NBA Bubble Rankings
July 7, 2020
By Tony Mejia
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1. Los Angeles Clippers
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George had started cooking before the league went on pause, producing victories in seven of the last eight games they played in together (6-2 ATS). The Lakers were the only team to hand them a loss (March 8), taking advantage of starters not named Leonard or George managing just eight points on 2-for-16 shooting.
With center Joakim Noah on board and versatile forward Marcus Morris, Sr. now getting more practice time to get acclimated, Doc Rivers has the NBA’s deepest roster at his disposal.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James and Anthony Davis will be rested and ready, but Avery Bradley won’t play. He was the x-factor in that 112-103 win over the Clips, scoring 24 points and shooting 6-for-12 from 3-point range while excelling as one of L.A.’s top defenders.
Backup center Dwight Howard will participate, which is a big deal since he's fit in nicely in taking pressure off James, Davis and JaVale McGee off the bench. WIth J.R. Smith replacing Bradley, the Lakers’ depth took a hit, knocking them off their perch in these rankings.
3. Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo enters the bubble as the clubhouse leader in the MVP race, while Khris Middleton now gets a chance to join the 50-40-90 club if he adjusts quickly to the rims at Disney’s Wide World of Sports.
The Bucks will open the playoffs as the East’s No. 1 seed and will have a few chances to flex their muscles against the Celtics, Rockets and Raptors, but finishing out the slate will be all about adjusting to the bubble. Milwaukee lost its last four road games and is the team most affected by not having a homecourt advantage since it was 28-3 at Fiserv Forum and was poised to start every series there throughout the duration of its playoff run.
4. Houston Rockets
It will be much easier for the Rockets to impose their will through small ball with fresher legs. James Harden may be in the best physical shape of his career and the injuries that were hampering Russell Westbrook on his jumpers have had time to heal.
Tyson Chandler is the only player taller than 6-foot-9 on the roster and will likely be used sparsely, so success will hinge on how effective role players P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington, Danuel House, Jeff Green, DeMarre Carroll and Bruno Caboclo are in holding down the frontcourt.
5. Boston Celtics
The Celtics will have ample time to prepare for the Bucks and a nationally televised debut between the two East teams with the best odds to win a championship. Boston looks pretty deep now that everyone is healthy, but will need Jayson Tatum to pick up where he left off before the stoppage if it is to emerge out of the East.
Glue guys Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis should play large roles with Brad Stevens likely to deploy them as x-factors come postseason. The team’s top-seven has only been healthy for eight games this season. Entering “seeding games,” that’s expected to change.
6. Toronto Raptors
The big news around the defending champs is how svelte center Marc Gasol looks. One of the league’s deepest teams is expected to be healthy and takes the NBA’s longest win streak into the bubble.
The Raptors will have a sizeable chip on their shoulder since their schedule is downright grueling. Seeing former tormentor LeBron James out of the gate should help fuel the Raps’ preparation and gives them a chance to make a statement early. Toronto’s schedule is filled with quality frontcourts. Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Serge Ibaka will all benefit from Gasol’s availability considering he’s missed nearly half the season.
7. Denver Nuggets
Denver isn’t sweating star center Nikola Jokic being stricken with COVID-19, knowing he’s got time to recover in Serbia and should receive clearance to return to the U.S. before the team leaves for the Disney bubble. While not ideal, Jokic looked slimmer than he did in March, when he was playing some of his best basketball of the season after working himself into shape over the first few months.
Forwards Jerami Grant and Michael Porter, Jr. could make an already loaded frontcourt truly special if they’re able to increase their production consistently. Facing the Jazz, Lakers, Clippers and Raptors to end the “seeding” games portion of the schedule should ensure the Nuggets are ready for the playoffs but could lead to a top-three seed slipping away if they struggle.
8. Philadelphia 76ers
Unless Ben Simmons taught himself how to shoot over the past few months, the best news the 76ers have received is that Joel Embiid used his time off constructively, working out and getting into excellent shape.
Both young Philly stars were dealing with injuries in March, so this restart benefits this group more than most. Given that they’ve gotten a lighter load of “seeding games” than anyone else, Philadelphia can generate confidence and make a run at the coveted No. 3 seed. Brett Brown is probably coaching for his job over the next few months. Rookie defensive standout Matisse Thybulle is healthy enough to play and should be a difference-maker.
9. Miami Heat
Since Miami-Dade became one of the nation’s hot spots for the coronavirus, it wasn't surprising that the Heat had multiple players test positive for COVID-19. They shut down their facility and expect everyone on the roster to contribute when games begin. Derrick Jones, Jr. plans on playing, so Erik Spoelstra should be able to count on one of his top defenders.
The Heat shot the ball much better from beyond the arc at home than they did on the road and rely on young wings Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro to fill it up from 3-point range and space the floor, so it’s vital that they get comfortable in the surreal environment that awaits them in Central Florida.
10. Utah Jazz
Rudy Gobert stated that he still doesn’t feel like he’s fully recovered from the coronavirus and has fences to mend with a number of his teammates, including star guard Donovan Mitchell, who caught the illness too and was angry with his center for behaving recklessly. Their union is a shaky one.
Top shooter Bojan Bogdanovic is done due to wrist surgery, so it can be argued that few teams have regressed more since the March 11 announcement that Gobert had contracted COVID-19 shook the world. Mike Conley, Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson have to help bring their teammates together and should take some pressure off Mitchell with their ballhandling while helping absorb some of the scoring hit caused by Bogdanovic’s absence.
11. Dallas Mavericks
Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis returned from overseas and are expected to be in the mix as they each make the first playoff appearance of their careers. The Mavs won’t have center Willie Cauley-Stein, who opted to sit out due to having a baby on the way.
They already had lost Dwight Powell, Jalen Brunson and Courtney Lee to season-ending injuries. Rick Carlisle should be able to identify a rotation he can lean on over the course of eight games but getting off to a good start will dictate whether Dallas can overtake the Rockets for a Southwest Division title.
12. New Orleans Pelicans
Rookie Zion Williamson was able to spend most of this hiatus at the Pelicans’ practice facility since he was still working his way back from knee surgery, so he’s expected to be a force in Orlando. Remember, he scored 35 points against the Lakers to open March and was averaging roughly 25 points per game since getting acclimated and shedding some of the minutes restrictions. He appears to be in fantastic shape.
Jrue Holiday is one of the NBA’s top two-way guards and forward Brandon Ingram will be a restricted free agent and should help his chances of receiving a large offer sheet if he can continue his surge. Given its light schedule, New Orleans should be considered the favorite to wind up opposite Memphis in the play-in 8-9 series.
13. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder were 17-5 over their last 22 games prior to the stoppage and were done no favors by the schedule. The Lakers replaced a second game with Denver among the adjustments the NBA made, so OKC is 6-10 against teams they’ll run into in the bubble. Chris Paul should be an asset considering how rested he'll be but OKC's x-factor is 21-year-old guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who should continue to flourish off the ball.
Avoiding the Clippers and matching up with a Rockets team that they’ve won two of three against is the Thunder’s chief objective, so I’d expect they won’t be resting players as they try to finish at least sixth in the West. Standout defender Andre Roberson could finally be healthy enough to play for the first time since January 2018.
14. Indiana Pacers
Guard Victor Oladipo won't play in Orlando, while backcourt mate Malcolm Brogdon is expected to recover from contracting the coronavirus in June but may be brought along slowly. With Indiana likely to employ a collective approach to tackling the remaining regular-season schedule, it wouldn’t be surprising to see it slip down to No. 6 unless it fares well in its two head-to-head meetings with Miami.
With shooting guard Jeremy Lamb already done for the season, Oladipo uncertain and Brogdon working his way back, brothers Justin Holiday and Aaron Holiday may be in for major roles. Domantas Sabonis would be most affected by a reduction of minutes since he's such a factor at both ends.
15. Portland Trail Blazers
The Blazers will have guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum healthy and fresh, which makes this group a threat. It definitely hurts that Trevor Ariza opted not to play, especially with Rodney Hood nowhere near ready to return from an Achilles tear.
Carmelo Anthony struggles too much on defense to be trusted to take many minutes on the wing, so a few of the kids will likely have to step up. Gary Trent, Jr., Nassir Little and Orlando native Anfernee Simons could emerge. Head coach Terry Stotts must figure out how to dispense minutes up front since Jusuf Nurkic and Zack Collins are back and Hassan Whiteside commands significant playing time at in the middle.
16. Memphis Grizzlies
It’s going to take an epic collapse for the Grizzlies to drop out of the play-in series, but there’s no question they must be wary of fumbling away the No. 8 seed. The No. 9 faces an uphill climb in that they have to win multiple games with no room for error to reach the playoffs, so Memphis has to find a way to win at least a couple of games in Orlando to hang on to that advantage.
Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant will have a bigger stage to shine on while young forwards Jaren Jackson, Jr. and Brandon Clarke will be available after dealing with injuries in March. The same can be said for trade acquisition Justise Winslow, who hasn’t suited up since coming over from Miami. Backup guard Grayson Allen may not be available.
17. Orlando Magic
The Magic would be far more dangerous if Jonathan Isaac were healthy enough to play, but it’s doubtful that he’d rush back from a knee injury if he’s not at 100 percent. That decision hasn't been made. Forward Al Farouq Aminu (knee) will sit and point guard Markelle Fultz was excused from reporting to the bubble with teammates due to a personal matter.
Orlando still has talented pieces in Nikola Vucevic Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Fultz to challenge opponents but becomes a different animal when Isaac is available to wreak havoc on defense. Playing the Nets twice means the Magic can dictate whether they wind up in seventh or eighth.
18. Sacramento Kings
Former No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III should be at 100 percent for this restart, so he’s hoping to salvage a sophomore season gone wrong since he hasn’t played since Jan. 10 and has gotten into just 13 games. Second-leading scorer Buddy Hield was stricken with coronavirus but is expected to play, filling out a talented backcourt trio led by De’Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic.
Recent acquisitions Jabari Parker and Alex Len were also afflicted with COVID-19, so head coach Luke Walton will have a lot of moving parts in play. Fox, who has cut off his locks and is sporting a much cleaner look, will be the driving force and could help the Kings surprise if he's a factor at both ends and stays out of foul trouble. Richaun Holmes had a breaktrhough season but must prove he can thrive in co-exisiting with Bagley.
19. Phoenix Suns
Getting former No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton his first meaningful stretch run is enormous for his development, so the last Western Conference team invited to the bubble party has already won just by being included. Ayton will square off with Indiana’s Myles Turner, Miami’s Bam Adebayo, OKC’s Steven Adams and Philadelphia’s Embiid in consecutive games towards the end of the event, so he’ll have a huge impact on Phoenix’s ability to surprise. Ayton will be looking to put his improved shooting range on display.
It hurts the cause that Kelly Oubre Jr. won’t play, but that does give young wings Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson opportunities to carve out larger roles. Devin Booker is likely to finish the season with averages of over 26 points and six assists. The only players who have recorded those numbers before turning 24 years old were LeBron and Oscar Robertson.
20. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are likely going to be in youth movement mode in Orlando. With LaMarcus Aldridge out following shoulder surgery, Gregg Popovich will ride DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and the kids.
Dejounte Murray has worked his way back gingerly from an ACL tear but should be able to impose his will more given the time off. Lonnie Walker IV, Derrick White, Bryn Forbes and Trey Lyles should get plenty of reps.
21. Brooklyn Nets
Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving won’t be suiting up until the 2020-21 season opens in December, so these Nets were set to ride guard Spencer Dinwiddie and wing Caris LeVert instead. Unfortunately, Dinwiddie tested positive for the coronavirus and won't play as Brooklyn will opt for the cautious approach.
Former head coach Kenny Atkinson resigned on March 7, so Jacque Vaughn will guide this group on an interim basis. DeAndre Jordan also tested positive for COVID-19 and won't participate, so this will be a great chance for Jarrett Allen to take a step forward in terms of consistency. The second-year center and fourth-year wing LeVert will gorge on experience over the next month.
22. Washington Wizards
The already tall task of overcoming a huge edge that Brooklyn and Orlando hold over the Wizards became insurmountable when Bradley Beal decided not to accompany the team to Disney, rehabilitating a shoulder injury instead. Free agent-to-be Davis Bertans was among the first players who begged off the bubble, citing health risks.
John Wall will take a few more months to get right, so Washington will likely be an underdog in every game as head coach Scott Brooks takes a long look at his young talent. Rookie Rui Hachimura showed a few flashes of brilliance so it would be nice to see whether his game has blossomed over the past few months.
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