LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The first six days inside the NBA bubble have been filled with action. We’ve seen massive scoring performances (hello, T.J. Warren), dramatic comebacks (what’s up, Houston Rockets) and what has generally been high-quality basketball from teams fighting for the playoffs (here’s not looking at you, bottom of the Eastern Conference).
And we’ve been here for all of it, watching and listening to what’s going on at the NBA campus as well as what people on the outside have seen and thought about it.
Here is a roundup of what we’ve seen and heard about each of the 22 teams as we wrap up the first week of action.
At the trade deadline, teams were watching the Celtics to see if they would try to do something to shore up their interior defense. While Daniel Theis has been a revelation replacing Al Horford, he isn’t able to handle the likes of Joel Embiid, Brook Lopez or Marc Gasol inside — all players Boston will have to face to make it out of the East.
So far inside the bubble, Steven Adams had a strong scrimmage performance and both Jusuf Nurkic and Bam Adebayo had their way with Boston in the paint. Opposing scouts are wondering if the Celtics made a mistake in failing to address this need in February — particularly with it looking more and more likely that Boston is going to play Embiid and the 76ers in the first round of the playoffs.
The Nets entered the bubble with a decimated roster. A few observers around the league thought they had a chance to fall out of the playoffs entirely, thus keeping their 2020 lottery-protected first-round pick. That would have been an intriguing development heading into the offseason, with the franchise having an additional trade chip to use to add talent around Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
But after beating the Washington Wizards on Sunday and shocking the Bucks on Tuesday, Brooklyn now has a greater than 99% chance of making the playoffs, per ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI). The Minnesota Timberwolves can breathe easy about keeping Brooklyn’s selection.
Luka Doncic is already one of the best players in the NBA. But for all of his offensive gifts, these step-back 3-pointers are just not really working yet.
Doncic has taken the second most in the league this season (298), per Second Spectrum tracking data — about 150 more than Jayson Tatum (third overall) while still trailing James Harden by around 250 shots. Doncic has made only 92 of these attempts, and his effective field goal percentage (46.3%) ranks 22nd among the 25 players with 50 tries. In the restart, he’s shooting 2-for-16 (12.5%).
The threat of the step-back 3s sets up all kinds of things offensively … but only if the opposing defense thinks they’re going in. An executive from a Western Conference opponent said the best way to stop Doncic might be to just give him that shot as much as he wants.
After the Nuggets were blown out by the Miami Heat in their first seeding game, coach Mike Malone didn’t hold back in his criticism of rookie forward Michael Porter Jr., singling him out for a need to play better on both ends. Porter clearly heard it. He sent his coach three separate texts before Monday’s matchup against the Thunder, pleading with Malone to trust him.
“I’m gonna stay with you,” Malone said he told Porter in response — and it worked out. Porter had 37 points and 12 boards in an overtime win over the Thunder.
Malone is a stickler for detail with a very good team. Porter has had an up-and-down rookie season, regularly flailing on the defensive end like he did against Miami. But if he stays healthy, continues to develop and finds the right role, Porter could be a huge part of Denver’s future playing next to Nikola Jokic.
While talk about the Rockets centers around the star backcourt, one scout said he was particularly impressed with Danuel House, an unheralded guard logging 30 minutes with a plus-2.7 net rating this season.
“I just like him because he knows how to play with star players,” the scout said. “He can cut, finish, guard. I think he’s solid.”
House has gotten off to a terrific start inside the bubble, scoring 20 points and hitting six 3s against the Mavs on Friday before adding four more triples against the Bucks on Sunday. He’s become a key cog in Houston’s “6-7s or less” lineup.
While people might not have realized T.J. Warren was already the latest success story from Indiana’s player-development apparatus before he arrived in the bubble, his first three games — going for 53 points against Philadelphia on Saturday before again topping 30 points against the Wizards and Magic — made it clear. This is how a small-market team stays relevant and competitive.
Yes, the Clippers lost to the Lakers in their opening game in the bubble. But they’ve been without both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet are rounding into form after extended absences and now Patrick Beverley is dealing with a calf injury. That’s why they’re still considered the title favorites by several NBA insiders polled by ESPN inside and outside the bubble.
But one scout did ask if the Clippers’ never-ending lack of continuity will come back to haunt them.
“I’m interested to see how they come together,” the scout said. “They have never had their whole team, and they still don’t.”
One ongoing storyline this season has been LeBron James‘ struggles against some of the league’s elite defenses. The Clippers, Bucks, Raptors, Celtics and 76ers all have long, athletic wings to throw at James, and against those teams his effective field goal percentage drops from 55% to 48%. He’s not able to isolate nearly as efficiently, with his points per iso chance falling from 1.04 (well above league average) to 0.9 (not great) in these matchups, according to Second Spectrum data.
In his first two games in Florida, James averaged 18 points per game and shot 13-for-34 overall against the Clippers and Raptors. He bounced back against the Jazz, who are lacking perimeter depth. This is something to monitor as things progress.
Scouts who have watched the Grizzlies play in the bubble are unanimous in saying that while Memphis has a bright future, its late-game execution issues should be expected of such a young team. After entering Orlando with a 3½-game lead for the No. 8 playoff seed in the Western Conference, the Grizzlies have suffered three tough losses while dropping each fourth quarter.
“They shouldn’t have lost either of those [first two], and found ways to do it by being a disaster at the end of the game,” one scout said. “It isn’t super shocking when you watch those two games that the team with Damian Lillard and DeMar DeRozan won.”
Things went from bad to worse Tuesday when Jaren Jackson Jr. — one of the best young big men in the NBA — was ruled out for the rest of the season with a meniscus tear in his left knee. What already was going to be a challenge for Memphis to make the playoffs just got that much harder.
As the Heat moved through their season with Meyers Leonard getting spot minutes (and, to be fair, making a high percentage of his 3s), opposing scouts wondered when coach Erik Spoelstra would move away from that lineup. Putting another wing on the court would allow budding star Bam Adebayo to play center full time.
Well, Spoelstra kicked off the seeding games by starting Jae Crowder and not playing Leonard at all. It’s a welcome decision, as it makes Miami far more versatile defensively. And getting ahead of the change now is wise. The new starting lineup of Crowder, Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn had played only 24 minutes before the restart, so the group could use the time to jell.
It’s better to make this kind of move now, rather than the time many coaches do it: after a loss in a playoff series.
It probably isn’t fair given how well Milwaukee has played this season, but some league insiders questioned the Bucks’ championship potential after their late-game execution in Sunday’s loss to the Rockets. One scout is particularly dialed in on how Milwaukee’s defensive scheme — hyperfocused on walling off the paint and allowing teams to fire away from 3 — will work deep in the postseason.
“I’m interested to see if the way they play defense [holds up],” the scout said. “The further they can get, and play good teams that can actually shoot — will it come back to bite them?”
This is a fascinating trend, as two of the league’s top three defenses (Milwaukee and Toronto) allow the most 3-point attempts per 100 possessions. Milwaukee has allowed opponents to make 20 or more 3s in a game six times, including Brooklyn on Tuesday. That’s the second most ever in a season, trailing only this season’s Golden State Warriors (with seven), per ESPN Stats & Information research.
Even if these looks are well contested, the strategy might could go boom or bust in a seven-game series.
Zion Williamson‘s burst schedule has been a huge topic of conversation through New Orleans’ first three games. But a bigger reason for the Pelicans’ dropping their first two outings was his nonexistent defense. That was particularly true in Thursday’s opener, as he made one rough gaffe after another in helping Utah claw its way back from a double-digit deficit to win the game.
— utahjazz (@utahjazz) July 31, 2020
New Orleans is 30 points per 100 possessions worse on defense when Williamson has played in the bubble. Teams score better than the Stephen Curry–Kevin Durant Warriors when he’s out there. For the Pelicans to keep up their momentum from Monday’s victory and make this playoff push a reality, they are going to need more from their young star defensively.
Over the past few weeks, the consistent word coming out of Oklahoma City was that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had taken a leap during the hiatus. Through the first two games in the bubble, he’s backed that up.
SGA is averaging 21.5 PPG with an effective field goal percentage of 58%. Physically, he even looks like a more powerful and stronger guard. The combination of Gilgeous-Alexander, Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder will make life difficult for whomever the Thunder face in the playoffs. Right now, BPI projects the Nuggets and Rockets as their most likely opponents.
Mo Bamba didn’t get off the bench until the final six minutes of Orlando’s first two games. Khem Birch, a 27-year-old journeyman, is playing ahead of him, and there is no indication that’s going to change.
It was hard to watch Bamba amble onto the court for those final few minutes and think about how much different things would be for the Magic with a different break in the 2018 NBA draft. Here are three players who went ahead of Bamba (No. 6): Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young. Taken right after him? Wendell Carter Jr. Taken later in the lottery? Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Michael Porter Jr.
Put any one of those six players on Orlando’s roster and both the present and future are much brighter. Instead, the Magic remain on the treadmill of mediocrity, without many options to meaningfully improve this summer.
While Al Horford has been dropped from the starting lineup in favor of Shake Milton, the combination of Joel Embiid and Horford on the court through the first two games has been much better than it was in the regular season. In 26 minutes against the Pacers and Spurs, Embiid and Horford are plus-6.2 per 100 possessions after being a minus-1.3 before the restart.
Being able to play well with both bigs on the court would be huge for the Sixers in a playoff series against any of the East’s top teams.
When the Suns were named as one of the 22 teams to get inside the bubble, they were open about their excitement for their young players to get experience in high-stakes situations. After Phoenix came from behind to get a huge win over Dallas on Sunday night, coach Monty Williams again emphasized the importance of these games.
“It’s just a lot of competitive guys with a ton of pride and will,” Williams said. “Like I just told them, this is what I wanted to experience in this bubble — something like this where we had our backs against the wall. … I was just wanting them to experience something like that together so we can grow as a team.”
And that praise came before Devin Booker buried a ridiculous game-winning jumper over Paul George to beat the Clippers, giving Phoenix a third consecutive victory inside the bubble. The Suns haven’t made the playoffs since 2010, but their play so far is giving them a chance to break through now while also offering real hope for the future.
The early returns on Nurkic after his 18-month absence following a gruesome leg injury have been fantastic for Portland. Nurkic has shown up looking like he never left, reestablishing his pick-and-roll chemistry with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum while moving well around the court.
However their time in the bubble ends, the Blazers can go into the offseason knowing that they can count on Nurkic moving forward, which is huge for them.
Before the shutdown, the Kings had shifted Buddy Hield to the bench and found some success, though that hasn’t continued.
Several league insiders have commented that Hield looks out of shape. He has struggled on the court, going 7-for-26 overall and 3-for-15 from 3-point range through two games. That’s not a great sign for the Kings, who have Hield starting a four-year, $94 million extension next season.
Before the restart, the Spurs’ collection of prospects in Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV had played only six minutes together. But with a depleted roster, coach Gregg Popovich has turned his team over to his young players and the results have been promising.
Through three games, the trio has played 35 minutes together, with Murray and White pairing up for 52 themselves. This group is a key reason the Spurs have jumped up in the race for No. 8, and their success is an encouraging sign for San Antonio’s future.
Fred VanVleet sliced up the Heat on Monday afternoon, scoring a career-high 36 points and snatching the game-winning steal. Raptors coach Nick Nurse praised VanVleet’s surprising athleticism and how it powers his game quite well afterward:
“I think what makes it unique is this, he doesn’t look very fast out there, right?” Nurse said. “He doesn’t move up and down the court that fast, but his lateral side-to-side speed and the way he can move his feet is incredible. And it’s deceiving because you’re kind of seeing him bring the ball up the floor, running up the floor or whatever and you think, well, he’s not that athletic or fast or quick or anything, but his side-to-side athleticism is outstanding. That’s why he can get into the ball, and he can kind of use his torso to stay in front of people.”
VanVleet will be a free agent in October and is expected to get a significant raise from his current $9.3 million salary.
Losing Bojan Bogdanovic to season-ending surgery was always going to be a difficult thing for the Jazz to overcome. But it hasn’t been helped by some truly rough play from their bench players inside the bubble.
Joe Ingles shifting into the starting lineup means Jordan Clarkson needs to produce. Instead, he’s shot a dreadful 6-for-30 in the past two games with a … minus-50.3 on/off rating in Florida (oof). Georges Niang and Emmanuel Mudiay haven’t been any better, either. For Utah to turn things around, the Jazz will need their second unit to start to pick it up.
Not much has gone right for the Wizards inside the bubble, but Troy Brown Jr.‘s play has been one bright spot. He had 22 points, 10 rebounds and 8 assists in Washington’s loss to the Nets, and then dropped eight assists on Monday against the Pacers.
Brown still needs to improve his 3-point shot — he has hit 34% this season — but it appears the second-year wing will be able to help Washington try to get back into the playoffs next season when John Wall returns, assuming Bradley Beal is still in D.C.