NBA Bubble Recap Part 1: Breaking down each team’s bubble performance and future

Members of the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat listen during the national anthem before Game 5 of basketball’s NBA Finals Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Photo by John Raoux/AP

The 2020 NBA season has finally wrapped up, and the bubble champion Los Angeles Lakers have emerged victorious. In a truly bizarre year that saw the season stretch 355 days from start to finish, basketball fans were treated to some of the best basketball you could ask for. With so much basketball over the past three months, it can be hard to remember all of the great moments and breakout stars; but it is crucial to keep these in mind as we move into the 2021 season and the futures of each bubble team.  

Boston Celtics

Play-in record: 5-3  

Playoff record: 10-7, Lost 4-2 in Eastern Conference Finals 

The Celtics were one of the breakout teams of the 2020 season. Led by new arrival Kemba Walker and the All-NBA Third Team performance of Jayson Tatum, the Celtics cruised to a surprising 48-24 record and claimed the third seed going into the playoffs, where they beat both the 76ers and the Raptors before losing to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. The Celtics breakout star was also the one who claimed his first All-NBA Team selection this year, Jayson Tatum. He averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds and five assists throughout the playoffs, and was crucial in lifting his team over the scrappy Toronto Raptors in Round 2. This team has an incredibly bright future ahead, with Tatum and Jaylen Brown still growing into their own, and another year for the team to jell together. The only question this team faces is how long will their window for a championship last. Tatum’s rookie deal will come to an end at the end of next year, so the team will need to commit much more money than they are now in order to keep him around. On top of this, Kemba appeared to be showing signs of breaking down late in the season, and Gordon Hayward’s contract severely limits Boston’s ability to get the crucial bench depth they need.  

Brooklyn Nets

Play-in record: 5-3 

Playoff record: 0-4, Lost 0-4 in the first round  

The Nets were one of the teams heading into the bubble with little expectations. Superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving opted out before the league’s restart alongside impact players Spencer Dinwiddie and Deandre Jordan. With what looked like a borderline G-League squad, the Nets entered the bubble behind the leadership of 26-year-old Caris LeVert. So when the Nets ended the play-in games with a 5-3 record, fans considered that alone a win. They fell back to earth in the first round against the Raptors, getting swept, but not without a fight in Game 4. As mentioned previously, LeVert was the breakout star for the Nets, showing that he can be a primary ball handler and a scorer, and instantly become an asset as a sixth man or valuable trade piece to bring in more depth. As we look forward to next season, Brooklyn will go from a seventh seed this year, to a possible title contender as they will finally get the services of both Durant and Irving and look to sit atop a suddenly competitive Eastern Conference.  

Dallas Mavericks

Play-in record: 3-5 

Playoff record: 2-4, lost in first round  

For Dallas, the fans got what they asked for from the bubble. Sure the record was disappointing, but once they reached the playoffs we saw how bright the future was for this team. Without their second man for most of the first round, Luka Doncic and the Mavericks were able to keep their series against the Clippers close, behind epic performances and a clutch game-winning three from Doncic. He was the breakout star for the Mavericks, as he took steps towards the levels of all-time greats, including his aforementioned game-winning 3-pointer with a bruised ankle. With a stellar 31 point, 10 rebound and nine assist performance over six games, and in the playoffs no less, the postseason breakout of Luka is undoubtedly the first of many for the young European star. Despite their first round exit, he has shown this team will be a threat in the Western Conference for years to come, even if it’s not in the team’s current iteration. In the next few years, Dallas will have plenty of decisions to make to build around Doncic, one of which is deciding whether Kristaps Porzingis is the guy they want next to him. With a stacked free agency including back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, moving on from the Unicorn to free up cap space could be on the menu, but they have time to decide before the trade deadline next year.  

Denver Nuggets

Play-in record: 3-5  

Sports Illustrated Presents Lakers Issue Cover – October 2020

Playoff record: 9-10, lost in Western Conference Finals  

Never has there been a more magical run in the NBA than the one we saw from the young Denver Nuggets. The only team ever to come back from two 3-1 deficits in the same postseason, a Jordan imitation from Jamal Murray and an assertion from Nikola Jokic as the best passing big man of all time. We had heard for years that the Nuggets could be a contender in the West, and finally we were shown why. The team that never dies will forever be legendary in basketball history. Way back in the beginning of the bubble, we saw some incredible performances from some relatively unknown guys, and among those was Michael Porter Jr. During the Play-in games, Porter had a stretch of four games with 20+ points, including a 37-point onslaught against the Oklahoma City Thunder. He proved to the NBA world he could be an offensive threat on an already loaded Denver squad, and can hit nearly any shot over any defender. With the emergence of Murray as a consistent playoff scorer, Jokic as one of the two best centers in the league and the continued growth of Porter Jr., the Nuggets have the time and potential to be a contender in the West for many years to come.  

Houston Rockets

Play-in record: 4-4 

Playoff record: 5-7, lost in Western Conference Semifinals 

The Rockets season ended in a more or less predictable way, being exposed by the size of the Los Angeles Lakers. After trading away Clint Capela at the trade deadline for small guys to space the floor, Houston showed the world what the pinnacle of small ball could do, turning around Russell Westbrook’s career and achieving the fourth seed in a competitive Western Conference. However, their success was not without questions and hiccups. As much as Houston continued to put up astronomical three point numbers as a team, they also struggled against dominant big men like Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic. In the playoffs, Houston looked ready to take on Lebron James in Round 2 as they went up 2-0 over the Oklahoma City Thunder, only to lose three of the next four games to James Harden’s former running mate Chris Paul. In a battle in Game 7, the Rockets finally came out on top, but not without serious doubt about the construction of their team. Everything fell apart in the next round as the Lakers blew by Houston, completely shutting down Westbrook and getting torn apart by Davis. The Rockets future is hanging in the balance following the dismissal of coach Mike D’Antoni and longtime General Manager Daryl Morey, as well as questions on the longevity of the small ball style. Rumors have also begun about the tenure of Superstar James Harden, as ownership seeks new management, leaving the basketball world in limbo as we await the fate of Harden in Houston.  

Indiana Pacers

Play-in record: 6-2 

Playoff record: 0-4, lost in first round 

Indiana was never expected to be a contender in the East this year, so their first round exit to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat was not a shocker. However, that didn’t change the fact that being swept in Round 1 after such a promising play-in performance wasn’t a disappointment for the front office, who fired head coach Nate McMillan following their elimination. At the time of writing this, the vacancy still hasn’t been filled, and the future of this team remains in limbo. One thing is certain however, and that’s the unbelievable bubble performance put together by forward T.J. Warren. He averaged 31 points per game over the six play-in games he played in, including a 53- point bomb in his first game against the Philadelphia 76ers. However, in the playoffs he cooled off significantly, as he went up against his rival Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat, only averaging 20 points per game, and dwindling under pressure. The future of this team is curious, and depends greatly on the success of the new head coach and the fate of former all-star guard Victor Oladipo as he has been blowing smoke signals to the front office asking for a trade, only to counter himself and request that he stays. Trading Oladipo could bring back more young talent for a growing team under new leadership, but it could also bring in a star desperately needed alongside all-star Domantas Sabonis if they want to make a run for the Eastern Conference. Either way, look for this team to be back in contention within a few years.  

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