We’ve registered a full week of games in the NBA bubble, and for the most part, the action on the floor is business as usual. Giannis Antetokounmpo is dunking his way through Orlando, while the small-ball Rockets are shooting their way into the Finals conversation. The circumstances surrounding the NBA’s restart are relatively bizarre. But the product on the floor is familiar, almost soothing. The quality of play is high. The intensity is nearing playoff levels. It’s hard to ask for much more from Adam Silver and Co. amid a global pandemic.
Who besides Silver stands as a big winner through one week in Orlando? Let’s dish out some praise and add a dash of criticism after the first week of seeding games.
The Baby Suns
Phoenix has been regarded as a laughing stock throughout the past decade, and the reputation isn’t completely unearned. Recent years have seen the Suns cycle through coaches at an alarming rate, pass on Luka Doncic and generally fail to forge any path back toward the postseason. Robert Sarver’s tenure as owner has been an abject disaster after Steve Nash’s departure.
It seems as though Phoenix’s organizational incompetence has clouded the analysis of its current roster. Devin Booker has been continuously maligned despite being one of the league’s best young scorers, with detractors insisting he carry a poor roster to playoff contention in the Western Conference. The noise surrounding Booker’s deficiencies has been quiet of late. He’s averaging 30.7 points per game in the NBA bubble, including a 35-point effort in a win over the Clippers on Tuesday. Booker isn’t a compiler. He’s an elite scorer, and a reasonable franchise anchor. The Kentucky product is proving as such in Orlando.
Perhaps Booker won’t be a solo act in the 2020s. Deandre Ayton is (of course) no Luka Doncic, but the 2018 No. 1 pick has flashed impressive offensive potential from his first games as a rookie. Ayton isn’t necessarily dominant in any one area. He’s not the most imposing rim runner, and he hasn’t quite stretched his game beyond the three-point line. But Ayton is skilled enough to make a legitimate impact. He’s averaging 18.8 points and 11.7 rebounds per game this season, showing a deft touch near the foul line and at the elbows. Neither Ayton, Kelly Oubre nor Mikal Bridges are future All-NBA talents. Yet the trio forms a legitimate supporting cast around Booker. The Suns are 4–0 in the bubble, and while a playoff appearance in 2020 is unlikely, the drought could very well end early in the next decade.
Michael Porter Jr.
The calls to free Michael Porter Jr. reached a fever pitch in the opening days in the NBA bubble, and it appears as though Mike Malone has finally given in. The 22-year-old phenom erupted for 37 points on 12-16 shooting in a win over the Thunder on Monday as he logged a career-high 43 minutes. And the breakout performance wasn’t an anomaly. Porter Jr. lit up the Spurs for 30 points and 15 rebounds on Wednesday, displaying the smooth jumper and physical tools that made him one of the nation’s top high school prospects. Denver currently holds the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, but many assume the Rockets are the top threat to the Los Angeles juggernauts. Perhaps Porter can be the piece that unlocks the Nuggets’ ceiling.
San Antonio’s Next Generation
The Spurs have dropped two straight in the NBA bubble, and their chances of extending a 22-year playoff streak are very much in doubt. But frankly, the development of San Antonio’s youngsters is more important than Popovich and Co.’s streak. In that respect, the Spurs’ stint in Orlando has been an encouraging one.
Four of San Antonio’s last five first-round picks are averaging at least 10 points per game in the NBA bubble, led by guard Derrick White. It’s not quite evident which, if any, of the Spurs’ young guards and wings will emerge as an All-Star in the 2020s, though each brings an enticing skill set. Murray has already received a $64 million investment from San Antonio, and while he hasn’t quite taken charge as an impact scorer, his truly jarring length and athleticism gives him the highest upside. White can be a reliable starter in the coming seasons. Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker remain relative question marks, but both have shown flashes in Orlando.
The Spurs are a victim of their own success in a way. They haven’t picked in the lottery since 1997, and the 2018 selection of Lonnie Walker marked their first top-20 pick since 2010. Once San Antonio’s superstar left, building a true contender became nearly impossible. A long road to title contention could await, but there are pieces to put the Spurs on the right track even after DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge leave town.
LeBron and the Lakers
LeBron James and Co. celebrated clinching the No. 1 seed in Orlando, but the accomplishment may be the only positive trend for the Lakers of late. Los Angeles has lost by double digits to Toronto, Oklahoma City and Houston in the NBA bubble, and their offense has stalled to a significant degree. The lack of a secondary ball-handler appears to be of legitimate concern, especially in minutes when James sits. Losing Avery Bradley erased a strong perimeter defender, and while Rajon Rondo isn’t always a positive player, he’s at least a viable distributor. LeBron and Anthony Davis’ supporting cast is waning to a degree.
This shouldn’t be taken as a reason for Los Angeles to panic by any stretch. Their dynamic duo is likely the best in the league, and Rondo’s return should pay a legitimate dividend. James has handled an extreme workload in previous playoffs, carrying depleted Cavaliers squads against the Warriors’ juggernaut. But the Finals are no guarantee in 2020. Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers loom in a potential conference finals for the ages, and the slightest margin could decide the series. The Lakers don’t need to play their best basketball quite yet. But we need to see them trending in the right direction as round one comes to a close.
Future West Contenders
One selling point of the NBA bubble was the chance to see Zion Williamson and Ja Morant duel in a play-in scenario. Perhaps we’ll still see these Memphis and New Orleans battle for the final spot in the Western Conference, but neither team has exactly shined in Orlando.
The Grizzlies have lost four straight, and Jaren Jackson Jr. is out for the season with a meniscus injury. The Pelicans have an easy schedule ahead, though they haven’t played their best basketball in the bubble after getting blitzed by the Kings on Thursday. Perhaps we put the cart ahead of the horse in anticipating the Western Conference play-in. We’ll have plenty of years to watch Zion vs. Ja, but 2020 may not be one of them.
Sixers Finals Buzz
The Sixers continued to enchant NBA fans throughout the early seeding games in Orlando, forcing the public to keep at least a modicum of faith in their considerable talent. But it’s hard to justify a Finals buzz following the Ben Simmons injury news. Philadelphia’s point forward suffered a subluxation of his left patella during Wednesday's game against Washington, and there is no timetable for his return. The Sixers were on thin ice even with Simmons, still battling the same half-court dysfunction that plagued them before the NBA restart. Losing Simmons for the postseason would make an early exit an inevitability rather than a possibility.