Bubble Basketball, Vol. 3: The Favorites (in the East)

*Title Odds provided via mybookie.ag (as of July 23)

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:

1. Milwaukee Bucks

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 53-12 (.815)
  • Title Odds: +280
  • Restart Schedule: BOS, HOU, BKN, MIA, DAL, TOR, WSH, MEM

bucks

Regular Season Status

The Milwaukee Bucks were practically unstoppable during the regular season, on pace for 70 wins until early March. They were undoubtedly the strongest team in the league, posting the highest average margin of victory since the 2017 Warriors and the 5th highest in NBA history. Giannis was and still is the clear frontrunner for MVP (while also making a Defensive Player of the Year argument), and co-stars Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe were having career years. Since Giannis was drafted by the team in 2013, the Bucks have steadily grown from one of the worst teams in the league to an absolute juggernaut expected to come out of the Eastern Conference. And before the hiatus, they looked primed to do so. They have the most dominant defense in the league with a defensive rating of 102.45, nearly four points lower than the second place Raptors, and one of the most explosive offensive players ever in Giannis. But they did lose four of their last five games, and three in a row for the first time under head coach Mike Budenholzer, so the main concern entering the restart is if they can regain their momentum and make a title push.

Key Players

Giannis Antetokounmpo, PF. Giannis had the best season of his career last year, in which he won MVP and carried the Bucks to 60 wins and the first seed in the East. This year, he was even better. You can say this and that about the phenomenal coaching of Mike Budenholzer or the All-Star performance of Middleton, but when you boil it down, none of this is possible without Giannis. Giannis is the driving force behind the best Bucks team in 30 years, and deserves all the credit he gets. This season, he’s averaging 29.6 points, 13.7 rebounds, and 5.8 assists per game, leading the team in each of these categories. His unique combination of strength, speed, and length helps make him one of the most intimidating players to face in the league. He’ll jump over your entire team to snatch a rebound then cross the court in five dribbles and jam it on anyone who dares challenge. Beware of the Greek Freak.

Khris Middleton, SF. Middleton made his second All-Star team this year putting up solid numbers as the second option. Since Budenholzer stepped in as the head coach, Khris has taken on a significantly different role. But he’s bought into the Budenholzer system and it looks to be paying off. He’s always been a good shooter, but he’s learned to take more threes and has become a key component in spreading the floor to give Giannis driving lanes. He’s now averaging a career high in points (21.1 ppg) and rebounds (6.2 rpg) and will be essential for the Bucks as they look to finally make their way out of the East.

Orlando Outlook

The Bucks are so far atop the East that they could lose every seeding game and would still likely be in first place. But they won’t, and seeding games aside, the Bucks will be cruising full steam ahead in the playoffs. Though they’re missing a few players currently due to Covid-19 and other minor injuries, they’ll get them back soon and they’ll be playing with a complete roster. They’ve got everything to play for this postseason. The Bucks have had promising teams before but have failed to show up in the playoffs. They lost to Toronto last year after going up 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals, and they lost to a very young Boston team in 2018. This year, the pressure is on for them to perform. If they neglect to make a Finals appearance yet again, whether or not Giannis will resign becomes a legitimate question.

Milwaukee showed their first sign of weakness all season right before the break. They lost three in a row to the Lakers, Suns, and Nuggets, and demonstrated that they are in fact beatable. The main question entering the restart is whether or not they can gain their momentum back. Because if they can’t it could mean the end of the Bucks as we know them.

Prediction

The Bucks are an extremely strong squad, but I don’t think they have what it takes to exit a surprisingly strong Eastern Conference. I may be a delusional Boston fan, but I think they’ll be outsmarted by Brad Stevens and the Celtics in a very competitive Eastern Conference Finals.


2. Toronto Raptors

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 46-18 (.719)
  • Title Odds: +1600
  • Restart Schedule: LAL, MIA, ORL, BOS, MEM, MIL, PHI, DEN

raptors

Regular Season Status

The reigning champs have made quite the case that they’re capable of defending their title this season. Despite the loss of Danny Green and Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, Nick Nurse and the Raptors have scrapped together a remarkable season off the success of great defense and emerging star Pascal Siakam. Toronto has been injury prone all season long, as well, constantly working without key players and adjusting on the fly. Nevertheless, they’ve managed to put together a better regular season than last year (.719 vs. .707) and all-but-officially cement themselves as the second seed in the East. With the extra time off, the Raptors will surely be title contenders in Orlando. But as impressive as this is, the question remains if it will be enough to fight past the other juggernauts in the East. After all, the Raptors posted an 0-2 record against the Bucks and a 1-2 record against the Celtics. 

Key Players

Pascal Siakam, PF. Though Siakam is in his fourth year in the league, the big man likely slipped under your radar until at least last season, when he emerged as a vital cog on a championship team. Out of NBA stars, Siakam has one of the most unique skill sets ever. He is especially effective on the fast break. When driving down the floor with a teammate, Pascal’s elite finishing makes him the perfect recipient for any pass. He is also very effective in isolation. His combination of length, quickness, and jumping ability gives him the advantage over practically every defender he goes up against, and he seems to be getting better every day. This rising star will be a must watch as the Raps look to defend their title.

Kyle Lowry, PG. Kyle Lowry may just be the greatest Raptor of all time. He’s been with Toronto for 8 seasons, and is currently second on their all time list in games played (first in playoff games played). He’s been the heart and soul of their team for a while, and was the first to bring in a championship with the help of Kawhi. Lowry is an extremely talented and extremely gritty player. He takes no shame in doing all the dirty work on defense. He takes charges and plays scrappy, and he gets the job done. On offense, his intelligence and experience have shaped him into a floor general. While his numbers aren’t the most impressive, Lowry creates shots for teammates and in effect makes everyone around him better. The vet will be essential to the Raps if they are to go deep in the postseason again. 

Orlando Outlook

The Raptors, like most other teams in serious title contention, will bring to Orlando the complete team they played with in the regular season. Though, while they were forced to accommodate for countless injuries during regular season play, the entire roster will be healthy and ready to push for another championship. Toronto will be fighting for a lot, too. They’ve been pretty obvious about pursuing Giannis as the end of his contract approaches, and a deep playoff run could be convincing enough to bring the Greek Freak into their ‘winning culture.’ In addition, they have three significant players entering free agency this offseason in Fred VanFleet, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol, so they will also be fighting to keep these guys interested. They should come out of the break in full form eager to prove their worth in the league with another extended run in the playoffs, but will it be enough?

Prediction

I’m a Toronto doubter. Without Kawhi, I’m worried the Raps don’t have the clutch gene. While they’ve been strong in the regular season, the playoffs are a different animal. The competition will be stronger and Toronto hasn’t given promising results against their stronger opponents. I think the Raptors lose in 6 to the Celtics in the second round.


3. Boston Celtics

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 43-21 (.672)
  • Title Odds: +1300
  • Restart Schedule: MIL, POR, MIA, BKN, TOR, ORL, MEM, WSH

Celtics vs Rockets

Regular Season Status

Going into the season, it was known that the Celtics had potential, but nobody thought they would be as good as they are. Last season, they ended on a very iffy note. Locker room complications arose when a talented team that took LeBron to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals in 2018 was forced to accommodate Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward into their rotations; simply put, they had too many mouths to feed. They ended on a very underwhelming second-round exit after many predicted they would make the Finals, and Kyrie left for Brooklyn.

But they’ve surprised everybody this year (well, everybody but themselves). They signed star point guard Kemba Walker to replace Kyrie, settled chemistry issues, matured as a team, and came out of the gates hot and ready to prove all the haters wrong. Given, I’m a Boston fan and I go into every season thinking we have a shot at winning the title, but this year’s Celtics are different. They’re much more consistent than previous seasons, they’ve got a talented and deep roster that is ideal for a playoff run, and there are no (0) chemistry issues. Plus, they’re even better than they look on paper. Tatum exploded as of recently. After making his first All-Star team as a 21-year-old, Jayson Tatum turned the corner to superstardom, averaging over 30 points per game in February and demanding some respect on his name. Despite struggling with injuries throughout the season, the Celtics have posted the third best record in a surprisingly competitive Eastern Conference, with big wins against every major contender. During the regular season, there were big questions surrounding the overall health of the team, but in the bubble, everybody is good to go.

Key Players

Jayson Tatum, SF. Jayson Tatum has risen. With Kyrie signing in Brooklyn, Tatum has stepped up and proved he is more than capable of being a number one option. He made his first All-Star team, and soon after exploded in production. Before the break, it seemed as if we were witnessing the Jayson Tatum of the future. He went on an absolute tear, averaging 30.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game on nearly 64% true shooting (!) through February, in which he won Eastern Conference Player of the Month. His game is smooth as butter, too. He can shake his opponent and pull up from deep or finish at the rim with ease, and he is an extremely competent defender who can guard any position. He’s a definitive star and will be the player to watch as the C’s make a run for their first title in over a decade.

Jaylen Brown, SG. Much like Jayson Tatum became a different player when he was announced as an All-Star, Jaylen Brown did when it was announced that he wasn’t. With a comparably good season and another year under his belt, the snub lit a fire beneath the 22-year-old. JB has been automatic this year, and he plays the perfect counterpart to Tatum’s game. While he can shoot the ball, too, Brown is the most athletic player on the floor 95% of the time. He’s absolutely explosive and is one of the best players on the fast break in the league. And on defense, he is a lock. He’s got an extremely high basketball IQ and has shown very promising growth over the past few years. Right now, he’s the clear number three option for scoring, but I could see him jumping Kemba as he grows more and more. A strong performance from Brown will be key to a Finals run for the C’s.

Kemba Walker, PG. Kemba Walker has taken on a different role since arriving in Boston last offseason. In Charlotte, Walker was the sole scorer on a bottom of the barrel team, averaging 25 points per night and being the focus of attention the entire game. Here, Walker has taken a step back. He is still averaging 21.2 points per game, but he has transitioned to more of a facilitator role. He scores when needed, but he’s more likely to give the ball to JT or JB if they have a better look, and it’s this attitude that has helped the Celtics have so much success. Don’t get me wrong, Kemba is still a thrill to watch. He’s one of the quickest players in the league with one of the meanest crossovers. He’ll lose his defender and pull up deep from behind the arc or slip through the defense for an acrobatic finish. His only detractor this season has been his health. With a questionable knee, he has been sidelined a fair amount. But with the added rest due to the hiatus, he should be good to go in Orlando.

Orlando Outlook

Boston is one of the teams that benefits most from the hiatus. Entering Orlando, the C’s now have a fully healthy and extremely deep roster at their disposal. In the regular season they were deemed the “Hospital Celtics” after seemingly all of their key contributors missed time with various injuries. Now, coming off of four and a half months of rest, Boston has their entire team locked and loaded to make a deep run in the postseason. Additionally, Boston had a constant rotation of bench players moving up and down from the G League during the regular season, but in the bubble they benefit from an expanded roster, now permitting them to roster all of their rookies (yes, this includes Tacko). This gives them more depth, but also additional chemistry, as even their deepest bench players have the experience of playing with each other for the whole season.

Going into Orlando, the Boston Celtics are ready to win it all. Their young core has had plenty of playoff experience with two runs to the Eastern Conference Finals in the past three years, and with an electrifying regular season behind them, they’re ready to finally take over. Expect nothing less than the strongest effort Boston can offer. They’re here for one reason… to bring home banner 18.

Prediction

This is my dark horse. I think the Celtics will upset the world this year. Everybody’s talking about Giannis and LeBron and Kawhi, but they’re forgetting about the team that beat each of them during the regular season. The Celtics have the only lineup (aside from the Sixers, maybe) capable of stopping Giannis in the playoffs, and they’ve got the coach smart enough to do it in Brad Stevens. I predict the Celtics beat the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals in 7 games, and go on to win a championship against the Lakers in 6.


4. Miami Heat

  • 2019-20 Regular Season Record: 41-24 (.631)
  • Title Odds: +4000
  • Restart Schedule: DEN, TOR, BOS, MIL, PHX, IND, OKC, IND

heat

Regular Season Status

The Miami Heat were overlooked entering the season, but they have made more than enough noise to get the attention of the league. The offseason addition of Jimmy Butler gave them a high quality veteran capable of leading their young core, but what made the biggest difference was the exceptional performance of the young guys themselves. Bam Adebayo (2 years experience), Duncan Robinson (1 year), Kendrick Nunn (rookie), and Tyler Herro (rookie) have all had outstanding seasons so far, and they’ve all become essential pieces of Miami’s deep stable of shooters that manifests into a perimeter-centric attack. The Heat live and die by the three-ball, and when these guys get hot, they’re practically unstoppable. This, in addition to one of the flyest alternate court and jersey combos ever, made the Heat must-watch basketball before the season came to a halt. 

Key Players

Jimmy Butler, SF. Miami is leaps and bounds better with Butler on the team. While he had a controversial history playing for Minnesota and Philly, transitioning a definitive number-one option has proved a phenomenal decision. Butler is the cornerstone of this young Heat team. As the primary option, his skills as a floor general, an assist-maker, and an elite defender have willed Miami to their 41-24 record. He leads the team in points (20.2) and assists (6.1) per game, and is essential in crunch time. Butler has ice in his veins and will always be the guy to watch on Miami in the bubble.

Bam Adebayo, PF. Bam has been a beast in his first All-Star season. He can do it all (except shoot threes, but who needs that when you have elite shooting completing the rest of the roster). He’s willing to do the dirty work, but capable of doing much more. He’s a strong screener, passer and finisher, and an incredibly active defender. He’s everything you want the modern center to be. With his combination of skills and his new role in the starting lineup, Adebayo has been exceedingly productive. He’s one of just two players averaging at least 15 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, one steal, and one block per game this season. The other is Giannis Antetokounmpo, so you could say he’s doing pretty well for himself.

Orlando Outlook

Jimmy’s had a chip on his shoulder all season long. In fact, the whole team has. They’ve been overlooked and forgotten, and now they’ve got something to prove. Though they’ll likely be an Eastern Conference powerhouse for years to come, they’re ready to make a name for themselves right now. With their complete regular season roster participating in the bubble, these guys will be making a big push to show they can live up to their record and ball with the best. It’ll be interesting to see how midseason additions Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder are incorporated into their playoff rotations, too. The Heat already had depth, but with these guys in the mix, they’re able to beat some teams by simply outlasting them.

Unfortunately for Heat fans, a championship is unlikely. As much talent as their roster has shown, as the fourth seed in the East they have an extremely difficult route through the playoffs. They’ll likely be playing the 76ers (a must-watch series if so), Jimmy Butler’s former team, in the first round, which will put their young stars to the test. And then even if they manage to scratch their way into the second round, here they’ll meet the bloodthirsty Bucks, which won’t end well. 

Prediction

The Heat have too difficult a playoff route to make a deep run. If they match up against Indiana in the first round, I can see them winning and going on to lose to the Bucks. But if they face Philly, I’m choosing the Sixers in probably the most exciting series of the first round.

 

More From This Series

Eastern Conference Underdogs

 

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