Since the NBA has so nicely divided its teams into a hotel hierarchy, 110 Sports has decided to take full advantage. To preview the NBA’s return on July 30, the NBA Bubble Tea series will examine the main question surrounding all 22 teams at the Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando. Naturally, the teams will be divided based on the hotel they are staying in.
There are a handful of teams that find themselves in the middle of the hotel rankings that have legitimate chances at winning a playoff series and one Eastern Conference team, in particular, who has a real chance to represent the East in the NBA Finals. As NBA Bubble Tea rolls on and the return of the NBA gets closer, let’s take a look at the top storylines for the Thunder, 76ers, Rockets, Pacers, Mavericks, Nets, Grizzlies and Magic.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Does the three-guard lineup work in the playoffs?
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Chris Paul and Dennis Schröder play a combined 97 minutes per night. They combine for 55 points, 14.3 assists and 15 rebounds per game and are the most terrifying part of the best team in the NBA since Thanksgiving from a record perspective. The next major question to be answered is, is this three guard lineup good enough and versatile enough on both ends of the floor to play extended minutes in the postseason? The lineup of Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul, Schröder, Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari has one of the best offensive ratings, 127.9, of any highly-used lineup in the NBA. Those five players have played 177 minutes together and no lineup in the NBA with that many minutes played boasts a higher rating.
However, there are obvious defensive questions when Schröder and Paul — both 6’1 — are on the floor with SGA, especially against teams like the Clippers who have an array of big, talented wings. The addition of Andre Roberson will help, but it’s been so long since Roberson has played in an NBA game that he will undoubtedly be rusty and Gallinari is a scoring power forward first and foremost who shouldn’t be the guy to guard the Anthony Davises of the world.
This postseason can go a long way to getting Paul to stay in Oklahoma City past the end of his current contract, as he’ll be a free agent in the summer of 2022. So far, the CP3 era in OKC has been much better than most assumed it would be, but they still have a ways to go and they will probably need to be a contender to get Paul, who will be 37 at that point, to stick around for even longer.
Philadelphia 76ers: Can this roster work in an ideal situation? How does Ben Simmons fit at power forward?
The clock is ticking on the Ben Simmons/Joel Embiid experiment in Philadelphia, especially with the current situation alleviating some of the biggest questions surrounding the team. Even if the Sixers make it to the finals and play seven games in all four series, the maximum number of games they can play is 36. Even Embiid, who’s fitness has always been a question, can make it through 36 games without fatigue being a major issue rather than trying to make a run in the playoffs after 82 games.
In addition, the Sixers moved Simmons to power forward. That move has a chance to alleviate some issues and get Simmons going to the basket in the pick-and-roll with Shake Milton where he is terrifying going downhill. Simmons might have an easier time getting to the rim in the halfcourt and he’ll still be lethal in transition. But what if it doesn’t work this way? Then what in the world do you do with Simmons? The answer is you probably trade him and retool your team to center around Embiid rather than having two stars that excel in two different styles of basketball.
Ben Simmons sliding down to power forward also puts Al Horford on the bench and all of a sudden you have a proven winner anchoring the second unit. The Sixers are healthy, finally, and they have a well-rested Embiid who will still be well-rested for the playoffs. If there isn’t a real reason for celebration in Philly after this season, there might never be with this core.
Houston Rockets: Is this the last go for this version and style of the Rockets?
There’s certainly an argument that the Rockets trying to play as small as they are is just laughable and will never work in playoff basketball. But if it does, it will be in the bubble. James Harden has always run out of gas in the second round of the playoffs. Similar to Embiid, he won’t have to endure 82 games like he usually does before making a playoff run. Once and for all, the NBA is going to find out if it is fatigue that is responsible for Harden’s drop in points and, more importantly, efficiency, in the playoffs or if the uptick in defensive intensity is the culprit.
Head coach Mike D’Antoni is in the last year of his four-year contract and it was reported in December that it’s highly unlikely for him to return if the Rockets don’t win a championship in 2020. They have a rested Harden, Russell Westbrook and an elite perimeter defender in Robert Covington. However, the only player on their roster taller than 6’9 is Tyson Chandler, who is averaging 8.4 minutes per game. The Rockets will be really small, per usual, and if they don’t win a championship, it’s probably the end of the road for this player-coach-style era in Houston.
Indiana Pacers: What’s going on with Victor Oladipo?
Victor Oladipo started the first scrimmage for the Pacers, scoring eight points on 3-of-10 shooting in 19 minutes. But according to Oladipo and head coach Nate McMillan, it was not indicative of whether or not Oladipo will play when the season actually begins.
“We haven’t talked about the start of the season,” McMillan told ESPN. “We’ve basically been focused for this first preseason game, and he’s available for tonight.”
Well, I sure hope they’ve been talking about the possibility of him not playing in the seeding games because that drastically changes the role of every player on the Pacers roster and puts more pressure on Malcolm Brogdon and TJ Warren to produce, especially with Domantas Sabonis out with an injury. It took weeks for players to adjust when Oladipo returned from injury in January and uncertainty is certainly not what the Pacers need as they fight to hold on to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Not only does Oladipo’s status affect the Pacers, but it impacts the rest of the East as well. Philadelphia is tied with Indiana at 39-26 overall and both teams are just two games back of the Heat in fourth. The two teams play each other on Aug. 1 and the winner of that game could go on to secure the five seed. It’s, of course, the biggest question surrounding Indiana, but his inclusion in the NBA’s return alters the seeding race in the East too.
Dallas Mavericks: How far away are the Mavericks from being a contender?
Kristaps Portzingis scored at least 24 points in 11 of his last 15 games prior to the suspension of the NBA season. If KP is that caliber of player alongside Luka Dončić, one of the five best players in the NBA, the Mavericks could be contending in the West much sooner than anyone thought they would. On paper, they are one of the best offensive teams in the game but it will be the first time either European star plays in high-intensity, playoff basketball. Of course, there are key pieces that Dallas is missing, like Dwight Powell, who ruptured an Achilles after playing 40 games this season.
In the playoffs, teams have to be clutch down the stretch. The Mavs haven’t exactly been clutch this season. They are just 14-21 in games when neither team leads by more than five points in the last five minutes. Their offense is ranked 29th in such situations and the pressure will only increase in the postseason. Hopefully, that’s not indicative of how Dončić and the rest of the Mavs will perform in crunch time in the playoffs because if it is, they aren’t anywhere close to contending.
Brooklyn Nets: Can they cement the pieces that will fit next to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant for the next few seasons?
Perhaps the biggest storyline for the duration the Nets are in the bubble is who in the world they’ll put on the floor to field a team. But any real question has a bigger impact on the future in Brooklyn rather than the immediate performance in Orlando. Next season, the Nets have aspirations of winning a title on the backs of Durant and Irving, and the bubble will help management decide who is best fit to play alongside those guys in 2020-21.
Bulls guard Zach Lavine had emerged as a possible trade target for the Nets. What kind of performances Brooklyn’s players put on the remainder of the season could determine whether or not Chicago thinks the Nets have the pieces they’d like in return for the 25 points per game they’d be giving up with Lavine.
On the other hand, Caris LeVert could be so good in the bubble that Brooklyn feels like he’s the guy to put right next to their superstars and that they don’t need to give up a lot to go after Lavine. What happens in Orlando could have a direct impact on whether or not the UCLA product ends up in New York next season or not. There’s another argument to be made that Lavine is way too ball dominant to be at his best alongside Durant and Irving, but that’s a different discussion.
Memphis Grizzlies: How does the future of the Grizzlies respond to the pressure of holding on to the eight seed?
Until Justice Winslow injured his hip in practice and was ruled out for the remainder of the season, his impact was the biggest question for Memphis. Winslow being on the floor allows for a much closer examination of the core of young players in Memphis moving forward. The bubble still allows for some observation, but the narrative has shifted ever so slightly.
Ja Morant has pushed winning in his rookie season, a rare attribute for any first-year NBA player. But neither he, nor Jaren Jackson Jr., have faced the pressure of holding on to an eight seed with just eight games to go and neither have faced the intensity of an NBA playoffs. Basically, the entire Western Conference is gunning for the Grizzlies. The Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Kings all sit 3.5 games back and Memphis will play Portland and New Orleans in two of its first three games. The Grizzlies could distance themselves quickly or find themselves in a close fight to maintain their position with five games remaining.
It might be unfair to grade Morant and Jackson Jr.’s response to this pressure so early in their careers, but how they respond is an important measurement considering these two players are at the center of Memphis’ future for at least the next five years. If nothing else, they should be able to hold on to a 3.5 game lead with just eight games remaining even without Winslow in the lineup.
Orlando Magic: Does anything encouraging happen regarding their young players?
The Magic seem to have hit the ceiling of their potential with a core of Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon and Evan Fournier. They are a team destined for the bottom two spots in the Eastern Conference. With that being said, the Magic have two young players, Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac, who could be the start of something new for the home team of the NBA bubble. Fultz arrived at the bubble later than the team and Isaac hasn’t played since suffering a knee injury on Jan. 1. Both players participated in contact workouts and July 24 was the first time the Magic had seen all of their players in a full workout since arriving in the bubble.
While the news is positive, it’s still up in the air whether Isaac will play once the season resumes and neither played in Saturday’s scrimmage against the Lakers. Those two players are the closest thing the Magic have to a future along with Mo Bamba. If Fultz and Isaac are for real, then there is certainly reason for optimism when it comes to the future in Orlando. If not, it’s a team at a crossroads where they have to decide between a rebuild and settling for the bottom of the Eastern Conference every season.