The Finals are now set after nearly two months in the bubble, and our patience during the NBA’s hiatus has been rewarded with one of the more thrilling playoffs in recent memory. Denver erased a pair of 3–1 deficits, the Heat took down the top-seeded Bucks, and LeBron James continued to assert himself as the greatest player in the league. Some things stay the same regardless of the circumstance.
There will only be one champion crowned in the coming weeks, but that doesn’t mean only a single team will have a reason to celebrate their Orlando experience. So who had the most successful time in the bubble? Let’s assess the postseason’s winners and losers ahead of the NBA Finals.
Jamal Murray, Nuggets
Murray is the most obvious winner from Orlando, and for good reason. He entered the 2020 playoffs as a solid second piece alongside Nikola Jokic, though his struggles in the 2019 playoffs provided some concern. Murray has shattered expectations since.
Murray didn't just thrive in the shadow of Jokic in the NBA Bubble. He arrived as a legitimate standalone star, eliciting comparisons to a young Steph Curry in the process. Murray sent home the Clippers with a 40-point effort in Game 7, and he halted a furious comeback by the Lakers in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals. Murray is hitting rainbow stepbacks and converting layups reminiscent of Michael Jordan. Denver’s future is as bright as perhaps any team in the Western Conference.
We owe Murray an apology of sorts despite Denver’s elimination from the playoffs on Saturday. He scoffed at the idea that the Nuggets were anything but Finals contenders throughout the 2019-20 season, and he backed up that confidence with a superb display in the bubble. The Nuggets showed significant faith in Murray with a $170 million extension last July. The deal is now a no-brainer. Murray enters 2020-21 with All-Star expectations, and rightfully so. He was perhaps the most exciting player of the NBA bubble.
Erik Spoelstra, Heat
Those who aren’t quite paying attention paint a lazy narrative of Erik Spoelstra. They claim he rode LeBron and Co.’s coattails in Miami, and despite the franchise staying afloat from 2014-19, there was little evidence Spoelstra could lead a championship contender without a superstar. Is this season enough evidence for you? Spoelstra and the Heat are now set to face James and the Lakers in the Finals, exceeding all expectations with Jimmy Butler and a cast of growing youngsters. Spoelstra’s case for the Hall-of-Fame grew significantly in 2019-20.
Can Spoelstra put the icing on the cake in the Finals? Miami may not be as big of a longshot as one would think. The Heat’s depth of playmakers could prove difficult for Los Angeles’ thin bench, and perhaps Spoelsta’s zone will stifle a middling shooting team. Bam Adebayo’s All-Star leap is legitimate. Tyler Herro doesn’t seem to care about the round or opponent. This team is tough and adaptable, built in Spoelstra’s image. Pulling off an upset over the Lakers would mark the highlight of his career.
The idea of the 2019-20 season resuming at any point appeared to be a tenuous bet in March and April, and any potential bubble was viewed as more fantasy than reality. But to Silver’s and the NBA’s credit, we’re currently in the midst of a playoffs that’s gone on largely without a hitch. The league deserves credit for its ingenuity in the face of extreme challenges.
It hasn’t been a perfect Orlando experience for Silver and the league. There were a stream of delays for players entering the bubble, and there were legitimate complaints from players who felt boxed-in by the league’s approved list of social justice statements. The latter gripe in particular is a fair one, and we should hope that the league office continues to follow the players’ lead in the fight against racial injustice and police brutality. Still, the NBA pulled off an improbable mass quarantine, and the growing commitment to social justice is legitimately encouraging. Silver continues to manage crises with relative ease as he closes his seventh year as commissioner.
Paul George, Clippers
You can really put any member of the Clippers in this spot, but George’s disappearance as the season slipped away is particularly brutal. George tallied just 10 points on 4-16 shooting in Game 7, and he seemed uninterested at assuming control of the offense at any point down the stretch. Kawhi Leonard deserves plenty of criticism for his dismal shooting night, but at least he went down swinging. The ‘Playoff P’ moniker is past parody at this point.
It’ll be a long fall for George as he waits for 2020-21, and the criticism thrown his way will likely be overblown following a shocking playoff collapse. George remains an impactful—and at times dominant—two-way force, and his offensive skill-set is a legitimately nice compliment to Leonard. Perhaps greater cohesion can help this team reach its ceiling next season. The Clippers remain among the league's top title contenders in 2020-21.
James Harden, Rockets
George’s play necessitated his spot in this column. Harden is here largely due to circumstance. The Rockets squandered another year of Harden’s prime in 2019-20, limping to the finish line as LeBron James and Anthony Davis ran roughshod over Houston’s small-ball defense. Harden and Co. were one win (and one historic cold streak) from the Finals in 2018. They’ve now been eliminated in the second round in back-to-back years. Any frustration is warranted for the best scorer of his era.
Harden isn’t completely without culpability. He was comfortable dumping the ball off against a stream of double teams throughout the series vs. Los Angeles, and he struggled to make any impact whatsoever as an off-ball shooter and cutter. Yet even if Harden's scoring was muted by his standards, he still scored 29.4 points per game on 50% shooting. Harden's Hall-of-Fame legacy is secured even if he never captures the elusive Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Winning a championship–or even reaching the Finals–in Houston could be an increasingly shaky bet for Harden in the coming seasons. Russell Westbrook’s playoff shortcomings have been evident in recent seasons, and Daryl Morey doesn’t have significant flexibility to upgrade Houston’s roster. Golden State should return to contender status next year. Dallas will improve, and Portland will get healthy. There are a pair of juggernauts in Los Angeles along with two potential Finals teams in the Mountain time zone, creating perhaps the deepest pool of championship contenders in recent history. Houston remains in that mix as long as Harden is around, though there’s little guarantee of progress in 2020-21.
Mike Budenholzer, Bucks
A coach’s rotation and substitution pattern is often far more nuanced than any armchair quarterback would be led to believe, but it’s hard not to question Mike Budenholzer’s management of Giannis Antetokounmpo in the second round. The two-time MVP didn’t cross over 36 minutes in either Game 2 or Game 3, and there was little adjustment in any aspect of the rotation, even as Miami cruised to the conference finals. Budenholzer remains an impressive coach. His teams are greater than the sum of their parts and there’s a cohesion and joy present in Milwaukee that is rare around the NBA. But the Bucks’ recent regular-season excellence means little at this point. Budenholzer will have to get creative with Antetokounmpo and the rest of his roster in 2021, or dire consequences could follow. Few coaches enter next season with more pressure.