NBA bubble preview: Predictions, x-factors, winners, and losers

 

There are a number of unknown dimensions in regards to how the remainder of the NBA season will play out; not just in terms of who will win the championship, but also to what extent certain players will be able to participate for reasons such as injuries, looming free agency, and personal decision-making in general. The last NBA games were played on March 11th, which means more than four months will have passed before they resume play again. It’s likely there will be changes over the next few weeks and it’s also important to note the time missed should benefit the players’ bodies. Let’s start off by discussing which teams and/or players will benefit from this unorthodox continuation of the season and well as preparing for the following NBA season:

 

Winner: Golden State Warriors

When the 2020-21 season gets underway, it will have been about a year-and-a-half since Klay Thompson last took the court. We know how troublesome ACL injuries can be, but it’s also hard to envision Thompson taking a step backwards. With the doctors and medicine the league has these days, this will be a perfect opportunity for Klay to reclaim his sneaky and perhaps underrated athleticism. The D’Angelo Russell experiment worked exactly as the Warriors had planned.

Although we can’t be certain Andrew Wiggins will be there long-term, we do know he’s a much better fit than Russell due to his off-ball prowess. Wiggins is 25 years old, which is a bit younger than Steph was when he had his rise to stardom. There is limitless speculation to make of Wiggins as he appeared to be inching closer to the All-Star status we had all been waiting on from him. Last but not least, the Warriors are likely to land a very high draft pick and odds are they will heavily shop the pick in order to add another win-now player.

 

Winner: Chris Paul and Oklahoma City’s front office

This is already kind of a new season for CP3, who recently turned one year older (35) since last running point for this guard-heavy OKC team. Although he doesn’t have the gaudiest stats to show for it, Paul was putting together a very respectable campaign for an OKC team that had no business competing with the best of the Western Conference. Except they were competing and they were doing more than just that. The Thunder managed to win the same amount of games than the Westbrook-led team did last season after 64 games.

The Thunder was first in the NBA in FTA-to-FGA-ratio and also allowed the fewest fastbreak points per game when the season was put to a halt. The thing about OKC is that it probably couldn’t care less who its first round opponent is because the success they were having should be considered a bonus. Paul has two years left on his contract assuming he picks up his player option for the 2021-22 season. However, as time passes, Paul still remains a viable option for a contender that could use his services.

 

Winner: Carmelo Anthony, Jusuf Nurkic, and a healthy Trail Blazers team

The timing of resuming play isn’t necessarily preferred for any one team, but Damian Lillard’s Blazers have a real chance to regain their momentum from last postseason’s surprisingly deep run. Lillard and backcourt mate CJ McCollum are both signed long-term so financial concerns aren’t to worry. While fans in Rip City were particularly lucky to watch this team make the Western Conference Finals last year, it also means expectations only get higher, and meeting those expectations is going to be difficult.

On the positive side, Melo looks as comfortable as ever since being in New York back in 2016 and probably even earlier than that. His stats may not prove that as he’s averaging a pedestrian 15.3 points on 42.6 percent shooting. However, it’s evident he serves more of a useful purpose than he did on Houston or Oklahoma City in the last couple of years. As far as Nurkic missing over a year, people are quick to forget he was the only player in NBA history to record 20 points and 20 rebounds accompanied by five assists, steals, and blocks.

 

Winner: Zion Williamson and the Pelicans’ young core

Williamson’s rookie season may not have played out exactly how he wanted it to. It happens though; players like Blake Griffin and Ben Simmons had to sit out a whole year before making their NBA debuts. The kid Zion could be getting his first taste of the postseason before he even turns 21 years old. Swingman Brandon Ingram elevated his offensive game to new heights this season and he isn’t even 23 years old yet. Does this ring a bell with the vibe of a young OKC team with Westbrook, Harden, and Durant?

Jrue Holiday, the combo guard of this team, is right in his prime at 30 years old. He was phenomenal the last time the Pelicans made the playoffs which was back in the 2017-18 season. He is in more of a speculative position in that he has a couple more years left on his contract and could be more valuable to a contender once next season comes around. Lonzo Ball, another young player with a promising future, has thrived with the mentorship of Holiday and both of them are premier defenders.

 

Loser: Brooklyn Nets

Quite literally half of the Nets’ roster is sitting out, including the likes of Kevin Durant (recovering from torn achilles), Kyrie Irving (resting shoulder for next season), as well as Spencer Dinwiddie, Taurean Prince, and DeAndre Jordan (who all tested positive for COVID-19 and decided not playing is in their best interest anyways). Apparently Brooklyn got the memo about the league just using certain teams for more games to play and considers itself one of those even though it actually had a playoff spot almost secured. Can you really blame them?

Irving had a few stellar performances as usual but the fact he only appeared in 20 games made it a very disappointing season for the Nets. They knew without the presence of Durant they would be fighting an uphill battle but they at least could have gained some momentum and team chemistry for next season. Although we don’t know what really goes on in the locker room, it seems like the Nets might have a lot more to figure out before testing the waters as a proven contender. The biggest question of the offseason revolves around Dinwiddie: is he part of the immediate future plans?

 

Loser: Phoenix Suns

The Suns are on their sixth head coach in only five years. Despite them possibly having their guy in Monty Williams, this team has absolutely no business competing for the playoffs. I hope they prove me wrong because who doesn’t want to see Devin Booker finally win some games? Who (unless you’re a Joel Embiid fan) doesn’t want to see the uprising of young center Deandre Ayton? Phoenix basketball can be very intriguing at times but it just seems like there’s a lot more that can go wrong with the organization’s track record ever since moving on from the Steve Nash era.

Outside of a great opportunity to start with a win against Washington, the Suns have a pretty brutal schedule as they line up to face Dallas twice along with the Clippers, Pacers, Heat, Thunder and Sixers. If in fact they do lose to the Wizards, they might have to wait at least another year to enjoy an offseason with a positive vibe for a change. The Suns should really be seeking development from a trio of wing players in Mikal Bridges, Cameron Johnson and Dario Saric.

 

Loser: Orlando Magic

You would think having the luxury of playing in your home city all the time makes this team a winner. Except it doesn’t matter because there are no fans and it seems like the Magic is at a point where it’s reached a middle grounds. This will be its second consecutive year in the playoffs and losing in the first round again would continue to spell out mediocrity. Jonathan Isaac and Aaron Gordon are two athletic forwards with desirable upside but the problem lies in the team’s salary cap situation. A lot of money is tied up into players like Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross.

A D.J. Augustin game-winning 3-pointer took care of the eventual champions in Game 1 last postseason and then the Magic dropped four straight to the Raptors. The Magic has a highly capable group of young guys and veterans but it’s not a team that’s guaranteed to head in the right direction. All in all, it’s great to see Orlando turn into a basketball venue but the organization may be in dire need of a blockbuster trade once its season abruptly ends.

 

The undetermined: LeBron James

Although James is 35 years old and hasn’t shown much decline at all, forcing him to get back on the court and dominate again with such ease is a lot to ask out of anyone his age. At this point, time is not exactly his friend in his quest to add to his three-ring collection. Without a couple of integral role players in Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo (him for at least some time), James is going to have to find more answers to take some of the burden off he and Anthony Davis.

The Lakers signed J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters for the remainder of the season but don’t expect them to be heroes. It’s going to take a collective effort from the team, and especially Kyle Kuzma, if the Lakers are going to make a serious push for the title. Of course it’s a bit of a relief to have Davis on your team but it’s not like other star-studded teams don’t exist. As far as how James will handle the season’s continuation, we certainly aren’t doubting him but we also shouldn’t hold him to the same standards of getting the Cavaliers to the finals in the Eastern Conference.

 

The team I have no idea what to think about: Houston Rockets

Like many other NBA savants, it would be fair to say I have very mixed feelings about this prolific offensive team. I respect the fearlessness of Mike D’Antoni in unleashing the super small-ball lineup with Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Eric Gordon (whether off the bench or not), P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington. I know they even fared relatively well with the time they had but it was also a small sample size and I’m not convinced it’s going to work as we approach the postseason.

Covington is an all-NBA caliber defender and Tucker will accept the challenge of dueling with much taller players. We know the Rockets are almost entirely dependent on winning with a barrage of perimeter scoring but they’re also likely to give up a lot of 3-pointers despite doing pretty well in that department this season. Tyson Chandler can no longer anchor a team’s defense but the Rockets may need the 37-year-old to step out of his comfort zone at times.

 

Loser that will find a way to turn in to a winner: San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs just had to face it; there was no way they were coming out a winner from the Kawhi Leonard trade. However, it’s not like they lost him for nothing. They actually received a four-time All-Star in DeMar DeRozan and while he’s individually been highly efficient as a scorer and playmaker, indications could be pointing toward him opting out of the final year of his contract which would pay him $27 million. He might not be able to earn that amount per year again but he would surely attract multi-year interest from some team out there.

Then again, this is one of the greatest organizations in all of sports we’re talking about. That means there are two different things I wouldn’t count them out of: one is retaining DeRozan whether he opts in or not, and the other option would be finding a way to capitalize off the cap space they would regain from him leaving. We all know Gregg Popovich will turn young point guard Dejounte Murray into something worth watching and we should probably also assume the Spurs are going to smash their lottery draft choice in a couple of months.

 

Predictions and x-factors:

 

EAST:

Milwaukee Bucks win six or seven games and make NBA Finals

X-factor: Donte DiVincenzo (46.2 FG%, 2.0 3PM, 14.6 PTS, 7.6 REB per 36 minutes): We know he can score in spurts but will he be potent enough offensively to allow players like Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez to put more emphasis on defense?

The Greek Freak has another year following this until he hits the free agency market. However, I personally feel like it’s now or never for Milwaukee. With the season they’ve had so far, anything less than a championship is a failure. Khris Middleton is a jack-of-all-trades and more than ample as a second option. Let’s get it started.

 

Toronto Raptors win five or six games and lose in ECF

X-factor: Terence Davis (39.6 3P%, 2.9 3PM, 16.4 PTS, 7.2 REB per 36 minutes): At the beginning of the season, he was just an undrafted rookie on the bench that didn’t appear to carry much weight after the departure of Leonard. The high-volume shooter has proven to be much more than that.

Pascal Siakam has made a smooth transition from complementary star to elite two-way player. He’s not one that I can imagine folding in the playoffs but I’m not sure he has enough young legs beside him to get it done in place of Leonard. That’s unless OG Anunoby makes a serious transformation offensively. But even then, they need more to happen in their favor.

 

Boston Celtics win five or six games and lose in East Semis

X-factor: Daniel Theis (56.5 FG%, 14.0 PTS, 9.9 REB, 2.0 BLK per 36 minutes): This doesn’t seem like a very deep team on paper but you wouldn’t know it from watching them play. The physical force down-low is legitimately their sixth best player. They need some big games from him.

The Jaylen Brown-Jayson Tatum duo at forward could be a nightmare for years to come but this is going to be their first serious push for a championship. This is only Kemba Walker’s third time in the postseason and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him average 25 points and be amongst the league leaders in clutch scoring.

 

Miami Heat wins four or five games and loses in first round

X-factor: Goran Dragic (37.7 3P%, 2.8 3PM, 20.4 PTS, 6.4 AST per 36 minutes): This could be different any given game due to their tremendous depth. The veteran point guard is past his prime but they’ll still depend on his leadership and floor control to maneuver them.

Jimmy Butler is set to make a playoff appearance for his fourth different team. His most memorable playoff tenure was back in 2015 when he came up just short against the LBJ-led Cavaliers. Except this time he has a lot more help offensively and he’s more of a point forward that combines his playmaking skills with those of M.I.P. favorite Bam Adebayo.

 

Indiana Pacers win four or five games and lose in first round

X-factor: Doug McDermott (44.5 3P%, 3.4 3PM, 18.6 PTS per 36 minutes): The Pacers need the 3-point specialist now more than ever as they’re the only team in the league to attempt less than 28 triples per game while making only 10. The only worse 3-point shooting team is the Knicks.

Here’s an interesting stat to keep in mind: the Pacers had a respectable 32-20 record without Victor Oladipo. That’s not to take anything away from him because he rejuvenated the franchise in the first place in the post-Paul George era. This year, however, it was first-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis who ran the show as he looks to maintain that momentum here.

 

Philadelphia 76ers win six or seven games and lose in East Semis

X-factor: Al Horford (1.7 3PM, 14.1 PTS, 8.0 REB, 4.8 AST per 36 minutes): The well-rounded big man was not quite having the season they envisioned when signing him. It was never about scoring; he takes what the defense gives him. It’s more about his rare intangibles and nonexplosive energy that sneaks up on you.

Coach Brett Brown has declared Shake Milton, who exploded for an unlikely 39 points recently at the L.A. Clippers, one of the starting guards. Joel Embiid may have some limitations as far as endurance during the regular season. In a playoff setting, however, he’ll surely have some games where he’s the best player on the floor.

 

WEST:

Los Angeles Lakers win five or six games and lose in WCF

X-factor: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (2.0 3PM, 39.4 3P%, 13.5 PTS, 1.2 STL): I see him as a perimeter player that needs to make the most of his opportunity with a few key players out. He’s shooting the 3-ball at a career-best rate. Think Mavs DeShawn Stevenson with the defensive ability to switch onto different players.

Kuzma is an x-factor too but it’s pretty much mandatory he serves as a constant on the offensive end. At the end of the day, we know James and Davis could have all of the makings of a historically great duo, and especially during a time frame like this that we’ll really remember. With Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, they have an abundance of big bodies to utilize in an old-school fashion.

 

Los Angeles Clippers win seven or eight games and make NBA Finals

X-factor: Marcus Morris (2.8 3PM, 41.0 3P%, 19.9 PTS, 5.9 REB): The slightly shorter twin brother has been an appealing all-around player for quite a few years now. However, being an x-factor on one of the title favorites is new for him and also sounds fitting as he checks all the boxes out there on the floor.

Imagine a defensive unit of Patrick Beverley, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris and Montrezl Harrell all at one time. That may or may not happen very often and that’s a positive since they have a game-changer in Lou Williams to heat up in a hurry. This is the definition of a well-balanced team as we curiously await Leonard as maybe the first ever Finals MVP for three different teams.

 

Denver Nuggets win five or six games and lose in West Semis

X-factor: Gary Harris (1.4 3PM, 11.8 PTS, 3.3 REB, 1.5 STL): The true shooting guard has had a down year and looks to regain his 2017 form as the playoffs begin. The emergence of Jamal Murray combined with the ball-handling duties of Nikola Jokic makes him more of a player who can impact the game off the stat sheet.

Make no mistake though; Denver has multiple players (Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and potentially both Bol Bol and Michael Porter) who can provide a lift from game-to-game. The most pleasant sight this past year was their commitment to the defensive side of the ball. Still, however, this team can’t really afford for Jokic to turn into predominantly a one-way player because a lot has to go their way to challenge the L.A. teams.

 

Utah Jazz wins four or five games and loses in first round

X-factor: Royce O’Neale (1.6 3PM, 38.9 3P%, 7.7 PTS, 6.6 REB per 36 minutes): According to Zach Lowe’s recent column on his best players for each category, this undrafted third-year player was one of the league’s best primary lockdown defenders in terms of overall metrics. I’ll have my eye on him.

Losing Bojan Bogdanovic’s 20 points per game is a crushing blow that they could survive without for maybe one round. Utah hasn’t been one of the better outside shooting teams in recent years but that changed this year as the Jazz boasted the second-highest 3-point percentage in the NBA. I see some winnable games on the schedule with the Donovan Mitchell-Rudy Gobert one-two punch.

 

Oklahoma City Thunder wins four or five games and loses in West Semis

X-factor: Luguentz Dort (10.2 PTS, 3.1 REB, 1.3 STL per 36 minutes)/Darius Bazley (9.4 PTS, 7.8 REB, 1.4 BLK per 36 minutes): Bazley wasn’t the most sought-after first-round talent but he wasn’t completely disregarded either. Dort, however, was another one of those undrafted players that gave his team an unexpected lift.

Look for rugged interior player Steven Adams to disrupt the opponent’s gameplan by doing a little bit of everything and possibly even averaging a double-double from here on out. The three-guard trio of CP3/Shai Gilgeous-Alexander/Dennis Schroder has been wicked all season long. I have OKC drawing a shorthanded Jazz team in the opening round.

 

Houston Rockets (I’m taking an unpopular wild guess) win three or four games and lose in first round

X-factor: Danuel House (2.3 3PM, 36.3 3P%, 12.3 PTS, 5.1 REB per 36 minutes): The Texas A&M product’s work ethic has earned him a spot as a starter playing 30 minutes per game right beside the league’s most mind-blowing scorer. It’s easy to say Houston wouldn’t be on this level defensively without him.

The tempo of the game is going to mean everything for a team using a strategy as bold as the Rockets. Their schedule isn’t easy either: Dallas, MIlwaukee, Portland, L.A. Lakers, Sacramento, San Antonio, Indiana and Philadelphia. Will they be able to prevent getting abused on the offensive glass?

 

Dallas Mavericks win four or five games and lose in first round

X-factor: Dorian Finney-Smith (1.9 3PM, 37.4 3P%, 11.3 PTS, 6.7 REB per 36 minutes): This is a seldom talked about player that tends to show up in big moments whether it’s with a clutch 3-pointer, offensive rebound or another crucial play. His floor awareness should not be overlooked.

It’s nice to see Kristaps Porzingis find a permanent home in Dallas but the real story here has been the European stardom of 21-year-old Luka Doncic. This is personally one of my more curiously awaited story-lines of the postseason. Doncic knows how to put up triple-double-like stats but will more intense playoff defensive schemes get to him?

 

NBA basketball is back!

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