*Title Odds provided via mybookie.ag (as of July 27)
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:
1. Los Angeles Lakers
- 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 49-14 (.778)
- Title Odds: +175
- Restart Schedule: LAC, TOR, UTAH, OKC, HOU, IND, DEN, SAC
Regular Season Status
LeBron James and Anthony Davis teamed up in LA this season with one purpose, a ring. Though they had a relatively slow start, the Lakers have remained atop the West for the majority of the season. They are now the unanimous favorite to win the title with a campaign spearheaded by an MVP-caliber performance from Bron and a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber performance from Davis, but also assisted by their deep roster of LeBron’s friends from around the league (lmao). Other than Kuzma, there is no single player outside of LeBron and AD who consistently contributes. Rather, they have an elaborate rotation of role players with individual strengths that come into play on any given night. In part, this is what makes them so impactful; there’s no over-reliance on a single performance outside of their two definitive stars. Before the season stopped, the Lakers were hot. They won 8 of their last 10, including big wins over the Celtics, Sixers, Bucks, and Clippers. They proved they were deserving of their seed and stature and will be taking this mentality into the bubble.
LeBron James, SF. In his 17th season in the league, LeBron is still proving doubters wrong. He may be getting older, but it seems LeBron adapts his game every season to compliment a new skill set he is mastering. This year, it’s passing. LeBron is averaging a career high 10.6 assists per game, the highest in the league, and has become the cornerstone of the fifth-ranked offense in the NBA. While still putting up 25.7 points per game, LeBron has shifted roles to becoming the ultimate facilitator. He is still as electrifying as ever, but he has developed into a masterful floor general. He controls the flow of the game and knows exactly when and how to get his teammates involved.
Anthony Davis, PF. After forcing his way out of New Orleans, Davis got what he wanted in an opportunity to team up with his buddy LeBron. What has resulted is not shocking in the least, Anthony Davis has made an excellent counterpart to LeBron’s presence on the court. He’s the ideal recipient to LeBron’s proficient passing. He’s the team’s leading scorer (26.7 ppg), and he can get a bucket from everywhere on the floor, but he’s especially effective in the paint where he is practically unstoppable. On the other end of the floor, the Brow has been a beast. He’s the centerpiece of a third-ranked Laker’s defense (105.6 drtg), putting up a DPOY campaign. He’s one of the most feared players in the league, and certainly not someone anybody wants to challenge on offense or defense.
The Lakers will be playing without a few key role players in the bubble. Avery Bradley has elected to sit out of the restart and Rajon Rondo recently injured his hand and will no longer be participating. Nevertheless, the Lakers look to continue their title chase full speed ahead. A deep run into the playoffs will be essential to resigning the Brow next season and put them in contention for years to come, but aside from this almost certainty, this season could be LeBron’s best last shot. The King, afterall, is aging and who knows what could come after this season. There are plenty of young teams around the league emerging as dominant forces, and LeBron’s reign has to end sometime, so this year could be one of his last opportunities. With the reality of this, the fire beneath Bron and the Lakers is certainly lit, so expect nothing short of the best they can offer to bring home another O’Brien trophy.
The Lakers might face a few tough matchups in the playoffs that could throw them off their rhythm, such as the Blazers in the first round or OKC/Houston in the second. But ultimately the Lakers are the better team by far, and it seems extremely unlikely they lose a series until maybe the Western Conference Finals against the Clippers. In the end, I think LeBron and co., inspired by the passing of Kobe, will find the strength to make it to the Finals. But will they win?
2. LA Clippers
- 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 44-20 (.688)
- Title Odds: +300
- Restart Schedule: LAL, NO, PHX, DAL, POR, BKN, DEN, OKC
Regular Season Status
The Clippers improved on an already playoff-quality core by adding two of the league’s biggest superstars over the offseason, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Clippers have since cemented their place as a title contender, but only after a very tedious start. The Clippers were championship favorites before the season started, but it took 11 games to see Paul George debut and it took them until after Christmas to field a fully healthy roster. They’ve since been playing catchup with the first-seeded Lakers in the standings, but have done more than enough to establish themselves on the court. The Clippers are extremely deep with the statistically best bench in the league. Yes, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard have been performing at superstar-levels consistently, but they win games with their depth. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell consistently provide nearly 40 points per game and ensure the Clippers can reign hell on their opponents when their stars need rest. It’s this non-stop attack that lifted the Clippers to the 3rd best offensive rating in the league (114.24) before play was halted.
Kawhi Leonard, SF. The former Defensive Player of the Year and reigning Finals MVP is a once in a generation talent. He’s always been a strong defender. Kawhi has extremely high basketball IQ, and when you mix this with his unique size, his long arms and massive hands, it’s only natural that he makes five All-Defensive teams and earns a DPOY award. But what has made Kawhi leap to superstardom is his offensive production. Kawhi evolved significantly in his last years in San Antonio and in Toronto to become an unstoppable scorer. He’s automatic from the field and is especially effective in crunch time, which is why he leads the Clippers in points per game with 26.9 and is consistently in the conversation for the best player in the world.
Paul George, SG. Like Leonard, Paul George is also an extremely talented two-way player. He’s one of the best lockdown defenders in the league. He’s constantly breaking up plays and intercepting passes. He knows where to be and what to do at any given time, and because of this, he’s extremely effective. On offense, he is also an extremely efficient scorer. He’s a strong shooter from behind the arc, plus he’s got the power and craftiness to be an elite finisher. Behind Leonard, he is second on the team in scoring (21.0 ppg) and is a threat that every opponent must consider.
Lou Williams, SG. Lou Will is one of the most unique players in the league. He’s not the best defender by any means, but he’s one of the most talented scorers in all of basketball, and he comes off the bench. Because of this, Lou has won the past two Six Man of the Year awards, and is the reason the Clippers have the best bench in basketball. He takes his role seriously. He runs the second team but plays with the starters in crunch time consistently. Combined with Montrezl Harrell, the two provide the energy and efficiency to keep the Clippers offense rolling for all 48 minutes.
The hiatus will undoubtedly be beneficial to the previously questionable health of Leonard and George. While they were resting inconsistently during the regular season and eased into play, during this sprint in Orlando they should be capable of playing as much as they’re needed. There will obviously be some reluctance to thrust them into this role right away, but the reluctance to run players for extended periods is shared across the league.
Similar to their across-town rivals, the Clippers will be playing in Orlando with one thing on their mind, a ring. Unlike the Lakers, though, the Clippers have brought their entire roster to the bubble. Expect maximum effort from everyone as they make a run at the organization’s first title. The seeding games should be competitive, too, as the Clippers look to maintain the 2-seed and their one and half game lead over Denver.
The Clippers are good but I don’t think they have what it takes to get past a motivated LeBron and AD. I expect them to make the Western Conference Finals but lose in a very competitive series.
3. Denver Nuggets
- 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 43-22 (.662)
- Title Odds: +3000
- Restart Schedule: MIA, OKC, SA, POR, UTAH, LAL, LAC, TOR
Regular Season Status
The Nuggets of this year are very much the same as the Nuggets of last year. They brought back 10 rotation players from their 54-win season, and were on pace to win exactly 54 games again before the season was halted. They are consistently one of the toughest matchups in the league, and are capable of beating any opponent on any given night (the Nuggets are one of three teams with wins over the top two teams in each conference, the others being Boston and Philadelphia). This is largely based on the brilliance of big man Nikola Jokić. He’s carried them through turbulent stretches of injuries and helped them maintain their status among the West’s elite. With Jamal Murray healthy and a deep, deep bench, the Nuggets are capable of contending. But whether or not they are strong enough to get past the Lakers and Clippers is still up in the air.
Nikola Jokić, C. While Denver thrives off of depth and versatility, it is undeniable that they would not be the team they are without star center Nikola Jokić. The seven-foot Serbian is one of the strangest characters in the NBA. He’s truly in a category of his own. When you watch him play, it’s hard to believe he’s as good as he is. He’s slow and lacks traditional athleticism, yet no one can stop him. His post moves are too crafty and his passes are stunningly creative and always on point. With his elite rebounding and scoring, the Joker can rack up a triple-double on any given night. He’s the cornerstone of the Nuggets and will be a must-watch in the bubble.
Jamal Murray, PG. Jamal Murray’s increase in production makes him the clear number-two option on Denver and a true blossoming star with All-Star potential. He’s the perfect complementary guard. He’s been steadily improving as a player each year and is essential in setting his teammates up for success. He’s second on the team in points (18.8) and assists (4.8) per game, and has always been a consistent shooter. With his improvement on defense this year, Murray has begun to make a name for himself in the league and will be exciting to watch moving forward.
There’s a lot on the line for Denver. Though they’re very much the same team as last season, their season goals are far more ambitious. Despite a second-round exit in 2019, that Nuggets team was the best since Carmelo Anthony played in Colorado, and it was largely viewed as a success. That same result this year would be extremely disappointing.
The Nuggets have brought their entire regular season roster to the bubble, so they are as willing as anyone to make a deep playoff push. They are one and half games behind the second-seed Clippers and one and half games ahead of the fourth-seed Jazz, so their position as the three seed is likely. In this case, they will be playing either Houston or OKC in the first round, who are much better than their records indicate. With a tough first round series that could go either way, and only tougher series to come, it’s hard to imagine the Nuggets going as far as they would like. But in the bubble, really anything could happen.
The results of the first round is extremely dependent on their first round matchup, but in all scenarios I don’t see them getting past the Clippers in the second round.
4. Utah Jazz
- 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 41-23 (.641)
- Title Odds: +6600
- Restart Schedule: NO, OKC, LAL, MEM, SA, DEN, DAL, SA
Regular Season Status
This season has been a rollercoaster of emotions for Jazz fans. They’ve shown super promising potential, such as a 19-2 stretch in December and January and a 5-1 stint before Gobert tested positive for Covid-19, but these winning spells have been sandwiched between really underwhelming performances. Offseason addition Mike Conley took a lot longer than expected to adjust to his new role in Utah, and the Jazz had to rebuild their entire bench midseason. On top of this, Gobert became patient zero in the NBA, being the first NBA player to test positive for Covid-19 and spreading it rather recklessly to teammate and fellow All-Star Donovan Mitchell. Their relationship has been unstable since, so Utah will be overcoming a lot as the season restarts.
Donovan Mitchell, SG. Mitchell was a pleasant surprise for the Jazz. Drafted 13th overall in 2017, he has exceeded everyone’s expectations and was one of the highest producing rookies that year. Since, he has developed into an essential piece of Utah’s cornerstone duo. He made his first All-Star appearance this year, averaging career highs in points per game (24.2), field-goal percentage (45.3), 3-point percentage (36.4), and box plus-minus (plus-1.9). While he’s undersized for his position at 6’1”, what he lacks in size he makes up for in pure athleticism. He’s one of the most explosive guards in the league and an absolute threat from anywhere on the court.
Rudy Gobert, C. Covid-19 aside, the Stifle Tower is a force to be reckoned with. Though he struggles on offense, he can have the occasional scoring burst and he more than makes up for it on the other end of the court. He’s one of the most effective defenders of the decade. At 7’2”, the sky-scraping, shot-swatting interior force lurks in the lane and forces opposing offenses to design their attacks around him. He’s one of the most intimidating presences in the league, and has become the most vital cog in leveling up Utah’s defense over the past few seasons. He’s the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and will be essential in any game Utah plays in the bubble.
The bubble does not look bright for the Jazz. While tensions were already high between the team’s two stars Mitchell and Gobert, they will now also be playing without Bojan Bogdanović, who announced in May that he would undergo hand surgery and miss the remainder of the season. Bogdanović was Utah’s second-leading scorer, averaging 20.2 points per game on 41.4% 3-point shooting. He was a vital piece of their offense for both scoring and spacing, and his absence will be very noticeable.
With this in mind, the chances of Utah making a deep run are increasingly slim. Thus the restart will likely become an opportunity for Gobert and Mitchell to mend fences. Sources have indicated that the Jazz stars have had numerous conversations and seem to be on better terms, but their relationship will be put to the test in the bubble. Both guys will be in a position to perform, too, as even though the Jazz don’t have much to play for, they both have contract extensions approaching.
With Bojan Bogdanović out, the Jazz will likely fall in the standings. As a five or six-seed, the Jazz will face Denver, Oklahoma, or Houston in the first round. I see Utah losing a series to all three of them.