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Who’s Who In The NBA Bubble: The Potential Party-Crashers

We’re now just one week away from the resumption of the NBA season. On Monday, we reintroduced you to the bottom tier of teams invited to the league’s restart in Walt Disney World. Today, we’ll continue this exercise, with the six teams positioned as potential conference finals party-crashers but that we nevertheless project as long shots to take home the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Indiana Pacers

39-26, 6th in East, 14 games back

FiveThirtyEight predictions: Clinched playoffs, <1% East, <1% Finals
Projected Seeding W-L: 3-5; 42-31 (6th in East)
COVID-19: Malcolm Brogdon (cleared to practice)

After initially declaring himself out for the restart, star guard Victor Oladipo reversed course last week and said there was a “strong possibility” that he would play. Pacers coach Nate McMillan said Monday that he expected Oladipo to take part in the team’s scrimmages, seemingly setting the stage for him to take the court once the real games get going again. Oladipo had largely struggled pre-hiatus in his return from a long absence after he ruptured the quad tendon in his knee, but perhaps he is now more ready to play after being given more than four months to heal. Brogdon, in addition to being cleared of the virus, says the hip injury he suffered in March has healed. With Jeremy Lamb still out after tearing his ACL in February, the Pacers badly need one or both of these players to return to the floor to make real noise in the playoffs, and now they may have both. They’ll probably find it tough to advance in the postseason, though, as they’re likely to wind up with the 6-seed, from which they would presumably need to defeat the Bucks, Raptors and Celtics to make it to the NBA Finals.

Dallas Mavericks

40-27, 7th in West, 11 games back

FiveThirtyEight predictions: >99% playoffs, 1% West, <1% Finals
Projected Seeding W-L: 4-4; 44-31 (7th in West)
COVID-19: No public reports or announcements

The Mavs technically have yet to clinch a playoff spot, but all it would take is any combination of Mavericks wins and Grizzlies losses that equals two.1 Dallas enters the bubble sporting the most efficient offense in the modern history of basketball,2 a unit that has absolutely scorched teams when using a configuration with Kristaps Porziņģis at center that we should see even more of in Orlando. Dallas has scored at the completely hilarious clip of 122.9 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage-time minutes featuring Porziņģis as the lone big man and Luka Dončić on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass — a number that more than alleviates the mild concerns some had about how this offense would work without Dwight Powell’s hard rolls to the rim. The Mavs will not only be without Powell (torn Achilles) in Orlando, but also Willie Cauley-Stein, who opted out of the restart.3

Miami Heat

41-24, 4th in East, 12 games back

FiveThirtyEight predictions: Clinched playoffs, <1% East, <1% Finals
Projected Seeding W-L: 3-5; 44-29 (5th in East)
COVID-19: Three unnamed players (reported), Derrick Jones Jr. (returned to practice, where he is throwing down ridiculous dunks)

Miami got jobbed by the Schedule Gods in the restart. The Heat were set to face a below-average strength of schedule if the regular season had continued apace, but they will now face the league’s second-toughest seeding-game slate. We project them to go 3-5 in those games, falling behind the 76ers in the process. Instead of facing the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs, we would have them facing the Sixers. That’s a significantly tougher matchup, particularly now that Ben Simmons is healthy, and that’s reflected in Miami joining the Jazz as the only teams that are currently in the top half of their playoff brackets that we give a less than 1 percent chance of winning the conference.

Oklahoma City Thunder

40-24, 5th in West, 9.5 games back

FiveThirtyEight predictions: Clinched playoffs, 1% West, <1% Finals
Projected Seeding W-L: 4-4; 44-28 (6th in West)
COVID-19: No public reports or announcements

No team outperformed oddsmakers’ preseason expectations more than the Thunder — and it wasn’t particularly close. When the season shut down, OKC was on pace to smash its preseason over-under by 19 wins. The next-closest teams were the Lakers and Grizzlies, at 13 wins. What makes it all the more remarkable is that the Thunder began the season 6-11, only to rip off a 34-13 stretch (a 60-win pace) the rest of the way. Throw in the fact that they’re entering the bubble as one of the few teams that has yet to confirm a positive coronavirus test, and things would seem to be looking up for them. However, OKC faces the ninth-toughest schedule in Disney, including games against both L.A. teams, and figures to lose Dennis Schröder at some point because his wife is set to give birth in early August. The Thunder also went just 9-17 prior to the hiatus against teams with a .500 record or better, and a significant part of that aforementioned 34-13 run was powered by a completely unsustainable 24-5 record in games that entered clutch time. Chris Paul-led teams have always been good in the clutch, but that type of record is practically unheard of.

Utah Jazz

41-23, 4th in West, 8.5 games back

FiveThirtyEight predictions: Clinched playoffs, 1% West, <1% Finals
Projected Seeding W-L: 4-4; 45-27 (4th in West)
COVID-19: Rudy Gobert (cleared), Donovan Mitchell (cleared)

As you surely know by now, it was the Jazz that sustained the first publicly confirmed coronavirus case in the NBA, with Gobert contracting the virus at some point in either late February or early March and testing positive on March 11. Mitchell also tested positive, though nobody else in Utah’s traveling party did so. Mitchell’s positive test exacerbated tension between Utah’s two franchise pillars, according to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, though Mitchell has said that “right now” everything is good between the two stars. In addition to that tension, the Jazz will also have to overcome the absence of Bojan Bogdanović, who is out for the restart after having surgery on his wrist. Utah was 7.3 points per 100 possessions better with Bogdanović on the floor than off it this season, though it’s notable that not many of those minutes featured Royce O’Neale playing alongside the rest of the starters, which is a group we’re likely to see a lot of in Orlando. As if all that weren’t enough for the Jazz to deal with, they also figure to be without Mike Conley at some point, with his wife due to deliver their third child in August.

Denver Nuggets

43-22, 3rd in West, 7 games back

FiveThirtyEight predictions: Clinched playoffs, 3% West, 1% Finals
Projected Seeding W-L: 5-3; 48-25 (3rd in West)
COVID-19: Nikola Jokić (arrived in bubble), head coach Michael Malone (announced), unnamed member of organization (announced)

Jokić lost somewhere between 20 and 25 pounds during the hiatus and now looks shockingly different. He also contracted coronavirus and was one of several players who did not initially travel with the Nuggets to Orlando.4 Denver currently holds the No. 3 seed in the West, and our projections have the Nuggets maintaining that spot, but our model doesn’t give them as good a chance to reach or win the Finals as some other teams. There are several potential explanations for this, but the most notable is their lagging point differential (plus-3.0 per game, sixth in the West), which they have outperformed by a league-high-tying four wins so far.

CORRECTION (July 23, 2020, 3 p.m.): An earlier version of this article listed the Miami Heat’s position in the standings as third in the Western Conference, seven games out of first place. That is actually the Denver Nuggets’ position. The Heat are fourth in the Eastern Conference and 12 games back. If the Heat go 3-5 in the eight remaining regular-season games, they would be projected to fall behind the Philadelphia 76ers but not the Boston Celtics, who are ahead of them in the standings.

Footnotes

  1. Dallas would also avoid the possibility of a play-in round with one win and at least one loss by each of the Blazers, Pelicans, Kings and Spurs, per a league spokesman.

  2. Since the ABA-NBA merger prior to the 1976-77 season.

  3. Cauley-Stein became a father in early July, and he also carries the sickle cell trait.

  4. Gary Harris, Torrey Craig and Michael Porter Jr. did not travel with the team, either. There have been no official reports regarding any of their coronavirus tests. Monte Morris also did not travel with the team. A report from ESPN’s Eric Woodyard indicated that his latest COVID-19 test results were pending but did not specifically state that Morris had previously tested positive.[footnote] He has since arrived in the bubble, and it will be interesting to see how the dramatic weight loss affects his game. Post-ups are generally inefficient, but that hasn’t been the case for Jokić, who often used his additional size to bully his way through opposing defenders.[footnote]Jokić led the NBA with 539 post-ups, per Second Spectrum, and the Nuggets scored 1.168 points per possession on trips that included Jokić getting the ball in the post.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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