The flights are booked and the NBA Bubble will soon be underway in what will be the wildest race to The Finals that we have ever seen. Felix John-Baptiste and Justin Kirkland weigh in on what the future might hold in uncertain circumstances that are guaranteed to be a roller coaster.
1. The Los Angeles Lakers are in a better position to win than they were before the shutdown.
Kirkland: Big Facts. Sure, Avery Bradley is a tremendous loss because his absence will mean that the Lakers have lost an elite wing defender. Defense is everything in the playoffs especially in the later rounds where open shots are hard to come by. However, LeBron James will be completely fresh for the playoffs for the first time in years and Anthony Davis is healthy and ready to go. Dwight Howard’s confirmation that he will join the Lakers in Orlando means that he will join Davis and JaVale McGee to solidify one of the toughest defensive frontcourts the bubble will have to offer. LeBron has had the luxury of not having to play defense against elite wings because of Bradley’s presence but that does not mean he can’t. Los Angeles will also get an offensive boost from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who is a decent defender in his own right while having better shooting splits and more capable shot creation than Bradley. If I were the Lakers I’d be boiling over with confidence right now barring injury.
John-Baptiste: Fake News. “Better”? No. Prior to the shutdown, the Lakers were one of the favorites to win it all, and they still are. They have enough All-NBA talent to not be shell-shocked by the new format. On the flip side, players on opposing teams may get a boost of confidence in being in a gym surrounded by only their cohorts.
We know LeBron James is one of the best in the league at taking care of his body, but we don’t know what kind of shape his teammates are in. According to a recent Bill Simmons podcast, rumor has it that the Lakers have been working out together at a court in someone’s Malibu backyard. However, their return to play shape is yet to be seen. It’ll be interesting to see who’s ready to go for the kill shot.
2. The Houston Rockets have the best chance to upset the favorites in the West.
Kirkland: Fake News. The Rockets will be interesting but we saw their “microball” starting to take a hit towards the abrupt conclusion of the season. They aren’t deep enough to beat the Clippers and lack the size to beat the Lakers. This team is built to win against opponents that have not had a chance to adjust to such an extreme version of small ball before, but now the data is out there and they will be tasked with winning four games in two weeks against teams that will likely end up just scheming them out of their gimmick.
The team with the best chance to crash the party might not even make it in. The Portland Trail Blazers have a star that can go nuclear and anytime and will have Jusuf Nurkic to deploy against opposing bigs once again. Nurkic was a double-double machine who’s services would have had the Blazers firmly in the playoff picture had he been available this season. This core made the Western Conference finals last season and no one will want to see them overtake the Grizzlies and enter the dance.
John-Baptiste: Big Facts. Something about the return to play format has a streetball feel to it. Name a better streetball duo with the combination of talent and speed than James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
A Mike D’Antoni system is perfect for a scrimmage-like tournament where players can’t lean on crowd noise or home-court advantage. Any 5-minute stint can quickly turn into a couple of fastbreaks and a barrage of three-pointers; something the Rockets absolutely have up their sleeves. The micro-ball tactic prior to the shutdown already showed signs of success. Add that to their stars fearless mentality that they’re always the best players on the floor, and you’ve got a dangerous team.
3. The non-playoff team bubble is necessary for player development.
Kirkland: Fake News. This is a cash-grab for the NBA and for owners of teams that did not make it to the playoffs and won’t reap the financial benefits of continuing a season that was cut short. Players on these teams do need to have basketball between now and December to prevent rust, but none of that has to do with going through the logistics of creating a second “bubble” in the middle of a pandemic when the first “bubble” is a giant question mark in the first place. Multiple teams already had to shut down practice facilities pre-Orlando due to positive tests among players and staff. Have the non-playoff teams develop on their own in smaller more secure environments.
John-Baptiste: Fake News. What exactly is there to gain in a non-playoff team bubble aside from each team reaching the 70-game mark that guarantees a full season salary? In a typical season, non-playoff teams are sent home and are free to host individual workouts. The same should hold true this time around.
If the non-playoff bubble doesn’t consist of a few weeks of play, they should scrap it. With proper precaution, teams should continue to host individual workouts at pre-cleared facilities. They should also be allowed to begin training camp a few weeks early due to the potential long layoff of time between games played and to mitigate the risk of injury on their official return.
4. Nikola Jokic will play at the highest level of his career after weight-loss.
Kirkland: Big Facts. There may be some slight adjustments to make to Jokic’s game offensively, but we watched his effectiveness slip away in the 4th quarter all season long. The Nuggets are an offensive juggernaut but just the 18th best scoring team in the league in the final quarter of games. Jokic is their offensive engine. Assuming that he will have more endurance down the stretch whatever he loses from a lack of girth will be nominal compared to what he gains from being able to remain effective all the way to the finish line. If he was only a scorer, I would be concerned but he’s the best playmaking big in the league and should benefit defensively as well. The Nuggets have more than enough offense to offset whatever he loses on the low block.
John-Baptiste: Fake News. It’s nice in theory, but we have no evidence he’ll be able to effectively use his new body. That lost weight might’ve been the edge he had in grabbing double-digit rebounds consistently. However, what he lost in weight he could potentially gain in speed. It will be interesting to see what his post-game and footwork looks like.
5. Devin Booker and/or Bradley Beal will be on new teams next season.
Kirkland: Big Facts. The Lakers will be hunting for big fish over this offseason I can feel it. The Wizards have been loooooong overdue for a shakeup and should cash in on Bradley Beal’s All-Star level play while they still can. John Wall will return and the Wizards can see what he has left with a bundle of assets as a fall back plan if he does not return to the player he once was.
Pheonix is in a better situation because DeAndre Ayton is special and with Booker could form a formidable one-two punch for years to come. Booker may be in a position where he wants a change of scenery after bottom-feeding for the entire start of his promising career. Perhaps the Knicks can finally do something right and figure out a way to bring Booker to provide badly needed shooting on what an unproven, but high ceiling young roster.
John-Baptiste: Big Facts. It remains to be seen what John Wall’s health will look like next season, but if the team is not performing prior to the trade deadline, a drastic change may very well be in play. The same can be said for Devin Booker, however, they’re still relatively early in the DeAndre Ayton experiment.
Both players have All-NBA individual talent but haven’t seen team success in quite some time. A playoff contender who sees their window closing will likely pull the trigger to bolster their championship chances.