In another time, and another place, but within the same pandemic, the NBA lived in its own insular world. Quite literally, actually. By separating itself from society and resuming the 2019-20 season under tight security, the league set up shop in Orlando and allowed basketball to happen.
Which it did — safely and often spectacularly. The “bubble” was by all accounts a success mainly because there was no health fallout. The season continued, a champion was crowned and everyone returned home safely.
Left behind were the footprints of heroes and goats and moments to be savored and also forgotten. In that sense, the bubble was like any other postseason on the floor, although not in the stands (no fans) and logistics (no travel).
Whatever became of those players and teams who rose or fell? To revisit the bubble and study the aftermath, we’ve listed 15 people and teams who made the most news in Orlando last summer, and how they’ve transitioned from then to now:
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Then: He averaged 36 points, shot 53-52-95% shooting splits, with almost five assists and five rebounds in Utah’s classic seven-game series with the Nuggets, also known as the epic duel with Jamal Murray when Mitchell dropped a pair of 50-pieces and a 44-pointer.
Now: Mitchell is the vortex of the team with the NBA’s best record and is an All-Star again. The carryover from the bubble is smooth and at times efficient — he can be a bit streaky with the shot — and he’s helping Utah put the league on notice, at least here in the regular season. Also, he’s no longer giving Rudy Gobert the silent treatment, which is good.
Then: The Heat pulled a bit of a surprise by reaching The Finals, dropping only three games in the East playoffs and briefly causing perspiration on the foreheads of the Lakers. Jimmy Butler screamed a lot and Tyler Herro snarled.
Now: Stuck playing under .500 ball, Miami is the biggest disappointment since the bubble. Folks who brought the hype about the Heat “culture” are suddenly feeling duped. Butler has played well yet missed almost three weeks of the season. Bam Adebayo is trying to pick up the slack in vain. How rough is it? Miami recently lost to the LA Clippers without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, fell to East basement dwellers Washington and Detroit, and scored just 85 points against Brooklyn back when the Nets played no D.
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Then: Murray was a top-five player who scorched nightly. He had a pair of 50-pointers against Utah (142 points in a three-game stretch), led the historic rally against the Clippers with 40 in the closer, then drew the respect of LeBron James before running out of gas in the West finals.
Now: Those who suspected Murray’s breakout would translate into Kia MVP consideration for 2020-21 or at least an All-Star spot have lost that bet; neither will happen. It’s not as if Murray is cratering, though. Aside from his recent 50-pointer (without a free throw attempt!), he’s back to riding shotgun next to Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets, therefore, are middle-of-the-packers in the West.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Then: The restart MVP — yes, there was actually an award for that — saw his reputation soar after multiple pull-up shots from the logo, when he had a vicious reply to his haters both real and in his head. He had games of 51 and 61 points in the resumed regular season/play-in schedule.
Now: Dame is challenging for the NBA scoring lead by once again reaching his typical high level, and some nights exceeding it (43 points and 16 assists against the Pelicans). He has already rescued the Blazers in a handful of wins with big shots in the final seconds or minutes — and sticking yet another wet finger in the ear of those Clippers who tapped their wrists and mocked “Dame Time” in the bubble.
Paul George, LA Clippers
Then: George was the poster child for disaster in Orlando, struggling on the court and with the restrictions off it. When he engaged in a regretful back-and-forth with Lillard, social media sided squarely with Dame. George then came up empty late in Game 7 against the Nuggets, and his side-of-the-backboard-hitting shot in the final moments quickly became a meme.
Now: Redemption was on George’s mind from the season-opening tip and he’s following through, with very efficient shooting and his usual solid defense. He’s an All-Star again but skeptics are crossing their arms and waiting for the postseason before extending forgiveness.
Then: The Clippers dealt with Montrezl Harrell’s long absence following his grandmother’s death, and Lou Williams’ fateful stop at a strip club while attending a funeral. They then proceeded to bumble through the playoffs, finally crashing in the West semifinals, ever so shockingly, after leading Denver 3-1.
Now: Under the new leadership of coach Ty Lue, the Clippers look re-energized and motivated. They’re getting the usual star turn from George and Leonard while the supporting cast is fairly solid for the most part. They might finish with the best record in the West.
Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Then: Davis erased a career’s worth of postseason misery by hitting a massive game-winning and series-changing jumper against the Nuggets in the West finals, then co-piloting the Lakers in The Finals for his first title.
Now: AD is being haunted by the injury bug once again, this time dealing with a calf issue that’ll keep him out until after the All-Star break. Before the injury, his performance was sporadic. Of course, none of this is a worry right now for a team with title aspirations.
LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Then: Another title and another Finals MVP was secured by LeBron, who in the process turned the volume up on the GOAT debate between him and you-know-who.
Now: Still refusing to surrender to age and tread wear, LeBron remains frisky in Year 17 and relying more on his improved shooting range to extend his value and impact in the game. He hasn’t won a Kia MVP in eight years but he’s putting himself in the favorite’s chair at the moment with consistent and high-level play.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Los Angeles Lakers
Then: Caldwell-Pope endeared himself to skeptical Lakers fans by making defenses pay for doubling LeBron and Davis. Late in the fourth quarter of a crucial Game 4 of The Finals, he scored five straight points to capture the victory.
Now: KCP remains a valued piece of the rotation, and the Lakers’ most reliable 3-point shooter. However, he’s dropping in the supporting cast pecking order to newcomer Dennis Schroder and even Harrell in terms of touches (he’s eighth on the Lakers this season after ranking fifth last season). He’s averaging 9 ppg, his lowest since his rookie season in 2013-14.
Stan Van Gundy
Then: Van Gundy was a refreshing revelation as a TV analyst, providing the goods on players and the game by speaking a language understood by viewers, who were left informed and entertained.
Now: That “audition” landed him the coaching job with the Pelicans, and his hiring was applauded in most circles. However, the Pelicans are four games under .500 despite Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. If they keep failing to gain traction in the competitive West, it’ll be back to the Draft lottery for New Orleans.
Al Horford, Oklahoma City Thunder
Then: The troublesome signs prior to the restart came to fruition in the bubble, where Horford and Joel Embiid were oil and water in the front court for the Philadelphia 76ers. Horford absorbed most of the blame after an abysmal playoff performance in which he averaged 7 ppg while the Sixers were swept in the first round.
Now: Horford was shipped off to OKC in the offseason in a Sixers shakeup and there was much jubilation in Philly. There’s a lot less pressure, noise and expectations in the heartland, where Horford is riding out his sunset by assuming a mentoring role with a young team that’s years away from contending.
Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Then: It was a disappearance nobody saw coming, because Siakam was impressive before the season was interrupted, then shaky when it resumed. He shot sub-40% overall and sub-20% on 3s in the playoffs and was Exhibit A for why the Raptors faltered.
Now: Siakam is a mixed bag. He served a one-game benching for disciplinary reasons and was somewhat sluggish out of the gate. But lately, he’s found a groove and is averaging 22 ppg and 7.1 rpg in February. He’s leading the Raptors in scoring, but everyone knows Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry are the heart and soul of Toronto.
TJ Warren, Indiana Pacers
Then: The surprise player in the bubble, Warren had a 53-point game and averaged nearly 27 points. A consistent scorer throughout his career but known more for his meltdown against Butler, Warren commanded double teams and lots of media attention in the bubble.
Now: He had surgery to correct a stress fracture in his left foot in late December and isn’t expected to recover until right before the playoffs, if at all, this season. The good news: He had a similar injury in 2016 and returned forcefully from that.
Then: Helped by new coach Monty Williams, the Suns ran the table in the abbreviated regular season and nearly grabbed a play-in spot. Devin Booker took another star turn by sinking a dramatic shot to beat the Clippers.
Now: They’re no longer sweeping the floor of the West, for a change. Plenty of credit must go to Chris Paul, who arrived and fortified the club with leadership and providing backcourt balance with Booker. Also, Deandre Ayton is feeling his potential.
George Hill, Oklahoma City Thunder
Then: Hill became one of the main voices of the movement adopted by players and coaches, who collectively spoke out against injustice while locked inside the bubble. It was Hill who helped organize the Bucks’ protest and prepared a statement to the media.
Now: Hill was essentially dumped for Jrue Holiday in a multi-team trade that jettisoned Hill to OKC. A thumb injury is costing him an estimated month of action, and with OKC on a youth wave, there’s the chance he could be on the move again before the trade deadline.
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