The 2020 NBA season finally wrapped up and the bubble champion Los Angeles Lakers 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 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 the final part of my four-part series breaking down each team from the Orlando bubble.
Play-in record: 3-5
The Sacramento Kings are in a bind right now. After missing yet another playoffs, the Kings now hold sole possession of the second longest postseason drought in NBA history at 14 seasons, and it doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon. Besides De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento has very little for fans to hope for in the future. Marvin Bagley III has now entered conversations as a disappointing draft selection, former all-rookie Buddy Hield is taking any chance he can get to get traded out of town and they were just good enough to take themselves out of the top 10 in the upcoming draft. They fired general manager Vlade Divac and replaced him with Monte McNair who looks to be a drastic improvement, but this team has little trade assets or young potential to push them into a playoff berth anytime soon. The Los Angeles Clippers hold the all-time record for a playoff drought in the NBA at 15 seasons, so they have two years to change their course before they enter the history books in the worst way.
San Antonio Spurs
Play-in record: 5-3
Think of the San Antonio Spurs as the Orlando Magic of the Western Conference. They are a relatively mediocre team with two somewhat big name guys and some young guys with potential, but not much more than that at the moment. Demar DeRozan is on the back half of his career along with veteren LaMarcus Aldrige, and legendary head coach Greg Popovich is entering his twilight years as a coach in the NBA. Promising young guards Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV and Derrick White give the fans at least some hope, but the Spurs need to commit to a full rebuild if they have plans to get themselves back into the ranks of the competitive franchises that they belonged in for the better part of two decades. This must start with trading DeRozan and Aldrige as soon as possible in order to capitalize on the limited value they have left, and then striking it rich in the draft and hoping to land the franchise’s next Tim Duncan.
Play-in record: 7-1
Playoffs record: 7-4, Lost in Eastern Conference Semifinals
Everybody expected the Raptors to regress greatly following their 2019 finals victory; losing Kawhi Leonard generally does that to a team. However, as the season went on, the Raptors gained traction as a dark horse to get the promised land again, behind the all-star calibre work of Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, an overall gritty offense and the league’s best defense. As we entered the bubble, the Raptors enjoyed a three-week headstart on the rest of the league thanks to Canada’s travel policies and looked sharp and focused heading into the playoffs while many teams struggled to find their footing. They carried this momentum into the first round, sweeping the Brooklyn Nets to face the Boston Celtics in the second round. Here they were in for a challenge, losing the first two games to Boston before rallying back to tie the series 2-2. Both teams traded wins, and they went into Game 7 tied with three games apiece and battled behind the incredible work of Lowry and Fred VanVleet. However, it was not enough to beat the Celtics, as Lowry fouled out in the closing moments to all but secure the victory for Boston and eliminate the Raptors. Now heading into this offseason, plenty of questions are left to be answered as Lowry enters his 13th year in the NBA, and the less-than-desirable performance of Siakam in the playoffs leaves the front office searching for more. On top of this, VanVleet becomes a free agent this offseason, propelling him to the top of a lackluster free agency class with the potential to be offered way more money than he may be worth to play for a team looking to make a push for the playoffs. The fate of the Raptors hangs in the balance and rides almost solely on the ability of Siakam to progress into All-NBA status to keep them in title contention.
Play-in record: 3-5
Playoff record: 3-4, Lost in first round
With the help of the Denver Nuggets, the Utah Jazz gave NBA fans one of the most exciting playoff series in the history of basketball, as guards Donovan Mitchell of the Jazz and Jamal Murray of the Nuggets dueled, putting up 40 and 50-point games like they were nothing. In the end, the Jazz were eliminated as Mike Conley’s three point attempt barely missed, giving the Nuggets the first of their two 3-1 comebacks in the playoffs. No one really knows what to expect from the Jazz next season, as tensions between Mitchell and former Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert rose high following Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test and a subsequent positive test for Mitchell. For months, rumors about Gobert being traded next season ran rampant, but nothing has been confirmed and it seems all problems between Mitchell and Gobert have been worked out for the moment. However, Gobert will become a free agent at the end of the 2021 season and is eligible for a supermax deal, one that the Jazz are unlikely to offer with Mitchell’s rookie deal closing out at the end of the 2021 season. If the Jazz hope to keep both of their stars, recently acquired guard Mike Conley will have to be traded, as he is taking up a large portion of the cap space for a player who contributed less than expected in his new role in Utah. This is a team looking to stay a contender in the West, and I expect they will be aggressive this offseason to make this team as competitive as possible before Mitchell and Gobert are due for free agency next offseason.
Play-in record: 1-7
As the only team invited to the Bubble in the East to not make the playoffs, the Wizards’ regular season and playoff struggles continue. It didn’t help that star guard Bradley Beal opted out of the restart, leaving an already struggling roster without its primary scorer and ball handler. As we look to the future, the Wizards should be able to make some noise as playoff contenders in the East, with star guard John Wall returning from injury and developing talent Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant adding another year under their belts. The team has very little ways to improve besides the draft, thanks to Wall and Beal’s contracts limiting the signing of a third star, meaning that the way this team is constructed is what it will more or less look like for the next few years, unless some major trade is made for one of their stars or they hit big in the draft.