The NBA is back. Kind of.
The league is facing their version of a new normal. In their words, it’s a whole new game for everyone. What wonders will the Disney Bubble bring to the teams, players, fans and even the league itself?
The NBA would like you to know that it’s a #WholeNewGame, when the season gets back on track in their Disney bubble. For those that like to analyze, discuss, and pontificate on the games though, it’s basically uncharted territory. Never before has a season been played, put on pause, and then resumed after several months. Will teams be able to still show continuity? Will players be able to shake off rust? How will players opting out, or players getting sick, affect teams’ chances?
And oh yeah, what about the league’s annual awards?
Do you lump together pre- and post-stoppage stats/games/performances? Concentrate only on the showings prior to the shutdown? Fixate more on the last eight regular season/seeding games? Some sort of weighted formula?
Well the league opted to have the regular season awards be based only on the pre-pandemic games, which is fair, as it levels the playing field for everyone (we will not have to hear, “Well Player X is staying at a nicer hotel!” as an actual argument).
Still, SLAM PH wants to recognize the ballers who will shine while in the bubble, so we’ve opted to have a special set of awards for the post-shutdown seeding round. We’ll be handing out No-Prizes just after the Playoffs for the superlative performers in the eight Orlando bubble matches, separate from the usual, season-long NBA prizes up for grabs. But while we’re at it, we’re also going to be giving our favorites for those awards, based on the scryings from our crystal (basket)ball.
Who will shine brightest in the eight-game seeding round prior to the Playoffs?
NBA Seeding Games Rookie of the Year: Zion Williamson (NOP)
Regular season favorite: Ja Morant (MEM)
If the regular season had unfolded in traditional manner, we would have had a Joel Embiid/Malcolm Brogdon Rookie of the Year situation, where one freshman had superior numbers, but less games played, versus another guy who appeared in more contests, but had less flashy stats. Prior to the shutdown, Zion Williamson’s injury return had invigorated the New Orleans Pelicans (and general NBA fans!), as he put up 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in dramatic fashion, albeit in just 19 games. In contrast, Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies was norming 17.6 points and 6.9 assists, but appeared in 59 of his team’s 65 games.
In the above situation, I would have given the nod to Morant, especially with the 32-33 Grizzlies in the eighth seed. The bubble situation complicates matters though, because if the ninth seed finishes within four games of the final Playoff spot, that triggers a mini-series for the last postseason seat, with the eighth team armed with a twice-to-beat advantage. Given that the Pelicans have what appears to be a cakewalk of a schedule (a combined sub-.500 winning percentage bunch of foes), it’s more than likely that we WILL see those play-in games. Heck we might even have the Pellies as the final Playoff team in such a situation.
But for all of that to happen, we’ll need Zion Williamson to be really, really good. And I think we’ll get that. The extra rest could have only helped him recover more from his torn meniscus, and he’s come back from a family emergency just in time to help his team in the seeding games. If he’s even slightly better than his pre-shutdown numbers, Z-Will should easily be the pick for Best Seeding Games Rookie.
NBA Seeding Games Most Improved Player: Bam Adebayo (MIA)
Regular season favorites: Bam Adebayo (MIA), Brandon Ingram (NOP), Jayson Tatum (BOS), Pascal Siakam (TOR)
Once upon a time, swingman Jimmy Butler was unhappy with his Minnesota Timberwolves teammates, including uber-talented big man Karl-Anthony Towns. Since coming over to the Miami Heat though, Butler has been over the moon, and has heaped plenty of praise on his South Beach running mate in the slot, Bam Adebayo.
Look, the Most Improved race this season is one of the deepest fields in recent memory, and to pick one, even sans COVID-19 stoppage, was going to be insanely difficult. For my money though, the guy with the potential to shine brightest is the hard-working Adebayo. Just look at the jump in his numbers, for starters:
Impressive, yeah? Now you gotta figure, the Heat are going to still be pedal-to-the-metal in these eight seeding games because that’s just their culture, and because they’re still working to integrate trade deadline acquisitions Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala. That means more opportunities for Adebayo to shine, which gives him the edge here.
NBA Coach of the Seeding Games: Brett Brown (PHI)
Regular season favorites: Nick Nurse (TOR), Billy Donovan (OKC)
Coach of the Year is usually given to bench tacticians who’ve gotten their squads to out-perform expectations. Prior to the break in games, most pundits had Nick Nurse of the Raptors, for keeping the defending champs in prime contention despite losing Kawhi Leonard, and Billy Donovan of the Thunder, for having OKC stay a threat despite the departure of Russell Westbrook, as the favorites.
Interestingly enough, for these eight games, I’m actually going to give it to a coach whose team, prior to the break, had disappointed a bit, but now has the opportunity to fix things heading into the postseason: Brett Brown of the Philadelphia 76ers.
I am beyond intrigued by the news that the 76ers are going to revamp their starting lineup, running out Shake Milton and Josh Richardson in the backcourt, with Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Ben Simmons (!!!) up front. The move does several things: it keeps Al Horford in charge of the bench mob, it gives them more spacing with Milton (59.2% from three after the All-Star Break), and it better maximizes Ben Simmons’ talents.
Now there are no guarantees that the move will magically solve Philly’s issues, but you have to like Brown’s aggressiveness at shaking things up. Philly was a disappointing (vis a vis preseason expectations) 39-26 prior to the shutdown, good for sixth in the East. If they rocket up to, say, fourth, then Brown definitely deserves some props.
NBA Sixth Man of the Seeding Games: Montrezl Harrell (LAC)
Regular season favorites: Montrez Harrell (LAC), Lou Williams (LAC), Dennis Schroder (OKC)
All three of the regular season favorites will still be counted on by their respective squads to deliver in the seeding games, so when in doubt, give it to the guy who’s playing for a new contract.
The Clippers reserve big man has been averaging career-bests in points (18.6) and rebounds (7.1), decimating opposing sides as the roll man with his teammates. And it’s just hard to imagine Ivica Zubac improving while the games were gone, or that new addition Joakim Noah will be able to channel his past self. That means Harrell will be called upon to be his usual energizer bunny self in the slot, as the Clippers look to lock up the second seed in the West.
And oh yeah, as mentioned, he’s an unrestricted free agent. We have no idea what next season will look like, but you can be sure he’s going to get PAID.
NBA Defensive Player of the Seeding Games: Rudy Gobert (UTA)
Regular season favorites: Anthony Davis (LAL), Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL)
It’s hard to see Anthony Davis and the Giannis Antetokounmpo going all-out in the eight games prior to the Playoffs, given how their respective teams, the Lakers and the Bucks, have essentially locked up the top spots in both conferences (the Lakers are 5.5 games up on the Clippers, while the Bucks are 6.5 games ahead of the Raptors). So, if someone is going to dominate on the defensive end, it’s going to be someone else.
Someone like Rudy Gobert?
Yeah, yeah, Gobert is a punchline now, as the player who essentially got US sports leagues canceled, thanks to being the first to get COVID-19. Since then, he’s owned up to his microphone-touching ways, and has been a strong advocate of WEARING A FREAKING MASK AND WASHING YOUR HANDS on social media. To really complete the redemption arc though, he’s going to need to show off on the court, and he’ll have lots of opportunities in the Orlando bubble. Another Defensive Player of the Year-level stretch should put him back in the good graces of fans, and more importantly, germaphobe teammate Donovan Mitchell.
NBA Most Valuable Player of the Seeding Games: LeBron James (LAL)
Regular season favorites: Giannis Antetokounmpo (MIL), LeBron James (LAL)
As previously mentioned, the Bucks are currently 6.5 games ahead of the next team in the East. With just eight games to play, it feels like a question of “when” and not “if” they lock up the first seed over there, so I can’t imagine Giannis Antetokounmpo going full-throttle in that span.
Now, true enough, the Lakers are in a similar boat, 5.5 games up on the LA Clippers. Naturally, you would figure that means a lot of rest for LeBron James, saving him up for the postseason and all.
And yet, something tells me that the King is going to be a man on a mission. That something are his CTTO posts on Instagram.
There’s been a lot of talk about how to properly weigh this season and it’s championship, in comparison to all of the other, “normal” NBA campaigns. Does a team or player get extra credit for the abrupt transition to the new normal? Less credit? Asterisks ahoy, anyone? However, there’s one way to brush all of that aside: just ball out and post insane numbers.
And that’s what I feel like James is going to do, even before the Playoffs tip off. Who knows if he’ll match Michael Jordan’s six championships by the time he hangs up his Nikes. Can he even equal the five of Kobe Bryant by then? What he can do though is submit a standout performance in these last eight seeding games, and then build on that in the postseason, en route to banner number four, and the first Larry O’Brien trophy for the Lakers in a long, long time.
Best of the Rest
Swan Song: I am convinced, given the lack of scoring on the Brooklyn Nets (even Michael Beasley has been ruled out due to COVID-19), that Jamal Crawford is going to come in and drop 50+ points one last time before calling it a career.
Key Return: With Jusuf Nurkic in the center, the Portland Trail Blazers offense is going to look a lot smoother. But then, they’ve never had a problem putting up points, it’s their defense that has really held them back this season. That’s why I believe the returning Zach Collins will be the bigger factor for them. Who knows, maybe they make a run for the eighth seed in the West too?
Replacement Splash Brother: We may not have the Splash Brothers, but at the rate he’s been connecting on these in practice, the Splash Slovenian, Luka Doncic might just fill the void for us fans of long-distance makes.
Best Debut: UNLEASH THE BOL BOL
Best Food: Lou Williams‘ wings. Worth it.