This column is titled ‘Bubble Bulletin’, so it’s appropriate to lead with reports that the bubble approach could persist through the 2020-21 season. Marc Stein of the New York Times wrote that many front-office executives have been referencing “regional pods,” defined as “short-term regional bubbles designed to host up to a month’s worth of games.” Which means there’s no clear path to having fans in arenas by next winter. It probably also means that fewer beat writers will be watching practices or granted unfettered access to players, which limits the intel fantasy managers get – we rely on beat writers for injury updates, insights into lineup and rotation changes, and much more.
The league has done a good job allowing for video interviews and socially-distanced chats in the Orlando bubble, though, and they’re incentivized to keep players accessible to fans and the media. The NBA brand is partly due to the personalities, quotes and off-court videos from players and coaches, etc. If these ‘regional pods’ do develop, therefore, I’d expect enhanced versions of what we already have – more post-game interviews, greater access to practices and shootarounds, and therefore more information for fantasy GMs to leverage to their advantage. That’s the hope, anyway. With the league’s thrice-daily, mandatory injury reports still in effect, at least we’ll be well aware of injury news.
Blazers’ Trail to a Play-in
Damian Lillard is unstoppable right now. He made headlines months ago by declaring that he didn’t want to play in Orlando if the Blazers didn’t have a realistic chance to make the playoffs. Now he’s almost single-handedly ensuring that they get there, having moved into the No. 8 seed behind his massive 61-point effort vs. the Mavs on Tuesday night. Asked about making the playoffs after the game, he replied, “Ain't nothing I want more. When I came here, I told them I'm not here to waste my time.” To put a finer point on his incredible offense, he and Wilt Chamberlain are now the only players to score 60+ points three times in the same season. He’s amazingly durable, too, which is another reason he’ll be gone within the top five of fantasy drafts for 2020-21. It’s hard to pass up a guard in his prime who doesn’t miss games and can carry you in at least four categories (3-pointers, points, FT% and assists) without hurting you elsewhere.
Jusuf Nurkic has also exceeded expectations after returning after a 16-month rehab following leg surgery. I can't overstate how impressive he's been. Even after a mediocre performance on Tuesday, in which he scored six points on 3-of-9 shooting and fouled out in 29 minutes, he's still sitting on averages of 17.0 points, 10.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.4 steals and 2.3 blocks. He's just 2-of-10 from downtown, and I'm not optimistic that will become a realistic part of his arsenal, but at least he's trying. His return has truly decimated Hassan Whiteside's fantasy appeal since there's no way the two of them can play together for long stretches. Whiteside is an unrestricted free agent this offseason and it seems doubtful that he'll be retained by the Blazers, though stranger things have happened.
The bad news for Portland is that Lillard’s running mate, C.J. McCollum, is playing with a fracture in his lower back. He’s played in three straight games with the injury, logging 39 minutes in each of those games, and his gutsy play for this Blazers squad can’t be overlooked. He shot 2-of-14 from the field vs. the Mavs on Tuesday, but was 18-of-38 (47.4%) in the prior two games, so the extent to which the fracture is affecting him is unclear. It’s wild that he played through it repeatedly without showing up on the injury report, which undermines my previous statement that “we’ll be well aware of injury news,” but there’s an exception to every rule. For now, it looks like he’ll just continue to play with a fractured lower back. It hurts me to even type that. It’s unclear if C.J. will eventually need surgery but that’s something to watch for going forward – with the 2020-21 season set to resume on Dec. 1, he wouldn’t have much time to rehab. I’m already bumping him a few notches down my draft board.
Celtics on Cruise Control
The Celtics are cruising along with three straight wins, getting excellent play from all of their key guys – Jayson Tatum has warmed up lately, Jaylen Brown’s jumper looks better than ever (a scary sight for opponents), Marcus Smart is still an agent of controlled chaos, and Gordon Hayward is in mid-season form. Even Robert Williams has emerged as a viable backup center, giving them a superior defensive alternative to Enes Kanter. The best news, though, is that Kemba Walker’s knee has responded well to increasing minutes. “It’s getting there,” Walker said about his knee. “[Tuesday] was probably the best I’ve felt out there. I was really comfortable making my moves and stuff like that ... I’m working every single day to continue to get my leg stronger, get my knee stronger. I’m feeling good.” He infuriated Red Sox fans after the game by purposefully putting on a Yankees hat while saying, “Boston fans gonna kill me!” but all will (possibly?) be forgiven if he helps Boston make a deep playoff run.
The Celtics are also in the enviable position of having their core locked in for the near-term future. Jaylen Brown is under contract through 2023-24. Walker is locked up until 2022-23, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, Grant Williams, Romeo Langford and Carsen Edwards are on deals through 2021-22, and Jayson Tatum will be paid $9.9 million next year before inevitably earning a max contract as a free agent -- a restricted free agent, giving Boston the chance to match offers. There are a lot of mouths to feed in this offense, which slightly lowers players' ceilings for season-long value next year, but I'm still going all-in on Tatum and Brown. Smart is a reasonable pick in the middle rounds for steals, threes and some across-the-board stats, but I'll happily let someone else take Walker and hope his knee holds up. Where to draft Hayward depends wholly upon where he's playing next year -- he has a $34.2 million option but could decline it to pursue a long-term deal in his prime.
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The Celtics are second in the Orlando bubble in net rating, at +10.3 points per 100 possessions. The only team ahead of them are the seemingly unbeatable Suns, who have a +11.2 net rating and a perfect 7-0 record. They lead all teams in rebound rate, collecting 53.3% of all available caroms and 78.6% on defense. To quote Devin Booker, "It's unbelievable." He was referring to the truly adorable videos the Suns produced with family members doing pre-game introductions, but might as well have been talking about his team's on-court success.
Even with a win vs. the Mavs on Thursday, Phoenix needs other teams to lose just to force a play-in. It's been a team-wide effort that of course starts at the top with Booker, who is averaging 31.0 points, 6.1 dimes, 4.6 rebounds and 2.1 threes per game in the bubble. He's also taking almost nine free throws per game and hitting 93.5% of his attempts, which is pure fantasy gold in 9-cat and 8-cat - something to remember for next year. Ricky Rubio is a steady hand at the rudder offensively, shooting efficiently (44.0% FGs, 95.2% FTs) and dishing out 7.3 assists per game, and the Suns' faith in Cameron Johnson has paid off nicely. He's far more assured at both ends of the court than your typical rookie. I don't see the potential for him to help fantasy managers with defensive stats or assists, however, so the ceiling may not quite be there.
Deandre Ayton has been a mixed bag. He looks confident and should be an easy 20/12 guy for years to come - he just turned 22 years old. He was hitting 3-pointers during exhibition play and made 2-of-3 vs. the Wizards in the first seeding game in Orlando, but since then he's gone 1-of-6 from deep. His 3-point range is a work in progress, to be kind. He's also not doing much in the defensive categories with just two steals and six blocks (most during a four-block effort on Aug. 6) in 214 minutes of play. His suspension for PED use this season left a bad aftertaste for many fantasy GMs, and the numbers in Orlando don't look great, which could depress his average draft position. If so, I'll be grabbing him in the 25-30 range all day long.
Thomas Bryant Breakout
The Wizards have approached the bubble with a 'development' mindset from the start, and that didn't change when they were officially knocked out of contention. Troy Brown Jr. said recently, "Missing the playoffs doesn’t change anything for us." One player benefiting massively from the situation is Thomas Bryant. Scott Brooks said the pre-shutdown part of Bryant's season was "a lost season" due to injuries, but he's been incredible since play resumed in Orlando. He's averaging 17.6 points on 51.0% shooting, 8.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.0 steals, and is hitting nearly two 3-pointers per game.
That's impressive stuff, and from a fantasy perspective two things jump out. First, he's picking up defensive schemes and rotations quicker than in the past, which boosts his defensive stats and lets Washington leave him on the court in matchups that in the past would have been disastrous. The second point is that his 3-point shooting is a legitimate weapon, in a league that rewards stretching the court. That should allow him to get an edge on slow-footed centers and open driving lanes, a crucial skill on a team with John Wall and Bradley Beal in the backcourt. So, despite his rough and injury-plagued start to the 2019-20 season, I'm not shying away from Bryant as a center to target in the 50-75 range.