While the MLB, NFL and NCAA are all struggling over how to deal with the coronavirus in a non-bubble setting, the NBA appears to be thriving in its Orlando Bubble. And, after an entire off-season’s worth of a break, real NBA basketball games will be played again beginning tonight. Hallelujah!!
Here’s a quick refresher on every bubble team’s biggest storyline heading into the restart.
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Mike Budenholzer is one of the greatest regular season coach in NBA history. Seriously . He turned the 2013-14 Hawks (38-44) into a 60-22 team in 2014-15 in his second season as the coach. He turned the 2017-18 Bucks (44-38) into a 60-22 team in 2018-19 in his first season with the team. This year? The Bucks were on pace for 67 wins!! Budenholzer’s spread-out offensive system combined with his defensive system that emphasizes rim protection and forcing difficult three-pointers works wonderfully in the regular season. But in the playoffs, when opponents make adjustments to counter the Bucks’ attack, Budenholzer has stuck to his system – and that includes playing a his full rotation and keeping Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s minutes low (only 34.3 mpg. last playoffs). Will Budenholzer make adjustments in the Bubble Playoffs? He’d better if he wants the Bucks to beat teams like the Celtics and Raptors – teams with some of the best adjustment-making coaches in the game.
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LA Lakers: Are we getting 2018 Playoff LeBron?
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If we’re getting that version of LeBron James these playoffs, then the Lakers are winning the title. Period. End of story. 2018 Playoff LeBron (34 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 9.0 APG) was the greatest basketball player ever. Combine that with prime-Anthony Davis, and these playoffs are a wrap. It won’t matter that the Lakers are without two important rotation guards – Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo. It won’t matter whether Kyle Kuzma plays like star or a younger version of Jeff Green. It won’t matter that no less than four of the Lakers’ rotation players (Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee, Dion Waiters, JR Smith) are mercurial and sometimes volatile personalities. If we get 2018 Playoff LeBron, the Lakers will storm through the playoffs and only face any semblance of resistance from the Clippers or Bucks, and even those series will be over in six games.
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The Raptors are the ultimate the whole is greater than the sum of its parts team. Despite losing Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in free agency, Toronto played with the swagger of a defending champion all season long, finishing with the fourth-best record in the NBA. Pascal Siakam and Fred Van Vleet both took leaps people weren’t anticipating. Kyle Lowry remained a very good point guard and leader. Serge Ibaka has played so well that people should finally be convinced that he isn’t older than his birth date suggests. And, above all else, Nick Nurse has more than established himself as one of the top coaches in the league, erasing any doubt that may have existed once Kawhi left.
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LA Clippers: The importance of continuity (or lackthereof)
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While continuity is the key for the Raptors, it hasn’t seemed to matter as much for the NBA’s fourth-best regular season team, the LA Clippers. Yes, continuity is important in the NBA, but so is roster talent, and the Clippers have arguably the best roster in the NBA. Kawhi Leonard (30.5 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 3.9 APG) was the best player in the NBA last post-season. Paul George was third in MVP voting last year. Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Pat Beverley and Marcus Morris are very good NBA players. Doc Rivers is a top-notch coach. Even though the team has dealt with injuries, load management and strip club controversies, it hasn’t seemed to matter. And there’s a chance that it never does.
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Boston Celtics: How high can Tatum and Brown rise in the bubble?
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Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are the best wing combo in the league. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown aren’t far behind though. Over the last 23 games he played before the shutdown, Tatum was averaging 27.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG and 3.1 APG with blisteringly efficient shooting splits (49-46-75). Brown quietly chipped in 20.4 PPG and 6.4 RPG with 38 percent three-point shooting for the whole season and routinely took on the toughest defensive assignment. If one or both of these young stars take a mini-leap, we’re looking at a Finals contender regardless of Kemba Walker’s health or Gordon Hayward’s play.
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For a variety of reasons, the Nuggets were without a number of their players when scrimmages began in the bubble. The limited roster allowed coach Mike Malone to experiment with some never-before-seen jumbo lineups like when he started Nikola Jokic, Jerami Grant, Bol Bol, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee. The shortest guy in that lineup was power forward Millsap (6-foot-7, 250 lbs.). Much like the Rockets’ super-small ball lineup, this and other jumbo packages the Nuggets can throw at teams (remember they’ve still got Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Gary Harris, etc.) could throw opponents for a loop. Weird lineups can cause unexpected results in playoffs series – could Denver be the team that pulls a major upset in the second round because of it?
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The most obvious storyline of the bubble was a storyline the night the NBA shut down for coronavirus: Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell‘s chemistry. The team’s two stars admittedly were not seeing eye to eye during the season – and that was before Gobert got a little too handsy with teammates in the locker room prior to the virus outbreak. The two have apparently made amends, but will it be enough to avoid a first round exit in the postseason? With Bojan Bogdanovic (20.2 PPG) out, the team will need Mike Conley (13.8 PPG), Joe Ingles (9.8 PPG) and others to chip-in more on offense than they did in the regular season. Either that, or they’ll need a superhuman playoffs from Jordan Clarkson.
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Miami Heat: Is Bam Adebayo a superstar in the bubble?
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Adebayo is already a star, but he has a chance to be a bigger version of Draymond Green if he continues to improve at the rate he’s improved the past two years. After having effectively a full offseason to work on his game during the quarantine, could we see another leap from Bam? What would that even look like? He averaged 16.1 PPG, 10.5 RPG and 5.1 APG in the regular season. He also was one of the only players in the league that had some success slowing down Giannis Antetokounmpo. Perhaps Bam could improve his shooting a bit – he doesn’t shoot threes yet and he only shoots 69 percent from the line. Or perhaps he can handle an even higher usage – he had a 20.8 usage rate during the season. If Bam makes a jump, the Heat could win the East.
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OKC Thunder: Is SGA a superstar in the bubble?
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Novice NBA fans are in for a pleasant surprise when they lay their eyes upon the Thunder’s most promising player, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The 6-foot-5 versatile guard will be seen Euro-stepping all over the court with his unorthodox, off-tempo game (think young Manu Ginobili in Shaun Livingston’s body). SGA averaged 19.3 PPG, 6.1 RPG, and 3.3 APG during the season and is one-third of OKC’s three point-guard closing lineup (along with Chris Paul and Dennis Schröder) that was the best clutch lineup in the NBA. If SGA plays like a superstar in the bubble, the Thunder could easily upset their first round foe and scare the living hell out of the Lakers or Clippers in the semi-finals.
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Considering how positionless basketball is these days, Brett Brown’s decision to move Ben Simmons from point guard to power forward was the right move. Simmons can still play point guard on fast breaks and off of defensive stops. Then, in the half court, the best way to use his elite passing and playmaking is in the “roll” game where he can catch passes off pick-and-rolls with downhill momentum and either attack the rim or dish out to three-point shooters. It’ll be like a more athletic, better-passing version of Draymond Green. The offensive spacing will never be great with Simmons and Joel Embiid, but this will at least allow them to have another shooter on the court for spacing…and that might be all that they’ll need.
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For those that maybe weren’t paying attention to the NBA right before the league shut down, the Rockets have gone all-in on small ball. By all-in, I mean they literally play PJ Tucker and Robert Covington as their big men now, alongside James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon (who is out a week or two with an ankle injury). This strategy clearly throws opponents off, especially opponents who don’t get adequate time to scout Houston. Thus, expect the Rockets to mow through opponents during the seeding games – don’t be shocked if Harden averages 40 PPG in those eight seeding games (he recently scored 30 in the first half of a scrimmage). However, it’ll be fascinating to see what team they draw in the first round and what adjustments that team makes, and how and if Houston counters.
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Indiana Pacers: Can the Pacers continue to overachieve amid injuries?
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Poor Indiana has been ruined by injuries this season. First, Victor Oladipo missed most of the season recovering from a devastating knee injury. Then, Jeremy Lamb blew out his knee. Now, Domantas Sabonis was forced to leave the bubble with a serious plantar fasciitis injury. This team cannot catch a break, yet it keeps plugging along, outperforming expectations and winning games with its seventh-ranked defense and roster depth. Yet, at some point, these injuries are going to catch up with the Pacers unless they get a breakout from Myles Turner during the bubble or, assuming he actually plays, Oladipo returns to his 2018 playoff form. Anything short of those two things happening will likely spell a quick exit for the injury-plagued Pacers in Orlando.
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Dallas Mavericks: Does their all-time great offense translate to postseason play?
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Can you name the team with the highest-rated offense in NBA history? Hint: It’s not any of the Warriors teams from their five-year Finals run. It’s not any of Jordan’s Bulls’ teams either. No, it’s this year’s Luka Doncic-led Dallas Mavericks. Shoutout to all the draft “experts” that said Doncic’s game wouldn’t translate to the NBA. Lol. The big question for the Mavericks heading into the seeding games and, in particular, the playoffs, is the same question most teams with elite offenses face in every sport before postseason play: Will their offense translate to the playoffs? Some of the other top offenses in NBA history like the aforementioned Warriors and Bulls also had elite defenses (or at least the capability of playing elite defense). Dallas does not have that luxury (17th-rated defense this season). Thus, their success, much like the Rockets, will be directly tied to their offense.
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If you want an actual explanation of what a “pump & dump” or “P&D” is, then watch the movie Boiler Room . If you want a basketball analogy of a pump & dump, then watch the Nets in the Orlando Bubble. It’s about to be the Caris LeVert Show. The Nets are going to unabashedly showcase LeVert and run their entire offense through him to try to increase his trade value – I’d expect LeVert to average at least 25 PPG (regular season: 17.7 PPG) and attempt well over 20 shots a game (regular season: 15.6). As talented as LeVert is, he’s an injury risk and his timeline doesn’t match up with Kevin Durant’s and Kyrie Irving’s timeline. Thus, the Nets will want his value to be at its peak this summer when they try to make him the centerpiece of a trade package to acquire a third star like Bradley Beal.
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On one hand, the Grizzlies are getting screwed by the NBA’s installment of the Play-In Tournament given that they have a 3.5 game lead over the Pelicans, Blazers and Kings for the eight-seed. On the other hand, had the regular season played out normally, the Grizzlies had one of the hardest remaining schedules whereas the Pelicans had the easiest. However the young Grizzlies want to spin it, they’ll probably need to win two games to guarantee a spot in the Play-In; three to guarantee that they’re the eight-seed in the Play-In, and six games to outright win the eight-seed with no Play-In. Unfortunately, they have a brutal schedule: Blazers, Spurs, Pelicans, Jazz, Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks. Let’s see what Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. have up their sleeves in their first playoff race.
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Orlando Magic: Fitting a square peg (a brick) into a round hole (a rim)
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Despite having a number of intriguing talents, the Orlando Magic just don’t fit well together. The players with the highest upside on their roster (Aaron Gordon and Jonathan Isaac) could be elite small ball fours…if they played alongside any wings or bigs that could shoot. Unfortunately, they played alongside one another (Gordon shoots 30.1 percent from three; Isaac shoots 33 percent), and Nikola Vucevic (32.9 percent from three), and Markelle Fultz (25.4 percent from three). The Magic’s only guys who can shoot are Evan Fournier (40.6 percent from three) and Terrence Ross (35.7 percent from three), but neither of them do anything else all that well and are better suited for lesser roles on a good team. The only thing that could break this trend of mediocrity the Magic are currently on would be if Gordon, Isaac, Fultz or Mo Bamba make a considerable leap while in the bubble.
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Despite making the Western Conference Finals last year, the Blazers will be fighting for their playoff lives in Orlando (down 3.5 games in the race for the eight-seed). What happened this season? One word: Injuries. Jusuf Nurkic hasn’t played a single minute this year. Zach Collins has played a total of 86 minutes. And Rodney Hood blew out his Achilles early in the season. Fortunately for the Blazers, the long layoff allowed Nurkic and Collins, the team’s two best big men, to recover from their respective injuries. Both have looked good during the scrimmages, particularly Nurkic. Will it be enough to vault Video Game Dame and company back into the playoff picture? Or did the injuries dig them too deep a grave?
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Sacramento Kings: Could the Kings make a sneaky run at the Play-In Tournament?
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People seem to be forgetting that the Kings are only 3.5 games back of the eight-seeded Grizzlies in addition to the Pelicans and Blazers. And while the Kings’ roster outside of its three-guard trio of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic, doesn’t exactly scream “Playoffs!”, their bubble schedule is quite soft, and ripe with pivotal games against other eight- and nine-seed contenders in the West. They’ll square off against the Pelicans twice and the Spurs once. They also get a guaranteed win against the Nets’ roster of misfit toys and probably a guaranteed win against the Lakers’ bench in the final seeding game. And they’ll have winnable games against the offensively-challenged Magic and defensively-challenged Mavericks. Lastly, perhaps they’ll catch the Rockets on a game where they go 13-50 from three-point land. If the Kings win five or six games, they’ll almost be guaranteed a spot in the Play-In Tournament.
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Make no mistake – one of the NBA’s main focuses in inviting 22 teams to the Orlando Bubble instead of 16 was to give Zion Williamson an opportunity to lead the Pelicans into the playoffs. This emphasis is even more obvious by the NBA’s institution of the Play-In Tournament for the eight-seed. Williamson, who averaged 23.6 PPG and 6.8 RPG in his 19 games, is already a top-25 player in the league. All signs point to him crashing the top-10 within the next two years, or maybe even next year….or maybe even during the bubble.
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What the Spurs should be doing in the bubble: Developing the likes of Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV and Derrick White, playing them together, playing uptempo and not worrying about making the Play-In Tournament or playoffs. In fact, unless they win their first two games against the Kings and Grizzlies, the Spurs probably shouldn’t be trying to make the playoffs as it’ll further hamstring the development of the aforementioned guards.
What the Spurs probably will do in the bubble: Continue to run their prehistoric offense through DeMar DeRozan, refuse to play two of the league’s best guard defenders together (Murray and White), and pull out all the stops to try to make the playoffs.
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Phoenix Suns: Gaining positive momentum heading into next season
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Sorry Suns fans, but Phoenix ain’t making the Play-In Tournament or playoffs this year (they’re six games back from the eight-seed). They’re in Orlando to help the league make up for some of its lost revenue. However, that doesn’t mean they can’t use this bubble experience to gain some positive momentum for next season. Devin Booker (26.1 PPG, 6.6 APG) is already a star and Deandre Ayton (19.0 PPG and 12.0 RPF) is on the verge of developing into one. Phoenix should be doing whatever it can to improve the chemistry and respective games of Booker and Ayton during the bubble.
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Without Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans, what are the Wizards doing in the Orlando Bubble? Your guess is as good as mine. At least half of their bubble roster will have to scrap and claw their way onto NBA rosters next season, so I guess the bubble will be a showcase for those players. From an organizational standpoint, the Wizards should be running their entire offense through their two most promising prospects – Rui Hachimura (13.4 PPG and 6.0 RPG) and Troy Brown (9.7 PPG and 5.3 RPG) – to see how each responds in a bigger role. Perhaps one of them will excel and be ready for a more prominent role alongside Beal and John Wall next season. That is, until Beal demands a trade to the Nets.