NBA Bubble Basketball, Vol. 2: The Non-Zeros (in the East)

*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:

Eastern Conference:

5. Indiana Pacers

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 39-26 (.600)
  • Title Odds: +20000
  • Restart Schedule: PHI, WAS, ORL, PHX, LAL, MIA, HOU, MIA

pacers-image

Regular Season Status

The Indiana Pacers are a good team but I can’t help but be underwhelmed by their performance yet again. Given, their record would likely have been better had they been able to play star guard Victor Oladipo for the first half of the season, but for the third year in a row, the Pacers are positioned as the fifth seed in the East. It seems again that they are strong enough to get past most opponents, yet they struggle when facing elite competition. They are extremely well-rounded with a lot of solid pieces and seven players averaging 10+ points per game, yet they lacked a definitive number one option before the season stopped. After the hiatus, though, anything can happen.

Key Players

Victor Oladipo, SG. Victor Oladipo was the clear-cut number one option on a very strong Pacers team last season before he went down with a crippling ACL tear. This season, he has only played in 13 games and is easing his way back to his high production. He’s amazingly fun to watch; he’s quick and athletic and can hit big shots in big moments. He’s a very pure shooting guard who has shown a lot of promise at every stage of his career. Entering Orlando, Oladipo is the x-factor if Indiana is to make a run. 

T.J. Warren, SF. T.J. Warren is extremely underrated. Despite leading the team in scoring (18.7 ppg) and establishing himself as a solid two-way role player during his first season with the Pacers, Warren has been disregarded and cast aside by the league. Nevertheless, T.J. has had some explosive nights, showcasing that he can be the premier scorer that Indiana needs. With Oladipo still recovering, Warren has stepped up as the much-needed threat that can get their offense rolling.

Domantas Sabonis, PF. Sabonis has been a double-double machine this season, averaging 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per game as he earned a well-deserved trip to the All-Star game in Chicago. Paired with Warren, these two have developed into a deadly duo that feeds off of shots that defenses are willing to give up. It seems he will always be overlooked, but look for this guy to sneak up on his opponents and do some damage.  

Orlando Outlook

The hiatus puts the Pacers in an interesting position where it could either be extremely harmful or extremely beneficial to their playoff hopes. On one hand, Malcolm Brogdon recently tested positive for COVID-19 and Victor Oladipo was very rusty when he returned at the end of January for the first time in over a year. With these two, how their injury/illness will affect their performance in Orlando remains a mystery that only time will tell. On the other hand, as Oladipo joins his team in the bubble, the layoff could be just what he needed to regain his comfort on the hardwood and pick up where he left off last season. If this Oladipo shows up then the Pacers could finally pose a threat to break into the second round. Either way, I would expect him to get a lot more minutes in games that matter, so it will be interesting to see how their offense evolves to get him more involved. The rest of their team more or less remains the same, so the status of these two will be critical in determining their outcome in Orlando. 

Prediction

I don’t think the Pacers have what it takes to fight past a top-heavy East. I’m predicting a six or seven game series against Miami or Boston that results in a loss.


6. Philadelphia 76ers

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 39-26 (.600)
  • Title Odds: +2000
  • Restart Schedule: IND, SA, WSH, ORL, POR, PHX, TOR, HOU

76ers

Regular Season Status

The 76ers’ season has been nothing short of disastrous. Entering the 2019 regular season, Philly was expected to contend with Milwaukee for the top spot in the East. Evidently, that has not panned out. Instead, the Sixers have faced countless issues regarding team chemistry, the fit of certain players, constant injuries, and coaching complications. There is an astonishing difference between their performances in and out of Philadelphia, too, as they hold the best home record in the league (29-2) and simultaneously the worst away record (10-24) of any playoff team in the league. The addition of Al Horford to their lineup has proved incompatible, Ben Simmons still refuses to take a three, and there are constant rumors that their stars have a foot out the door. Yet, a trip to Orlando could be just what they need to capitalize on their potential, as anything can happen in the bubble.

Key Players

Joel Embiid, C. Another double-double machine, Joel Embiid is a force to be reckoned with. The 7’0”, 280 pound center is remarkably agile for his size, and he has utilized his skills to become one of the best centers in the league. He’s the leading scorer (23.4 ppg) and rebounder (11.8 rpg) for the Sixers, and is a constant highlight real with his terrorizing blocks and thunderous slams. He’s proven he can shoot the ball, too, so he can open up the floor more than most. Embiid is arguably the most essential piece to both Philly’s offense and defense, and is the guy to watch if you’re watching the Philadelphia 76ers.

Ben Simmons, PG?. Simmons is one of the most unique players in the league. The LSU product showcases a stranger and stranger game each season, enabled by his incredible athleticism and speed despite his enormous stature. At 6’10”, 240 pounds, one would expect Simmons to play as a power forward or center, yet Simmon’s vision and mobility have permitted him to play point guard. Though his shooting is exceptionally poor, his acrobatic finishes and elite passing have compensated for his flaws and led him to become one of the most difficult matchups in the league. He’s elite at defense, as well, giving him value that is often hard to see on paper and is overlooked by critics. He’s certainly one of the most fun players to watch in the league, and he could be the x-factor for the disgruntled Sixers as they try to turn their season around.

Orlando Outlook

There’s a lot at stake for the Sixers as they prepare to play in Orlando. After such a turbulent season, the status of multiple personnel is now in the air, and how Philly performs will determine the result. Coach Brett Brown is certainly on the hot seat, as with Al Horford, after their underwhelming performances raised questions about their place in Philly after all. Rumors have also circulated about the breakup of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, an unlikely but certainly possible effect of another early exit in the playoffs. Though, what this all boils down to is results. The Sixers have been kicked from the postseason earlier than anticipated every year in recent memory, and their offseason moves were supposed to make them stronger. Yet after a far from encouraging regular season, there is considerable doubt they can make a deep run this year. Orlando will be an opportunity to prove everyone wrong. With neutral site games, Philly will no longer be fighting an uphill battle in away games, and the hiatus could be a useful opportunity to ensure everyone is fully healthy and ready to make a playoff push. There is speculation that Brett Brown will be experimenting with new lineups, too, and trying out players in new positions (i.e. Ben Simmons), so really anything could happen with the Sixers. Many of these guys are fighting for their spot on the roster next season, so everyone will be motivated to take this team as far as possible.

Prediction

Philadelphia is a stronger team than Indiana. They should be able to pull ahead in the standings and secure a first round matchup against Miami. This is a tossup, but I’m choosing Philly to win this and go on to lose to Milwaukee in the second round.


7. Brooklyn Nets

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 30-34 (.469)
  • Title Odds: +15000
  • Restart Schedule: ORL, WAS, MIL, BOS, SAC, LAC, ORL, POR

nets

Regular Season Status

I don’t even know why I’m writing about the regular season status of the Nets; the team that’s playing in Orlando is a shell of the team that played from October to March. Nevertheless, here we go. The Nets had an extremely successful offseason as they acquired Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and DeAndre Jordan, yet this big three has remained unseen due to a constant flow of injuries defining the 2019-20 season. Durant was a no-go from the get, sidelined with an achilles injury he suffered at the end of last season. Furthermore, Irving has been in and out of games, sitting for 26 straight at one point due to a lingering shoulder injury that needed surgery. With these injuries at the front of everyone’s mind, it seemed that nothing much was expected out of this season. In spite of this, the core that was carried over from last year’s team remains intact and performed about as expected. Spencer Dinwiddie proved once again that he can ball, stepping up as the leading scorer when Irving was out, and their youth has shown significant development. Overall, the season was still a bust, but I can’t imagine anyone is losing too much sleep over it.

Key Players

Caris LeVert, SG. Caris LeVert has been a solid role player for Brooklyn all season, showing he is a high quality scorer off the bench and can explode with high production at any moment. He averaged 17.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game in the regular season and had a career night against Boston right before the season ended where he scored 51 and led Brooklyn on a heroic comeback. In the bubble, LeVert will be the go-to guy as he’s the best of the players returning from the regular season.

Joe Harris, SF. Joe Harris will be a solid second option for the Nets. He’s an elite shooter (he won the 3-point contest last year) and can pull up on a dime. It will be interesting to see how the Nets’ offense evolves to get Harris even more touches due to their shocking lack of players.

Orlando Outlook

As I indicated above, the Nets in Orlando are not the Nets in Brooklyn. The roster is completely different. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are confirmed not participating due to their injuries. Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan, and Taurean Prince have all opted out after testing positive for COVID-19. Furthermore, Nicolas Claxton has declared he is having shoulder surgery and will sit out, and Wilson Chandler has opted out for personal reasons. In return, the Nets have signed a roster of rejects. Tyler Johnson, Justin Anderson, Jamal Crawford, Michael Beasley, and Lance Thomas have all signed on to play out the rest of the season for Brooklyn. At this point, it’s really impossible to know what to expect, so I’ll leave it at this: The Nets will be a fun team to watch if you like league legends, but that’s about it. I can’t imagine anybody will be trying too hard over here.

Prediction

Brooklyn holds onto their playoff spot (it’s virtually impossible to lose), as either the seven or eight seed, and is swept in the first round. Good riddance.


8. Orlando Magic

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 30-35 (.462)
  • Title Odds: +100000
  • Restart Schedule: BKN, SAC, IND, TOR, PHI, BOS, BKN, NO

Orlando Magic v San Antonio Spurs

Regular Season Status

The Orlando Magic are certainly still growing. They’ve got a youthful core with exciting potential, yet they lack a definitive star to lean on and their inexperience shows often. Guys like Evan Fournier and Markelle Fultz have made promising leaps this season, demonstrating that they could take on potential All-Star roles in years to come. Aaron Gordon has also been exciting to watch, as always, showcasing some of the most explosive athleticism in the league. But this season is a developmental one; their roster is still in the process of becoming a threat. Thus no one was expecting much out of them. It’s extremely promising that they are in position to make the playoffs, but you’re delusional if you thought they had a chance at going far.

Key Players

Evan Fournier, SG. Fournier’s return to the lineup is great news for Magic fans. Evan Fournier has been a sharpshooter for Orlando this season. He’s averaging 18.8 points per game on over 40% shooting from behind the arc. He’s quick on his feet and is fantastic at getting open with his off-ball movement, which is why Orlando draws up so many plays to give him shots. He’s a lot like Steph Curry in this sense.

Aaron Gordon, PF. Gordon has excited Magic fans since he was drafted in 2014. He’s one of the most athletic and agile players in the league, and will try to dunk over anyone given the opportunity. He’s not the most efficient player nor the best scorer, but his performances in the dunk contest and his constant hussle make him exciting to watch every night.

Orlando Outlook

The Magic will be taking the same team they had in the regular season into the bubble. While not the best, they are in a strong position to maintain their current spot as the eight seed or move up to seventh and weasel a way into the postseason. As I indicated above, it’d be naive to expect too much out of this team, so the restarted season will likely serve as an opportunity to give their players crucial experience in important games. Consider this as a period for growth.

Prediction

Swept in the first round.

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