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. Here’s part two of my four-part series breaking down each team from the Orlando bubble.
Los Angeles Clippers
Play-in record: 5-3
Playoff record: 7-6, lost in Western Conference Semifinals
As the second best team in the West, the Clippers were contenders from the moment they signed Kawhi Leonard and traded for Paul George. In the play-in games, they looked even better than the Lakers above them, seemingly putting to rest any doubts about their lineup’s ability to gel and play together. They beat a bruised and battered Mavericks team in six in round one, and moved on to take on the Denver Nuggets. We all assumed that an LA conference final battle was all but guaranteed, but boy were we wrong. After going up 3-1 on Denver, the Clippers found seemingly impossible and stupid ways to blow double-digit leads late, culminating in a complete fold job in Game 7, featuring the now-iconic Paul George corner three off the side of the backboard. Almost as quickly as their finals hopes had started, the Clippers playoff run ended at the hands of the miracle Nuggets, and all they could do was watch as the Lakers cruised their way to the championship. Even with their success this season, we could be witnessing an all new Clippers squad next year following the firing of longtime head coach Doc Rivers. The team has promoted Ty Lue in his place, who is known for working with the NBA’s biggest stars, but they have plenty more question marks as they look toward next year and beyond. Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell is up for a new contract this offseason, and with his less than stellar performance in the bubble, serious doubts have been raised about whether or not the Clippers should bring him back. Former Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams is also in the chopping block following an awful bubble run, and his status in Los Angeles is to be determined. Finally, the Clippers need to convince both George and Leonard to stay in LA, otherwise one or both can walk at the end of the 2021 season, and the Clippers will be left without stars or first round picks for many years to come.
Los Angeles Lakers
Play-in record: 3-5
Playoff record: 16-5, NBA Champions
First and foremost, congratulations to the Lakers for winning the finals. People will try to argue and downplay the legitimacy of this year’s title, but make no mistake, the Lakers were the best team in the league this season. They deserved to win this title. As we saw contender after contender fall around them, the Lakers stood tall and finished the job. With that out of the way, let’s talk about their journey. Coming into the bubble, the Clippers and Lakers were essentially a coin toss for who would come out of the West, but after some sloppy play in the play-in games, many people switched to the Clippers to represent the West in the Finals. It got so bad that some people were picking the Portland Trail Blazers to beat them in the first round, to which Lebron James swiftly swept them aside in five. In round two, Anthony Davis and Lebron trounced the Rockets in five with superior size and strength. In the Conference Finals, the Lakers put an end to the Nuggets’ miracle run, defeating them in five before moving onto the NBA Finals. Here Lebron and Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat would trade legendary finals performances, but in the end the Lakers were too much for an injured Heat team, and the Lakers claimed victory in Game 6. As scary as they were this year, the Lakers could get even better by the next time we see them. With plenty of cap space to sign a legitimate third guy, as well as crucial role players and bench guys, we could be seeing an even more dominant version of this team next year.
Play-in record: 2-6
The first team on this list to miss the playoffs, Ja Morant and the Grizzlies have plenty to look forward to in their future. For starters, their No. 2 overall pick proved he could be the man in his first year, putting on shows of athletic ability and flashy dunks for the whole league to enjoy. As Morant develops in the next few years, his jumpshot will improve and his already superb playmaking will get even better. We should not write this team off as bad by the way. They lost in the play-in game to the then-red hot Portland Trail Blazers, and even then they played them well and forced heroics from Dame and CJ in order for Portland to win the game. Memphis is a great young team with plenty of growing players, a certified star in Ja and a young head coach committed to winning. Expect to see Memphis competing in the West for a long time.
Play-in record: 3-5
Playoff record: 14-7, Lost in NBA Finals
If anyone saw this Miami Heat roster coming into the bubble and thought, “Yeah this’ll be the runner up for the championship this year,” then you either have a crystal ball, or an unhealthy obsession with the Heat. And yet here we are, three months later and talking about how the Heat have become a real title contender in the East. Let me point out their road to the finals was not easy by any means either. As a five seed coming into the playoffs, the Heat swept the Indiana Pacers in round one, then moved on to meet the league’s best regular season team in round two. Amazingly, the Heat took down the Milwaukee Bucks in five games in largely convincing fashion to move on to face the Boston Celtics in round three. Here the Heat faced their toughest series yet, as they scrapped and grinded through a competitive six game, led by the All-NBA work of Jimmy Butler, all-star Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic and breakout stars Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. In the finals, the Heat were hit hard by the injury bug, losing both Adebayo and Dragic in game one, both of whom would not perform the same upon their returns to the series. With his help out, Butler took it upon himself to carry the Heat, including playing 47:11 of a possible 48:00 in Game 5, and became the third player in NBA history to have a 40-point triple double in the finals. While his effort was not enough to beat Lebron James and Anthony Davis, his performance will go down in Finals history as one of the best of all time. Expect to see this Heat team back in a similar spot next year, as another year of Bam, Herro and Robinson developing alongside Butler will make them a top dog in the East for years to come.
Play-in record: 3-5
Playoff record: 5-5, Lost in Eastern Conference Semifinals
Another year, another quick exit from the Bucks following an incredibly promising year. The Bucks ended the regular season with the best record in basketball and easily handled the Orlando Magic in the first round in five games. However, they ran into trouble in round two, as the Miami Heat took out the Bucks in five games, with the only game being won without Giannis down the stretch thanks to an ankle injury. The Bucks are quickly running out of time to prove to the Greek Freak that this is the place where he can win, and their performance in the bubble did not help the team’s case. The team has two main problems holding them back, one of which is the lack of a true perimeter ball handler and creator. It is obvious at this point that Khris Middleton is not the man to fill this role. Despite his stellar shooting, he is not enough of a threat to pull defenders away from Giannis, and has not proved he can be relied on in the playoffs to carry the second man duties. Another huge issue this team faces in terms of keeping Antetekoumpo around is the lack of young talent that can be expected to grow alongside him. This team has been trading to get older as of late, with Eric Bledsoe and Kyle Korver being in their 30s, leaving Donte DiVincenzo as the only young guy the Bucks have hung their hats on to grow into the role for them. This may change this year as the 2020 draft looks to have quality role players and possible starters later in the lottery and middle of the draft. Needless to say, despite their success, the Bucks still have much more convincing to do if they plan to keep Giannis in Milwaukee.
New Orleans Pelicans
Play-in record: 2-6
The first year of Zion Williamson was interesting to say the least. He missed two thirds of the season, came back in electric fashion in the last few weeks and put on a show, even convincing people he should be the Rookie of the Year over Ja Morant (which is crazy by the way and is reeking of Lebron media driven storylines all over again), and then seemingly vanished in the bubble with the rest of his teammates excluding Brandon Ingram. The truth of the matter is this, the Pelicans are not in any position this year to be in a playoff race. They are at best an eight seed, and more than likely another lottery team next year, as injured teams and much better built teams will win over them. Finally, Zion needs to get in much better shape if he is going to have any longevity in the league. Sure he is a massive human, built with raw strength and athletic ability, but the way he plays and the strain he puts on his body will come back to bite him if he does not get into better shape, no matter how good he is.