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Who’s Who In The NBA Bubble: The Teams Just Along For The Ride

Assuming nothing goes awry between now and then, professional basketball will return to our television screens soon. The WNBA is set to begin its season on July 25, while the NBA — the league whose abrupt shutdown set off a cascade of matching shutdowns in other sports — will restart its own season on July 30 at Walt Disney World.

As of today, it has been 131 days since the NBA last conducted a regular-season game, so you’d be forgiven for not necessarily recalling the particulars of where things left off. That’s why we’re here. Ahead of the resumption of the NBA season, we want to give you a brief refresher on the 22 teams that were invited to Orlando: who they are, where they were when we last saw them, whether they have sustained any confirmed or reported coronavirus cases, what else has changed for them during the four-plus-month hiatus, and what we can expect from them during both the seeding games and — if they’re lucky enough to make it there — the playoffs.

[Related: Our NBA Predictions]

We’re breaking these 22 teams down into three tiers: the inner-circle contenders, the potential party-crashers and those that are seemingly along for the ride for no particular reason beyond the league wanting to maximize the number of games played (and, thus, revenue earned). We’ll begin below with that final group, which consists of the nine teams invited to the restart that have yet to secure postseason positioning.

Phoenix Suns

26-39, 13th in West, 6 games back

FiveThirtyEight predictions: <1% playoffs, <1% West, <1% Finals
Projected seeding W-L: 3-5; 29-44
COVID-19: Two unnamed players (reported)

The Suns face the toughest climb of any remaining team to actually make it to the playoffs. They are six games and five spots back of the eighth-seeded Grizzlies, which means they need to pick up at least two games on Memphis and pass four other teams in the standings just to make it to a potential play-in round, where they’d need to win back-to-back games to claim a postseason berth. They’ll have to make that run without the services of forward Kelly Oubre, who is in Orlando with the team but will not participate in the restart as he focuses on rehabbing from the torn meniscus he suffered in late February. FiveThirtyEight projects the Suns will go 3-5 against the seventh-toughest seeding-game schedule among teams invited to the restart, leaving them far short of securing a playoff berth.

San Antonio Spurs

27-36, 12th in West, 4 games back

FiveThirtyEight predictions: <1% playoffs, <1% West, <1% Finals
Projected seeding W-L: 2-6; 29-42
COVID-19: No public reports or announcements

San Antonio comes into the restart without either of its two starting big men. LaMarcus Aldridge was shut down after having surgery on his right shoulder, while Trey Lyles underwent an appendectomy and was also declared out for the remainder of the season.1 The Spurs were already facing long odds to make the playoffs, but they got even longer when Aldridge went down. Their defense has not been up to snuff all year, which means they were going to have to depend on outscoring teams. This will be much more difficult to do without Aldridge, who propped up a unit that checked in only slightly above-average anyway. In the absence of him and Lyles, San Antonio will likely have to play much smaller than it usually has this season, and veteran forward Rudy Gay recently indicated the team’s young players might see more a extended run during the seeding games.

Washington Wizards

24-40, 9th in East, 5.5 games back

FiveThirtyEight predictions: 5% playoffs, <1% East, <1% Finals
Projected seeding W-L: 2-6; 26-46
COVID-19: Gary Payton Jr. (reported), Thomas Bryant (reported)

The lone out-of-playoff-position team from the East invited to make the trip to Disney, the Wizards will be incredibly shorthanded in Orlando. Pending free-agent sniper Dāvis Bertāns opted out of the restart, while All-Star guard Bradley Beal will sit out with a shoulder injury. John Wall also remains sidelined, as he has been for the entire season. The Wizards have to pick up 1.5 games on the Magic or two games on the Nets to qualify for a potential play-in round, but they face a tougher schedule than either of those two teams and will also be without their three best players. Accordingly, we predict the Wiz to fall even further back from the pack than they are right now.

Sacramento Kings

28-36, 11th in West, 3.5 games back

FiveThirtyEight predictions: 7% playoffs, <1% West, <1% Finals
Projected seeding W-L: 3-5; 31-41
COVID-19: Harrison Barnes (announced), Alex Len (reported), Buddy Hield (returned to practice), Jabari Parker (returned to practice)

One of several teams that shut down their practice facility ahead of traveling to Orlando in the wake of a positive test for a member of their traveling party, the Kings have had more publicly confirmed COVID cases than any other team in the restart since leaguewide testing began in early July.2 A few of those players have returned to practice, but star guard De’Aaron Fox sprained his ankle during one of those sessions, and the Kings announced Wednesday evening that he would be reevaluated in seven to 10 days. Their outlook appears bleak if Fox is not 100 percent, despite facing one of the league’s easiest remaining schedules.

Portland Trail Blazers

29-37, 9th in West, 3.5 games back

FiveThirtyEight predictions: 12% playoffs, <1% West, <1% Finals
Projected seeding W-L: 3-5; 32-42
COVID-19: No public reports or announcements

Portland, more than any other team in the league, benefited from the season’s interruption. When they return to the floor, the Blazers may be without Trevor Ariza,3 but they’ll get both Jusuf Nurkić and Zach Collins back. The Blazers’ preferred starters in the front court are each set to return from the long-term injuries that had limited Collins to just three games and kept Nurkic out all year. The boost to their roster and the question marks surrounding other No. 8-seed contenders would seemingly have the Blazers poised to make a run at the play-in round, but they have the misfortune of facing the fifth-toughest remaining schedule, with games against the Celtics, Rockets, Nuggets, Clippers and 76ers. They do open against the Grizzlies and close against the severely shorthanded Nets, though, so perhaps their chances of making it beyond the seeding games are being slightly underrated at just 12 percent.

Memphis Grizzlies

32-33, 8th in West

FiveThirtyEight predictions: 36% playoffs, <1% West, <1% Finals
Projected seeding W-L: 3-5; 35-38 (play-in participant vs. NOP)
COVID-19: No public reports or announcements

Before the season came to a screeching halt, the Grizzlies were this season’s most pleasant surprise. Led by star rookie Ja Morant, the youngest team in the NBA managed to bounce back from a 6-16 start by amassing the league’s ninth-best record from Dec. 8 on, and it enters the restart with a sizable lead in the race for the No. 8 seed in the West. However, despite the fact the Grizzlies will likely get Justise Winslow back on the floor now that his back injury has had time to heal, FiveThirtyEight is pessimistic about their chances of holding onto their spot. While the Elo-specific forecast (which is based mostly on this season’s performance, as well as some of last season’s) gives the Grizzlies a 69 percent chance of advancing to the postseason, the version of the forecast powered by RAPTOR player ratings pegs that chance at only 38 percent, instead favoring the next team on our list despite the fact that it needs to make up some ground or else win a play-in series.

New Orleans Pelicans

28-36, 10th in West, 3.5 games back

FiveThirtyEight predictions: 45% playoffs, <1% West, <1% Finals
Projected seeding W-L: 5-3; 33-39 (play-in participant vs. POR)
COVID-19: Three unnamed players (announced)

Superstar rookie Zion Williamson left the bubble last week to deal with what the Pelicans described as an “urgent family medical matter.” He’s expected to rejoin the team at some point, and our projections have not yet been tweaked to account for his potential absence — largely because we do not yet know how long said absence might be, or if he’ll return in time to take part in all eight seeding games. Zion or no Zion, the Pelicans need to remain within four games of the Grizzlies (while also holding off the Blazers, Spurs, Kings and Suns) to force a play-in series. The system currently favors the Pellies to grab the No. 8 seed from the Grizz’s clutches, the result of both New Orleans’ strong roster ratings (in which Williamson’s presence factors heavily) and a cupcake schedule that is the easiest of any team invited to Disney.

Brooklyn Nets

30-34, 7th in East

FiveThirtyEight predictions: 95% playoffs, <1% East, <1% Finals
Projected seeding W-L: 2-6; 32-40 (8th in East)
COVID-19: Kevin Durant and three unnamed teammates (announced), DeAndre Jordan (out), Spencer Dinwiddie (out), Taurean Prince (out), Michael Beasley (out)

The Nets will be practically unrecognizable in Orlando. As you may have already forgotten, Kenny Atkinson and the team “mutually agreed to part ways” this year, with Atkinson being replaced by interim coach Jacque Vaughn. Vaughn immediately inserted Jordan into the starting lineup ahead of Jarrett Allen, but Jordan tested positive for COVID-19 and so, along with his buddies Durant and Kyrie Irving, he will not be participating in the restart. He’s not the only one. Dinwiddie and Prince are also out of the lineup with positive coronavirus tests, while Wilson Chandler opted out of the restart because of concerns for his family’s health. The Nets signed several substitute players to account for their various absences, but one of those players was Beasley, who later tested positive for COVID-19 and left the bubble.4 Still, we expect Brooklyn will hang onto its playoff spot and narrowly avoid a play-in series against the Wizards.

Orlando Magic

30-35, 8th in East

FiveThirtyEight predictions: >99% playoffs, <1% East, <1% Finals
Projected Seeding W-L: 4-4; 34-39 (7th in East)
COVID-19: James Ennis (recovered)

The Magic have the benefit of participating in a restart held essentially in their own backyard. They, like other banged-up teams, also had the time they needed for injuries to heal. Specifically, Evan Fournier is expected to return from the elbow injury that sidelined him prior to the hiatus, giving the Magic back one of their top scorers.5 Orlando’s restart schedule is significantly tougher than the one it would have faced down the stretch of the actual regular season, but it still ranks in the bottom third of remaining teams. That, plus Brooklyn’s spate of absences, leads our predictions to believe the Magic will leapfrog the Nets for the No. 7 seed in the East, thus avoiding having to face the Bucks in the first round.

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  1. Assistant coach Tim Duncan is also out for the restart: He’ll remain in San Antonio to focus on Aldridge’s rehab.

  2. The Nets had more overall, but four of Brooklyn’s positive cases were confirmed in March.

  3. Ariza, who is in the midst of a custody dispute, opted out of playing in Orlando to spend time with his son.

  4. Brooklyn also signed Jamal Crawford, Justin Anderson and G-Leaguer Donta Hall.

  5. Forwards Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu, however, are unlikely to make it back to the floor.

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