Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons look to spoil Bucks' reign over the East

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NBC Sports

Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons look to spoil Bucks' reign over the East

You can exhale now. After a nearly five-month layoff, the NBA is back.

The bubble is holding tight so far. The daily testing regiment and strict quarantine protocols appear to be working. Unlike Major League Baseball, the NBA hasn’t faced an outbreak within its locker room. Knock on wood.

We still have a long way to go before the NBA crowns a champion in October, but it’s safe to actually focus on basketball again. So, it’s time to get reacquainted with every roster and identify the storylines to keep an eye on. 

Here’s one thing to watch for every Eastern Conference bubble team. To add a little spice to this endeavor, I’ve sorted the teams by my likelihood of them winning the 2019-20 NBA championship. See the West preview here.

Buckle in, folks. This is gonna be a ride.

Milwaukee Bucks: How will Eric Bledsoe look?

As long as Giannis Antetokounmpo was on the floor, the Bucks looked like their unbeatable selves in the preseason. The Bucks are plus-21 in the 61 minutes with Antetokonmpo on the floor this preseason and minus-13 in the minutes he’s riding pine. 

But the Bucks will need starting point guard Eric Bledsoe to be in top form if they want to take the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to Milwaukee. Right now, we don’t know what kind of shape he’s in after testing positive for coronavirus and missing the team’s scrimmages, though Bledsoe says he was asymptomatic and feeling fine. 

For a team with championship aspirations, that’s an undeniable question mark. Bledsoe has some question marks about playoff performance heading into this restart anyway. After lighting up Detroit in the first round last postseason, Bledsoe’s production cratered. Over series against Boston and then Toronto, Bledsoe averaged just 11.6 points on 35.7 percent shooting from the floor and 20.8 percent from deep. By the end of the Eastern Conference finals, Bledsoe just couldn’t get past anybody. It’s been a concern for two postseasons now.

Dante Divincenzo has been a solid stopgap with Bledsoe sidelined, but they need Bledsoe to rediscover some of that magic he displayed in the Detroit series last season. Against top defenses, the scoring can’t solely fall on Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton’s shoulders. Bledsoe has an enormous postseason ahead of him, and that was before the coronavirus infection.

Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons, stretch 4?

OK, I’m kidding. But seriously, Simmons taking two corner 3-pointers in the scrimmages (and making one), is maybe the biggest development in the Eastern Conference. Simmons’ trifecta in the right corner during Friday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies was particularly notable because his defender, Kyle Anderson, left him wide open in order to smother Al Horford in the post. Tobias Harris saw Anderson cheating and threw the skip pass to Simmons, who confidently stepped into the jumper. Anderson didn’t even raise a hand.

Simmons needs to shoot if for no other reason than to keep the defense honest. If he knocks down a couple in the seeding games, opposing defenses will at least have to pay attention to him when he trots out beyond the arc. And that will free up Joel Embiid and Horford to get cleaner looks in the paint.

But the best thing I saw from the Sixers this past week came in the third quarter of the Sixers’ scrimmage against Oklahoma City. Josh Richardson held the ball on the left wing and Simmons strolled into the right corner. As Richardson surveyed the defense, Simmons raised his hands in the air, looking for the catch-and-shoot jumper as his defender Danilo Gallinari sagged to double the post. Richardson didn’t make the pass, but the bigger story is that Simmons wanted it.

The Sixers are the second-best team in the East if Simmons is willing to space the floor. It doesn’t mean he has to make them all, or even at an average clip. Case in point: Giannis is about to win his second MVP while shooting just 28.5 percent on his 474 3-point attempts over the last two seasons. That can be Simmons if he wants it.

Toronto Raptors: Champs In The Zone

If you listened to the Habershow pod with Adam Schefter -- yes, that Adam Schefter -- you know how I feel about Raptors coach Nick Nurse. He’s the Coach of the Year, in my book. Despite losing Kawhi Leonard in the offseason, the defending champs have the No. 2 seed in the East all but locked up as well as the No. 2 defense in the NBA.

They do it unconventionally by mixing in zone defenses that you rarely see at the NBA level. After going zone for 6.8 possessions per game in the regular season, we didn’t see it much in the scrimmages. According to Synergy Sports tracking, the Raptors only went zone for six total possessions, with all of them coming in the third quarter against the Phoenix Suns. Notably, it came when the Raptors’ A-team was out there, suggesting it was a tune-up for the seeding games and beyond.

What’s so fascinating is how Phoenix beat it. The Raptors gave up two corner 3-pointers to Mikal Bridges in those six possessions (more on him in Thursday’s West preview). Analytically, that’s not a shot a team should want to give up given its high success rate. But the dominant Raptors defense has picked its poison, walling off the paint at all costs and living with snipers from the corner. In fact, no defense this season has given up more 3-pointers from the corner than the Raptors, per Basketball Reference.com tracking.

Luckily for the Raptors, the best corner 3 teams all hail from the Western Conference (I could see Harden and LeBron carving them up that way). The zone will certainly throw some teams off in the playoffs, but there are ways to beat it. Knowing Nurse, he will probably find a bulletproof counter by then.

Boston Celtics: Is Kemba Walker’s left knee a long-term concern?

There’s no two ways about it: Walker’s knee issues should make Boston queasy. Smaller point guards that depend on lightning-quick movements can’t afford any breakdowns in the kinetic chain. With Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas’ injury issues at point guard over the years, we don’t need to belabor the point about smaller guys having flat tires.

That said, I loved what I saw out of Walker in his re-season debut, finishing with six points on six field-goal attempts in nine minutes. He was aggressive running in transition and looked undeterred by his chronic knee issues. On his first scoring attack, he drove straight into Suns big men Deandre Ayton and Dario Saric and drew an and-one. He looked as zippy as ever. 

It was good to see him out there, even if for just one scrimmage. For any star player, there’s a fine line between durability and overuse. After missing just six games total in the 2015-16, ‘16-17 and ‘17-18 seasons, last season was an absolute marathon for Walker. He played all 82 games for the Charlotte Hornets, including playing host for the All-Star Game, and then played for Team USA in the summer. 

The hope is that his mileage isn’t catching up to him, but there is real concern here from my perspective. With so much of Walker’s value tied up to one end of the floor, he can’t afford to be a step slow or limited in any fashion.

Luckily for Boston, almost every team at the top is dealing with an ailing key member, so the Kemba situation isn’t uniquely worrisome in Orlando. But with $107 million due to Walker over the next three seasons and three surgeries on that knee since his UConn days, the medical staff will have to make sure that Walker’s knee doesn’t get too ragged on this playoff run.

Miami Heat: Are Bam and Jimmy ready to go?

Bam Adebayo has been one of the best stories of the 2019-20 season, vying for both Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved. I don’t think he’ll win either award, but that doesn’t take away from how important he is to the Heat’s bubble chances.

After testing positive for COVID-19, you wouldn’t know Bam Adebayo missed any time if you watched his game on Tuesday. The very first play of the game, he and Jimmy Butler made music in the pick-and-roll for Adebayo’s first bucket of the bubble. From there, Adebayo looked strong, finishing with 16 points, four rebounds, three assists and a pair of blocks in just 25 minutes of action. 

He toyed with Jonas Valanciunas throughout the scrimmage. First, he finished through the Memphis big man for an and-one, then later Euro-stepped around him for a finger-roll layup and then finally blew by him for a reverse dunk. Yeah, I think Bam’s feeling good. Defensively, he gave Jaren Jackson Jr. fits throughout the day.

Though Adebayo and Butler didn’t play much at all in the Heat’s scrimmages, I’m not too worried about their wind. The Heat’s conditioning program is famously top-notch and they’ll be champing at the bit to do their thing. The Heat’s first four games in the bubble? Denver, Toronto, Boston and Milwaukee. They better be ready.

Indiana Pacers: Worries about Victor Oladipo 

Victor Oladipo might be the most interesting player in the bubble format. The 28-year-old guard initially didn’t want to participate in the Orlando bubble out of caution for his rehabilitated quad tendon, but the two-time All-Star reversed course and decided he was going to make the trip. 

What I’ve seen is someone who’s still nowhere near 100 percent. Oladipo has no lift right now. He settled for long jumpers (half his 38 field--goal attempts in Indiana’s scrimmages are from beyond the arc), rarely ventured into the paint and earned only one trip to the free-throw line in 76 minutes of action. Looking at the film, not once did the two-time Slam Dunk contest participant even try to rise up for a dunk.

Domantas Sabonis being out indefinitely due to a significant foot injury puts more pressure on Oladipo as Indiana’s go-to scorer, but he’s just not himself right now. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that the NBA and the players union are discussing what to do with the $3 million remaining on Oladipo’s contract if he opts not to play in Orlando. If Oladipo sits out the bubble action out of precaution, I wouldn’t blame him -- but he might be forfeiting his salary this season. He’s entering a contract year and has a long way to go before he re-establishes himself as one of the game’s top guards. Nonetheless, the Pacers’ immediate future suddenly looks much dimmer.

Orlando Magic: Jonathan Isaac back?

Some rehabbing players didn’t benefit from the long layoff (see: Oladipo). Some look completely re-energized. That would describe Orlando big man Jonathan Isaac, who was in the hunt for Defensive Player of the Year when he went down with a severe left knee sprain on New Year's Day. 

Isaac had been sidelined for over six months before his return in Monday’s scrimmage, finishing with 13 points, seven rebounds and two steals in just seven minutes. Isaac was a tour de force, splashing 3e-pointers (even completing a four-point play) and taking guys off the dribble.

The Magic may want to bring the 22-year-old along slowly, but his scrimmage performance was legitimately one of the biggest feel-good stories of the bubble so far. I’m bullish on Isaac long-term. His ceiling is Andrei Kirilenko.

Washington Wizards: Rounding out Rui

Let’s be honest, the Wizards should really treat the restart like Summer League. With Bradley Beal, John Wall and Davis Bertans sitting out the bubble, Washington should be in full-blown development mode in Orlando. In that sense, all eyes are on Rui Hachimura, the Wizards’ 2019 first-round pick and the No. 9 overall selection, who is now Washington’s only reliable go-to scorer.

If he wants to blossom into a player above the Marcus Morris/Markieff Morris mold, he needs to focus on becoming more of a team player in the halfcourt. With great size and a knack for scoring, he can get his shot off on just about anyone, especially in post where he seems to be most comfortable. In the bubble, I’d like to see how he gets his teammates involved. His backdoor bounce-pass to Isaac Bonga against the Lakers on Monday was beautiful. More of that, please.

The passing element of his game should only improve when he plays alongside All-NBA weapons like Wall and Beal. Hachimura can get buckets on the elbow, that much is clear. Hopefully, he’ll be able to work on rounding out the rest of his game in the seeding games. If he can develop his 3-point shooting, dishing or defense into a plus, he can get into the All-Star discussion one day. 

Brooklyn Nets: Can Caris LeVert average 30 points?

Things are going to get weird here. Nine Nets players have contracted COVID-19 (that we know of), including Michael Beasley, who was signed as a substitute for a COVID-19-infected player and then later contracted the novel coronavirus himself. The Nets’ Orlando roster is one giant “Who He Play For?” exercise.

Brooklyn scored 68 points in their first scrimmage. They put up 124 points a few days later. Who knows what to expect team-wise? What I do know is that Caris LeVert will be feasting like it’s Thanksgiving. The 25-year-old shooting guard posted the bubble’s third-highest usage rate in scrimmage play behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic, per NBA.com tracking (minimum 20 minutes per game). LeVert might take all of the shots.

LeVert posted a 50-piece on the Celtics a week before the league shut down, so don’t be surprised if he averages 30 points per game in the seeding games. If you’re playing daily fantasy, make sure he’s in your lineup. Jamal Crawford, too. Yes, he’s on the Nets now. Let’s get weird.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

How did T.J. Warren become NBA's bubble superstar?

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NBC Sports

How did T.J. Warren become NBA's bubble superstar?

With no fans in the building and extraordinary measures in place to keep a global pandemic out, wonky stuff was bound to happen inside the Orlando bubble. 

But T.J. Warren turning into peak Kevin Durant? This is an entirely different idea.

The 26-year-old North Carolina State product set the Orlando bubble ablaze. In his first three games, the 6-foot-8 small forward scored 53, 34 and 32 points, respectively, while shooting a cumulative 65.3 percent. A popular pick to slide in the standings due to injuries, Warren’s Indiana Pacers have flipped the script and are 3-0 in the bubble.

Welcome to Warren-sanity. First, he shredded Philadelphia’s sixth-ranked defense, exploding for a career-high 20 field goals. For an encore, Warren compiled 34 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, three steals and four blocks against the Washington Wizards, the first player to reach that stat line this season, per Basketball Reference tracking. On Tuesday, he delivered yet again, pouring in another 32 points on 13-for-17 shooting.

Warren has scored 119 points in three games. This is a hot streak that normally only belongs to Hall of Famers. And yet, Warren has never sniffed an All-Star Game. So how good is he? Is Warren a flash in the pan or is this the beginning of a Kawhi Leonard-type breakout? Let’s dive in and try to figure out what’s fluke and what’s for real.

While Warren is a known bucket-getter, a scoring spree of this magnitude has come out of nowhere. On Tuesday night, after being the story of the bubble, the Orlando Magic -- fighting for a non-Milwaukee matchup in the first round -- simply had no idea what to do with Warren. With Orlando’s defensive ace Jonathan Isaac lost to a torn ACL, the Magic assigned athletic marvel Aaron Gordon to Warren duties. It didn’t thaw Warren one bit.. Warren unleashed deep threes, seering basket cuts and soft floaters in the lane. By the time Warren went to the bench with 1:27 left in the first quarter, he’d scored 17 points in about 10 minutes of action, not missing a single shot from the floor or at the line. Indiana was up 40-18 and never looked back.

Before the bubble, Warren averaged 18.7 points per game, but he was a metronome in the purest sense. He had never scored at least 30 points in consecutive games in five-plus seasons in the NBA. His FiveThirtyEight list of statistical comps is a roll call of players who were borderline All-Stars at their peak -- names like Tim Thomas, Tobias Harris and Evan Fournier  -- but never got invited to the ball.

But there’s reason to believe the Pacers have something more than that in Warren. 

For starters, Warren’s scoring abilities aren’t new. The Durham native averaged 24.9 points per game at NC State, earning 2013-14 ACC Player of the Year honors and showing enough talent to be the No. 14 overall pick in the 2014 draft. But even then, Warren’s largest point total in any three games at the collegiate level was 107. He’s at 119 in the bubble entering Thursday night. 

So what unlocked this version of Warren -- that scores with the confidence and tools of Leonard and Durant? Is this another version of Linsanity?

Like Jeremy Lin, Warren has taken team adversity and flipped it into an opportunity. Linsanity only started when Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire were sidelined and the other three point guards couldn't run Mike D’Antoni’s offense. Necessity, it turns out, is the mother of invention. When Lin was inserted into the starting lineup as a last resort, the Knicks went on a seven-game winning streak, all without Anthony and Stoudemire. 

With Domantas Sabonis, Jeremy Lamb and Malcolm Brogdon sidelined by injuries, and Victor Oladipo basically playing on one leg, the situation was ripe for an ambitious Pacer to fill the void. Enter Warren. Like Lin’s 12-game run before the All-Star break in which he averaged 22.6 points and 8.7 rebounds in the Big Apple, Warren capitalized on the situation and he did it at a time when many players might have said, “eh, let’s pack it in for next season.”

Warren is one of 12 players to score at least 50 points in a game this season, but only the third to do it with a scoring average below 20 points per game, joining Houston’s Eric Gordon (14.5 points) and Brooklyn’s Caris LeVert (18.1). Warren’s sustainability is worth noting, especially when compared to those comparable players. Once a player drops 50, he instantly becomes the headline on the opponent’s scouting report, making encore performances harder to come by. In the game immediately following his 50-plus eruption, Gordon scored eight points on 2-of-10 shooting. LeVert scored 14 on 6-of-19 shooting. But Warren? He put up 34. And then another 32 just for good measure.

While the opportunities have helped, Warren’s also adding new elements to his game, particularly by expanding his range. A master of the mid-range area, the Warren has attempted 23 3-pointers in three games, matching his total for the entire month of February, in which he played nine games. 

Warren is a bit late to the 3-point party, but it’s better to be late than never. This is where Warren can realize his upside. Look at the careers of Brandon Ingram, Pascal Siakam and Chris Bosh. These are all mid-range mavens that literally took a step back, set up behind the arc and embraced the 3-point shot. 

Warren can unlock the same bag of tricks. The former Suns wing is shooting a toasty 48.7 percent on 2-point jumpers beyond 10 feet this season. Only C.J. McCollum, Chris Paul and Khris Middleton have been more efficient in that mid-range area, per Basketball-Reference. Those three marksmen have spent years terrorizing opponents from deep, with McCollum and Middleton competing in the 3-Point Contest at All-Star Weekend. 

Warren, on the other hand, used the 3-point shot only sparingly, entering the bubble averaging only three 3-point attempts per game, even though he was making a healthy 37.5 percent of them. The percentages were there, but the appetite wasn’t. 

If you’re looking for the next great 3-point shooter, this is the starting point. Find the guy who rules the mid-range game and convince him to move back a bit and get the extra point. Not only does it add more points to the team’s total, but it creates space for others. Now, when Warren parks himself beyond the arc, that’s one less help defender to collapse into the paint. Threes aren’t just good because they’re worth three points; they make 2s easier for others.

This is why Warren’s bubble performance doesn’t feel like a fluke. He was always a great shooter and a pure scorer. The question was whether he’d ever feel comfortable shooting from deep, and sometimes, a player just needs to be pushed to go there. Bosh wasn’t known as a stretch five until injuries and playoff urgency made it a necessity. In the same way, injuries to Sabonis, Brogdon, Lamb and Oladipo propelled Warren’s evolution.

Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard and general manager Chad Buchannan deserve credit for taking a chance on Warren when the Suns dumped him for essentially nothing (cash considerations) in a three-team deal involving the Miami Heat. At the time, Warren was only an insurance plan on unrestricted free agents Bojan Bogdanovich and Thaddeus Young, both of whom ended up getting richer deals elsewhere. 

Warren’s scoring has gotten the headlines, but it’s the rest of his game in Orlando that offers the most intriguing long-term potential. Warren’s been much more active defensively in the bubble, tallying seven blocks and six steals in three games. Here’s the last time he’s tallied 13 combined steals and blocks over a three-game span: Never.

The blocks are especially uncharacteristic. In a 14-game stretch before the New Year, Warren registered one block total. Because of the way he defends, some of these might register as steals. Rather than meet shooters at the mountaintop, Warren uses his nifty hands to strip a player’s shot on the way up ala Andre Iguodala. These are basically stocks -- a steal and block hybrid. Whatever you want to call it, it often gets the desired result, a turnover.

While Warren is unlikely to continue to score at this level, a more well-rounded game with consistent 3-point ability would make him one of the best bargains in the NBA. The Pacers are on the hook for just $11.7 million next season and $12.7 million in 2020-21 for Warren  -- less than what the Chicago Bulls are paying Young over the same timespan. Three games doesn’t make a star player in this league, but considering Warren was already an elite jump-shooter inside the arc, it’s not unrealistic to think he can become a Middleton clone, albeit with less playmaking ability.

I’ll admit that I didn’t see this coming, but perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised when a big wing finds himself at the age of 26. Middleton wasn’t an All-Star until he was in his age-27 season. Danny Granger, another former Pacers wing, made his first All-Star appearance at the age of 25. Siakam turned 26 in April. Warren could simply be a late bloomer.

So where does this development leave the Pacers? Ultimately, they need superstars to break into championship contender status. Sabonis and Oladipo have the potential to get there, if they can keep their leg injuries at bay. Warren’s sudden change in status could change their ceiling whenever the 2020-21 season happens, including as a potential trade asset when the next disgruntled superstar comes on the trade market. And if Oladipo struggles to regain his form after tearing his quad tendon, Pacers could hand the keys to Warren and save the cash elsewhere. 

The good news is Indiana has time. The Pacers’ loaded lineup -- with Brogdon and Oladipo in the backcourt and Warren alongside Sabonis and Myles Turner -- has only played in six games this season, but the returns are promising, outscoring opponents by 10.3 points every 100 possessions. If I’m the Pacers, I sit tight this fall and see what they can do together next season and then evaluate the trade market at the deadline. 

Meanwhile, Warren continues to have his own Linsanity moment inside the bubble. The only thing that could make this Disney run more magical would be a dream matchup against the team that dumped him, the Phoenix Suns. 

And wouldn’t you know on Thursday, the Pacers are playing the Suns. In January, Warren scored 25 points in a revenge game win against his former team, but a closer look at the box score shows that Warren took zero 3-pointers in that game. Something tells me Warren won’t ignore the long ball again this time. The Suns better be ready. 

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Zion Williamson, Alex Caruso headline Western Conference storylines

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NBC Sports

Zion Williamson, Alex Caruso headline Western Conference storylines

You can exhale now. After a nearly five-month layoff, the NBA is back.

The bubble is holding tight so far. The daily testing regiment and strict quarantine protocols appear to be working. Unlike Major League Baseball, the NBA hasn’t faced an outbreak within its locker room. Knock on wood.

We still have a long way to go before the NBA crowns a champion in October, but it’s safe to actually focus on basketball again. So, it’s time to get reacquainted with every roster and identify the storylines to keep an eye on. 

Here’s one thing to watch for every Western Conference bubble team. To add a little spice to this endeavor, I’ve sorted the teams by my likelihood of them winning the 2019-20 NBA championship. The East preview will run on Friday. 

Buckle in, folks. This is gonna be a ride.

Los Angeles Lakers: Welcome to Caruso Mania

The Lakers will be reigniting their title quest without the services of Rajon Rondo (thumb surgery) and Avery Bradley (opted out of resumption), but I’m not sure they’ll miss them much. This is Alex Caruso’s time to shine.

I’ve long felt that Caruso is a far better option than Rondo at this point in their careers (ahem). The numbers point to Caruso’s snug fit next to the Lakers’ MVP candidate. LeBron James-Caruso lineups have outscored opponents by a whopping 20.8 points per 100 possessions, which is the Lakers’ best two-man pairing featuring James (minimum of 200 minutes). Meanwhile, James-Rondo lineups have seen the lowest returns among LeBron lineups at a solid 8.1 net rating, per NBA.com.

Caruso has become a cult hero because of his “sneaky” hops, but Caruso’s defense is highly underrated. His ability to create turnovers as a disruptor -- Caruso wields the highest steal rate on the Lakers -- should shore up much of the void left by Bradley, who is more of an on-ball pest. 

The Lakers surely lost some depth in the backcourt and I’m not ready to place faith in J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters quite yet, but more of Caruso is a boost to their championship hopes. When Rondo comes back sometime in the playoffs, the Lakers should look at the 2011 Miami Heat as a cautionary tale. James’ failed 2011 Finals quest was largely on his shoulders, but it didn’t help that the Heat insisted on playing a washed Mike Bibby over up-and-coming Mario Chalmers. Even with a healthy Rondo, the Lakers would be wise to hand the keys over to Caruso.

Los Angeles Clippers: Can Kawhi Leonard’s shake off the rust?

If Kawhi Leonard wants to stake claim to being the game’s best player, he first needs to get his legs back. In three scrimmages, Leonard is shooting 1-for-10 on 2-point jumpers and 6-for-27 (22.2 percent) on 3-point jumpers, per Synergy Sports tracking. He might need a software update.

Look, chances are, Leonard is just toying around and he’ll ease back into championship form soon enough, but we can’t just ignore that the reigning Finals MVP hasn’t looked sharp at all. Leonard’s scoring output has dipped all the way down to 15.5 points per 36 minutes in the scrimmages with only two free-throw attempts in three games. Those are Landry Shamet numbers, not Kawhi freaking Leonard.

Watching the film, most of Leonard’s jumpers are falling way short, which suggests his legs just aren’t there yet and the smart bet is that he’ll power up once he gets more reps. The Clippers aren’t losing sleep just yet, but among superstars in this league, Leonard’s bubble performance is the most concerning of all.

Houston Rockets: Does Russell Westbrook have his wind?

Russell Westbrook is back in the bubble with more clarity on his situation, much to the delight of Vegas insiders. However, his box score stats aren’t pretty, with 13 turnovers to 14 assists in 68 minutes of action. He finally knocked down a 3-pointer on Tuesday night, making his first of six tries during the exhibitions.

But considering he is coming off a coronavirus infection, I’m more interested in how he looks getting up and down the floor. In the halfcourt, he was able to initiate the nitro boosters, slice into the teeth of the defense and find some open 3s for teammates, which is what makes Westbrook so deadly for the Rockets. 

And if you doubted his burst after the long layoff, the sky-high lay-in during the second quarter of the Toronto scrimmage was vintage Westbrook -- blazing through the defense and looking like he’s going to obliterate the entire basket with a tomahawk. Westbrook softly laid it in, but the point was made: Westbrook is still Westbrook.

Westbrook needs to sharpen up in the decision-making department, particularly on some lazy passes in the halfcourt, but he’ll get his timing right soon enough. We don’t fully understand the pulmonary implications of the coronavirus -- and that’s scary -- but Westbrook’s high-octane attack remains part of the Rockets’ arsenal even after he battled COVID-19. With Eric Gordon’s ankle injury, Westbrook’s health only becomes more critical.

Dallas Mavericks: Please, Seth Curry, stay healthy

You thought the Mavericks were hard to guard with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis? Good luck defending them with Seth Curry finally healthy and mobile. It feels strange that I have to mention this, but the 29-year-old sharpshooter is second all-time in 3-point field goal percentage behind Steve Kerr. Yes, better than his older brother, Stephen.

Seth Curry has looked phenomenal in the restart so far and it’s sort of odd we don’t talk more about Curry in the context of the Mavs’ unstoppable offense, which, by the way, pulled itself away from the rest of the NBA this season at a league-high 115.8 points per 100 possessions. Here are Seth’s 3-point percentages by month with the Mavs since November: .364, .397, .434, .591, .526 (three games in March). He’s a 6-foot-2 flamethrower.

Curry, like his brother, has battled ankle injuries over the years and it’s great to see him healthy thus far. The Mavericks have been running off-ball actions involving Porzingis and Curry with ridiculous results. When Porzingis dives toward the rim, both defenders in the action sink to the paint to thwart the 7-foot-2 Porzingis, leaving Curry open for the long-ball. How do you guard that? The NBA doesn’t have much of an answer. Since Jan. 1, the Mavericks have a blistering 124.1 offensive rating with Doncic, Porzingis and Curry on the floor. This is going to be fun to watch.

Denver Nuggets: Is Bol Bol ready?

Credit to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps for clarifying whether Bol Bol’s play in the seeding games would exclude him from the 2020-21 Rookie of the Year race (it won’t). Trying to follow what counts and what doesn’t in this resumption feels a bit like climbing the Penrose stairs

The Bol Bol bubble (bolbol?) hype train slowed down a tad after his 16-point, 6-block debut last week, but he’s still the breakout star of the scrimmage play. The 20-year-old, who slid to No. 44 overall in last June’s draft, possesses other-worldly skills on a 7-foot-2 frame that can’t be ignored at this point. He hilariously didn’t have any assists in eight G-League games this season, but at that size, I’m not going to blame him. The bigger question is whether his body can withstand the rigors of the NBA.

We had the same questions about Porzingis, and he’s thriving at the five for the Mavericks after playing a lot of forward in New York. I could see a similar trajectory for Bol, who has been playing the three-spot for the Nuggets. With the NBA trending to small-ball for many teams, Bol won’t be crushed in the post by many teams. He’s long enough that he can probably block shots from out of bounds anyway. I can’t wait to see how he does when the games count. Or don’t. I can’t remember.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Andre Roberson back

Andre Roberson is battling Jusuf Nurkic for the comeback story of the bubble so far. On Friday, Roberson made his first appearance in an NBA game since he played the Detroit Pistons on January 27, 2018. Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley started for the Pistons against OKC’s Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Yeah, it’s been that long.

And what a return it was. Before his knee surgeries, Roberson (pronounced ROBBER-son, by the way) was regularly receiving the Tony Allen treatment on the perimeter, but the former All-Defense team member has been willing and able to shoot in his three scrimmages. In Tuesday’s scrimmage against the Blazers, Roberson not only took the game’s first shot -- but it came in the left corner. Later in the game, he hit a deep ball straight away as a trailer in transition, showing again that he is launching with confidence. The form is much improved, so this isn’t just blind luck.

Even before Roberson’s return, the Thunder were already a sexy pick to win it all in this wonky bubble. If you’re a Vegas bookmaker, you have to be sweating a little bit. I’m told by Jeff Sherman, the VP of risk management at Westgate’s SuperBook, that the sportsbook took multiple bets back in October on OKC to win it all at 1000-1 odds. If Roberson can be half-decent from beyond the arc, the Western Conference got that much tougher -- a confident Roberson is a game-changer.

Utah Jazz: The renewed Mitchell-Gobert connection

The rest of the NBA will be watching closely to see if the next disgruntled star on the trade market will be coming out of Utah, or if there will be two of them. If I’m Utah, I do everything in my power to thaw the icy relationship between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert that took a turn for the worst after Gobert’s COVID-19 infection in March.

Opposing teams hoping that Mitchell would freeze out Gobert in Orlando have been sorely disappointed. In the scrimmages, Mitchell has been feeding Gobert consistently to the point that the guard is sometimes over-probing for the big man underneath. Credit to coach Quin Snyder and the squad for putting that behind them. At least so far.

It’s a good sign for Utah that the two have gotten back to being a terrifying pick-and-roll lob threat. Mitchell and Gobert have already connected for four alley-oops in the bubble and the Jazz have treaded water offensively without Bojan Bogdanovic, who’s out for the entire restart after wrist surgery. Now if they can keep Mike Conley hot, that’ll do wonders for the team’s morale. Don’t count out the Jazz just yet.

New Orleans Pelicans: The Zion now vs. future dilemma

The New Orleans Pelicans certainly want to make the playoffs. Playing Zion Williamson as much as possible will help them achieve that objective, but considering his injury history and zero scrimmages ahead of Thursday’s kickoff, is that the smart move?

To steal a Pat Riley line, the Pelicans have to keep the main thing, the main thing. And that’s to win a championship one day with Williamson hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. In all likelihood, that’s not happening this year, so I get why the organization has been mum about Williamson’s availability for the season restart. 

I’ve already outlined why Zion makes the Pelicans the most compelling team in the bubble, but with no scrimmages under his belt, I have a hard time seeing the Pelicans pushing Williamson beyond 20 or 30 minutes per game in the early going. With his immense impact on the scoreboard, a few Zion minutes here and there might move the needle enough for New Orleans to earn a play-in opportunity. The margins are that small in the West. 

I fully expect a “Are the Pelicans holding Zion back too much?” debate to be raging in the next week or so. I don’t envy coach Alvin Gentry’s job at the moment. Restricting a player’s minutes -- even if the player stays successfully healthy in those minutes -- never seems to be a popular move in this microwave society. Even if it is better for the long haul.

Portland Trail Blazers: The Triumphant Return of Jusuf Nurkic 

Bol Bol may be the story of the bubble, but Jusuf Nurkic should be a close second. Nurk has been phenomenal. In his first game action following a gruesome compound fracture last March, Nurkic has been tremendous in three games, averaging 20.4 points, 14.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists per 36 minutes. Most notable? The 7-footer has taken eight 3-pointers and splashed two of them.

That last thing is essential for the Blazers, who have boldly relied on a twin-tower attack in scrimmages. Nurk has taken turns bludgeoning smaller defenders in the post, feeding teammates with nifty passes and launching from deep with confidence. The Bosnian Beast is a career 3-for-42 from downtown, but coach Terry Stotts has genuine belief in his floor-spacing abilities or else he wouldn’t be trotting him out there alongside Hassan Whiteside and Zach Collins. Nurk is extremely skilled for a player his size. (We talked more about this on the Habershow with Blazers president of basketball ops Neil Olshey.)

Damian Lillard’s foot issues remain a little unsettling heading into the restart, but the return of Nurkic should have Portland feeling extra bullish about next season. Hell, with Nurkic looking this good, I wouldn’t want to face a healthy Portland team in the first round. The Nurk story is remarkable.

Memphis Grizzlies: Is Ja Morant already the best passer in the NBA?

I’m not willing to go there yet -- maybe not until Chris Paul and LeBron James hang ‘em up for good -- but some of the passes that Morant pulls off just melt my brain. He catches the defense sleeping before their eyes even get heavy. His innate sense of timing and touch are just insane.

Morant is one of the few players that use a no-look pass to great advantage. It’s gotten to the point that defenses are sometimes starting to shade off players that he’s actively looking at so they can try to anticipate the fake-out pass. And he’ll take that extra beat to feed the easy target. 

The kid registered 29 assists during the Grizzlies’ three scrimmages compared to just four bad-pass turnovers. It’s unfair what he’s able to do at such a young age. He’s White Chocolate Jason Williams with Derrick Rose’s bounce. He turns 21 in, like, two weeks.

Sacramento Kings: Is Buddy Hield a foundation piece?

Man, Luke Walton has some stones for demoting Hield to a supersub role just months after the Bahamian-born scorer signed a four-year, $94 million extension. Not many head coaches would do that in their first year with a new club, but here we are.

In the Orlando scrimmages, the Kings have continued to start Kent Bazemore and Bogdan Bogdanovic on the wing even though Hield has been their most reliable scorer this season. With the pandemic tightening budgets around the league (see: Phoenix selling off their G-League team), the Kings will have a tough decision this fall when Bogie becomes a restricted free agent. 

WiIth $46 million due to Barnes and Hield, the Kings may be hard-pressed to match a big offer for Bogdanovic, considering neither of those three players are All-Star caliber. These things add up and Sacramento could find itself in a Charlotte Hornets West situation if they can’t pair De’Aaron Fox with another star co-pilot.

The Kings’ front office felt that Hield could take another step toward star status this season, but the move to the bench makes it hard to see how Hield fits into their long-term plans. With the NBA allowing non-bubble teams to send scouts to Orlando, I suspect Hield is one of the more interesting players to watch. If I’m Hield, I’m busting my tail defensively in Orlando to try to prop up my trade stock.

San Antonio Spurs: Who are the Spurs?

I don’t know what the Spurs are doing in the bubble. They might not know what they’re doing there either. LaMarcus Aldridge is not in Orlando. Patty Mills is there but not playing. Dejounte Murray is the only player on the roster with guaranteed money past the 2020-21 season. If Gregg Popovich weren’t in line to coach Team USA next summer in Tokyo, I wouldn’t be surprised if he just hung it up this summer and lived on a vineyard for the rest of his days.

Alas, they’re in Orlando, with little to play for beyond the experience itself. I don’t know who the next Spurs All-Star will be. DeMar DeRozan can leave as a free agent this summer and we aren’t sure how good Murray is yet, even 21 months after he tore his ACL. While I like Derrick White’s game, he just turned 26 years old. I don’t know if you can classify him as a prospect anymore.

It’s hard to get excited about the Spurs right now. I guess after 22 straight years of playoff appearances, they’ve earned the right to just … be.

Phoenix Suns: The Mikal Bridges Breakout

Um, what did the Suns do to Mikal Bridges during the shutdown? The guy is playing out of his mind during the scrimmages, averaging 25.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.1 3-pointers every 36 minutes. Did he steal Cam Johnson’s shooting ability Monstars-style? In those scrimmages, he shot 7-for-13 from downtown including 5-for-6 on corner 3s. 

Seriously, this guy has been a revelation, or maybe this is just a continuation of where he left off. In the 15 games before the break, the defensive stopper made 43.5 percent of his 62 3-point attempts and started really filling up the scoring columns. His dribble-drive game has been really impressive in Orlando.

It’s weird to say but Orlando Mikal Bridges is basically what I’ve always wanted to see Otto Porter become. Let’s see if Bridges can keep this up once the seeding games begin. At this point, if I’m running a front office, I’m trading back and just drafting all Villanova players. 

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