Bubble Basketball, Vol. 1: The Dreamers

*Title Odds provided via mybookie.ag (as of July 13)

Bubble Basketball is a comprehensive review of the teams competing in the bubble. Starting from the bottom, I’m working my way up through the dreamers (those out of the playoffs fighting their way in), to the non-zeros (those who will play in the postseason but are unlikely to make a deep run), to the favorites (those who are fighting to win it all). Here is everything you need to know about every team before the restart:


1. Portland Trail Blazers

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 29-37 (.439)
  • Title Odds: +7000
  • Restart Schedule: MEM, BOS, HOU, DEN, LAC, PHI, DAL, BKN

trail blazers

Regular Season Status

Last season, the Blazers had a phenomenal year capped off with a remarkable run to the Western Conference Finals behind star guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. This season has been anything but. Though Lillard and McCollum have both been extraordinary, their efforts to carry the team have fallen short due to an injury-riddled roster. Missing starting center Jusuf Nurkic already, the Blazers soon lost starting forwards Zach Collins and Rodney Hood as well. They’ve shown flashes of the same team but have struggled with consistency, as their record suggests. But the restart could be just what they need to hustle their way into the playoffs.

Key Players

Damian Lillard, PG. Dame Dolla is the guy in Portland. When he’s not spitting bars, he’s dropping dimes and sinking threes from the logo. Nobody is more important to the success of this franchise than Dame. He leads in points per game (28.9) and assists per game (7.8), and he can light up on any given night for a 60-bomb. He’s quick, he’s strong, he can shoot. Dame is everything you want your point guard to be and more.

C.J. McCollum, SG. C.J. McCollum is the second option in the Blazers two-pronged reign of terror from beyond the arc. Combined with Dame, the two average close to 18 three point attempts per game on nearly 40% makes. McCollum is exciting to watch because he fuels off of Dame’s success and Dame fuels off of his. Like Klay and Steph, these two together are far greater than the sum of their two parts. 

Carmelo Anthony, PF. Melo used to be igniting, but now he’s just meh. Since joining Portland midseason he’s played better than in recent years, but he’s certainly been on the decline of his career since departing from New York. Either way he’s still fun to watch. His game may not be adjusted to the modern style of play but he’s still Melo. He still shows glimpses of old Melo, calling everyone off to go iso and sinking pull up jumpers in the face of his foes. He’s still Melo. Watch Melo.

Orlando Outlook

Portland will be playing in Orlando with a slightly different team than we saw in the regular season. While Trevor Ariza has opted out of the restart, the Blazers will be returning to the roster Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic, who could be just what they need to break into the postseason. Due to their recent recoveries, though, it’s still unclear how much we can expect out of these guys as they could be playing on reduced minutes. But aside from the Pelicans, the Blazers will be the team to watch out of this group trying to break into the playoffs. As an organization, they’ve been extremely vocal about wanting an opportunity to make the postseason. What this indicates more than anything is that they’ll be trying. Dame and C.J. will be trying more than ever to will their team past Memphis and New Orleans, and to prove the first half of the season was a fluke due to injuries.

Prediction

The Blazers have an extremely tough schedule for their seeding games. While they might be competitive in all their matchups, I don’t see Portland winning enough games to fend off the Pelicans. I think the Blazers will put up a strong fight before falling just short of the ninth seed.


2. New Orleans Pelicans

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 28-36 (.438)
  • Title Odds: +8000
  • Restart Schedule: UTAH, LAC, MEM, SAC, WSH, SA, SAC, ORL

pelicans

Regular Season Status

The season was halted just as the Pelicans seemed to be taking flight. NBA fans everywhere were heartbroken when it was announced Zion would undergo knee surgery the day before the season opener, but for Pelicans fans, that was only the half of it. New Orleans got off to a very disorderly start, crawling to a 7-23 record due to a plethora of injuries and time missed. But Zion’s time rehabbing gave other players the spotlight, such as Brandon Ingram, who took a major leap in production and made his first All-Star team. Add in the return of Derrick Favors and a healthy Lonzo Ball, and the Pelicans were back on track just in time for Zion’s arrival. And boy did he arrive. Zion’s gradual immersion into the Pelicans roster has proved just what they needed to make a playoff push, which they were working at before the season stopped.

Key Players

Zion Williamson, SF. There hasn’t been a player as hyped before he even played a game since LeBron entered the league in 2003, and much like LeBron, Zion exceeded expectations. He exploded out of the gate. Despite starting on reduced minutes, he has still averaged 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, while shooting 58.9% from the field. Talk about efficiency. Zion is primed to shock the world, and he’s doing it one electrifying slam at a time. For the first 8 games of the season, this is the guy to watch.

Brandon Ingram, SF. Ingram has had a fantastic season so far. After being dumped by the Lakers in a preposterous forced trade for Anthony Davis, he’s had a chip on his shoulder. Ingram was always talented, but being given such a primary role in New Orleans has permitted him to take off. He made his first All-Star team this year while leading the Pelicans in scoring (24.3 ppg), but since Zion’s arrival he has taken a step back. It will be interesting to see how their offense meshes following the hiatus, especially because if the duo of Zion and Brandon Ingram are performing to their maximum capabilities, it could be deadly.

Lonzo Ball, PG. Don’t let Zo’s reputation precede him. Yes he releases trashy rap albums and yes his father is a clown, but Lonzo has shined as an electrifying playmaker since Zion arrived. The Pelicans offense may target high scorers like Zion and Brandon Ingram, but it certainly operates through Zo. Lonzo is the assist-maker, and he fuels his teammates success. His playmaking abilities have skyrocketed with the addition of one of the best rim-finishers in the league, and he’ll be an essential part of both their offense and defense if New Orleans can make a playoff push.

Orlando Outlook

New Orleans’ schedule certainly raises eyebrows, as it is so good it seems almost designed for them to find a way up to the ninth seed and into the playoffs. The Pelicans are the NBA’s darlings, and nobody would love a first round matchup of LeBron and Zion more than Adam Silver, so that’s exactly what I’m expecting. Their schedule aside, I’m confident the current Pelicans roster is stronger than any other team they are contending with for a spot in the first round. They had some big wins towards the end of the season that proved they have what it takes to ball with the best. If Zion is still in shape, the break could be exactly what he needed to rehab fully and make an explosive return. Let’s just hope they can keep the momentum going.

Prediction

Thanks to a light schedule, New Orleans fights their way to the ninth seed making them eligible for the play-in tournament. Here, they beat Memphis and earn a spot in the playoffs where they are knocked out in the first round by LeBron and the Lakers, but not without a fight.


3. Sacramento Kings

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 28-36 (.438)
  • Title Odds: +25000
  • Restart Schedule: SA, ORL, DAL, NO, BKN, HOU, NO, LAL

kings

Regular Season Status

The Sacramento Kings just can’t get it right. In recent years, it seems that every season they put forth a promising squad of top draft picks that are primed to breakout, yet they’re confined to permanent mediocrity. This season was more of the same. Luke Walton has been optimistic that their young core–consisting of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Heild, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Harrison Barnes, and Marvin Bagley III–is just about to turn the corner and make a splash in the league, but a rollercoaster season defined by inconsistent winning and losing streaks suggests otherwise. Their playoff hopes, while slim, were still alive before the season stopped, so this remains the primary goal of the squad. 

Key Players

De’Aaron Fox, PG. Fox is the Kings’ best budding star. Drafted fifth overall in the 2017 draft, he has always been overshadowed by his classmates Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell, but Fox has shown a considerable amount of potential as the go-to guy in Sacramento. He leads the team in points per game with 20.4, assists per game with 6.8, steals per game with 1.4, and field goal percentage with 47.5%. He’s extremely quick and an exciting finisher. He’ll be the guy the Kings look to in crunch time to hit big shots, but the question remains if he can execute. 

Buddy Hield, SG. Hield was supposed to be the next Steph Curry when he was drafted sixth overall by New Orleans in 2016. He’s still deadly behind the arc, averaging near 10 three point attempts per game on 39.5%, but he hasn’t necessarily lived up to the Curry hype during his tenure in the league. He’s the second best scorer on the team and another budding star that could make a splash at any moment.

Marvin Bagley III, PF. Bagley was the second overall pick in the 2018 draft and has been extremely exciting for Kings fans when he’s on the court. The problem is that this is very rare. He’s only played 13 games this season, sidelined for the rest due to a persisting foot injury. And even when he has played, it’s been on restricted minutes. Entering the bubble, Bagley is supposedly healthy, so he could do some damage. He’s a monster in the paint when he’s at his best, snatching rebounds and executing exciting finishes. If the Kings are to somehow make a run for the playoffs, Bagley will be the x-factor.

Orlando Outlook

Unless the Kings can pull together a string of wins in crunch time, they will likely remain outsiders looking in on the postseason. Their schedule is the third easiest of the restart, but the question of Bagley’s health still lingers, and the competition among the bottom seeds in the West is tough, so in all probability the Kings will be utilizing this time as a development period. Expect Sacramento to go out and try to win their seeding games–Harrison Barnes said they’re determined to find a way into the postseason for their fans–but their competition for the ninth seed may be too strong. They’ll be a fun team to watch, but I wouldn’t bank on them doing much winning.

Prediction

The Kings have the longest playoff drought in the league spanning 16 seasons, soon to be 17.


4. San Antonio Spurs

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 27-36 (.429)
  • Title Odds: +17500
  • Restart Schedule: SAC, MEM, PHI, DEN, UTAH, NO, HOU, UTAH

San Antonio Spurs v Sacramento Kings

Regular Season Status

The loss of Kawhi Leonard in the 2018 offseason commenced what might just be the downfall of Gregg Popovich’s legendary reign in San Antonio. A year and a half removed, the team was amidst their worst season in recent memory before the league stopped. For the first time since the 1996-97 season, they were likely to miss the playoffs. This season has been a struggle to find consistency. Unlike typical Pop-run teams, this year’s Spurs have manifested one of the worst defenses in the league, ranking 24th in defensive rating with a 112.8. On offense, they have been above average, ranking 11th in offensive rating with a 111.3. They have also maintained their efficiency, leading the league in assist-to-turnover ratio and committing the fewest turnovers in the league. In the regular season, there was some hope Pop could turn the season around and slip into the playoffs for a record-setting 23rd straight season, but persisting inconsistency has proven a heavy burden to bear. The Spurs can show up on any given night, but are underwhelming on most.

Key Players

DeMar DeRozan, SF. DeRozan is the leader of this team. After being traded to San Antonio in the Kawhi trade, DeRozan has slowly fallen out of relevancy, but he has still remained the largest contributor to this aging Spurs team. He leads the team in points per game (22.2), assists per game (5.6), and field goal percentage (52.8), but was snubbed from an All-Star selection. DeRozan may not have the flashiest of games, but he’s by far the most consistent on the squad and will be their primary option in the bubble.

LaMarcus Aldridge, PF. Aldridge was San Antonio’s number two option before he was sidelined for the season with a right shoulder injury. He was their second highest scorer with 18.9 ppg, their leading rebounder with 7.4 rpg, and their best shot blocker. He’s a seasoned vet and an anchor of both their offense and defense, so his absence leaves a gaping hole in their roster with a question of who can fill it.

Dejounte Murray, PG. Murray seems to be the Spurs budding star. He showed tremendous potential as a rookie but suffered a devastating ACL injury in 2018 that hindered his development. This season he seemed to be back on track, though. He has had some explosive performances and solidified his spot in the starting lineup, so look for Murray to transition into an even more important role in the Orlando restart.

Orlando Outlook

The Orlando restart puts the Spurs in an uncomfortable position. With Aldridge sitting out, San Antonio’s already slim chance of making the playoffs is made slimmer. But while every other team in this position is composed of young guns that need more playing time, the Spurs roster a handful of veterans that benefit little from using this time as a development period. It will be interesting to see how Popovich balances playing time between the youth and the veterans, but what this most likely means is that we will be seeing a lot more out of their bench guys like Dejounte Murray and Derrick White in hopes they can perform and keep their playoff-streak alive.

Prediction

I like the Spurs and I think that if anyone were to lead a dysfunction team into the postseason, it would be Pop. That being said, their competition is too tough. In all likelihood, the Spurs should book their plane tickets home for mid-August.


5. Phoenix Suns

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 26-39 (.400)
  • Title Odds: +20000
  • Restart Schedule: WSH, DAL, LAC, IND, MIA, OKC, PHI, DAL

booker suns

Regular Season Status

Phoenix came out of the gate hot this season, winning a few big games against the Clippers and 76ers that made the additions of Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes seem just what they needed to contend for the postseason. But soon enough, they fell right back to mediocrity. Their regular season record is evident of such, thus the story of this season became less of one about results, and more of one about Devin Booker. Booker has been great so far, too. He continued to lead the team in scoring and made his first All-Star team as a replacement for Damian Lillard. He’s become the Suns’ clear go-to option on offense, and has proven himself fit for this role with multiple 40 point performances. But aside from Booker, the team is composed of cemented role players and developing talent, so similar to the Wizards, this season was intended to be utilized to grow. Before it was cut short, the Suns were another team destined to miss the playoffs, but now they have a slight chance in the bubble.

Key Players

Devin Booker, SG. Booker will obviously be the guy to watch. At 23 years old, the first time All-Star has already established himself as the future of the franchise. He’s got a natural ability to get the ball in the net however possible, leading to some brilliant high-point performances. He can shoot, he can drive, he can finish. He’s the quintessential shooting guard, and if the Suns don’t recruit some help soon, he should leave. Though Booker has elected to join the team in Orlando, if Phoenix doesn’t make a dent in their 5.5 game deficit quick, expect him to sit for considerable time. But if Booker’s on the court, he’s the guy to watch.

Deandre Ayton, C. The 2018 first overall pick will forever be overshadowed by the likes of Trae Young and Luka Doncic, but Phoenix fans know that Ayton has shown some impressive potential. Though he was suspended for 25 games when the season started, Ayton came back with a vengeance. Over an 18 game stretch from January through February, he averaged 21.0 ppg, 12.6 rpg, 2.1 apg, and 1.7 bpg on 56% from the field. He’s been seriously effective this year and it’ll be interesting to see how he’s developed over the hiatus.

Kelly Oubre Jr., SF. Oubre will be the lone Sun sitting out of the restart. After being traded to Phoenix last season, Oubre thrived in his new role. This season, he has been especially productive, averaging a career-high 18.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, while shooting extremely efficiently at 45% from behind the arc. But he suffered a torn meniscus in February, and is making the smart decision to continue rehab and elect out of the bubble. Now, one of the key storylines for the team will be figuring out how to play without him. 

Orlando Outlook

The Suns chances at making the playoffs were already slim, but losing Oubre seals the deal. Though they are still within 2.5 games of the ninth seed, there are too many teams ahead of them they would need to leapfrog in the standings to somehow sneak in. If we’re being honest, even the Wizards have a better chance at sneaking into the first round. Thus their time in Orlando will primarily be used for the growth and development of their young roster. They will likely use this time to assess their talent. With the youngest roster in the league (a two-year average of league experience), the bubble will be an important step in seeing what all these young guys can offer toward future contention. If you decide to watch a Suns game (and God help you if you do), expect a lot of young guys still trying to find their stride.

Prediction

0-8.


6. Washington Wizards

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 24-40 (.375)
  • Title Odds: +30000
  • Restart Schedule: PHX, BKN, IND, PHI, NO, OKC, MIL, BOS

Charlotte Hornets v Washington Wizards

Regular Season Status

Defined by John Wall’s prolonged position on the IR due to an achilles injury suffered last February, nobody was expecting much of the Wizards entering the season. And that was what they got. To put it bluntly, the Wizards have been extremely underwhelming throughout their first 64 games, utilizing the season to rebuild and develop their young core around their sole active star, Bradley Beal. They have shown flashes of exciting potential, such as Davis Bertans emerging as a solid second option and the encouraging development of 2019 ninth overall pick Rui Hachimura. But the Wizards were never supposed to make the postseason, and likely would not have come this close given usual circumstances.

Key Players

Bradley Beal, SG. As I mentioned, the Wizards have one true star in Bradley Beal as long as John Wall remains sidelined. Beal is their leader in scoring with 30.5 ppg, their leader in assists with 6.1 apg, and their leader in field goal percentage with 45.5%. The offense runs through Beal. He can be electrifying on any given night, but due to the Wizards league-worst defense, even Beal’s best performances can’t guarantee a win (as exemplified by his back-to-back 53 and 55 point games in February, both of which resulted in losses). Due to a persisting shoulder injury, Beal has elected to sit out of the Orlando restart.

Davis Bertans, PF. Bertans would also be a player to look out for, had he not also elected to sit out of the Orlando restart. Bertans has had a turbulent career so far, being drafted in 2011 to the Pacers, then bouncing between international teams, then finding a spot on the San Antonio Spurs before being traded to Washington last July. But he has become a shockingly important contributor to the rebuilding Wizards, proving himself deadly behind the arc and solid scorer when needed.

Rui Hachimura, PF. Lastly, Rui Hachimura looks to be an emerging star in the league. No, he may not have the spotlight like Zion or Ja Morant, but Hachimura has been quietly developing into his role in Washington. Hachimura was a stud during his last year at Gonzaga. He terrorized the paint with elite rebounding and finishing around the rim, while also establishing himself as a solid shooter. He has been a consistent contributor for Washington as well, and he will be the leading average scorer in the restart. But again, he is certainly still developing.

Orlando Outlook

The Wizards are a shell of themselves in the bubble, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While the absence of their two (three if you count Wall) best players is a critical blow to their already fading playoff hopes, their time in Orlando will be useful towards the overall development of their team. They won’t be favored in any of the games they play, but they may be able to upset some folks that have less motivation to win, such as Phoenix, who has a much harder route to the playoffs, or Brooklyn or Indiana, who are also missing key players, or even Milwaukee or Boston, who will be playing Washington when their playoff seeding is likely secured and have less reason to play their starters for significant minutes.

Thus the Wizards have a longshot chance of sneaking into the playoffs, and will likely be motivated accordingly. Though in all probability the Wizard’s stay in Orlando will be short, if Brooklyn manages to fall to eighth and Washington can win a few games, we could see a play-in tournament result in a backdoor entrance to the postseason. Keep an eye on Rui Hachimura and anticipate the youthful team to try and make a splash, but don’t expect too many results.

Prediction

The Wizards will be home in Washington by mid-August.

 

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