing the Eighth Seed are the Trail Blazers, who see their run of six straight postseason appearances threatened thanks to a campaign that has been absolutely ravaged by injury. After advancing to the Western Conference Finals a year ago, Portland has limped their way throughout the term, oftentimes carried on the shoulders of MVP candidate, Damian Lillard (28.9 PTS, 45.7% FG, 4.3 REB, 7.8 AST, 1.0 STL, 26.2 PER). However, the shutdown appears to have offered a silver lining for Terry Stotts & Co, for the four month suspension may have given them the luxury of welcoming the return of a number of key contributors just in time for this mad dash for the Playoffs. Towering Bosnian, Jusuf Nurkic, who has missed the entire season due to a broken leg suffered towards the climax of it’s predecessor has been cleared to return to action, while young Power Forward, Zach Collins (9.0 PTS, 47.4% FG, 4.0 REB, 2.0 AST, 9.0 PER), who had missed all but three games before undergoing shoulder surgery has also been given the green light from the Medical Staff. How these two will fit into the rotation alongside the likes of Hassan Whiteside (16.3 PTS, 61.8% FG, 14.2 REB, 1.2 AST, 3.1 BLK, 25.0 PER) and Carmelo Anthony (15.3 PTS, 42.6% FG, 6.3 REB, 1.6 AST, 12.2 PER), the former acquired in Free Agency, while the latter was added back in late November, should make for an interesting mashup. Though we doubt that we’ll see the team that the Blazers could have been, it remains to be seen if they’ll have enough on hand to mount the necessary blitzkrieg to make it seven straight years in the Playoffs.
- New Orleans Pelicans (28-36) A mere 0.01 percentage points behind the Blazers are the Pelicans, who have evolved into the darling of the NBA over the course of the final two months before the shutdown, thanks in no small part to the emergence of No. One Overall Pick, Zion Williamson (23.6 PTS, 58.9% FG, 6.8 REB, 2.2 AST, 24.2 PER). It’s no secret that the conspiracy theorists pointed to the Association’s extended invitation to all these extra teams out West as a means of securing the possibility of promoting Zion in the Playoffs, for after all, in what world is the promising rookie going head to head with LeBron James and Anthony Davis NOT good for business? Anyways, after missing the first forty-four games of the campaign following knee surgery, Williamson has had a dramatic effect on New Orleans, with the club going 11-9 since his debut in late January. However, it’s not just the rook that’s been making noise, for Alvin Gentry has a plethora of young talent under his watch, with Brandon Ingram (24.3 PTS, 46.6% FG, 6.3 REB, 4.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 19.2 PER) finally making good on his considerable potential following his departure from Los Angeles, and Lonzo Ball (12.4 PTS, 41.2% FG, 6.2 REB, 7.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 13.7 PER) looking far more comfortable in the Big Easy than he was in the City of Angels. While they’ve been a ratings juggernaut, it remains to be seen if they have the requisite maturity to make the leap and sneak into the Playoffs should Memphis slip, and even with that said, questions have already risen about Williamson’s availability; the 19-Year Old left the team last week to tend to a family matter, though Gentry has stated that he expects the Forward to return to the Bubble and undergo the necessary quarantining and tests to compete in the Seeding Games.
- Sacramento Kings (28-36) Rounding out this three-way tie behind the Grizzlies are the Kings, who are looking to put to rest the longest-running postseason drought in the NBA at fourteen years and counting. After meandering throughout much of the campaign, Luke Walton’s charges can be described as late bloomers, if you will, having won seven out of ten contests heading into the shutdown. Another young side trying to find their way through the treacherous Western Conference, Sacramento may be close to finally turning the corner on the strength of the development of some of their prized assets. The Backcourt of De’Aaron Fox (20.4 PTS, 47.5% FG, 4.0 REB, 6.8 AST, 1.4 STL, 20.3 PER) and Buddy Hield (19.8 PTS, 42.9% FG, 48 REB, 3.1 AST, 16.3 PER) compliment each other perfectly, with the former tormenting defenders with his blinding pace and explosion, while the latter spaces the court beautifully with his sharpshooting prowess. Veteran Swingman, Harrison Barnes (14.7 PTS, 45.9% FG, 4.8 REB, 2.4 AST, 13.3 PER), has provided a nice midrange game to the mix, while rookie Forward, Marvin Bagley (14.2 PTS, 46.7% FG, 7.5 REB, 15.7 PER), looked primed to explode before a broken right foot ended his campaign after just thirteen games. Barnes will need to clear Covid-19 protocol before returning to the team after testing positive for the virus, while Fox has been rehabbing a sprained ankle suffered earlier in workouts following his return. The faithful in Northern California may not want to hear it, but this group appears to be yet another year away from finally making it back to the Playoffs, though at this point, anything could happen over the next eight games.
- San Antonio Spurs (27-36) Hovering in the background are the Spurs, who if they fail to qualify for the Playoffs will see the single longest-running such streak in the four major professional sports come to an end at a remarkable twenty-two years. In truth, all signs point to that fate becoming a reality for San Antonio, who limped their way into the shutdown, losing five of their final eight outings and ten of fifteen overall. Upon their return, they will be without All-Star Forward, LaMarcus Aldridge (18.9 PTS, 49.3% FG, 7.4 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.6 BLK, 19.8 PER), who opted to undergo shoulder surgery during the shutdown rather than compete in the Bubble, forcing Gregg Popovich to reassess his rotation. Thankfully, this is a team with some solid depth, featuring seven different players scoring in double-figures, led by DeMarr DeRozan (22.2 PTS, 52.6% FG, 5.6 REB, 5.6 AST, 1.0 STL, 21.3 PER), who has had made the most of his experience with the franchise after being rather vocal against the trade which saw Kawhi Leonard go in the opposite direction two summers ago. In many ways, it feels like the end of an era for the Spurs, and while all good things eventually come to an end, it’s our opinion that they’ll likely be home watching the Playoffs for the first time this century.
- Phoenix Suns (26-39) Finally, the last team from the West that was invited to the Bubble are the Suns, who all things considered should have been left out of this field altogether. After a promising 7-4 start to the campaign, Phoenix promptly reverted back into the train wreck that they’ve been for the past five years, and haven’t really done much to build any momentum heading into the shutdown, losing six out of ten before suspension of play. Everyone knew that Monty Williams would have his work cut out for him upon arriving in the desert last Summer, and it’s abundantly clear that there is still a wealth of work to be done ahead of the veteran Head Coach. Fortunately, the cupboard is not empty, for the sharpshooting Devin Booker (26.1 PTS, 48.7% FG, 4.2 REB, 6.6 AST, 19.8 PER) is still only 23-Years Old, and capable of putting on scoring displays reserved for the likes of James Harden. Former No. One Overall Pick, DeAndre Ayton (19.0 PTS, 54.8% FG, 12.0 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.7 BLK, 20.4 PER), has taken steps towards realizing his considerable potential, though still has a ways to go before that happens, while fellow youngsters, Kelly Oubre (18.7 PTS, 45.2% FG, 6.4 REB 1.5 AST, 1.3 STL, 14.9 PER) and Mikal Bridges (8.7 PTS, 51.6% FG, 4.0 REB, 1.8 AST, 1.4 STL, 13.0 PER), have brighter futures under Williams’ watch. It would take a torrid run coupled with a seismic collapse from the many teams in front of them for the Suns to qualify for the Playoffs, but at the very least any legitimate playing experience is good for such a young collection of players.