August 15, 2020, 2:40 am
The NBA’s playoff matchups were pretty much set with the conclusion of Thursday’s games, making Friday’s four-game slate completely and totally meaningless. Many, many regulars either got the day off entirely (Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Bam Adebayo, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George Lou Williams et al) while others simply showed up for a cup of coffee — big shoutout to Steven Adams’ six minutes, and a combined 20 minutes from Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. Some of the absences were due to injury (aka iNjUrY), but Friday did mark the end of the regular season.
It was a daunting, seemingly impossible task, but the NBA made it through. We’re almost on to the playoffs now. Improbably, the book can be closed on the 2019-20 regular season. A round of applause to all involved.
Add(s) of the Bubble
There’s no more adding or dropping left to do, so instead we’re going to look back at a couple of the most valuable players of the Orlando session who you might not’ve expected to be among the top performers.
Michael Porter Jr.
Porter has hit the fantasy radar before but absolutely burst onto the scene in Orlando, taking advantage of Denver’s many absences to post first-round value over his seven games. He cooked up averages of 22.0 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.9 blocks and 2.7 3-pointers per game, shooting .551 from the field (on 14 shots a night!) and .931 from the line in 33.3 minutes. With Will Barton and Gary Harris both missing the entire bubble schedule (and Jamal Murray missing a few games himself), Porter took on a massive role and passed every test with flying colors. Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant are both set to hit free agency this offseason, and while the Nuggets shouldn’t make any rash decisions based on a seven-game sample with crazy circumstances, they should absolutely be finding ways to get MPJ more involved next season.
The Spurs battled right til the end, ending their 22-year playoff streak but coming closer than anyone expected after not having LaMarcus Aldridge available for the restart. One of the catalysts of their strong play in the bubble was Rudy Gay, who followed up a lackluster regular season with a top-25 performance in Orlando. He averaged just 24.8 mpg but still delivered 17.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks and 2.3 triples per contest on .468 shooting. Some of those numbers are way out of line with what Gay’s done later in his career, but weird things happen in small samples.
Bonus shoutout to Keldon Johnson. The rookie was an afterthought during the regular season but stepped up with the Spurs prioritizing youth development in the bubble. He finished as a top-50 guy in eight games, averaging 14.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.1 threes in 26.1 mpg while shooting an absurd .638 from the field. Bryn Forbes is headed for free agency and Johnson might’ve made a strong statement to the front office that he’s ready for the next step.
We couldn’t go too long without mentioning anyone from the 8-0 Suns, who shocked the basketball world with their run at Disney. Johnson was a maligned lottery pick last summer as a guy who didn’t have much that was obviously going for him besides a sweet shooting stroke. He rounded out his game in the bubble with a top-35 finish (9-cat) thanks to 13.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks and 1.9 treys per contest on a flat .500 from the field and a perfect 100% conversion rate at the free throw line.
Similarly, with the season done, we’re going to highlight — …lowlight? — some players who did more harm than good for fantasy teams during the resumption.
Napier was supposed to take off like a rocket as the last reliable ball-handler left on the Wizards. He was strong during the regular season and had a ton of responsibility on his plate. Unfortunately, he was quickly outplayed by Ish Smith and ended his season with a whimper. Napier finished as a top-275 guy in the bubble, shooting .418 from the field to go with paltry averages of 10.2 points, 1.8 assists, 0.6 steals and 1.0 threes. To make matters worse, he only played in five of Washington’s eight games.
Adams was a source of consternation throughout the season, especially early on, but ended up right around his ADP. Unfortunately he failed to keep that going in the bubble, falling outside the top-250 in five games. The Thunder clearly wanted to limit him and keep him fresh for the postseason, so Adams only averaged 23.2 mpg, in which he produced 10.2 points, 8.0 rebounds and 0.4 blocks while going .600 from the field and .500 at the charity stripe. Much of Adams’ value is derived from his consistency, and unfortunately the blocks dried up in a small sample. For a guy who is so under the radar, Adams’ slow-and-steady stat set ended up being volatile. Without the blocks there was no way he could stay afloat.
Zion carried plenty of hype throughout the year but ultimately injuries and conditioning problems limited him at every turn. He ended up outside the top-250 in the bubble despite some strong games to close it out. A minutes limit was frustrating to work around early and Williamson ended up with 18.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 20.7 mpg while shooting .559 from the field and .615 from the line. What really killed him? Williamson didn’t deliver a single steal, block or 3-pointer in any of his five games. The stat set won’t get fixed overnight but here’s hoping for a fresh slate next season.
Plenty of players sat out on Friday but there were still a few legitimate injuries and updates out there.
The most obvious one is Derrick Jones Jr., who had to be stretchered off with a neck injury after a fairly innocuous-looking play where he got crunched by a Goga Bitadze screen. Luckily it’s said to be a neck strain and not something more serious, which is great news.
Joel Embiid played through left ankle soreness. He better be at full strength for the burden he’s about to carry.
Billy Donovan hinted that Luguentz Dort (right knee sprain) might not be ready for Game 1 of the postseason.
Nick Nurse said he expects both OG Anunoby (right knee soreness) and Serge Ibaka (right knee contusion) to be ready for Monday’s Game 1. That was always the expectation but it is notable that both players underwent MRIs on their troublesome knees.
As for tomorrow’s play-in game, the Blazers will be missing Nassir Little (dehydration) while Tyus Jones (right knee soreness), who has yet to play in the bubble, is doubtful for the Grizzlies.
In non-bubble news, Vlade Divac stepped down as Kings GM. It means yet another search for a high profile position for Sacramento, and at this point the dysfunction has become white noise. Whoever steps to this crazy job next is going in with some building blocks. For as much as Divac botched things, he did leave the Kings better off than when he found them. He drafted De’Aaron Fox. He turned the tide by trading away DeMarcus Cousins, and while Buddy Hield as the headliner in the return drew some jokes at first, the move has worked out brilliantly. Sacramento was saved from a big commitment to Cousins and got one of the best sharpshooters in the league, clearing the deck to re-tool around an outstanding backcourt duo.
The mistakes loom large, however. The selection of Marvin Bagley over Luka Doncic (and a few other players, honestly) will be the one that Divac gets remembered for. Beyond that, he showed a limited-at-best understanding of the salary cap and misread the team’s temperature every summer. The Kings consistently brought in players that just didn’t fit, and spent tons of money to find that out first hand. Zach Randolph. Arron Afflalo. Cory Joseph. Dewayne Dedmon. Trevor Ariza. Harrison Barnes’ absurd extension. Those veterans were meant to put the Kings over the hump and back into the playoffs, but they ultimately just crowded up the cap sheet and clogged up the floor. At no point was Sacramento one or two veterans away from being a truly good team, and yet Divac went back to the same well every summer. Almost in spite of themselves, the Kings went dumpster diving and found Richaun Holmes, and then only figured out how good he was when Dedmon stunk and Bagley got hurt.
When some positive momentum was building, the Kings dismissed Dave Joerger amid rumors of front office sniping about the coach and his handling of the team’s young players. Divac hand-picked Luke Walton, whose tactical decisions in year one left a ton to be desired. The Kings seemed obsessed with slowing down to ready themselves for the muck and mire of playoff basketball, only they cut themselves off at the knees by pumping the brakes and turning a transition terror into a half-court team. You have to make the playoffs before you try and alter the team’s DNA to cope with the alleged “playoff style.” Walton is said to be safe for next season, but it’d be a shock if he lasts beyond that barring a complete 180 in his modus operandi.
Divac’s legacy, like most things, is complicated. Was he objectively good at the GM job? Not really. Would the Kings have been better off hiring someone else instead of Divac? Maybe — probably, even. Divac’s missteps were large, but the cupboards are far from bare. It’s just a shame that the Kings will be starting from close to square one again, potentially squandering the best years of the assets they currently have.
We’ll get out first ever play-in game tomorrow, pitting the red-hot Blazers against the staggering Grizzlies, who managed to hang on for a spot in this initial dance after being in the driver’s seat when the whole thing started. It’s going to be a fun matchup, which is obvious given the stakes, and it’ll be a good trial balloon for the play-in system overall. Four games is a bit too large of a gap to keep in regular years, but if the 9th place team is just two games back of 8th, why not? For as much as people say that the play-in devalues the regular season — if you’re behind team No. 8 after 82 games, too bad. That’s the point — ultimately we’re talking about an entertainment product. It’s structured to give us an underdog story rather than a win-or-go-home scenario right off the bat, which will be great narrative fodder. Tomorrow’s stakes are massive, but if the Grizzlies win? Sunday might be a ratings bonanza, which is not something you’d necessarily expect for an afternoon matchup between Portland and Memphis.
As for the actual game itself, it’s hard to see how anyone can deny Damian Lillard at this point. A fully healthy Jusuf Nurkic has the Blazers looking like the Western Conference Finalist team from a year ago (though it should be pointed out they got that far without Nurkic in the playoffs) instead of the lottery-bound chumps they were during the season. (Those box scores can only cover for Hassan Whiteside so much.) Lillard’s on absolute fire and is one of the most fearsome players in the league. He’s not one to be turned away easily.
The Grizzlies have put an outstanding season together in a year where they were still expected to be towards the bottom of the standings. Jaren Jackson Jr.’s absence is going to sting tomorrow, and is probably the biggest thing that tilts the scales in Portland’s favor, but Memphis still has plenty of good players that can bear down. Ja Morant is a phenom and will get valuable experience out of the entire playoff chase, let alone tomorrow’s do-or-die contest. Despite Toronto’s playoff failings, Jonas Valanciunas was one of the few Raptors who never wilted during those disappointments. That push-back is going to be needed tomorrow against Nurkic, and the center matchup makes for a fantastic undercard bout if you’re willing to look past the main event at the point. Dillon Brooks can get hot and go toe-to-toe with CJ McCollum as a secondary scorer, especially given McCollum’s apparent back injury. The Grizzlies have a massive depth advantage, with the collective of Brandon Clarke, De’Anthony Melton and a resurgent Grayson Allen capable of more than Whiteside, Gary Trent and Mario Hezonja — though Trent has been a revelation in the bubble, and probably slots in higher than Zach Collins on the must-watch list for tomorrow.
Can Memphis outscore their Lillard problem against Portland’s horrific defense? Will Taylor Jenkins bust out some unique coverages on Lillard to keep the season alive? Whatever happens, it’s going to be fun finding out.