Question marks will fill the air in the NBA’s Orlando “bubble”, where teams have arrived as the restart to this NBA season draws near. The official tip comes July 30 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in the Walt Disney World Resort.
Who shows up in game shape and ready to go from the start? How will basketball’s biggest stars respond in this unprecedented environment? And which group has the energy and stamina to survive basketball’s greatest reality show?
All 22 teams involved have to find the answers quickly, each playing just eight seeding games to finish off the regular season before the postseason begins.
But there are some certainties involved in the process.
There’s a pecking order for the stars gathering in Orlando, whether anyone cares to admit it. All things aren’t equal when it comes to star power. Some stars shine brighter than others in this constellation of the NBA’s best.
And in an effort to refresh the order for the restart, these are the 22 best players primed to compete in the bubble:
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22. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans
Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant will walk away from this season with Kia Rookie of the Year honors, and deservedly so. And he’ll no doubt be one of the best and most talented players inside the bubble. But Zion’s 19-game preview before the shutdown is proof that he’s on the fast track to being one of the most physically difficult matchups to encounter in the NBA. If the physical transformation that took shape during the pandemic is any indication, he’s in some of the best shape of his young life. (Williamson just turned 20.) The Pelicans have all the motivation to go all out in the bubble and Zion will lead the charge when he returns to the campus.
Number to know: Williamson has averaged 20.9 points in the paint per 36 minutes, the highest rate for any player (minimum 500 minutes played) in the 24 seasons for which points in the paint have been tracked.
21. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Lowry didn’t succumb to the dreaded complacency bug that often accompanies a championship run late in a veteran’s career. If anything, Lowry is getting better with age. The Raptors didn’t miss a beat with Kawhi Leonard defecting to the LA Clippers via free agency, and that was due in large part to Lowry’s stepping up to help fill that void. He’s shooting 35.4% on 3-pointers this season and dialed his numbers up across the board, leading in words and deeds for the reigning champs.
Number to know: Lowry is tied for the league lead with 30 drawn charges.
20. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Folks clamoring to see how Booker performs in meaningful games with the Suns will get their wish, even though the Suns are the longest of long shots in the Western Conference playoff chase. Just getting the opportunity to perform and compete in this environment should provide valuable experience for both Booker and Deandre Ayton as the Suns try to craft a playoff contender around its two young stars. Booker has already shown himself to be a truly elite scorer, now we’ll find out if he has the rest of his game leveled up.
Number to know: Booker has 20.3 assists for every 100 passes made, the highest rate among 285 players who have made at least 750 passes.
19. Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
Is there a player in the bubble under more pressure than Middleton? As the No. 2 player on the best team (check the standings) with a time-sensitive component (decision time is near for Giannis Antetokounmpo), the All-Star forward is in the unique position of needing to play the best basketball of his career. Middleton has the skills required. But does he have the make up to deliver under such pressure conditions? Is he built for this moment? The answers could make the Bucks’ season and future.
Number to know: Middleton has shot 52.3% from mid-range, the second best mark among 79 players with at least 100 mid-range attempts.
18. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Don’t let the fact that Gobert is the NBA’s patient zero for COVID-19 distract from routine business he does as the league’s premier rim protector and post defender. Gobert’s ability to change the game as the backbone of Utah’s defensive framework will make or break its bubble experience. If he’s back to normal after the long layoff, the Jazz will have the chance to compete with the best of the best in the Western Conference. If he’s anything less, an already challenging proposition (the Jazz will be without Bojan Bogdanovic, who is out after wrist surgery) becomes near impossible.The two-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year is that indispensable in coach Quin Snyder’s system.
Number to know: Among 137 players with at least 500 field goal attempts, Gobert has the highest effective field goal percentage (69.8%), true shooting percentage (70.0%) and free throw rate (72.5 attempts per 100 shots from the field).
17. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
The talent is undeniable. Simmons is a physical freak with his size at his position. But the back injury that slowed him down before the shutdown has left lingering questions about just how healthy he will be when reporting in Florida. Brett Brown said he’ll “ease” Simmons back into action, which is probably the wisest course of action. The Sixers need Simmons on the fast track, though, given how little time there is between the seeding games and the playoffs.
Number to know: Simmons leads the league with 221 assists on 3-pointers, 49% of the 452 3s his teammates have made while he’s been on the floor.
16. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
Siakam punctuated his steady rise up the ranks this season with his first All-Star nod. His next-level work in the Raptors’ championship run last season wasn’t just a flash — it’s his new normal. He’s shown that in addition to being one of the league’s most versatile defenders, he’s also a capable No. 1 option on offense. No one was sure of that when he was drafting off of the presence of Leonard last season. But Siakam is legit and that’s a huge reason why the Raptors have a chance to win the East again.
Number to know: According to Second Spectrum tracking, Siakam has an effective field goal percentage of 67.4% in the first six seconds of the shot clock and just 47.4% thereafter. That’s the biggest drop among 71 players with at least 100 field goal attempts in the first six seconds.
15. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Adebayo’s transformation from promising prospect to All-Star and one of the best young bigs in the league is one of the reasons the Heat were able to crash the Eastern Conference playoff party in Jimmy Butler’s first season with the franchise. Adebayo is all of the things former center Hassan Whiteside never was and more. His fundamentals are sound and his instincts, particularly on defense, are next level. Just watch him against the best competition and you’ll understand how his competitive edge fuels his fire and helps elevate the Heat to another level.
Number to know: Among 234 players who have played in at least 40 games in each of the last two seasons, Adebayo has seen the fifth biggest jump in minutes per game (from 23.3 to 34.4), the 11th biggest jump in points per game (from 8.9 to 16.2), the second biggest jump in rebounds per game (from 7.3 to 10.5), and the third biggest jump in assists per game (from 2.2 to 5.1).
14. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
The other half of the highest scoring duo in the league, Westbrook has silenced any doubters who wondered if he’d be able to thrive in his role playing alongside his good friend James Harden. Westbrook knows how to play to his strengths and clearly understands how to play effectively off the ball when Harden is in attack mode. His energy will be crucial in the bubble, where the Rockets’ small-ball approach could be a wrinkle teams won’t have the chance to prepare for given the compressed schedule.
Number to know: Westbrook leads the league with 20.5 drives per game and ranks second with 15.2 points in the paint per game. He’s just the fifth different player to average at least 15 points in the paint per game (minimum 40 games played) in the 24 seasons for which points in the paint have been tracked. At 6-3, he’s seven inches shorter than any of the other four.
13. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
Say what you want about Butler’s successful and somewhat checkered past in Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia. But there’s a strong argument that his free-agent choice might have had the biggest bang for the buck of last summer’s moves. Butler elevated the Heat to another level, his arrival coinciding perfectly with the rise of guys like Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. Butler’s relentless, grimy work on both ends of the floor provides the perfect edge for a blue-collar Heat bunch that is poised to make some serious noise in the bubble come playoff time.
Number to know: Butler has a free throw rate of 67.9 attempts per 100 shots from the field, the second-highest rate among 229 players with at least 300 field goal attempts and up from 40.4 last season.
12. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Tatum’s star turn after the All-Star break (when his scoring average went from 22.4 points to 29.9 ppg over a nine-game stretch) was the game changer the Celtics were looking for. Their core four of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward is as potent a group as there is in the league when they’re all healthy and locked in. Tatum appears to be the alpha there, with his ability to score at all levels and his unshakable confidence. There’s a reason LeBron James praised Tatum as an “ABSOLUTE PROBLEM” in an Instagram shoutout.
Number to know: Tatum has an effective field goal percentage of 61.1% in the clutch (score within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime). That’s the second best mark among 28 players who have attempted at least 50 clutch shots.
11. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Don’t confuse Lillard’s reservations about the format and bubble environment as a sign that he’ll be anything but his ruthless, competitive best when the action begins in Orlando. The Trail Blazers will need it to be “Dame Time” all the time if they are going to fight their way into the playoffs. Like so many of the other stars on the list, the pandemic afforded Lillard the time his body needed to heal, even if it came at the expense of the rust that no doubt was accrued during the shutdown. No one doubts he will be ready, though. He’s built for the biggest moments.
Number to know: Lillard ranks second with 13.5 pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions per game. The 1.14 points per possession he’s scored on ball-handler possessions is the best mark among 49 players who have averaged at least five per game.
10. Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder
With all of his responsibilities as head of the National Basketball Players Association, it’s easy to overlook the fact that Paul has been the catalyst for one of the league’s biggest surprise teams this season. The Thunder roll into the restart with a huge opportunity to move up in the standings if they can play well in the seeding games. Given the setting, having the league’s leader in clutch points (144), the man with the best fourth quarter +/- rating (+169) could be crucial to the Thunder’s chances of making an extended playoff run.
Number to know: Paul leads the league in clutch games (42) and minutes (160) played, as well as clutch points (144), field goals (46) and steals (10). He has shot 43-for-46 (93%) on clutch free throws, the best mark among 32 players who have attempted at least 25.
9. Paul George, LA Clippers
A healthy George is the key ingredient for the championship dreams Clippers fans have been holding onto since last summer. A 1-2 superstar punch of Kawhi Leonard and George is as good as it gets on both ends, with each of them being capable of the best offensive and defensive player on the floor at any given moment. Whatever issues the Clippers dealt with when they came together this time a year are in the past. The chemistry is tight, roles are defined and Doc Rivers knows exactly what he’ll get from his biggest stars.
Number to know: George has shot 32-for-57 (56.1%) on corner 3-pointers, the best mark among 108 players with at least 50 corner-3 attempts.
8. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Jokic’s positive COVID-19 test complicates what had the makings of a stunning hiatus body makeover for the All-Star big man. Jokic is reportedly dealing with some travel-related issues trying to make his way to Orlando from his native Serbia. But make no mistake, Jokic in tip-top shape as the centerpiece of the Nuggets’ attack gives coach Mike Malone’s crew a fighting chance to play deep into the playoffs. If Jokic’s conditioning matches his elite skill-set, the other teams in the bubble better beware.
Number to know: Jokic has shot 60.5% on non-restricted-area paint shots, the best mark among 95 players who have attempted at least 100.
7. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
The shutdown couldn’t have come at a better time for Embiid, who was coming back from a five-game absence with a shoulder injury when the coronavirus disrupted everything. The time off to get both healthy and in better shape allowed Embiid to show up in Orlando refreshed and focused on living up to his hype as the best big man in the game. If he plays to his potential, Embiid won’t have a physical match on the Walt Disney World grounds. But it’s always “if” where Embiid is concerned.
Number to know: According to Second Spectrum tracking, Embiid has averaged a league-high 9.7 post-ups per game. According to Synergy play-type tracking, his 1.12 points per possession on post-ups is the best mark among 21 players who have averaged at least 2.5 post-up possessions per game.
6. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
The season hiatus interrupted what was a transcendent, Kia MVP-caliber season for Doncic. The league’s leader in triple-doubles (14), Doncic also ranks in the top six in scoring and top four in assists. Perhaps even more impressive, Doncic is the best rebounding guard in the league. The bubble provides yet another opportunity for him to show that he belongs in the conversation for best overall players in the game in just his second NBA season.
5. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Harden is the catalyst for the highest scoring duo in the league and you better believe he and Westbrook will hit the bubble on a mission to upend the plans of the Los Angeles teams as they eyeball a berth to the Western Conference finals. Harden did some serious work on his body during the shutdown, with pictures of his tightened-up physique sending shock waves on social media. Harden’s history of wearing down in the postseason shouldn’t be an issue this time around.
4. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Davis is one of only two players in the league this season that could make a legitimate claim to own the titles of both Kia MVP and Kia Defensive Player of the Year (Giannis Antetokounmpo is the other). The Lakers’ championship hopes rest on the shoulders of its two biggest stars. Davis and LeBron James know exactly what’s at stake in the bubble. The reason so many pundits believe the Lakers are the favorites is because no other team boasts a duo as dominant or dynamic. Davis has yet to engineer a true breakout postseason performance, so this could be the time.
Number to know: Opponents have shot 38.5% on shots that Davis has defended. The difference between that and their expected field goal percentage on those shots (46.7%) is the second biggest among 271 players who have defended at least 300 field goal attempts total.
3. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers
Kawhi is one more Finals MVP run from overtaking Giannis and LeBron for the title of best player in the game. Some would argue he already has. Whatever precautions the Clippers took with his maintenance program before the season hiatus should not be an issue in the bubble. With Leonard and George operating at the highest level on both ends, the Clippers’ talent and depth could pave the way for a showdown with the Lakers that the basketball world has been clamoring for since last summer’s free agency.
Number to know: Leonard has recorded assists on 16.4% of his possessions, the highest rate of his career by a wide margin.
2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Championship or bust. At this stage of the game that’s the only way to define what awaits the league’s most high-profile and influential player in the Orlando bubble. When you perform at a Kia MVP level in your 17th season and are chasing the legacy LeBron is by trying to lead his third different team to a title, the ramifications of this unprecedented scenario are epic. The league’s assist leader is grinding as hard as ever, so you should expect nothing short of his best when the action kicks off in Orlando.
Number to know: James leads the league with a career-high 10.6 assists per game. According to Second Spectrum tracking, he also leads the league with 26.5 assist points created per game (26.5), 4.6 “pass-ahead” passes per game, and 1.5 skip passes per game.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
The reigning Kia MVP was in the midst of a brilliant encore campaign when the season went on hiatus back on March 11. If Giannis wasn’t at the top of your MVP ballot, he was no lower than second. Leading the Bucks to the best record in the league with one dominant performance after another was proof that “The Greek Freak” is still in the ascension phase of his development. He’s still got plenty of room to grow his game. The bubble is yet another platform for Giannis to run wild on the competition.
Number to know: Antetokounmpo leads the league with 8.2 fouls drawn per game. He’s the only player who has played at least 500 minutes and accounted for more than half the fouls his team has drawn while he’s been on the floor.
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