By Kyle Reiner Pineda
The NBA restart has given fans something to look forward to every morning. Adding to this is the extra spice the bubble has given our morning coffee daily. The restart has gotten #NBATwitter noisy again and has calmed some nerves in the middle of this pandemic. As we gear up for the playoffs in one week, we take a look at the biggest winners & losers of the NBA seeding games thus far.
Surprising Teams and Breakout Stars
For starters, the Denver Nuggets need to be given a lot of credit for inserting Bol Bol and Michael Porter Jr. into their rotation as a playoff contender. It’s not easy for a playoff contender to shake up the rotation this late into the season, but the injuries of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Paul Milsap have opened up minutes to the rookies. Michael Porter Jr. is averaging 25.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists, one steal, and one block a game on 53.7 percent field-goal shooting post-restart. Bol Bol has been decent stats-wise, but his connection with thin-Nikola Jokic has led to a pairing at the top of the Offensive Rating chart. TJ Warren deserves huge amounts of credit by averaging 34.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.4 blocks while shooting 60 percent in four bubble games. If there was fantasy basketball right now, whoever had TJ Warren or Michael Porter Jr. right now would be the runaway winner so far.
There are several teams as well that are playing exceptionally well post-restart. Not only are they rolling in the standings, but also in the analytics charts. The Toronto Raptors are sitting pretty 3-1 and secure at second place in the Eastern Conference after finally getting their full roster back healthy again. They are top five in Net Rating at 3.7 and are +3.1 points ahead in defensive rating behind the second-place Houston Rockets (yes, even I’m surprised). The Boston Celtics have impressed as well after their disappointing start versus the Milwaukee Bucks post-restart. Jayson Tatum has come alive after his haircut and is posting All-Star numbers once again, Jaylen Brown is proving why he is worth every dollar he got paid and should’ve been an All-Star, and the team is hoping to gear up for the playoffs sitting at third in the East and atop of the Net Rating standings thus far.
Honorable mentions for best performers in the bubble thus far could go to the Miami Heat for rising to fourth in the standings and the OKC Thunder for holding their own in the West while getting their full squad back. I could mention several others, but they deserve a separate section as these teams have given us a treat on TV thus far.
The Western Conference Playoff Race
Of all the six Western Conference teams fighting for the final playoff spot, all of them have given us an intriguing end-of-the-season race thus far. Thanks in part to the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies going 1-4 in the restart, this has opened up the playing field for the likes of the Portland Trailblazers, and the San Antonio Spurs to gain ground in the playoff race. The Blazers have been excellent in the restart with the return of Zach Collins and Jusef Nurkic and have gone 3-2 in the restart with wins over the Grizzlies, Rockets, and Nuggets. The Blazers are seventh in Net Rating thus far and are fifth in points per game at 120.
The young San Antonio Spurs squad headed to the restart without LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles, but are only two games behind the eighth seed right now. DeMar DeRozan and Derrick White are both averaging above 20 points per game, Dejounte Murray is finally becoming a reliable distributor for Gregg Popovich, and the emergence of rookie Keldon Johnson is a pleasant sight after being out of the rotation all season. The Sacramento Kings are virtually out of the playoff hunt after going 1-3 while being banged up with injuries, but major props go out to the Phoenix Suns who are the only undefeated team right now.
The Phoenix Suns are in their early season form again after going 6-0 thus far including a ridiculous game-winner by Devin Booker versus the LA Clippers. Deandre Ayton, Ricky Rubio, and Miles Bridges have thoroughly impressed as well by shrugging off the rust very early into the restart. Clutch wins against the Mavericks, Clippers, and the Pacers have placed the Suns right in the thick of the play-in tournament. They will need to win at least three of their next four games to get in, but it’s hard to bet against them at the moment.
The league office for pulling the bubble off
The biggest winner thus far has been Adam Silver and the league for pulling off this bubble thus far. All parties should be given credit for maximizing the time, resources, and everything they have at their disposal to make this a reality. The NBA, NBAPA, Disney, and their respective staff members should receive heaps of praise for making the bubble “the safest place in America” by Gregg Popovich.
The league has recorded zero positive COVID-19 tests in the bubble, followed health guidelines strictly including the Richaun Holmes delivery and Lou Williams Magic City incidents, and has made the on-court experience for fans and players great thus far. The virtual fans on screen, the sideline camera, and the social justice movement have made the NBA the gold standard for restarting professional sports in America. It is a breath of fresh air when the league continues to give players a platform to speak whether during press conferences or even through vlogs as shown with the rise of Matisse Thybulle, JaVale McGee, and Troy Daniels on YouTube.
The league has made the overall experience of the restart an excellent one for the players and fans. The players have the full freedom to use Disneyworld and its amenities, fans are treated to games all day long, and we could crown a champion this season. The NBA has set its priorities straight in prioritizing health regulations and the things happening in the society right now and has shown other leagues (and even countries) that this could be a path to recovery during a pandemic.