Bubble Basketball, Vol. 2: The Non-Zeros

*Title Odds provided via mybookie.ag (as of July 20)

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 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:

Western Conference:

5. Oklahoma City Thunder

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 40-24 (.625)
  • Title Odds: +8000
  • Restart Schedule: UTAH, DEN, LAL, MEM, WSH, PHX, MIA, LAC

okc

Regular Season Status

The Oklahoma City Thunder are the most underrated team in the league, bar none. When Russell Westbrook and Paul George left for Houston and LA last summer, the Thunder were written off as a bottom of the barrel team composed of whatever they could scrape together for their exiting stars. And at first it seemed like just that when they limped out of the gates to a 6-11 start. But since Thanksgiving, the Thunder have been a completely different team, going 34-13 and thriving on an underdog mentality. Billy Donovan has led a roster defined by their lack of stars to a 40-24 record, the fifth seed in the West and one game ahead of their pace last season. Yet nobody seems to be talking about them.

Other than Chris Paul, the team is composed of young, unproven talent and role-playing vets. But funny enough, Oklahoma’s lack of superstars–which is likely the reason for their absence in the media–is the reason for their success. With no other egos to lock horns with, Chris Paul has established himself as the clear-cut floor general on a team willing to do anything to win. The Thunder have since rolled out a deadly three-guard lineup unlike any other in the league. They thrive off the playmaking abilities of Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and the chemistry they have developed. With Steven Adams as a defensive anchor, as well, the Thunder were primed to upset anyone and climb higher in the standings before the season stopped. 

Key Players

Chris Paul, PG. Chris Paul is the biggest reason for the Thunder’s success this season, and he has been exceptional on and off the court. Chris has worked to get his teammates working together as a collective, rather than individuals. As the floor general, he has instituted an unselfish brand of basketball that encourages players to make the extra pass. And he’s the perfect exemplifier. Yes, he’s a wizard with the ball in his hands and can score whenever he pleases, but he is constantly looking to involve his teammates. His playmaking abilities are otherworldly and he is the cornerstone of this revitalized offense.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, SG. When he was sent to Oklahoma in the Paul George trade, it was unclear how SGA would fit into their convoluted rotations. He had shown some potential in LA, but here he was another guard in an already guard-heavy roster that required playing time. Nevertheless, SGA has been outstanding this year. In just his sophomore season, Gilgeous-Alexander has led OKC in scoring and shown he can execute efficiently from all three levels. He is extremely smooth to watch and a true blossoming star. In Orlando, Shai will be ready to prove on a national stage just how great he is.

Dennis Schroder, PG. Schroder is the third guard in OKC’s deadly three-guard lineup. He’s a bit of a streaky scorer but he knows when to exploit a broken defense and can definitely get the ball in the hoop. What makes Schroder so effective, though, is his defense. He can lock up point guards and wings, which in effect enables the three-guard lineup to function so efficiently on the court. 

Orlando Outlook

Just as the Thunder were winning games in the regular season, I’m expecting them to be winning games in the restart. With a complete roster heading to Orlando, the Thunder are in a great position to shock the league. The only lingering question surrounds the team’s durability. Chris Paul especially has an iffy history regarding injuries, and he has played more games this season than his previous four. But I’m a firm believer that the hiatus will be extremely beneficial for OKC, and with health concerns aside, they could do some serious damage. Because this squad was so written off at the beginning of the season, they have a major chip on their shoulder. In Orlando, they’re going to be extremely motivated to go as far as their roster can take them.

Prediction

OKC will likely be matched up against the Utah Jazz or Denver Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs. If they can hold onto their current seed or move up one and secure a series against Utah, I’m picking Oklahoma to come out on top (A series against Denver would be close; definitely a toss-up). However, I don’t see them beating the Lakers, so I’m predicting a competitive first round followed by a second round exit.


6. Houston Rockets

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 40-24 (.625)
  • Title Odds: +1300
  • Restart Schedule: DAL, MIL, POR, LAL, SAC, SA, IND, PHI

rockets

Regular Season Status

It’s been a very turbulent year for the Rockets, who seem to be in a constant state of roster reconstruction as they move pieces around to find the right companions for James Harden. Last summer, they dumped Chris Paul in a trade to OKC for Russell Westbrook, reuniting the former MVPs in what many thought would be a problematic combination of primary ball-handlers. Then, midseason, they sent away Clint Capela in a massive 4-team trade that brought them Robert Covington from the Timberwolves, a move that demonstrated an all-in commitment to small-ball rotations in hopes of opening up the floor for Westbrook. The Rockets have undoubtedly exhibited greatness this season, such as Harden’s two-month period averaging 39 points per game or Westbrook’s explosion of production following the Capela trade, yet there are still many doubters. With every peak of the Rocket’s season has come a valley. They ended their regular season losing four of their last five games (three of the losses coming from the Knicks, the Hornets, and the Magic), thus they remain the sixth seed in the West and an uber-inconsistent matchup in the playoffs with extremely high upside. 

Key Players

James Harden, SG. James Harden is James Harden. If you don’t know who he is then you wouldn’t be watching the Rockets. Or the NBA in general. He’s revolutionized the game of basketball with his scoring ability and efficiency. He’s a former MVP and the league leader in points per game. He’s an absolute animal that opposing teams design their defense against, and they still can’t stop him from dropping 35 a night.

Russell Westbrook, PG. Westbrook had a shaky start to the season but has since turned it around significantly. After shifting to full small-ball mode, Westbrook became significantly more effective on offense. During the month of February, he averaged 33 points a night, proving the Capela trade really did do something. He has since dropped off a bit, but could easily bounce back. If the Rockets are to go deep in the playoffs, they’re gonna need February-Westbrook to return.

Orlando Outlook

One player, Thabo Sefolosha, has opted out of traveling to Orlando with his team after expressing concerns about leaving his family for an extended period of time amidst a pandemic. Furthermore, Westbrook tested positive for COVID-19 recently raising concerns about the team. But none of this should impact their results. Sefolosha was a bottom of the bench player, so his absence will not be critical in the slightest, and Russ’ positive test has just delayed his arrival in the bubble, meaning he’s going to miss some practice and that’ll probably be it.

As for the seeding games, Houston has a moderately light schedule compared to the teams they are competing for playoff seeds with, so I’m expecting them to come out of the gates strong, wanting to move up in the standings. Mike D’Antoni will likely be replaced as their head coach next season, so he’ll certainly be motivated to perform well for potential job suitors. As for Harden and Russ, these guys are always going to be competitive. If they can smooth out their wrinkles in time for the playoffs, they could make a big splash and upset some teams. But as of right now, it’s a big “if.” Keep in mind both of their superstars have developed reputations as of recently for choking in the playoffs.

Prediction

I think the seeding games will serve as a strong indication of their playoff performance, but I’m a big believer in Harden and Westbrook. I think they move up in the standings and find a favorable first round matchup that they win. I don’t see them breaking out of the second round, though.


7. Dallas Mavericks

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 40-27 (.597)
  • Title Odds: +4000
  • Restart Schedule: HOU, PHX, SAC, LAC, MIL, UTAH, POR, PHX

mavs

Regular Season Status

Dallas entered the season targeting what they hoped to be the first playoff berth of many for their young duo of Euro-stars. While Kristaps Porzingis got off to a slow start, Luka Doncic proved quickly that last season was no fluke, and that he is a legitimate superstar. With the league’s highest offensive rating (115.8), the Mavs have shown they can ball with the best. They’ve had big wins against the league’s top title contenders, and if not for injuries sidelining both Luka and Porzingis for significant time, Dallas would likely have a much better record and a legitimate shot at the 3 or 4 seed in the West. While their record is deflated, these two are something to fear when they’re in full form and the league knows it.

Key Players

Luka Doncic, SG. Whoever says that magic isn’t real hasn’t seen Luka magic. The sheer amount of circus shots this kid gets to fall is astonishing and it can only reasonably be explained by the dark arts. For real, though, Luka is a wizard with the ball. He’s the modern day Larry Bird, finding new ways to drop 30 points on his opponents every single night. He knows when to shoot and he knows when to pass. He is the Mavs’ leader in points per game (28.7) and assists per game (8.7), and he is the sole reason they have the highest offensive rating in the league. Yet he’s only in his second season. Luka will be a player to watch for decades to come, but you should definitely start now.

Kristaps Porzingis, PF. The unicorn was a monster for the Knicks, proving all the initial haters wrong and dominating his opponents with his unusual combination of skill and size. His game’s got grace. He can slip by defenders for ferocious finishes or sneak up behind them for remorseless blocks. He’s everything you want in a center and he’s the perfect sidekick for Luka, but he’s been sidelined for the past season and a half with an ACL tear. Now in a Dallas uniform, the unicorn is still chipping off the rust. It’s taken some time to get back to where he was at but he has shown flashes of his former self. He’s averaging 19.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game, but with the extra time of the hiatus, we can expect these numbers to be even higher and Porzingis to be an even stronger contributor to this powerhouse offense.

Orlando Outlook

In Orlando, Dallas will be looking to make a name for themselves. The hiatus should benefit the Euro boys–as it gives them more time to gel and become an even more intimidating one-two punch; but the team will still be missing many important role players. Dwight Powell, Jalen Brunson, Courtney Lee, and Willie Cauley-Stein will all miss the restart season due to injuries or personal reasons, so the Mavs will be fighting an uphill battle. Dallas is also projected to face the LA Clippers in the first round, which is extremely unfortunate. While the Mavs are talented, their lack of experience and roster depth will lose them this series, so if at all possible, Dallas will be trying to avoid this matchup. They currently sit 1.5 games behind Oklahoma and Houston, so a jump in the standings is possible, but I can’t imagine those guys will be losing too many games either. Expect the seeding games to be ultra-competitive as all these teams try to avoid a first round matchup with Los Angeles (that will be their only hope at making a deep run in the playoffs). 

Prediction

I don’t think the Mavs can make a miraculous jump to the 6 seed; they will likely be eliminated in the first round after a competitive series against the Clippers.


8. Memphis Grizzlies

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 32-33 (.492)
  • Title Odds: +25000
  • Restart Schedule: POR, SA, NO, UTAH, OKC, TOR, BOS, MIL

ja morant

Regular Season Status

The Grizzlies’ season has been remarkably successful and a welcome surprise for Memphis fans expecting a year completely dedicated to the rebuild. While everybody has demonstrated exciting development, the season should be defined thus far by Ja Morant’s epic Rookie of the Year showing. The number two overall pick has been electrifying and has given Memphis fans something to look forward to for years to come. Rookie coach Taylor Jenkins has also done an exceptional job leading this young team, showing that they want to be, and are more than capable of, winning now. While nobody is envisioning much out of this team just yet, the regular season was an extremely encouraging sign of what is to come.

Key Players

Ja Morant, PG. Ja Morant will undoubtedly become an All-Star next season. The all-but-certain Rookie of the Year has been phenomenal out of the gates. He’s a pure point guard, utilizing his athleticism and vision to pull off some of the most jaw-dropping highlights of the season. He’s the team leader in points (17.6) and assists per game (6.9), and he’s the clear-cut number one option despite it being his first year in the league. Morant will make a splash for years to come but right now he’s just blossoming and is must-watch basketball.

Jaren Jackson Jr., C. Jaren Jackson Jr. is an elite 3-point shooting center. He’s another blossoming star and has proven this season that he can become an authoritative second option for the Grizzlies. The pair of Jaren and Ja is soon to be deadly, as evidenced by the flashes of greatness they have shown this season. Tune in to these two for a glimpse at the future of the NBA. 

Orlando Outlook

The most important thing on Memphis’ mind is the playoffs. During the seeding games in Orlando, Memphis will have to hold off Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio, and Phoenix to maintain their position in the first round. Though they currently hold the eighth seed in the West, the addition of a play-in tournament puts this in serious jeopardy. Even if they play at their best, they will still likely have to win a game against either Portland or New Orleans (both of whom are much better than their record indicates) to hold onto their spot. Memphis will be in full form, though. They’ll have a complete roster with no lingering injuries and plenty of rest thanks to the hiatus, so it’s safe to assume they will come out ready to play. Look for the Grizzlies to try to upset the world in each and every game, but their first three games will be especially important as they are against the Blazers, Spurs, and Pelicans. This is certainly a team to keep an eye on as they’ll likely be the first line of defense against Zion and New Orleans in the playoffs.

Prediction

I am a firm believer that the restart season was designed with Zion in mind, and that the play-in tourney was added specifically to give New Orleans a route to the postseason. With that being said, I don’t think the Grizzlies have what it takes to hold off New Orleans, and they will exit after a close but not too close play-in tourney.

 

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