Updated: Oct 19, 2022
When basketball was slated to return in the wake of a global pandemic, some decisions were made that gave fans a glimpse of Adam Silver's willingness to shake up the status quo. With an extra 6 teams invited to the bubble, fans were looking at a playoff race for the ages. 22 teams, 3 scrimmages, 8 regular-season games, and a chance for the 9th seed to force a play in for the final playoff spot. If the Extras wanted to make the cut, they would have to compete with some of the toughest teams the modern NBA has ever seen.
Here we stand, with each regular-season game having been played, and storylines given the time to rise and fall. In an almost best-case scenario for the NBA, Thursday's game slots had 4 games with major implications regarding the race for 8th in the west. With the Suns and Grizzlies starting out the day, and the Spurs and Blazers later that night, it truly was anybody's race.
Though the Suns would continue their miraculous run by staying undefeated in the bubble, they would ultimately miss out on a play-in seed by the slimmest margin. Memphis would secure their spot early on, and with both of those wins, San Antonio was eliminated, regardless of their game outcome. Portland now had a chance to lock in the 8th seed, knock out the red hot Suns, and force a play-in match up of two surging point guards in very different parts of their career. With a tight battle against the Nets coming down to the wire and the Blazers up by only a point, Carmelo Anthony missed a 3 pointer that could have iced the game. On the final play, the Nets' Caris LeVert set up a stepback jumper that just bounced off the rim and out as time expired. The Blazers would just squeak by.
With Portland's Damian Lillard, an 8-year vet, now set to battle Ja Morant, a 1st-year rookie, fans were certainly expecting a show. Saturday's game proved just that, as 6 lead changes and a final score separated by only 4 points told the tale of two teams desperate for a playoff chance. Experience proved to win out on the day, as the Grizzlies would ultimately fail down the stretch of the 4th quarter, thanks, in part, to some amazing 3-point shooting by Portland. Dame and the Blazers will look to ride their hot hand into the colossal looming threat that is the Los Angeles Lakers, the west's top seed.
So what does this mean for those now left on the outside looking in? Portland claimed the race for 8th and we now have five teams that didn’t make the cut. Here are my thoughts on what we saw and what the future holds for the Disney Bubble Extras.
Sacramento: (3 - 5) Pre Bubble Record: 28 - 36 Post Bubble Record: 31 - 41
What positive things can I say about the Kings right now? This team became more and more of an afterthought the further into the bubble games we got. But now, just as things end for Sac-Town in Orlando, a beacon of hope shines through for fans. Vlade Divac - the man who skipped out on Luka Doncic (arguably one of the young talents of our generation) for a still potential bust in Marvin Bagley - has stepped down from the GM role of this franchise. Screams of joy were heard across Sacramento as thousands of fans looked on towards a new dawn.
De' Aaron Fox proved he is the piece this team should be building around, averaging over 25 points and 7 assists in the bubble. The real question will be whether the front office has trust enough in Heild to let Bogdanovic walk in this offseason. With Buddy about to start the first of his 4-year, $86 million deal, the Kings would need to move him if they want to avoid that scenario, though nobody in my mind should be looking at Hield and his awful contract. Find a team to fleece, get some wing depth for Buddy's contract, and give Bogy the bag. I still don't have hopes for this team in the future, but only time will tell.
San Antonio: (5 - 3) Pre Bubble Record: 27 - 36 Post Bubble Record: 32 - 39
And so the end of an era comes to pass. After 22 seasons straight, the NBA will not feature a Greg-Popovich-led Spurs in it's postseason. Billie Eilish, The Call of Duty Franchise and Y2K are all younger than what is now tied with 2 others as the longest consecutive playoff streak in NBA history. Both the International Space Station and the first of the Mars Rovers had yet to leave the Earth, while Tamagotchi's were only just becoming popular in Japan. The world was a different place when Pop took over the reins of this franchise and was the driving force behind its 5 championship runs spanning 3 decades.
Pop and the Spurs will now be looking at the future, one hopefully filled with another extended playoff streak. With the young backcourt trio of Murray, Walker and White getting significant playtime in this bubble, SA found their stride with a little Rockets small ball experimentation. Floating DeMar DeRozan to the 4 spot gave the young guns a great chance to handle the ball and call the shots on the floor, allowing Deebo to thrive in his classic drive to the basket playstyle. If this team can keep the pieces together and find the right flow, they will be back to playoff contention in no time.
New Orleans: (2 - 6) Pre Bubble Record: 28 - 36 Post Bubble Record: 30 - 42
In what was supposed to be the NBA's dream first-round scenario of Lebron vs Zion -The Face of the League vs The Future - the Pelicans fell, and they fell hard. After the rookie sensation had to leave the bubble due to personal reasons, the rest of this young roster came out rolling in the scrimmage games, before real ”season” play began. With so much potential and Zion set to return in time for the 8 seeding games, the Pelicans looked to steamroll their way into the play-in. After a heartbreaking loss in their first game to the Jazz, with a rookie Zion sitting on the bench through the final minutes of an absolute collapse, the team was broken.
The good news for Pels fans is that this roster is young and full of future talent. If Zion can stay healthy, he is a future hall of fame lock, and Lonzo has started to thrive away from the lights of LA. With head coach Alvin Gentry being fired on Saturday, look for the organization to find somebody who can mould these young guns into a team ready for the spotlight of the playoffs. If Ingram can continue to break out, and smart roster moves are made, this team could be a playoff threat for the next 5 years and beyond.
Memphis: (2 - 6) Pre Bubble Record: 32 - 33 Post Bubble Record: 34 - 39
When Jaren Jackson Jr. tore the meniscus in his left knee, the Grizzlies were still looking for their first win in the bubble. Though they would go 2-3 after this, mostly off the back of Rookie of the Year shoo-in Ja Morant, Memphis was clearly missing its 2nd year talent. JJJ being gone tore a hole in the rotation that the team just could not sort out. Thankfully for fans, this team can only go up from here.
Jonas Valanciunas continues to make me miss him in a Raptors jersey. Averaging 16 points and 10.5 rebounds throughout the bubble, JV was the dominant inside presence we all know he can be. I cannot say enough how happy I am that he has found a starting spot on a dangerous looking young roster. If he can continue his growth, and knock down the Raps fans dreaded JV3's, he will thrive with a talent like Ja leading the way. If the young guns of Dillon Brooks, Brandon Clarke and Grayson Allen can keep showing the potential they found in this bubble, the future looks bright for this hungry Grizzlies roster.
Phoenix: (8 - 0) Pre Bubble Record: 26 - 39 Post Bubble Record: 34 - 39
The Suns were no-questions, hands-down, the brightest young team in the bubble. Devin Booker, while shooting 30.5/6/5 on 50/31/94 splits, with 20+ shots a night, led a team that nobody thought deserved to be here within a stones' throw of the NBA playoffs. If you had said just a month ago that Phoenix was one Caris LeVert shot away from making the play-in, while also going a perfect 8-0 in the bubble, the world would have laughed. Now after proving everybody wrong and coming this close to his first career playoffs, Booker and the Suns have a lot of positives going into next season.
After starting his sophomore campaign with a 25-game suspension from diuretic use, Deandre Ayton found his stride down in Florida. He became the quickest player in franchise history to reach 1,000 rebounds (94 games) before coming into the bubble and helping his team to their first 8-game winning streak in 10 years. If he can continue to improve his 3-point potential and space the floor for Booker and Co., he can prove why he was taken #1 in a draft ahead of players like Trae Young, Doncic and JJJ. Look for the young rookie Cameron Johnson as well as a seasoned Kelly Oubre Jr. to continue making strides. Monty Williams can be proud of his squad as Phoenix looks to rise from the ashes of this season into a new age.