NBA, sportsbooks must solve for superstar absences in bubble

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NBC Sports

NBA, sportsbooks must solve for superstar absences in bubble

James Harden’s whereabouts were finally revealed, but the mystery was hardly solved. Just before midnight on Tuesday, the 2017-18 MVP entered the NBA bubble in Orlando, joining the hundreds of NBA players already on location for the resumption of the 2019-20 season. 

The public knew this bit of information solely because the Houston Rockets’ official Twitter feed posted a video of the Rockets star walking into the Disney property, paired with the caption, “The Beard has arrived!”

Other than that, Harden’s trip to Orlando was kept secret.

This was big news. The NBA’s leading scorer hadn’t been seen from, or heard from, in several days as his team practiced in Orlando without him. Rumors explaining the superstar’s absence swirled on the internet and ran throughout the insider gossip mill around league circles.

Reporters tried to get to the bottom of it. The Rockets had touched down in Orlando four days prior and had generally avoided addressing the elephant in the room. The Rockets’ other star, Russell Westbrook, was also nowhere to be seen either when practices began. 

For multiple days, the reasons for their absences were not made known. Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni artfully dodged multiple questions on Zoom calls with the media.

But on Sunday night, some clarity arrived. Westbrook broke the news on social media that he had tested positive for coronavirus and was “feeling well” with hopes that he’d return to the team soon.

As for Harden? An explanation remained elusive. Despite Harden’s documented arrival, there was still no official update from the NBA or the Rockets. Was he sick? Was he dealing with a personal matter? Was he injured? Did he, like Westbrook, have coronavirus?

These are questions that bookmakers in Vegas were asking, and without answers, they had to take unusual action. As of Thursday afternoon, major American sportsbooks like BetMGM, Caesars, SuperBook, William Hill and DraftKings were not taking bets on the July 31 game between the Rockets and Dallas Mavericks game. It was the only game from the NBA’s re-opening weekend removed from consideration.

“We had to take it off the board,” says Nick Bogdanovich, the director of trading at William Hill, one of America’s leading sports book operators. “We’re waiting on more information.”

On Thursday night, Harden finally returned to Rockets practice and said his delay was due to “a family issue.” 

If Harden’s absence was in any way related to the coronavirus, sportsbooks will likely never get the confirmation they seek -- unless Harden OK’s it. According to league sources, information related to COVID-19 will not be released publicly without the player’s expressed approval as part of an agreement between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association.

This new policy is already creating problems for sportsbooks that depend on accurate and timely player health information. The Rockets’ situation -- involving two of the best players in the league -- threw a wrench into sportsbook operations and demonstrated how a lack of transparency can impact league partnerships.

“I’m dumbfounded by it,” says USBookmaking president Vic Salerno, who has opened and operated over a hundred sportsbooks across America. “It’s bad for us that we don’t have transparency. It’s bad for everybody, I believe. (Contracting COVID-19) is not a stigma that you’ve done something wrong.”

Over the years, Salerno has taken issue with the league’s policy on reporting injuries. In 2018, the Sports Betting Hall of Fame member testified in front of Illinois lawmakers that bookmakers should not be required to pay integrity or royalty fees to the NBA or other sports leagues. Salerno argued that LeBron James’ hidden “pretty much broken” hand injury during the 2018 NBA Finals invalidated the league’s position of trustworthiness. 

After years of staunch opposition to sports betting, the NBA has done a U-turn on the issue and collected millions in business deals with betting houses. Since the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking 2018 repeal of a federal ban on sports betting, the NBA has brokered numerous partnerships with sportsbooks including MGM Resorts, DraftKings, Bet Stars, theScore, FanDuel and WilliamHill. Financial details are scarce, but ESPN reported that the MGM Sports partnership, the first of its kind, to be worth over $25 million for the NBA. 

The partnership draws greater attention to the lack of clear information. Over at SuperBook at the Westgate Casino in Las Vegas, the Rockets-Mavericks game was removed from their mobile app and their brick-and-mortar sportsbook as soon as news broke that Harden and Westbrook did not initially travel to Orlando.

“You have to read between the lines,” Jeff Sherman, VP of risk management and oddsmaking at Westgate SuperBook, said in a phone interview this week. “It’s all a unique situation for us.”

The NBA has only reported numbers of positive cases. In the latest press release on Monday, the NBA said 19 NBA players have tested positive since July 1. No names have been officially released, making it a guessing game for those inside and outside the league.

By withholding information regarding the coronavirus, Salerno believes the NBA could be creating a larger problem. If a star player tests positive for coronavirus and needs to miss time, let alone an entire playoff series, that intel could be extremely valuable to bettors. Under the current policy, the league and the union are leaving open the possibility for someone to leak that information to interested parties, even if it’s unintentional.

“It’s like insider trading in the stock market,” Salerno says. “It will become insider information if they don’t become transparent. People are out there looking for every advantage. You can’t tell me that a player in the NBA gets the coronavirus and the team doesn’t know. The team (staffers) can tell their cousins or whomever.”

With several weeks remaining until the playoffs begin, many sportsbooks continue to list odds on whether the Rockets will win the NBA or Western Conference title (generally called futures). However, it’s not hard to see how mysterious absences from star players of Westbrook and Harden’s stature could provide enormous problems for sportsbooks in, say, the middle of the conference finals. In a star-heavy league.

“A star player in the NBA is worth a lot,” Salerno says. “Even more than a quarterback in a football game.”

For example, at SuperBook, the Suns opened as 4.5-point favorites in their opening game against the Washington Wizards. With Wizards star Bradley Beal sitting out the bubble, Sherman says, they moved the Suns to 7.5-point favorites.

“Once in a while, you’ll get (NHL star) Conor McDavid out and we’ll shift the line 20 cents or something like that,” Sherman says. “It doesn’t have the effect of the top NBA players where the spread will go from two to seven.”

On July 4, the Miami Herald reported that three Miami Heat players tested positive for coronavirus. Six days later, Goran Dragic told reporters that Bam Adebayo and Kendrick Nunn didn’t join the team. The Heat have not commented on Adebayo or Nunn’s absences.

Adebayo was the Heat’s All-Star representative, along with Jimmy Butler.

“In hockey, you could fill in with a zamboni guy,” Bogdanovich says. “These NBA players that are worth five, six points … it’s huge.”

On Thursday night, Yahoo! Sports NBA reporter Chris Haynes broke the news that Milwaukee Bucks starting point guard Eric Bledsoe tested positive for coronavirus and didn’t travel to Orlando. The Bucks have not commented on the report, which seems to be par for the course. The Denver Nuggets have yet to reveal how many players traveled to Orlando, but Troy Daniels told media members they only have eight to ten players in the bubble. That means anywhere from seven to nine Nuggets players have yet to arrive.

The lack of transparency has created an awkward situation for head coaches trying to navigate unprecedented waters. At Wednesday’s Lakers practice, reporters asked head coach Frank Vogel about Lakers forward Markieff Morris’ performance in practice, but the coach sidestepped the question, citing privacy concerns. 

When asked whether Morris was even in Orlando at all, Vogel declined to answer.

Then, Lakers team beat reporter Mike Trudell broke the news that Morris hasn’t joined the team in Orlando due to “an excused absence.” 

As of yet, no one has linked Morris’ absence to a positive test, but the veil of secrecy inevitably yields questions. When Lakers guard Rajon Rondo broke his right thumb at Sunday’s practice, the team quickly announced the injury and said Rondo would undergo surgery to repair the fracture. The lack of transparency for one player’s availability but not for another has confused industry experts, including Salerno.

“What’s the difference between COVID and somebody who pulls a hamstring, tears a knee or breaks a bone?” he asks.

It’s not an easy question to answer. The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement allows teams to divulge medical information relevant to a player’s availability so long as it doesn’t violate HIPAA laws.

Sportsbook oddsmakers were expecting to have knowledge of which NBA players tested positive, but the league’s decision to keep it under wraps caught them by surprise.

“I didn’t know that was going to be the case,” Bogdanovich says. “Eventually it’ll get to us, but we’re in a race with the bettors to get the information first.”

Taking down a game because of lack of transparency isn’t unprecedented. Sportsbooks have dealt with surprising last-minute absences due to load management over the last few years, though the league has updated its protocols to ensure that it rarely, if ever, happens so close to game time.

The difference is that a DNP-Rest only affects one game. A positive test for coronavirus has the potential to impact a string of playoff games and therefore, championship odds.

“It’s going to be a nightmare,” Bogdanovich said. “I don’t want to say it’s impossible because granted, the bettors have the same puzzle to figure out.”

Salerno worries that the NBA’s cloak of anonymity will backfire and every player who is ruled out will be suspected of testing positive for coronavirus.

“Why was that player out? Did he just have a tooth extracted or does he have the coronavirus and he’ll be out for a while? And what do we do with future bets? The totals? Future games? That uncertainty is going to create a lot of problems,” Salerno says.

The NBA bubble presents other betting issues as well. On Thursday afternoon, the Pelicans announced that Zion Williamson would leave the bubble to attend to a family emergency and is expected to return for the season resumption at some point. 

Normally, Williamson would be eligible to play right away upon his return. But because of league protocols addressing re-entry to the campus, Williamson must take part in a quarantine for a duration of four to 10 days depending on a variety of factors.

As a result, SuperBook has pulled the Pelicans-Jazz game on July 30, the Pelicans-Clippers game on August 1 and its Western Conference eight-seed playoff prop bet. If the abrupt departure happened closer to tipoff, the ripple effects of a star like Williamson leaving would have been felt far and wide at sportsbooks.

“No big deal this far in advance,” Sherman says.

Everyone in the country is dealing with unprecedented circumstances. The NBA is no different. Sportsbooks having to pull games because of lack of transparency and clarity from the league is a sign of the times.

"It’s rare, obviously,” Bogdanovich says of taking games down. “But it won’t be the last one before Thursday, July 30th. I have a feeling something else will happen. And we’ll have to figure it out. That’s just the way it is.”

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.

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. 

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