THE NBA IS BACK!! We did it, everyone. No more scrimmages. No more nervous news updates on whether our favorite stars made it safely to the bubble. We got real, live NBA basketball this weekend in games that actually matter, and the basketball was very good. The NBA Bubble in Orlando is working, though apparently not for actual Orlando. The Magic probably should’ve put Jonathan Isaac in bubble wrap.
With the NBA finally resuming, it’s time for some official predictions going forward and a look back at the weekend that was. These were all real predictions heading into the bubble — I just didn’t have time to write them up because I moved last week. I haven’t changed the predictions at all, but I did comment on how they’re shaping up thus far, based on what we’ve seen.
There’s one thing we know for sure. We’ll always have these four days of basketball… and hopefully a couple months more. What else can we expect?
1. The NBA Bubble will work much better than Major League Baseball or the National Football League.
Well this prediction is off to a good start.
The biggest Coronavirus news out of the NBA Bubble so far has been chicken wings and an extended quarantine. A number of players tested positive before entering the bubble, but stars like Russell Westbrook, Nikola Jokic, and Rudy Gobert all seem healthy and good as ever. The NBA Bubble is working.
MLB and NFL wish they could say as much. Only a week into the baseball season, we’ve already seen multiple teams shut down operations with team outbreaks, and it’s hard to imagine the NFL not being far behind. MLB and NFL seem to view this pandemic much the way our government does — they prefer to bury their heads in the sands screaming LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-CAN’T-HEAR-YOU and hope for the best, promising to address issues when they inevitably arise. Contrast that to the NBA, which began preparing for its bubble four months ago and has rules about playing doubles ping pong, and it’s no wonder the NBA and WNBA have found success.
The NBA Bubble should remain one of the safest places in the country as long as players and coaches follow precautions. We have ourselves a season.
2. The audio from NBA games will be great, and far better than other sports.
So far, a bit inconclusive.
I had high hopes that we’d essentially get every player mic’ed up, with the opportunity to hear players calling out defensive assignments and all-game smack talk. So far we haven’t gotten much of that over sounds of loud sneaker squeaks and fake fans. The virtual fans have got to go. They’re wonky and differently shaped, and they’re super distracting.
The overall audio has been fine, and the crowd noises work, though they need to ramp things up during a late, close game to provide some atmosphere. We may not get to hear the players, but I’m convinced the reporters onsite can, so let’s hold out hope for some new insightful reporting.
3. There actually WILL be fans at the games once we get to the playoffs — just not the ones you think.
Not fans like me or you sitting in the stands. That’s not going to happen. And I don’t mean athlete families either, though we’ll get some of them eventually.
You know who else is in the bubble, loves basketball more than anyone on earth, and has all sorts of free time on their hands?
ALL THE NBA PLAYERS!!
Teams are busy right now getting all their games in, but once we get to the biggest games, isn’t it possible that the players themselves will be courtside to watch the action?
Imagine a West play-in between the Grizzlies and Pelicans, and Ja Morant and Zion Williamson look over on the sidelines and there’s LeBron and Brow watching them play, scouting a first-round opponent. Imagine the pressure!
Think of NBA All-Star Weekend, when all the stars are together. Isn’t the most entertaining part of the Slam Dunk Contest the way all the players turn into fans and go nuts on the sidelines? I want THAT in the bubble.
4. Good teams will benefit more than bad ones without home court in the playoffs.
There’s a lot of speculation about how the lack of home court could level the playing field, giving the lower seeds a bigger chance for the upset. That makes sense in theory, but I’m leaning the opposite direction.
The better team will still be better because, well, they’re better. Think how often the higher seed goes up 2–0 but that underdog almost always seems to take Game 3 at home, galvanized by the crowd. Now there’s no “wait til we get back home” relief. If the better team is pounding you, there’s no change of scenery or reset, no crowd to re-energize. They’re just going to keep on dominating until you do something different.
Instead of the lower seeds fighting back, it’s more likely that the better teams will continue to win. Teams like Philadelphia, Denver, and Utah typically rely heavily on home court to keep things close. Without home court neutralized, that’s one less tool for the underdog. Better teams stay better.
5. We’ll get only one play-in, out West.
That was my prediction before the bubble and it looks like a near lock at this point. The bottom of the East is a wreck. The Brooklyn Nets and Washington Wizards can barely even field real NBA lineups at this point. The Wizards are 0–2 with losses to the worst team in each conference entering the bubble. At this point Washington would have to go at least 5–3 to make the playoffs, and that includes winning two play-in games against the Nets, who’d also have to finish 0–8 in this scenario. It ain’t happening.
The West play-in? That’s happening. The Grizzlies are 0–2 so far and suddenly every team below them in the West is within the required four games, and Memphis’s schedule remains difficult going forward. That West race is wide open now, with every team in play. The Spurs and Suns started 2–0 against expectations. The Blazers look good. The Pelicans haven’t won yet but don’t face another team above .500. If only we could stick a couple of them in the East playoffs too.
6a. The Dallas Mavericks getting out of the 7-seed is the most important race in the West.
6b. The Mavericks will win at least one playoff series.
Well, so much for that.
Dallas blew their re-opener against the Rockets after leading by seven in the final minute, then blew a big lead to lose to the Suns Sunday night. I thought Dallas was as good as any team outside the NBA big three, and they still might be, but they’re almost certainly locked into the West 7-seed at this point. With the Clippers very likely at #2, that leaves Luka and Porzingis facing Kawhi and PG as their playoff debuts. I still think Dallas will be a tough out, but I’m not sure they’re ready to win four games against the Clippers.
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7. The Utah Jazz will win six or fewer games in the bubble.
The Jazz are already guaranteed a playoff berth, so that means at least 12 games. I’m predicting they finish .500 or below, and I’d lean below.
The Jazz are known for their defense with Rudy Gobert anchoring the paint, but it was a more balanced attack this year. Utah swapped out Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors for Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic. That’s a defense-for-offense swap, and it worked — on both ends. The offense got better, thanks mostly to Bojan, but the defense got notably work.
Now Bogdanovic is out for the season with wrist surgery, and the Jazz do not look like the same team. They’re struggling to score so far, and the bench is suffering too. Utah did come back to win their opener against the Pelicans, but I still have zero confidence in this team. They’re the opponent you want when the West playoffs tip.
8. The Philadelphia 76ers will lose in the first round of the playoffs.
Somehow over four months without basketball, everyone talked themselves back into the 76ers again. That makes sense I guess — these Sixers are usually best when there’s not actual real basketball involved.
I just can’t get there. Philadelphia’s defense hasn’t been as good as it was supposed to be, and it’ll only be worse with Shake Milton in the starting lineup. And the offense still doesn’t make a ton of sense. Milton adds some spacing, but he went nearly undrafted for a reason, and he did almost nothing in the opener. You can call Ben Simmons whatever position you want but he’s still running the offense or looking useless without the ball in his hands, and he still doesn’t fit next to Joel Embiid.
I don’t buy this team. Indiana is short on bodies and likely to fall to the 6-seed behind Philly, and then I think the Sixers lose to either Boston or Miami. The Heat are less talented but a better team, and Jimmy Butler is in Philly’s collective heads. And heck, even if the Sixers luck into Indiana, they just lost to the Pacers in the opener too. This is the team that’s going to make a Finals run? Not happening.
9. The Blazers will be worse than expected and not contend closely for the play-in game.
The jury’s still out on this one, though it doesn’t look great so far.
I worried that everyone was getting too excited about Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins returning to the lineup. Collins has never been good in the first place, while Nurkic is great but returning from a horrific leg injury, and recent history has shown with Gordon Hayward and Paul George that the first season back typically doesn’t go well.
Portland’s second-best player all year was Hassan Whiteside, not C.J. McCollum. I worried Nurkic’s return would relegate Whiteside to limited bench minutes where he’d be much worse playing without Damian Lillard. So far, Nurkic has looked healthy and fantastic, adding so much to this team as he did a year ago in a breakout campaign.
I also worried that Portland would miss Trevor Ariza, who’s sitting out of the bubble, and rely too much on Anfernee Simons at backup guard, who was one of the worst regulars in the NBA this season. Simons hasn’t played in the seeding games yet, while Carmelo Anthony and especially Gary Trent Jr. have been hitting everything to lead the charge at small forward.
So far, so good for the Blazers, but they’re still 1–1 and face a very daunting schedule going forward. I have no doubt that they’re the best of the six teams contending for the 8-seed, but I’m still not convinced they can get there. They’re certainly the team the Lakers would least like to see.
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10. The Pelicans and Kings vie for the 9-seed play-in spot, while the Wizards, Suns, and Spurs are irrelevant by the end of the first week.
Ouch. Can I get a mulligan?
The Pelicans and Kings are 0–4 combined and have looked very rough, especially Sacramento. The Suns and Spurs are 4–0 and very much in the thick of the race for the play-in game. Only the Wizards look truly irrelevant.
I’m still not giving up on the Pelicans. They should’ve won their first game, and I’d be very confident in them getting the 9-seed if they had. They might still anyway. New Orleans plays six more games, all of them against sub-.500 teams. They can absolutely go 5–1, and they probably get to the play-in if so.
Portland is my alternate pick. It’s a brutal schedule but they look good enough to hang with almost anyone, and the only teams I’d exclude from that have little to play for. Sacramento I’ve given up for dead. I’ve got an eye on Phoenix though, just for entertainment value. It’ll be tough but they have my attention.
11. The Lakers sweep the Grizzlies in the first round.
I don’t think the Grizzlies are the best of the six teams fighting for the 8-seed, but I think the setup tilts strongly in their favor, even still. They’re still two games ahead of every opponent and in great shape as long as they find a few wins. Even winning three of their remaining six would likely keep the 8-seed, and that means two chances to win a single time against whoever ends up the 9-seed.
In the end, that’s been my prediction all along — that a worse Grizzlies team wins one of those two play-in opportunities to make the playoffs. But they’ll be no match for the Lakers once they get there. Los Angeles might actually have to try against Portland or maybe New Orleans. Memphis is the sort of team that might steal a home game in a normal season but they won’t have that here either. All this play-in stuff is fun but may not ultimately matter.
12. We don’t get that long-awaited L.A.-L.A. Western Conference Finals, but it will indeed be Milwaukee and Los Angeles in the Finals.
We’ve waited all year for Lakers-Clippers, and if the opener Thursday night was any indication, it would be one heck of a WCF series. But we obviously can’t have nice things in 2020, so why start now? I just have that gut feeling that we won’t get L.A.-L.A. somehow. The bubble seems too random, with too many variables and things that could go wrong.
For two teams so reliant on two superstars, all it takes is one injury or positive virus test to any one of four players to turn the West playoffs upside down. We’ve also got a loaded West playoffs, and both L.A. teams (especially the Lakers) lose that big home-court advantage they fought all year for.
I’ll be honest — the biggest root of this prediction was that I didn’t trust the Clippers, largely because I didn’t trust Paul George. I wondered how his health might look after four months off and thought he might be an X-factor, and so far PG has looked awesome, better than he has at any point with the Clippers. If he keeps playing like that, the Clippers really are the team we projected them to be all year, and we really should get that L.A.-L.A. matchup. But my gut still says something goes awry.
I do think at least one Los Angeles team will play in the WCF and represent the West in the Finals, and they’ll meet the Milwaukee Bucks when they get there. Milwaukee’s defense looks elite as ever, and the Bucks don’t look like they’ve missed a beat. They’ve been better than everyone in the East by a wide margin all year and they’ll be better in the playoffs.
Still, can they get that bucket when things slow down at the highest level? We saw that crop up in a surprise loss to Houston last night, and it’s a question that simply won’t go away. I think the answer can be Khris Middleton, my Most Improved Player, but it still isn’t always Giannis Antetokounmpo, even if he’s clearly the best player in the league.
I do think the Bucks make the Finals — but I think they lose to Los Angeles when they get there. The question now is which one. ■