Storylines of the NBA Bubble

2020 has been one wild ride thus far. One minute we’re watching NBA basketball on a Wednesday in spring and the next we’re wondering if, or when basketball would return. Since July 22, 22 NBA teams have been in the Orlando Bubble playing scrimmages that meant absolutely nothing.

But today, after 141 miserable days, we can finally say the NBA season has resumed. The 16 day, 8 seeding game section of the restart tips off tonight with the Jazz vs Pelicans, and Lakers vs Clippers.

As we enter the meaningful games, lets examine the top storylines of the Bubble.

But first, a quick recap of the unprecedented plan…

  • Eight seeding games per team (concluding on August 14).
  • If a ninth-place team is within four games of the eighth-place team in its conference, there’s a two-game play-in tournament (August 15-16). The ninth seed would have to win both games to advance. In the West, Memphis is currently in eighth place with Portland, New Orleans, and Sacramento all 3½ games back and San Antonio four games behind. In the East, Orlando is in eighth and Washington is 5½ games back.
  • The first round starts on Aug. 17, the second round on Sept. 1, the conference finals on Sept. 15 and the Finals on Sept. 30 (a seven-game Finals would end on Oct. 13).

Battle of Los Angeles

Heading into the NBA season, prior to COVID-19, the predetermined Western Conference Finals matchup was Lakers vs Clippers. Lebron and Anthony Davis against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. But if 2020 has taught us anything, its to expect the unexpected.

The Clippers don’t have all that much at stake in the 8 seeding games. They won’t fall or rise far in the standings.

Having a healthy Kawhi Leonard and Paul George is the Clippers main priority, but re-finding their flow and continuity is next in line. And the latter will be difficult to do.

Not only could Lou Williams’ 10-day quarantine interrupt the Clippers’ ability to rediscover their flow, but the absences of so many others early on here. Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac just got to the bubble, JaMychal Green and Marcus Morris arrived late, and Williams and Patrick Beverley are back after their excused absences.

The Lakers can relate.

So long as LeBron James and Anthony Davis are healthy and themselves, they have a real shot at leading this group to the organization’s first title since 2010. They, just like the Clippers, have nothing to play for during these 8 games.

But from Rajon Rondo (broken thumb, out at least through the first round) to Kyle Kuzma (first playoff appearance) to newcomers Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith (Edible and Henny bros), questions about the supporting cast are real.

The absences of Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo are a huge blow to team continuity. They were two prime contributors for the Lakers back court and veterans who are tried and tested through playoff runs.

Replacing them with J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters is a huge learning process that will be essential to the Lakers success. We seen the team use the scrimmage games to incorporate the two new additions into the offense, so expect much of that during the 8 seeding games.

With all of the questions lingering, I do expect the Lakers and Clippers to find themselves in a Conference Finals matchup, setting up the battle of LA.

The Greek Freak’s Future

There’s not much left to say about the state of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s career at the moment. He will likely secure his second consecutive MVP award. He put up Wilt Chamberlin type numbers, averaging 30-14-6 in just 30 mins. His defensive ability has him in the running for DPOY. When we talk accolades, Antetokounmpo has just about every box checked off in his 7 year career.

The only thing left for him to accomplish is winning a title.

Now can he check that box this year, in the bubble city, during a pandemic? It is a tough thing to measure, considering the painful way he and the Bucks were sent home a year ago.

But with Antetokounmpo one year older, wiser, and better, and Kawhi Leonard out fo the conference, all signs point to yes he can. Outside of the Boston Celtics, and maybe the 76ers if Ben Simmons becomes a 3 point shooter, the Bucks don’t have a true threat to their finals run.

Considering the free agency backdrop here, how Antetokounmpo will have to decide after these playoffs if he wants to sign the five-year, $253 million extension that’s coming his way or wait for his options to open up in the following summer, the stakes couldn’t be much higher.

From Chris Paul to Kevin Love, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, the league is littered with former small-market stars whose discontent served as the catalyst for their departures. And these next three months, make no mistake, could determine if Giannis will eventually be added to the list. A NBA championship could be the determining factor.

Rockets Last Dance?

It’s not on the level with the Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 “Last Dance”, but the Houston Rockets have a similar feel to them. Not only are they all-in on small-ball in the kind of way that we’ve never seen before, with 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker playing Center, so Russell Westbrook could have open runways again alongside James Harden.

But the true correlation to the Rockets and Last Dance Bulls is the coaching situation. Mike D’Antoni is just 14 months removed from his public and prickly dispute over a contract extension with owner Tilman Fertitta, and nothing has been resolved on that front. He’s a coaching free agent after this season and all involved have vowed to simply play this out. A true “it is what it is” mentality.

The ironic part of all of this is D’Antoni is the perfect coach for this team. Harden has become an all time great under his coaching, and Westbrook’s pace fits perfectly in the system. With an all or nothing mentality, the Rockets will be a fun watch through the bubble.

Are the Jazz Truly Past the Gobert-Mitchell Rift?

The friction between Utah stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert has been reported on, and likely over reported on. The duo have said they’ve put their issues behind them and are ready to place all their energy on winning a title.

Is that just talk, or do they truly mean it? It remains to be seen.

The Jazz have true title aspirations, adding both Mike Conley Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic in the offseason. But even more pressure is added to this playoff run considering the franchise has two massive decisions to make after the season.

Mitchell and Gobert are both up for massive extensions this summer, so it is fair to assume their play in the bubble will have a ripple effect heading into their negotiations.

Significant choices must be made by all parties, and the central questions — Does this core work on a championship level and do these particular players want to stay together long term? — are now front and center like never before.

Gobert spoke about the situation with Mitchell.

“When everything happened, (Mitchell) was frustrated,” Gobert said. “I was frustrated. I really wanted to make sure that he was fine. It wasn’t really about going into a conflict or arguing. (After time passed), I was able to call him and tell him what was on my mind, and he did the same. I think that’s what men should do. Don’t put the business out there in the media. People were seeing this as something that could destroy the group. I see it as something that could make the group even stronger. If you’re able to come back from that, we won’t be worried about a team beating us or a bad defensive quarter. It gives perspective.”

The first loss, or playoff elimination will test if their relationship is stronger than ever, or if they just priced it together for the sake of the team.

76ers “Shake” Up

Focus on Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, or Al Horford if you must, but the Sixers’ true storyline revolves around 2nd year guard Shake Milton. Head Coach Brett Brown made the decision to insert Milton as the starting point guard.

The move not only pushes Horford to the bench, where he likely belongs after struggling to fit alongside Embiid in their offensively-deprived time together, but also turns Simmons into a dangerous point-forward in a never-before-seen lineup that now finally features more shooting.

Milton, who averaged 19.1 minutes, 9.5 points and 2.2 assists in 32 games this season while shooting 45.3% from beyond the arc, suddenly finds himself as the X-factor in this situation.

Will this work? The jury is out, but I like the move as the 76ers needed this shake up. They couldn’t afford to enter another playoffs with the same issue of spacing being their deterrent.

A True Cinderella Story in Disney?

If the Trail Blazers were good enough to reach the conference finals last season, when Damian Lillard broke up the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round and led Portland past Denver in the marathon second round before getting swept by Golden State, then a similar roster that’s healthy this time around should be capable of doing the same, right?

Maybe. And that’s the fun part. It’s why we watch.

After struggling to stay in the playoff race during an injury-ravaged season, Lillard & Co. are healthy again. Jusuf Nurkic (broken leg, March 2019) and Zach Collins (left shoulder surgery, out since late October) are back to elevate their front-court. CJ McCollum is still the reliable second scorer but the Blazers have another wrinkle to their offense this season.

Carmelo Anthony, the 36-year-old future Hall of Famer who will move to the small forward spot, looks leaner than ever. He could be a vital player in the Blazers potential Cinderella story.

With Steph Curry and the Warriors at home watching, Lillard is the best shooter and PG in the bubble. That combined with the playoff experience, the Blazers are a real team to watch.

Zion and Ja

No young player moves the needle quite like Zion Williamson, who generated a 15% spike in ESPN ratings during his Duke days and was having a similar effect on NBA games in his short rookie season.

Whether it’s the New Orleans Pelicans youngster, or Memphis’ dynamic Rookie of the Year frontrunner, Ja Morant, or the aforementioned Lillard in the West’s eighth spot, the NBA is primed for a fun 1st round matchup with the Lakers.

The Pelicans matchup remains Adam Silver’s dream — even if he would never admit it. The tv networks and league would be salivating at the idea of a LeBron-Zion playoff matchup. Or a Ingram-Ball-Hart revenge series. Or the underlying storyline of Davis knocking out the team who he spent the first 8 years of his career with.

Williamson and Morant’s battle for the ROTY will be decided based on the games pre bubble, but there will be an individual battle brewing. Both guys want to make the playoffs, and will have to go through each other to do so. It could be the beginning of a decade long rivalry.

Basketball is back, folks. Here’s to the bubble not bursting.

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