The 2020 NBA season has finally wrapped up, and the bubble champion Los Angeles Lakers has 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 three of my four-part series breaking down each team from the Orlando bubble.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Play-in record: 4-4
Playoff record: 3-4, Lost in the first round
You can’t ask for a better season if you are the Oklahoma City Thunder. You traded away your franchise players in Russell Westbrook and Paul George, took on an aging Chris Paul and you still made the playoffs and were one game away from moving into the second round. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks to be a legitimate future star, and you robbed the LA Clippers of all of their first-round picks for eight years, which may end up being high lottery picks if they lose George and Kawhi next year. Now Chris Paul’s value is higher than it’s been in three years despite his very large contract, potentially allowing the Thunder to add even more draft capital in the following years. The future for OKC is so bright you need sunglasses to look at it, and they have plenty of routes to go to make this team a contender now or for the future. You can use Paul’s contract and some of the picks to get a younger superstar from a team looking to rebuild, or you can horde picks and trade up in the draft for the next generational star. On top of this, late round picks will help the Thunder fill out the bench with young and inexpensive role-players, allowing the team to replace some of the larger deals like Dennis Schroder and Danillo Gallinari. In the end, Oklahoma City has, in my opinion, the highest upside of any team in the NBA for the next five years to return to title contention.
Play-in record: 3-5
Playoff record: 1-4, Lost in first round
With the Detroit Pistons finally committing themselves to a rebuild, the Orlando Magic are now the poster child of mediocrity in the NBA. After finishing the season with a 33-40 record and looking to former all-star Nikola Vucevic and a disappointing Aaron Gordon to give them any spark offensively, the Orlando Magic finished with the eighth seed and exited rather uneventfully in five games to the Milwaukee Bucks. The problem with this team is they don’t have the young talent needed to raise them into legitimate playoff contention, and after consecutive years of late lottery picks and misses, the team has glided comfortably into an O.K. but not great position in the Eastern Conference. This is not to say they don’t have avenues to get better. If youngsters Mohamed Bamba and Jonathan Issac fill out into stars, then we will see them move up into a much more competitive role in the East.
However, if this doesn’t happen and the Magic continue to settle into mediocrity as the Pistons did for much of this decade, then we can be assured in counting out the Magic in the playoffs for the foreseeable future.
Play-in record: 8-0
The “bright future Suns” look to finally be shining bright following their undefeated bubble performance in the play-in games. Even though they missed the playoffs, they did literally everything they could do in the bubble to try and steal a spot but ultimately could not get the extra help they needed from the Memphis Grizzlies or the Portland Trail Blazers. Devin Booker ascended into superstardom in the bubble, and DeAndre Ayton has started to prove his worth after being drafted over Luka Doncic in 2018. On top of this, Cameron Johnson looks like he will be a solid player for the Suns to possibly replace Kelly Oubre, Ricky Rubio has had a mini resurgence in Phoenix and the tank commander Cameron Payne seems to have flipped the script and looks like a backup quality point guard in the league. With the 10th pick in the draft this year with plenty of mid to late lottery talent, the Suns could come up with another huge steal that would propel them into the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Play-in record: 4-4
Playoff record: 0-4, Lost in first round
Coming into this year, the Philadelphia 76ers were looking like a possible NBA title contender, with a stacked lineup of some of the NBA’s best scorers in the past few years. However, through a combination of injury, terrible coaching and just general lack of effort, the 76ers fell to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, and without All-NBA guard Ben Simmons, sadly and quietly got swept out of the playoffs in round one. Following this failure, head coach Brett Brown was fired and replaced by former Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers. However, despite a coaching change, the 76ers may still be in trouble as they look to fill out a roster plagued by horrible contracts and draft busts. Both Al Horford and Tobias Harris have two of the top five worst contracts in the NBA right now, and stars Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have weaknesses in their game that they refuse to work on, limiting them to specific roles, and forcing the front office to fill the holes with below average role players. Coach Rivers will try to turn this team around but if he cannot, we can expect the 76ers to make a huge move regarding one of their stars in the next couple years.
Portland Trail Blazers
Play-in record: 6-2
Playoff record: 1-4, Lost in first round
Damian Lillard said he wanted to give the Trail Blazers a “true opportunity” to make the playoffs this May, so when he entered the bubble with a chance to claim the eighth seed in the West, he didn’t disappoint. He carried the Blazers to a 6-2 play-in record, defeated the Grizzlies in the play-in game to claim sole possession of the eighth seed, and even handed the Lakers a loss in the first game of round one, before being eventually defeated in five games. It was a storybook ending to a season riddled with bad luck and injuries, and it added to the legacy of Lillard’s already storied career. With all of this said, the Trail Blazers still have much work to do if they want to consider themselves a true contender. Their defense was among the worst in the league last year and showed itself in the bubble as they constantly blew large leads in the fourth quarter, leaving Dame to come up big with his trademark threes to get them the win. They need to get better on the defensive end if they want any shot at getting to the finals, but without many trades that will make a team bite, their best chance is hitting on a guy in the draft to fill their forward needs for them. For now, the Blazers are a frisky sixth or seventh seed until they can find some defensive depth to back up their productive offense.