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The Case For (And Against) Teams on the Bubble of the NBA Bubble Playoffs
With how inconsequential professional sports leagues ultimately are tothe fabric of our society, I’d be remiss to just jump right into NBA talk. Especially as the league is far from the foremost thing on anyone’s mind. Please consider donating your time or resources to organizations that need it
Well, the NBA is back. Not all of it, anyway, but 22 teams will be headed to Orlando with the hope of taking part in the inaugural NBA Bubble Playoffs. Including the Nets, nine teams will head to Disney World without a guaranteed playoff spot, six of whom are currently on the outside looking in. If you’re unsure of who to root for to sneak into the final three playoff spots (2 in the East, 1 in the West), look no further. I’ve compiled a pros and cons list of each team’s potential playoff appearance, for both the casual and, like myself, crazed NBA fan (with a bonus fragment on one of the under-appreciated players in recent NBA history.)
For the sake of brevity, the Nets are excluded from this list for a couple of reasons. Assuming you, Nets Republic reader, are a Nets fan, we know where you stand. Secondly, despite their position in the seventh-seed, there is almost no reason for Brooklyn to make the trek to Orlando. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are not playing, and these will be the last games the team as presently constructed, or anywhere close to it, will play. The only thing that could impact the trajectory of this franchise down in the bubble would be catastrophic injuries. There has never been a less impactful home-stretch of a season for a playoff team. Anyway, let’s get started.
For the casual
Pros: This team profiles as a contender in the near future; it’s best to acquaint yourself now. You know ROY-elect Ja Morant, and maybe have heard the buzz of Jaren Jackson Jr. being good. He is. Despite the awkward leg kick on his shot, this 7-footer is nearing 40% from deep on six attempts a game. His hands reach his knees when he’s standing straight up. Like a lanky fourth-grader, he blocks a ton of shots but also fouls everyone. An absolute joy to watch, and possible sign of what centers will become. Brandon Clarke is yet another young Grizzly, taken later in the 2019 first round, who has decided he doesn’t miss shots in the NBA (albeit on low volume). The stretch-4 can already score from all three levels. These guys are markedly not a Conley-ZBo-Gasol trio. But Memphis is in good hands. Come have a look-see.
Cons: Jonas Valanciunas might be their most important player right now. And other than that, there’s a smattering of guys you might faintly recognize here and there. You’re going to become accustomed to Dillon Brooks, whose supreme effort and confidence is fun, but also might lead to a 5-18 night from the floor. You might not get to see Jaren Jackson much after he fouls Anthony Davis four times in the first quarter.
For the aficionado
Pros: Ja Morant’s rookie campaign was truly special. Although the season effectively ended in March, Ja never hit the wall many rookies experience around the All-Star break. Yet, for a young guard with effortless athleticism, he played at his own pace. He navigated around pick and rolls with an ease and predetermined philosophy of where his best spots are. He never stopped trying to dunk on people, but Morant controlled the flow of the offense superbly. You rarely saw the “what is this guy doing?” timeout from coach Taylor Jenkins that embodies the frustration rookie point guards bring. Don’t expect him to lead the Grizz anywhere past the first round, but I’m eager to see his first reaction to 4+ games of detailed game plans.
Cons: Although they have more intriguing top-line pieces than most eight-seeds, their supporting cast isn’t what you would expect from a typical team led by young guns. After dealing away Jae Crowder, there’s a surprising lack of experienced vets doing their part. To win a playoff game as a major underdog, your role players have to shine brighter than the other guys’, while your stars keep pace with, say, Lebron. Don’t expect Memphis’ depth to outshine that of the Lakers. That series will expose just how far Memphis is from contention, and that’s no fun.
For the casual
Pros: Devin Booker will impress you as a scorer. The Suns never play on national TV, and you have no reason to watch them otherwise. But you’ll be amused at how smoothly the 23-year-old gets his shots off against a top-tier defense. He now makes savvy pick and roll reads, like the one below. You can check in on whether Deandre Ayton will at least become good enough so people don’t relentlessly clown the Suns for passing on Luka. Early returns say maybe? He’s adept at a lot of things, headlined by masterfully soft hands and interior passing ability. How Ayton attacks and defends the Lakers’ massive frontline is a low stakes opportunity for him to curry some favor with a national audience.
Cons: You will have to watch Ricky Rubio have nervous breakdowns deciding whether or not to take a wide-open three in the half-court offense. By Game 3, the Lakers will have worn down Devin Booker after unleashing a hoarde of excellent perimeter defenders on him. And no other Sun will want the ball. Well, maybe Kelly Oubre. This is not a good basketball team.
For the aficionado
Pros: Unfortunately, Ricky Rubio will no longer surprise you with his neat-o bounce passes and slicked back hair. But with Booker, you’ll see a glimpse of how his playoff career could look. Can he get to the line with regularity? Will he settle for too many tough pull-ups? Your opinion of his value as a shoot-first top-dog will finally get some anecdotal evidence. I’m excited, though, to see Mikal Bridges guard Lebron for four games straight. The murmurs of him turning into a special, not good, wing defender are worth monitoring. The Suns will be left with no choice but to get Bridges on Lebron, and I can’t wait.
Cons: The Suns won’t play Mikal Bridges as much as you or I might deem fit, and they’ll relegate him to Avery Bradley, because these are the Suns. Devin Booker might have one game shooting over 45% after the Lakers realize nobody else will make them pay. The Suns will be in a competitive game, and then randomly stop playing defense in the third quarter. The Suns are still the Suns, a team that shouldn’t even be invited to Orlando, but at least Aron Baynes and Dwight Howard will get pissed off at each other’s high elbows.
New Orleans Pelicans
For the casual
Pros: Zion. (Zion vs. LeBron.)
Cons: ESPN might run First Take 24/7 through the duration of this series. Bleacher Report will crash Twitter. Jimmy Butler going Holyfield on Ben Simmons’ ear in a backyard-brawl of a seven-game series between Miami and Philadelphia won’t get five minutes of coverage if Zion-LeBron comes to fruition. The fact these games are taking place in an abandoned warehouse dampens some of the other storylines this series offers, such as scorned son Anthony Davis facing off with New Orleans, or LeBron facing off against the young core he traded a year ago,
For the aficionado
Pros: Despite glaring shortcomings on defense and overall fitness, Zion immediately vaulted the ceiling of these Pelicans above any other fringe playoff team upon his Janurary return. Their starting lineup of Ball-Holiday-Zion-Ingram-Favors has an “is that a typo?” net rating of +26.3 in 230 minutes. Everyone on this team benefits from Zion’s presence: Lonzo has a perfect ooper to his alley. Even Josh Hart has another high-energy friend to play with. Brandon Ingram could win Most Improved Player, largely due to shooting 42% on catch and shoot threes, and he might be the biggest beneficiary of the absurd attention that must be paid to Zion in the paint (seen below). New Orleans was routinely putting up 120 before the shutdown, and have far more talent than a prototypical roadkill eight-seed. What facet of their offense would the Lakers hone in on first?
Cons: When the Lakers remind everyone why they are the one-seed in this series, it won’t be sexy. They are going to overpower New Orleans’ front line, whose sturdiest big man is Derrick Favors. A barrage of fouls, free throws, and offensive rebounds are going to slow the game to a snails pace, Zion will look overmatched, in what would be his 30th-or-so professional game, which isn’t fun. And while nobody actually has a LeBron-stopper, the Pelicans especially don’t have a prayer. Brandon Ingram is still paper-thin, Zion isn’t ready, and unfortunately, Josh Hart’s lunch-pale energy only comes in a 6’4″ frame. When these teams last dueled, Alvin Gentry had no choice but to stick Jrue Holiday on the King. LeBron just started posting up, and things got ugly quick.
For the casual
Pros: Markelle Fultz is somehow Orlando’s leader in games played this year! You might be disappointed if you were counting on his stardom during the draft process, but he might yam on someone and lure you back to the hype train, at least a little. Aaron Gordon’s ability to explode in traffic is sure to provide the occasional highlight, along with one or two Terrence Ross barrages in a four-game series. If they claw up to the seventh-seed, we could get a rematch of last year’s Orlando-Toronto first round series, notable for the D.J. Augustin Game 1 explosion.
Cons: When the Magic don’t score, they are brutal to watch. And this team goes through scoring droughts. It’s one thing to get blown out by a superior team, but at least do it with style. The Magic own the worst offensive rating out of any team headed to the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Potential matchups vs. Milwaukee and Toronto do not bode well for them, or for your sensibilities. Nikola Vucevic thrashing around with Robin Lopez on the low block won’t be gluing many eyes to the TV.
For the aficionado
Pros: I don’t have much to tell you, friend. The Bucks swept the Magic 4-0 in the regular season, and the Raptors went 3-0. It’s hard to see that trend changing, even in a chaotic playoff setting. This will be a de facto audition for Aaron Gordon. Contending teams discussing whether or not to swing a deal and turn him into a bruising supporting actor will get another look. Could he become a B-tier Giannis stopper for a rival team? If they get the Raptors, Ibaka and Gasol will take turns pissing off Nikola Vucevic.
Cons: Goodness the Magic really are boring to watch. They are 5-26 against above .500 teams. Every day they don’t bring back the pinstriped uniforms of yesteryear is a wasted opportunity. Instead they’ve implemented some Tron-esque orange and black fits, in which you would never be able to tell that they’re actually the Orlando Magic. Everyone of consequence on this team besides DJ Augustin is already under contract for next year. I don’t want to watch a team that consistently fails to space the floor try to attack the pure mass that is the Bucks or Raptors. I’m assuming you don’t either.
Portland Trail Blazers
For the casual
Pros: In Damian Lillard, the Blazers undoubtedly have the best player I’ll mention in this article. His 48-10-9 performance in the first game the Lakers hosted after the death of Kobe Bryant was one this season’s signature moments, even if it came from a visiting player. Perhaps especially so. Dame can single-handedly win games, even if the other team has Lebron James and Anthony Davis. Every bucket CJ McCollum gets melts the broadcast booth into a bunch of oohs and aahs. They’ve played in enough big games to not wilt in any playoff series.
Cons: How many times do you make the same order at a restaurant before trying something else? Sure, they might put chives on the potatoes this time instead of leeks, but it’s still the same dish. Whether Carmelo goes 30, 40, or 50% on his mid-range pull-ups is window dressing. The Blazers are floating in plucky-underdog purgatory. Damian Lillard is better than Allen Iverson ever was, but the current NBA is too talent-saturated for a 6’0 guard to drag a motley crew to the Finals. Some movies don’t warrant sequels.
For the aficionado
Pros: Okay, fine, a plausible starting 5 of Dame-CJ-Melo-Collins-Nurkic is sleeker than any previous outfit of these Blazers. Intuitively, those pieces seem to fit together; penciling Melo in as your fifth-most impactful starter is about right. The other four players are, barring trades, guaranteed to be in Portland over the next couple seasons. We haven’t seen Collins or Nurkic practically all season due to injuries, but they were both angling to return before the NBA shut down. If the Blazers so choose, the frontcourt duo could be playing meaningful minutes this summer. As the front office works to pinpoint the final piece of next year’s starting 5 (sorry, Melo), a series vs. the Lakers would certainly help steer that search. A timeline in which Portland adds a B-tier forward to their core four, graduating to genuine threat-status in the West, is certainly in play.
Cons: If even the casual has seen enough futile efforts from a low-seeded Portland team, I know your appetite is full. Hassan Whiteside is clogging up the rotation too, now. Whiteside provided a ton of flex-seal minutes for a bruised Blazer team this year, but there’s no reason to play him more than Jusuf Nurkic in a competitive setting. His impending free agency, and likely departure, highlights the confounding situation the Blazers are entering the bubble in. In terms of the overall direction of this franchise, these games represent little more than local TV revenue.
San Antonio Spurs
For the casual
Pros: The Spurs, despite their 27-36 record, show flashes of the fundamentally impenetrable squads of Spurs lore. Despite some deficiencies in the talent department, this team won’t self-destruct. Gregg Popovich’s band still doesn’t turn the ball over, leading the league in AST/TO ratio and fewest total turnovers. Cleaning the defensive glass also isn’t an issue, as they allow the fourth-fewest offensive rebounds in the league. And to clear up any misinformation, San Antonio has no problem making the shots they are supposed to make, posting elite percentages from the arc and the stripe.
Cons: Now, taking the shots they are supposed to take, that’s a different issue. Despite shooting 37.1% from three, their shot selection is still stuck in 2010. DeMar DeRozan, Lamarcus Aldridge, and Dejounte Murray combine to take 40 shots a game. Among those attempts are a measly five from long-distance. The band-aid Popovich applies is playing a couple of pesky, sub-six foot gunners in Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills a combined 48 minutes per game. You can imagine what that does to San Antonio’s defense, which has fallen all the way to 7th-worst in the league. The Spurs are two sides of a losing battle. Don’t abject Pop to any more of this torture.
For the aficionado
Pros: The playoffs streak! It’s at 22 years currently, and there’s no harm in getting it to 23 so Gregg Popovich can claim some stake the NBA’s most significant number. If you want basketball-related reasons, the Spurs young guard rotation holds the key to their future, and it still needs figuring out. The Lakers may have the best defensive guard rotation in the league, and if any Spurs tandem can have multiple successful stretches against them, it could represent a flashbulb moment for San Antonio’s front office. I’ve mentioned Murray and Forbes, but if Derrick White (just a year removed from a playoff-breakout) and even Lonnie Walker can show some flashes, they won’t be soon forgotten.
Cons: While it may provide some necessary building blocks, the first round of the playoffs isn’t an ideal scenario, from a fan’s perspective, to watch a lackluster team try to figure out an identity. Unlike the Blazers, the Spurs won’t suddenly come into some cap flexibility next year, unless DeMar DeRozan suddenly decides he hates money and declines his $27 million player option. More over, DeMar is one of the more likable players in the league; seeing him finally escape the Eastern conference chokehold just to fall victim to yet another LeBron rampage is too much, even for the most devoted followers of NBA schadenfreude.
For the casual
Pros: As the Sacramento Kings playoff drought gets ready to enter its high school years, this season has been one of the Kings-iest years of its lifetime. After starting the season 0-5 trapped in lineup-configuration hell, the winter months included a brutal 3-15 stretch. Rumors of locker room discontent swirled around every key player at some point this year. And yet, they share the same record as the New Orleans Pelicans. Every year we hear that Sacramento could be building momentum towards the eight-seed, only for it to fall apart around the All-Star Break. Perhaps NBA society learned, as we collectively shut up about the Kings, only for them to sprint to 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies for the final playoff spot. The most dystopian season in recent NBA history should end with them in the playoffs. Also, the world needs to see De’Aaron Fox.
Cons: Despite the rollercoaster nature of Sacramento’s season, or maybe because of it, they will finish the regular season as one of the most painfully average teams in NBA history. They finish between 10th and 20th in almost every counting and advanced stat imaginable. Except they don’t get to the draw fouls at the third-lowest rate in the league, which will only exacerbate their mediocrity in the playoffs. With De’Aaron Fox running the show, that seems impossible, until you realize Luke Walton has chosen to run the Kings’ offense as one of the slowest in the league. It’s a wonder that even with Fox trapped in a half-court cage, he’s still putting up big numbers. But unless Buddy Hield or the other Bogdanović lights it up from three, this team is a tough watch, with a lot of pouty faces and stagnant offense.
For the aficionado
Pros: Meh. It feels like the Kings have to do something with their roster, but who knows what that could be. Such is the essence of the Kings. You’re going to have to lean into the absurdity of watching them in the league’s most absurd playoffs of all time to truly root for them to get there. Nemanja Bjelica is firmly underrated outside of the nerdiest NBA circles; his skillset blends dead-eye shooting and cerebral understanding of the game that would pair like a fine wine with an actual contending team. If he can throw the Lakers domineering front line into at least a bit of disarray in this series, we could see that marriage soon come to fruition.
Cons: Again, the most entertaining thing about the Kings has nothing to do with the way they actually play basketball. It’s all about the Sisyphean disposition of the franchise itself, and if NBA campfire lore is enough to entertain you. A Lakers sweep is more likely than a single game ending within single-digits.
For the casual
Pros: Dunks and threes! The coolest way to accomplish basket-making. And a Wizards-Bucks series will have tons of ’em. The two games between these teams this year ended 151-131, and 137-134; Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t even play in that first one. Incredible athletes are going to fly up and down the court, with lots of open space. A man named Rui Hachimura will likely be the Greek Freak’s primary defender. Giannis might catch a 50-piece, and he is going to dunk everywhere. If and when Bradley Beal catches fire, he might break the record for shots taken in a playoff quarter.
Cons: You probably don’t care about any non-Bradley Beal Wizard, with John Wall unlikely to play. And as a number two guy, Khris Middleton’s efficient shooting and pesky wing defense leaves a bit to be desired on the entertainment scale. And for all of Giannis’ inevitable destruction, you’ll get none of the hype, or mean-mugging, or crowd explosions that would normally come with it. After the Wizards lose the first two games by a combined 40 points, there won’t be a plucky underdog crowd for game 3 that might help them steal a win. At some point, names you don’t recognize failing to help out Bradley Beal will lose its luster.
For the aficionado
Pros: The Wizards are going to go peak Wizards if they get to play a full series against the Bucks. For however easily Giannis and co. will walk to the rim on offense, they will be forced to exert some effort against a barrage of driving, kicking, and three-point bombing. For the contenders, every game will show how much progress they’ve made in tidying up inescapable rust. How easily will the Bucks’ elite defense handle the frenzy of Washington’s attacks? Are they still seamlessly communicating against a team of long-range threats? Do the Lopez brothers still protect the rim vs. a five-out offense? The Bledsoe-Beal matchup has all the makings of a fun mini-battle, but is Bledsoe prepared enough to keep his head above water, or will the Bucks have to double?
Cons: Transitioning into NBA fanaticism during the 2010’s is perhaps the most important perk of my Gen Z childhood. The simultaneous explosions of social media, talent, game theory, and free agency produced the league’s Second Renaissance. Pantheonic games in NBA lore contracted to once every couple years. The 2000’s started and ended with Kobe vs. Tim battling for supremacy in the West. The ’10’s witnessed those frontlines evolve from from Durant-Dirk all the way to prologue of King-Klaw. Empires have the shelf life of network sitcoms.
I can sense John Wall is going to get footnoted when the encyclopedia is published. In an era of unprecedented point guard genius, he’s often victimized by Westbrook-Rose conversation when discussing the premier athletes. But Wall mixed Westbrook’s downhill force with the quick-twitch sorcery of Rose. Less above-the-rim insanity, sure, but the chaos brought by a John Wall fastbreak was must-watch TV. The beautiful destruction of his style only adds to what is one of the underrated basketball personas in recent memory.
He is author of one of the greatest HoopMixtapes in existence
A man who talks tremendous amounts of shit to opposing NBA crowds, sometimes while throwing up his set
A 360 lay-up connoisseur
Wall’s basketball résumé was burgeoning too, having made an All-Defensive NBA first team in 2015 in the midst of a five-year All Star run at the league’s most stacked position. In the 2017 playoffs, following season averages of 10.7(!) assists and 2.0 steals, Wall completed one of the most impressive plays of all time.
He closed out this first round with 42 and 8 in the series-clincher. Since then, he’s only played 73 games over his age 27-29 seasons. Bradley Beal looks to have evolved into his final form as a scoring savant; we were robbed of what a truly unleashed Washington backcourt could have looked like.
John Wall’s Wizards finished in the top 5 in pace of play only once. The Randy Wittman iterations of the squad more often hovered in the teens in that category. But it never made sense to keep the league’s premier below-the-rim athlete on a leash just so Marcin Gortat could get his slow ass down the floor to run pick and rolls. Other than Bradley Beal, Wall’s best gun-slinging companion has been the budding, wide-eyed version of Kelly Oubre.
These current Wizards, many of whom have only met John Wall through charity events and fancy dinners, embrace chaos. Their near 104 possessions per 48 represents a real departure for a team that hadn’t previously cracked a pace of 100. Multiple sources have reported John Wall is highly unlikely to make his return to court at the Disney Bubble, the disappointingly practical outcome.
These Wizards are the fun type of bad team, who put up ridiculous shots and final scores. But they’re not a fun bottom-seed. No defense to speak of drains any gritty energy that you may find in, say, the Grizzlies, energy that an underdog needs to at least make a lopsided series worth watching. Giannis could score 47 points in Game 1 against the Wiz, but there are only so many defensive breakdowns you can witness before starting to talk yourself back into the best-of-5 first round.
In a happier timeline, John Wall is healthy, and the Wizards are both fun and gritty, maybe even good. Watching defenses panic when Wall and Davis Bertans rampage down the floor after every long rebound would have been excellent. The thought of Beal drawing the other team’s second-best perimeter defender is enticing as well.
Even if the scores may end up in the Mensa society, four annihilations of Washington is a tough sell. And if a series is going to be a blowout, I’d rather watch it without a cloud of lost potential and injury blues hanging over it.