It has been two weeks since the return to basketball, and play in the bubble has been nothing short of spectacular. With NBA fans everywhere left starving for actions for months on end, upwards of five games every single day has been nonstop gratification. Not to mention some of the ongoing, unexpected extremities – T.J. Warren’s MVP caliber stretch, the Suns current undefeated streak, and Dame willing Portland into a playoff spot – have all headlined news around the league thus far.
22 teams were a part of the restart, and we have seen a few eliminated from playoff contention already. The following power rankings are for said 22 bubble teams, and should give an idea of how teams are shaping up as we enter the postseason. Their current rosters, injuries, strength of schedule, and performance thus far have all been considered.
22. Washington Wizards (24-47)
The Wizards have gone 0-7 in restart play, and will probably finish 0-8, fighting for a win against Boston in their last game of the season. They have been without an injury-plagued John Wall all season, and playoff hopes were pretty much decimated when fellow backcourt star Bradley Beal announced he would not enter the bubble due to a shoulder injury. Plus, 3-point sharpshooter Davis Bertans opted not to participate in the restart. This team essentially consists of rookies and project players, who are playing for practice and a good cardio workout.
21. Sacramento Kings (30-41)
The Kings entered the NBA bubble as the 13th seed in the Western Conference, and playoff longshots. Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers sealed their fate a few nights ago with a win over the 76ers, officially sending the Kings home after their last season game against the Lakers. In addition to their slim playoff chances, the Kings did little to help themselves reach the postseason despite a favourable schedule in terms of strength and matchups. 5 of their 8 games were against opponents under .500, including games against the Spurs and Pelicans – both teams they were battling for a playoff spot – which they lost. The future is bright, though, for Sacramento, as they boast a young talented core including De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Jabari Parker.
20. Orlando Magic (32-40)
The Orlando Magic entered the NBA bubble as the 7th seed in the East, but have since conceded that spot to the Brooklyn Nets and are now staring down a very strong Milwaukee Bucks team in the first round of the playoffs. In the case of the Magic, a postseason berth does not indicate recent success on the court. They started out 2-0 in the bubble, and it was looking like they would clinch the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference. They then proceeded to lose 5 straight, failing to upset the Pacers, Raptors, 76ers, Celtics, or Nets. The Magic’s biggest loss, however, came on August 2nd when Jonathan Isaac suffered a devastating knee injury, tearing his ACL in what was just his 3rd game back from an injury on the same knee. The Magic will look to avoid a first round elimination for the second straight year.
19. New Orleans Pelicans (30-41)
It was quite a disappointing restart performance for the New Orleans Pelicans, a team which many thought would end up as the 8th seed in the Western Conference and earn themselves a postseason appearance. They are currently 2-5 in the bubble, which can mostly be accredited to their non-existent team defense. First overall pick Zion Williamson has been on a minutes restriction as of late, but has played well nonetheless, averaging 24 points and 5 rebounds over his last 3 games and Brandon Ingram continued to look like the All Star that he was. What is concerning for the Pelicans has been the play of Lonzo Ball, who has not had a single double digit scoring game yet. He seems to have lost the growth he showed throughout the season prior to the NBA restart. The young core of Williamson, Ingram and Ball, along with Josh Hart, Jaxson Hayes, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, should benefit from another offseason to develop and gel as a team, after they were officially eliminated from playoff contention.
18. Memphis Grizzlies (33-39)
The Grizzlies entered the bubble as the 8th seed in the West, but are now in jeopardy of missing the playoffs, currently sitting half a game out of 8th place. Memphis failed to make things easier on themselves early, by dropping games to the Trail Blazers, Spurs, and Pelicans before the truly difficult opponents started to roll in. They will look to improve on their 1-6 bubble record with a difficult task ahead of them in the Milwaukee Bucks, a near must-win game to keep their playoff chances alive. Ja Morant has been his usual productive self, but Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, and Grayson Allen have all really showcased their skills during the restart. The Grizzlies need to figure out how to put all their young pieces together if they want to see a postseason berth.
17. San Antonio Spurs (32-38)
The Spurs have looked quite impressive in the bubble thus far, surpassing expectations from NBA fans. They’ve earned themselves a 5-2 restart record, and are fighting for a playoff berth with Portland, Phoenix, and Memphis. Their final game is on the 13th and is against the Utah Jazz, who have long clinched a playoff spot. This is a must win game for the Spurs if they wish to compete in the postseason, so it’ll be a game to watch. They currently sit in the 11th seed, only half a game back from Portland in 8th. The Spurs have been without LaMarcus Aldridge in the bubble, and to their credit, other guys have really stepped up. DeMar DeRozan, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Rudy Gay have all been key to the Spurs’ success, and it has been a real team effort to make a playoff run under Gregg Popovich’s system.
16. Brooklyn Nets (35-36)
Nobody really expected the Nets to have the type of bubble success they have had, especially considering they are still without their two stars, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. But, a 5-2 restart record (including two huge wins against the Bucks and Clippers) has propelled this team into the 7th seed in the East. Led by Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, and Jarrett Allen, this extremely shorthanded squad is now looking forward to their first round matchup, the Toronto Raptors. Although it is unlikely this team will get past the first round, their run has still been impressive. Other key absentees include Spencer Dinwiddie and DeAndre Jordan. More time off to prepare for the 2020-21 season should serve the group well, a squad whom many believe will contend to win the Eastern Conference next year.
15. Dallas Mavericks (43-31)
Aside from Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, the Mavericks are a below average team. The inconsistency and uncertainty of their secondary players is quite unreliable, especially during playoff time. Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke, Seth Curry, and Dorian Finney-Smith all contribute at times, but are not guys that Rick Carlisle will be able to ride deep into a playoff series. Of course, credit where credit is due, Doncic and Porzingis are a phenomenal duo. But depth and secondary scoring are something that Dallas really lacks. Perhaps their largest problem, though, is on the defensive side of the ball. Through 7 bubble games, Dallas has allowed 126.6 PPG. They will likely play the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, one of the stingiest defensive teams in the league. The Mavericks cannot rely on scoring 130 points every night to win games, so they’ll really have to tighten up defensively if they want to even compete with the Clippers in a 7 game series.
14. Philadelphia 76ers (42-30)
On paper, the 76ers should be one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference. They are pretty loaded with talent from top to bottom, starring a big four of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Al Horford. Josh Richardson, Matisse Thybulle, and Mike Scott provide a nice boost off the bench. So why are they ranked so low? Firstly, Simmons is likely to miss the rest of the season with a knee injury. That is a big loss for Philly. He was a big, fast body who was great driving to the basket and was a real lockdown defender, both inside and on the perimeter. Secondly, this is a team that really struggles with chemistry. Embiid is starting to be recognized as a locker room cancer, and it is apparent that Jimmy Butler was not the problem in Philadelphia last year. Only time will tell if Embiid can step up and be a leader without Simmons present. Despite their defensive prowess as a team, they are uninspiring on the offensive side of the ball and are without their main playmaker in Simmons. A few key aspects will have to come together for Embiid and the Sixers to have a chance of getting past Boston in round one.
13. Phoenix Suns (33-39)
You have to be lucky to be good, and good to be lucky, and the Phoenix Suns have been both so far in restart play. They remain the only undefeated team in the bubble at 7-0, and their run has been outstanding. Granted, they have played teams that were incredibly shorthanded (76ers, Heat, Thunder) but they also stepped up and came to play in some huge games, including wins against the Mavericks (117-115) and Clippers (117-115). So what have they been doing right? For starters, they have been getting Devin Booker the ball. The first time All Star has averaged 31.0 PPG, 4.6 RBP, 6.1 APG during the Suns’ undefeated stretch, and has established himself as an elite scorer and top tier player around the league. But the Suns’ secondary scoring has really stepped up as well, with Mikal Bridges, Dario Saric, and Cameron Johnson all outperforming their season averages, providing boosts when the Suns have needed it most. DeAndre Ayton has been as solid as ever with 4 double-double performances through 7 games, providing stellar interior defense. This is a hot team that’s really clicking right now, and it will be tough to keep them out of the playoffs. They currently sit, tied with Memphis, half a game back of Portland for the 8th spot in the West.
12. Utah Jazz (43-28)
The Jazz play a defensively minded game of basketball, relying on their defensive work to win them games late. It has served them well this season, especially with two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert locking down the key and cleaning up rebounds. The main criticism of the Jazz is that outside of All Star Donovan Mitchell, they lack any true offensive firepower. And to make matters worse, they are without their second leading scorer, Bojan Bogdanovic, who is out for the season after undergoing wrist surgery during the NBA hiatus. The Grizzlies traded Mike Conley to Utah during the offseason, whom many thought would form a big three with Mitchell and Gobert. Unfortunately for Utah, Conley has looked like a shell of his former Memphis self all year, and is having the worst scoring year of his career since the 2011-12 season. Conley, along with Gobert, Joe Ingles, and Jordan Clarkson, will all need to step up on offense and provide some secondary scoring and help for Mitchell going into the first round of the postseason.
11. Portland Trail Blazers (34-39)
Given the talent on this Portland squad, it is more than fair to say that they hugely underperformed this season. Highlighted by one of the league’s top backcourts in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, a big-man-one-two-punch of Jusuf Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside, and very capable secondary scoring through Carmelo Anthony, Zach Collins, Gary Trent Jr., and Anfernee Simons, this does not seem like a 29-37 team entering the bubble. But to their credit, they’ve really put together a nice run to contend for a playoff spot, as they currently sit in the 8th seed in the West. They are now 5-2 in restart play, and it seems that every game is Dame Time. Four 30+ point performances, three 45+ point performances, a 51 point night, and a 61 point night, have all put Lillard in the running for bubble MVP. He has rallied this Trail Blazer team and willed them into a playoff spot. They will likely be one of two squads in a play-in for the 8th seed in the Western Conference, looking to secure a first round matchup vs. the Los Angeles Lakers. If I were LeBron James, I would really be hoping that Phoenix or Memphis can best Portland in the play-in games, because Dame in the playoffs is a scary sight.
10. Oklahoma City Thunder (44-27)
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2019-20 season. As a team who many thought would be contending for the first overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, they have surpassed all expectations and are sitting pretty at 4th in the Western Conference, awaiting a first round matchup against the Houston Rockets. Led by Chris Paul and a supporting cast of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder, this young Thunder team’s defensive mindset is what wins them games. The concern with Billy Donovan’s squad going into the playoffs is their lack of an offensive star – not a single Thunder player averages over 20 PPG. If they plan to get past round one, they will need all of their guys to really show up every night and perform in their roles extremely well. Any success this year for the Thunder is just bonus though, as they have an absolute boatload of draft picks in the upcoming years and a very talented young core (Gilgeous-Alexander, Diallo, Dort, Bazely, Noel). They will consistently be title contenders in a few years, but it is not their time just yet.
9. Indiana Pacers (44-28)
The Pacers have continued to build on their solid regular season campaign in NBA restart play, going 4-2 through 6 games. They have struggled with injuries in the bubble, most notably a foot injury to their star center Domantas Sabonis, who still remains out indefinitely. Additionally, Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, and Jeremy Lamb have missed some time. Although Sabonis will remain unavailable, the Pacers will need all their key guys healthy in what will be a tough first round matchup against a gritty Miami Heat squad. A huge positive for the Pacers so far has been the breakout of T.J. Warren, who, among other assets, the Pacers acquired during the 2019 NBA Draft for nothing but cash considerations. 31 PPG through 6 bubble games from Warren has made him one of the most valuable players during the restart. The Pacers are a deep team – they have quality on both sides of the ball at all positions. In addition to T.J. Warren, Victor Oladipo, and Malcolm Brogdon, the performances of Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell, Myles Turner, and Doug McDermott will all be indicative of the Pacers’ postseason success.
8. Denver Nuggets (46-26)
When at full strength, the Nuggets are one of the deepest teams in the NBA – their depth works as one of their greatest assets. That has not been available to them so far throughout the NBA restart however, as many of their key players have missed significant time. Jamal Murray and Jerami Grant have had nagging injuries, while Will Barton and Gary Harris have yet to play a game in the bubble. That is the main reason why Denver is this low on the power rankings. Harris and Barton have been unavailable, and they are both crucial depth pieces to the Nuggets’ success. A 3-4 bubble record can be mostly chalked up to injuries. I hope for the Nuggets’ sake that their squad is healthy as we move into the postseason, because they have the potential to make a deep run this year. One positive that has come as a result of the Nuggets’ injured players has been the breakout of Michael Porter Jr., who many believe was the steal of the 2018 NBA Draft. The 6’10 small forward has all the talent in the world and he was finally able to display it, averaging 24 PPG and 9 RPG in the bubble with a natural shooting stroke and incredible athleticism. He is going to be a key part of this young Nuggets team for years to come.
7. Miami Heat (44-28)
The Miami Heat have gone 3-4 in restart play, currently sit in the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference, and will play the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the postseason. The Heat surpassed expectations this season, led by Jimmy Butler after he signed with them in free agency. They have one of the best supporting casts in the NBA, with many integral pieces who all fill roles extremely effectively. Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Goran Dragic, Jae Crowder, Duncan Robinson, Kelly Olynyk and Kendrick Nunn all complement each other and are able to find success in Erik Spoelstra’s system. They pride themselves on their defense; Butler is a dominant, agressive defender and Adebayo is one of the most versatile big men in the league, with post and perimeter defense both in his arsenal. They are also quite efficient on offense, despite not having any top end offensive power outside of Jimmy Butler. They rank first in the league in 3-point percentage and true shooting percentage, as almost all their guys – especially Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro – can light it up from anywhere on the floor.
6. Houston Rockets (44-27)
After trading away Clint Capela partway through the season, the Rockets are now easily the smallest team in the NBA. Their small-ball lineup has worked well for them, as they will finish the season as the 4th or 5th seed in the West and will look to make a deep playoff run starting against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Led by a backcourt of James Harden and Russell Westbrook, they run an explosive, high volume offense that can put up 140 on any given night. Despite low percentages, they attempt and make more 3-pointers than any other team in the league, as a result of always having shooters on the floor. Defense is a weak point for this very skilled Houston team, specifically in the paint, given their lack of size. As of late, Robert Covington (who is 6’7) has been starting at center for the Rockets. Teams can easily expose their height, so the Rockets will need to continue to run a high tempo, high volume offense.
5. Boston Celtics (48-23)
The Boston Celtics really ride their big 4 hard in close games. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, and Gordon Hayward all have huge roles on this team, and Brad Stevens expects them to perform. Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis, and Enes Kanter are a key part of the Celtics’ success this season too. Boston plays a solid game all around – each of Tatum, Brown, Walker, and Hayward average more than 15 PPG, so everyone gets their shots on offense. Marcus Smart provides a hugely important defensive presence and energy, and he really causes problems for players on the perimeter. Daniel Theis is an active big man in the paint, and provides good rim protection. The Celtics are an impressive 5-2 in the bubble, including a massive win against a rival Toronto Raptors squad. The Celtics are a real threat to upset Milwaukee or Toronto to win the Eastern Conference, and may see the Raptors in the conference semi-finals. They’ll have to get past the 76ers first though, their first round opponent, in a must watch series.
4. Los Angeles Lakers (52-18)
For almost any team, the 4th spot on an NBA power ranking would be stellar. This is not the case for the LA Lakers, a team that was the favourite to win the title at the beginning of the season and before the NBA restart. They really haven’t looked like themselves during bubble play, going 3-4 through 7 games. LeBron James has looked significantly worse than he did earlier in the regular season, missing shots that one would expect him to make with ease. The same goes for Anthony Davis, who’s inconsistency looks to be a concern, being held to less than 15 points in 3 of 7 games played. Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have been anything but effective, and Javale McGee has followed suit. On the other hand, Kyle Kuzma has been a unique bright spot for the Lakers, providing a solid 18 PPG in the bubble as a complement to James and Davis. What is quite evident, when watching the Lakers play, is that they are in desperate need of Avery Bradley – he has not played yet in the bubble. Bradley is not only the team’s best perimeter defender, but one of the league’s best perimeter defenders. They need that defensive presence on the outside, as the Lakers continue to get burned by the 3-ball and in the pick-and-roll game. They are also missing a playmaker and veteran presence in Rajon Rondo, whose absence is really felt in late game situations. All that said, the Lakers are still one of the best teams in the league – but they will really need to pull it together if they want to capitalize on their title aspirations.
3. Toronto Raptors (52-19)
Everyone is finally starting to realize that the Raptors have what it takes to make a return to The Finals and take a run at a second straight NBA title. It started with their first bubble game, where they stunned the basketball world by holding the Lakers to 92 points in a 107-92 win. They have since gone 6-1, and own the third best record in the NBA. Led by Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, it seems like every win is a team win for Toronto. Fred Vanvleet, Normal Powell, O.G. Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka all pitch in to get the job done offensively. They shoot the ball well, including from deep, and pass the ball effectively on offense and on the fast break. But, what stands out most about the Raptors, is how they dig in defensively, not just in late game situations. Lowry and Vanvleet are pests all around the floor. Anunoby, Powell, and Hollis-Jefferson can all guard guys bigger than them 1 on 1. Siakam can match up with any player, anywhere on the floor and get the job done defensively. Ibaka protects the rim and Gasol is a mobile center who excels in defensive screen-and-roll situations. They don’t have a single liability on defense, which is why they have the second best defensive rating in the league. The Raptors feel they can beat any team in a 7 game series, and they sure have been playing like it. Much credit goes to Nick Nurse, who 100 percent deserves to win NBA Coach of the Year.
2. Milwaukee Bucks (56-16)
It was a toss up as to whether to have Milwaukee or Toronto here at number 2, but ultimately, the Bucks won the spot. This is a team that ranks in the top 3 in almost every offensive category including PPG, FG%, 3PT%, true shooting %, and rebounding. Almost everything runs through MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo who will likely win his second straight, and is also a finalist for NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He has looked unstoppable when on the court in the bubble, averaging more than 1 point per minute played. He grabs boards, dishes assists, and maintains impressive efficiency. He is the best player in the world right now, and he’s looking to make his first trip to the NBA Finals. Ultimately though, the Bucks’ success doesn’t depend on Giannis, as he is a walking 30/10/5. It really comes down to how his supporting cast performs, by the likes of Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Eric Bledsoe, Wesley Matthews, George Hill, and Donte DiVincenzo. Middleton has looked solid in all but one of the restart games, as has Brook Lopez, but the others have had ups and downs, leading to their 3-4 record. Bledsoe’s play has been forgettable, Matthews and DiVincenzo have not shot the ball nearly as well as they can, and Hill has had some phenomenal disappearing acts. When all these guys are on, we know how good they can be – 16 losses speaks for itself. The secondary scoring will look to pull it together going into the postseason, and the Bucks will be looking ahead to the Raptors or Celtics in the East Finals.
1. Los Angeles Clippers (48-23)
This may be a controversial ranking, but the Clippers land at number 1. A 4-3 bubble record is nothing to write home about, but they are far and away the deepest, and most talented team in the NBA. All their main guys have missed significant time during the restart, and Montrezl Harrell has yet to play in the bubble. A core of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, Marcus Morris, Landry Shamet, and Ivica Zubacs just seems unfair. And considering how good they are on offense, they are even better on the other side of the ball. Leonard, George, and Beverley are former All-Defensive Team selections. They rank in the top 3 in both offensive and defensive rating. They own the fourth best record in the NBA. In a 7 game series, I have a tough time imagining the Clippers losing to anyone. A highly anticipated Western Conference Finals matchup between the Clippers and Lakers may come to fruition, and will be a series for the ages. If I was a betting man, the Clippers would be my pick to win the title as of now. Only time will tell if another squad can best them.