NBA Bubble Awards: Handing Out Hardware After Seeding Games

Devin Booker made a pretty convincing case for Player of the Seeding Games, but Damian Lillard was hot enough to lead the Blazers into the play-in round.
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The NBA plans on honoring the top players in the restart by giving out a number of seeding games honors. The latest awards will exclusively reward players and coaches for their performances in Orlando and will be voted on separately from the usual regular season slate. The league plans on awarding an NBA Player of the Seeding Games, naming a first- and second-team for the seeding games and also coach of the seeding games. Included below are picks for those awards, plus a few other categories in which recognition is deserved.

An asterisk denotes if the NBA will officially give out the award.

* MVP: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Back in late May, when the NBA still had not announced its return-to-play plan, Blazers guard Damian Lillard told Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes that if Portland didn’t have an opportunity to reach the playoffs in the NBA’s restart that he wouldn’t participate in gameplay. But, when asked how he felt about his team’s chances if they did have a chance to compete for a postseason berth, Lillard didn’t hesitate.

“I do feel like if we do come back and our mind is right, we can beat anyone,” the five-time All-Star told Haynes.

While Portland hasn’t beaten everybody—they ended up going 35-39 on the season and 6-2 in their eight seeding games—Lillard proved to be the league’s most prolific player in the run up to the NBA postseason. Behind a number of eye-catching performances, he helped the Blazers go from outside the Western Conference playoff picture to the No. 8 seed in the conference. Heading into Thursday’s win over the Nets, he was averaging 37 points and 9.3 assists per game. He added another 42 points on Thursday to help Portland eek out a play-in game spot. Suns guard Devin Booker helped Phoenix go from a complete afterthought to the precipice of the postseason and is also deserving of this honor, but it’s hard to go against Lillard, who joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in league history to record three 60-point games in the same season.

* Best Coach: Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns

The Suns arrived in the Orlando bubble with a 26-39 record, the worst among the Western Conference teams invited to the league’s restart. But behind the play of Booker, the club went 8-0 in Orlando, and missed out on its first postseason appearance since 2010 due to mere tiebreakers.

The Kentucky product averaged 31 points on nearly 50% shooting in his team’s first seven games and hit arguably the most memorable shot in the seeding games, a game-winner over the outstretched contest of Clippers star Paul George. Deandre Ayton, Ricky Rubio, Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson rounded out a starting five that not only took part in one of the most heartwarming lineup introductions ever produced, but also was stellar on the court.

Additionally, Phoenix’s bench unit, which had largely struggled during the regular season, blew teams away in the bubble as it received a surprising boost from the well-traveled Cameron Payne, who was signed June 30 and scored double-digit points five times, among other players. While the Suns fell short of the postseason, there is literally nothing else they could have done in the bubble. Williams and his staff deserve a ton of credit for getting all that they did out of their team.

* All-Seeding Games First Team

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers; Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns; T.J. Warren, Indiana Pacers; Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks; James Harden, Houston Rockets

Lillard and Booker are locks to make the All-Seeding first team. So too is Pacers guard T.J. Warren, who has averaged 31 points per game during the restart while shooting nearly 58% from the field and 52% from 3-point range. Doncic has also been outstanding, as his lowest scoring game in the bubble heading into Thursday’s stake-less game vs. Phoenix was a 25-point output against the Blazers. The final spot on the first-team, though, is more contested.

2019 MVP and 2020 MVP finalist Giannis Antetokounmpo has been dominant, when he has played. However, the Bucks’ star missed his team’s game vs. Toronto after an oral procedure, played just 15 minutes against the Nets and merely 10 minutes against the Wizards and was suspended Milwaukee’s seeding games finale against the Grizzlies. Raptors two-way star Pascal Siakam has reinforced all the reasons why Toronto has the NBA’s best record since January 1 and was a central reason why the defending champions have gone 6-1 thus far in Orlando. Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr., Nets guard Caris LeVert and Spurs' DeMar DeRozan are also worthy of top team honors as a result of their performances.

But Rockets star James Harden hasn’t missed a beat in the NBA restart, opening the seeding games with a 49-point performance against Dallas, scoring 39 points in a convincing win over a short-handed Lakers team and recording 45 points in a recent loss to Indiana, in which he recorded a +11 plus/minus. The 2018 MVP appeared to be showing signs of fatigue as the regular season abruptly halted, but now well-rested, he will again be relied upon to orchestrate Houston’s offense, especially with Russell Westbrook out for the beginning of the postseason.

Breakout Player: Gary Trent Jr., Portland Trail Blazers

Throughout the pre-COVID-19 part of the 2019-20 NBA season, Blazers wing Gary Trent Jr. worked hard to carve out a consistent role with Portland. The 21-year-old wasn’t in the rotation to start the season, but over a 19-game stretch from January 18 through March 2, Trent Jr. averaged 13.5 points per game and had, among other games, a career-high 30 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Still, the former Duke Blue Devils’ production was limited as he averaged just 7.7 and played just over 20 minutes per game up until March 11.

The 2018 second round pick has taken a significant leap in the bubble, however, and entered Portland’s final seeding game averaging 17 points per game on 53% shooting in an impressive 33.7 minutes of action. He’s played key minutes in recent weeks and looks poised to be a part of Portland’s playoff rotation. “I’m not surprised by this, I work for this,” Trent Jr. said after a recent game. “This is everything that I’ve worked for, this is what it should be.”

Best Rookie in seeding games: Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

Porter Jr. would also be a worthy recipient of a breakout player award and maybe even first-team all-bubble honors. He averaged just 13 minutes and 4.2 points per game in March, but throughout the restart, Porter Jr. has more than doubled his minutes and is scoring 22 points per game. The rookie wing was inserted into the team’s starting lineup at the start of the seeding games and appears to be keeping his spot. He backed up a recent 37-point game against the Thunder with a 30-point game against the Spurs, which he then reinforced with a 27-point game against Portland. “Michael Porter was not selected to play in the Risings Stars game this year. Are you kidding me,” head coach Mike Malone said after Porter Jr,’s 30-point game.

Amid his hot August, the former No. 14 pick told reporters that he is a different player now than he was back in February. Malone has stressed to Porter Jr. the importance of improving his defense, but he has also touted the rookie’s scoring prowess and rebounding abilities. Numerous times, Malone has additionally said Porter Jr. has unlimited potential. The rookie has shown just how bright his future is thus far in Orlando.