August 15, 2020, 7:48 pm
The NBA Playoffs are finally here plus we got a special extra with the play-in game between the Blazers and the Grizzlies at the conclusion of a regular season that gave us a lot to digest on the basketball and fantasy front!
I’ve heard many opinions from sports experts around the world with most of them treating the bubble play and the eight seeding games as preseason or training camp material and I wouldn’t disagree. The urgency of some teams to make a push for the playoffs hasn’t allowed them to play some of their young prospects as much as they wanted, while the four-month hiatus and the unfortunate contraction of COVID-19 by some NBA players has had an effect on the development of many rosters.
Still, the bubble created some opportunities with Michael Porter Jr. and Gary Trent Jr. headlining a list of players that surprised most of us in the last few weeks. In Part 1 of this mini feature I’m going to take a closer look at most of the international guys that played in Orlando and provide a report of what has been of notice with an eye towards the next season, hope you enjoy it!
The Celtics, up until they rested their main guys, had one of the top offenses in the bubble but opponents were not intimidated by the length and defensive talent near the rim and that has to do a lot with the presence of Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter in the middle. Neither is the rim protector that the Celtics desperately need and scoring bigs had a feast against Boston during the bubble play with the only positive sign being the play of Robert Williams, who is slowly taking the steps in order to become a regular contributor. Look at the Magic starting the game against the Celtics with a simple pick-and-pop action where they immediately attack Theis, who totally forgets the scouting report and is slow to switch.
Boston did finish the season with the best transition defense in the NBA, a key stat that proved to be very important in their 122-100 victory against the Raptors last week. As long as the Celtics take care of the Sixers their defensive schemes will determine how far they will advance into the playoffs and I already consider them the favorites against Toronto. Whether they can succeed with the current small-ball scheme will determine what kind of changes take place in the offseason as well. Neither Theis nor Kanter seems to be the long-term answer and unless Williams really takes the next step the Celtics could be in the market for a starting center this summer.
The Nets were the team most devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic while assorted injuries decimated the team’s roster, forcing them to sign a few replacement guys. Still, the job that Jacque Vaughn did can only be applauded as the Nets not only remained competitive but also won five out of their eight games while continuing the development of their players.
Rodi Kurucs and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot were not an exception, with both becoming key contributors for the Nets. TLC averaged 14.9 points and 2.9 triples on 50.9 percent from the field and he seamlessly slid into whatever role the Nets asked him to fill in Orlando, whether it was becoming a primary scorer, a defender, or a second-unit spark-plug off the bench. Meanwhile, with options at the center position running low, Vaughn didn’t hesitate to try Kurucs in the middle, even though he had never played the position in his life prior to entering the Orlando bubble. Regardless, he stuffed the stat sheet while he stopped hesitating or second-guessing himself before shooting the three, averaging a triple per game, and his confidence looked great playing as a floor-spacing energy player. The Latvian forward has the length and size and he was able to successfully meet guys like Nikola Vucevic at the rim.
Dzanan Musa meanwhile didn’t quite grab the opportunity, losing minutes to TLC and struggling to make a case for more time on the floor. The issue with the Croatian guard is that he is still trying to adjust to the flow of the game after years of playing in Europe and in not-so-competitive leagues. Another issue with his game is that even though he is fearless, he still lacks the necessary strength and footwork to attack the rim successfully.
The story in Dallas has obviously been the play of Kristaps Porzingis, who has not only looked healthy, but seems to have accepted his role next to Luka Doncic. The numbers are eye-popping as the Latvian big finishes the season with career-highs in rebounds (9.5), triples (2.5) and assists (1.8) as his comfort level in the Mavs’ offense and his production have increased. And after the team lost Dwight Powell for the season, Porzingis has played more as a center, a move he enjoyed since it got him more involved in the offense as the initial screener for Doncic, while developing as much of a pick-and-roll-to-the-basket threat as a pick-and-pop option for 3-pointers.
Most NBA teams have a hard time containing the Doncic-Porzingis pick-and-roll but when Rick Carlisle adds the extra wrinkle, it becomes literally unguardable. Look at the Mavs bringing another player at the top of the key as Porzingis screens for Luka, causing complete havoc with the switch options as Kristaps drives to the basket and finishes alone under the basket.
I have to be honest though, if you own Porzingis in a dynasty league, I would suggest you sell him high after this season; as much as I love seeing him play his body still looks so fragile to me, just like Bol Bol.
It was good to see Nikola Jokic look mostly unaffected by COVID-19. The Serbian big is the best passing center in the history of the game and I can’t wait to see more action between him and bubble-revelation Michael Porter Jr. Look at the Joker taking advantage of the ill-advised help defense by Dejounte Murray and finding Porter deep in the paint for the easy dunk.
The Rockets looked determined to give Brazilian forward Bruno Caboclo a chance at becoming a part of their rotation in the new era small lineup that they established in the middle of the season, and they rewarded him with another vote of confidence just before the bubble started by opting to cut Isaiah Hartenstein instead Bruno. Still, the team has had much success with Robert Covington and Jeff Green playing the five, leaving Bruno as the odd man out, even though his defensive versatility is much-needed in their current defensive scheme. Here is Caboclo switching on Shake Milton, easily blocking his shot and running on the fast break opportunity.
The potential is still there but I’m not so sure how patient the Rockets can be, especially with more changes coming if Houston doesn’t make a deep playoff run. The truth of the matter is that I had the Rockets as the dark horse in the race for the championship but the injury to Russell Westbrook might be too much to overcome.
The play of T.J. Warren has been one of the revelations of the bubble and even though some fantasy managers might be circling his name for next year I have to put the brakes on my level of excitement. The Pacers were missing Domantas Sabonis and Jeremy Lamb, while Malcolm Brogdon and Victor Oladipo are still not 100 percent, forcing Nate McMillan to pass the torch to Warren who undoubtedly had a great finish to the season. Still, it’s not like his game took a leap to another level as his assists, rebounds and steals remained at his career averages.
With Sabonis sidelined, Goga Bitadze didn’t manage to grab the opportunity for more minutes as injuries kept him limited during the bubble. He still remains a part of the team’s future though and Indiana, a traditionally small-city market, might have to make some tough financial decisions in the upcoming years which could open up more playing time for Bitadze. Bitadze still looks slow and not quite fit but the Pacers don’t play much tempo basketball and rely on shooters, with the Georgian center being able to stretch the floor with a nice stroke.
Even though Ivica Zubac was one of the few NBA players that got diagnosed with COVID-19, the Croatian center was also one of the most improved players in the bubble, taking advantage of Montrezl Harrell’s absence. Zu constantly put pressure on opposing defenses with his relentless rebounding and inside scoring, averaging a double-double in these eight games with 10.6 points and 10.3 rebounds. The developing chemistry with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard has been remarkable, with both guys praising their young big who has to be an important part of their success going forward.
He is likely to have an even better first round of playoffs against the Mavs, who are missing Dwight Powell. Actually, in three games against Dallas this year, Zubac averaged his most points and the third-most rebounds against any team.
Los Angeles Lakers
Not much on the international end for the Lakers other than Kostas Antetokounmpo, Giannis’ little brother, coming to the bubble and spending some quality family time with him and Thanasis.
The Grizzlies were put in such a tough spot during the bubble, having to overcome a brutal schedule in their quest to make the playoffs, while the unfortunate injury to Jaren Jackson Jr. made things even tougher, forcing rookie head coach Taylor Jenkins to play his veterans. Young players like Marko Guduric and Yuta Watanabe didn’t really get a chance to step on the floor while Gorgui Dieng also failed to capitalize on the void left by the absence of Jackson.
The one constant was once again Jonas Valanciunas, who has proved to be an excellent veteran addition for the young and exciting Grizzlies that play two different styles of basketball when rookie sensation Ja Morant is on and off the floor. The Lithuanian center remains a step slow on any kind of screen-and-roll action but he has gotten better in a high screen-and-roll style offense where he has to move around a bit more than he is used to. This is crucial as the Grizzlies generate their offense through that scheme where Ja either attacks the rim or finds the open teammate for the corner three.
Valanciunas remains among the league-leaders in putbacks and second chance opportunities and when Ja is sitting on the bench he is basically the main offensive option for the Grizzlies as an old school center.
Goran Dragic is another veteran who has found his Ithaca in South Beach, fully embracing his role as an off-the-bench scorer and facilitator, while his 1.3 steals show that he is still capable of providing help on the other side of the floor. The Dragon is by far one of the “culture” guys Pat Riley loves to have on his team and the special bond that he and Jimmy Butler have developed this season is one of the most fascinating chemistry stories of the NBA for me. Dragic recently turned 34 and is an unrestricted free agent this summer but the Heat would love to re-sign him even if he is not very durable.
The Bucks are poised to win the championship this year and many teams have been impressed by how ready and prepared they have looked in the bubble. Giannis Antetokounmpo is probably the league’s MVP but the Bucks will need all the help they can get if they want to advance deep into the playoffs. The Greek Freak has proven to be a tremendous finisher that teams simply cannot stop, but he is still not creating many opportunities for his teammates regardless of the 5.6 assists he averaged for the season. Opponents will likely double-team Giannis down the stretch and Milwaukee will have to count on Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe to make key plays, something that hasn’t been the norm – especially for Bledsoe.
Hope you enjoyed this week’s article and make sure you come back next week for part 2 of our mini feature. Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter @philysstar and stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.
Stats are courtesy of NBA.com, ESPN.com and Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of August 15th.