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2015-16 Washington Wizards Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Washington Wizards’ 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders



The current iteration of the Washington Wizards remains an enigma. Despite reaching the Eastern Conference Semifinals the past two seasons, the Wizards failed to record a 50-win campaign during this span, suffering from unpredictable periods of inconsistency. In fact, it has been over 35 years since this franchise has recorded a 50+ win regular season. The Southeast Division has greatly improved, but the Wizards’ front office was relatively quiet during the summer. Will this Wizards squad have enough to break through and reach the Eastern Conference Finals?

Basketball Insiders previews the Washington Wizards’ 2015-16 season.

Five Thoughts

Losing Paul Pierce was unfortunate for Washington, but I loved that they were able to acquire a number of wings this summer such as Jared Dudley, Gary Neal and Alan Anderson. Those players will add depth to this already talented Washington team and the Pierce loss no longer seems as bad. If Otto Porter can step up and play well, Washington will be in even better shape. With all of that said, the Wizards will only go as far as John Wall takes them. He is one of the best point guards in the NBA and so important to this team – on both ends of the floor – so they need him to stay healthy and continue to perform at a high level. If this team is at full strength, I think a high seed in the East and deep postseason run is very possible.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

-Alex Kennedy

The Wizards reached the second round of the playoffs last season for the second consecutive campaign. So the question is whether the franchise can get over the hump and make an Eastern Conference Finals run. The Wizards were relatively quiet all summer and didn’t make much noise reshaping the roster. The team lost future Hall of Fame forward Paul Pierce in free agency to the Los Angeles Clippers, and only added role players like Jared Dudley, Gary Neal and Alan Anderson. The team will miss Pierce’s leadership, so Otto Porter will need to take the leap from role player to dependable starter on the wing. Bradley Beal and John Wall form one of the best backcourts in the league while Marcin Gortat and Nene provide the muscle on the inside. Expect another run to the playoffs, although their position in the Southeast Division may slip a bit.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

-Lang Greene

Thanks to Paul Pierce, the Wizards were one of the most entertaining teams in the 2015 NBA Playoffs. Now, he’s gone to L.A. to reunite with Doc Rivers, but the Wizards really aren’t any worse. John Wall and Bradley Beal are still the stars of the show here, while Marcin Gortat is the max money stud in the frontcourt. The team really juiced up their bench by adding Gary Neal, Jared Dudley, Alan Anderson and rookie Kelly Oubre, so this isn’t a team short on talent by any stretch of the imagination. Last season, though, they looked relatively inexperienced and dealt with an ill-timed injury from Wall. They look for real, though, and now have enough playoff experience to make a postseason leap. They should be one of the Eastern Conference’s better teams this year.

1st Place – Southeast Division

-Joel Brigham

The Wizards are one of the more intriguing teams to watch and see when they will emerge into a true title contender. They have one of the most talented young backcourts in the league with John Wall and Bradley Beal, while their frontcourt includes true bigs Nene and Marcin Gortat. Now, it’s about filling in the other pieces. Following a postseason of heroics, Paul Pierce left for the Los Angeles Clippers this offseason. Now it will be up to those he mentored to step up in clutch situations. The additions of Jared Dudley and Gary Neal gives the Wizards another set of players with postseason experience, as veteran leadership is key on a young team like this. Rookie Kelly Oubre touted his offensive abilities during the pre-draft process and he will be looking to contribute early on. Keep an eye on the progress of Otto Porter, a former third overall pick who could be poised for a breakout season.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

-Jessica Camerato

The Wizards are one of the younger teams that I expect to take the next step this season. I think John Wall is overlooked as being one of the better point guards in the league right now and his ability to play the game and create plays at different speeds is particularly impressive. He’s worked tirelessly on his jump shot and still leaves something to be desired in that regard, but overall, I am happy to see him fulfilling his potential. I could say many of the same things with regards to Bradley Beal, but Otto Porter is the player I am watching most closely this season. After the departure of Paul Pierce, the Wizards will not only need Wall to step up and put into practice many of the lessons that Pierce taught the young group, they will also need Porter to show that his impressive run in last year’s playoffs was no fluke and that he can be an everyday difference maker in the NBA. The Southeast is admittedly tough to predict, but I know the Wizards will be near the top.

3rd Place — Southeast Division

-Moke Hamilton

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal

Yes, All-Star guard John Wall has consistently served as the team’s leading scorer over the years. But shooting guard Bradley Beal has all of the tools necessary to ultimately lead the Wizards’ offensive charge on a nightly basis. Beal possesses limitless range from the perimeter and has greatly improved his ability to create his own shot off the bounce. The biggest obstacle holding Beal back has been his constant run-ins with the injury bug since entering the league. If Beal takes the next step offensively, there’s no reason he couldn’t develop into a solid 19-21 point per game performer.

Top Defensive Player: Committee Approach

Despite the Wizards’ success last season, the team doesn’t have a truly dominant game-changing defender on the roster. John Wall has the athletic tools to be a nightly nuisance, but he’s also burdened with a heavy load of playmaking and scoring responsibilities. Look for the Wizards to get things done defensively as a unit in 2015-16.

Top Playmaker: John Wall

In five seasons in the league, Wall has averaged less than eight assists per game just once. Last season, the guard averaged a career-high 10 assists per night. Part of the reason Wall is so effective is his ability to breakdown defenders on the perimeter, get into the lane and cause opposing defenses havoc. Wall is an elite floor general who has the rare ability to erupt for 20 points on any given night but also has no problem putting his own offense on hold to find teammates for easy buckets.

Top Clutch Player: John Wall

When the game is on the line, the Wizards will place the rock in Wall’s hands to deliver the victory. While the Wizards didn’t win a boatload of games with Wall as the lead dog when he first arrived in the league, the past two seasons have cemented the guard as a legitimate franchise player. As a reminder, being clutch isn’t just about hitting buzzer-beating, highlight-reel shots. It’s about making the right plays at critical times, generating a key steal, recognizing an opponent’s tendency at a crucial moment, knocking down a pivotal free throw or finding an open teammate for a bucket. Wall has consistently demonstrated his ability to handle this type of pressure in the biggest moments.

The Unheralded Player: Jared Dudley

Guys such as Yi Jianlian, Acie Law, Julian Wright, Al Thornton and Sean Williams were all selected before Dudley in the 2007 NBA Draft. All of those guys are no longer in the league. Dudley doesn’t have a sexy game, but the man has staying power and the unique ability to carve out niche roles in whatever environment he suits up in. With over 600 career three-pointers on his resume, boasting a 40 percent accuracy rate from long distance, Dudley will provide the Wizards with plenty of flexibility and floor spacing.

Best New Addition: Jared Dudley

As we stated earlier, the Wizards were extremely quiet this summer adding just Dudley, Gary Neal, Alan Anderson and rookie Kelly Oubre into the fold. Out of this newly acquired supporting cast, Dudley is by far the player who will make the most impact in the rotation this season.

–Lang Greene

Who We Like

Randy Wittman: The veteran coach began his tenure at the helm in Washington with a woeful 47-84 (.359) record and was placed on the hot seat watch-list by many observers. But Wittman has compiled a 90-74 (.549) record the past two seasons while leading the team to consecutive Eastern Conference Semifinal appearances. Say what you will about his coaching philosophies and stubbornness to adapt to certain principles, Wittman has weathered the storm and has the buy-in of his players.

John Wall: He entered the league with questions about his NBA readiness and whether he could be the face of a franchise. Wall has delivered and has emerged as one of the league’s best floor generals. Now, the question shifts to whether Wall can lead this franchise to true title contention.

Marcin Gortat: Since arriving to Washington, Gortat has missed just one regular season contest, posting averages of 12.7 points and 9.1 rebounds on 54 percent shooting from the floor. Gortat is a nightly double-double threat, blue-collar type who brings his hard hat to work each night.

Bradley Beal: The guard is oozing with potential and also eligible for a max-level contract extension. This could be the season Beal takes a jump much like Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler did during the 2014-15 campaign. An All-Star nod is not out of the question.

-Lang Greene


Washington finished with the fifth-best defense in the NBA last season, allowing just 100 points per 100 possessions. Also, the Wizards are armed with one of the league’s most explosive backcourts in the game today. Before his career is over, Wall should have a top five MVP finish on his resume and Beal is an All-Star in waiting. There won’t be many nights on the schedule where this duo will be the underdogs in their backcourt matchups. But the question is, can both guys stay healthy long enough to completely maximize their talent?

-Lang Greene


The lack of depth could come into play if a major wave of injuries hits this roster. The team lost future Hall of Fame forward Paul Pierce in free agency over the summer and it remains to be seen whether Otto Porter is truly up for the challenge as his replacement. If Porter isn’t ready, his primary backups in that role will be Jared Dudley and Martell Webster, who both have injury issues of their own. The same goes for the team’s interior depth behind Marcin Gortat and Nene. Veterans Drew Gooden, DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries would need to absorb a lot of heavy lifting if there’s an extended absence experienced in the frontline.

-Lang Greene

The Burning Question

Were the Wizards wrong for banking on internal growth to get this team over the hump?

It’s rather easy to play armchair general manager and question the Wizards’ hesitance on adding more talent to the roster this offseason. But the front office believes a healthy Beal and Wall coupled with the team’s imposing frontline has the potential for significant organic growth. However, concerns about the team’s depth are legitimate in nature. The Wizards undoubtedly have the potential for another run to the second round of the playoffs, but an Eastern Conference Finals bid will be a tough road to navigate.

-Lang Greene


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NBA Daily: Ivica Zubac Rounding Into Form For Clippers

David Yapkowitz writes about Ivica Zubac and his strong bubble performances for the Los Angeles Clippers – is he the key for a deep postseason run?

David Yapkowitz



The Los Angeles Clippers have no shortage of star power. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George form one of the most dangerous duos in the NBA, and both Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are averaging close to 20 points a game each while coming off the bench.

But there is one player on the roster who might be the team’s X-Factor, one player who could hold the key to being able to withstand the imposing frontline of the Los Angeles Lakers – and that’s Ivica Zubac.

Zubac was once a Laker before he was casually tossed aside to the Clippers at last season’s trade deadline. He had shown flashes of his capabilities with the Lakers but spent most of his first couple of seasons in the league with the Lakers’ G League affiliate. Upon his arrival to the Clippers, he immediately became a key player and has since settled into the starting center role.

His arrival to the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando was initially held up as he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since joined the team after a mandatory quarantine period and is looking ready to help the team as they gear up for a playoff run.

He admitted that although he only experienced mild symptoms from the virus, he still felt winded and not quite up to speed as he tried to ease himself back into regular game flow.

“It’s much better, it’s much better than when I got here. I can feel it getting better with each practice, each game,” Zubac said on a recent conference call with media.

“After I first started getting back in shape, after I was cleared, I felt like I was out of shape. My chest was a little tighter when I would do some stuff. But I feel great right now. I don’t feel anything. I’m getting back into shape, I’m almost there. It’s going to take some more time.”

Zubac feeling like his old self again has been evident with each passing game. He started slow, only finishing with two points and three rebounds against the Lakers while being outworked by Anthony Davis. Against the New Orleans Pelicans, he looked a bit better, especially with his effort on the glass.

In the Clippers’ third game of the restart against the Phoenix Suns, Zubac put up 18 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 77 percent from the field. He followed that up with his best bubble game to date with 21 points on a perfect 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds against the Dallas Mavericks.

Zubac equated his increased production with gradually regaining his conditioning and mobility and getting the feel again for regular game speed.

“I’m getting the feel, I’m starting to remember what guys like, what are the best spots on the court for me. My conditioning is getting better each practice, each game,” Zubac told media after the Mavericks game. “I’m feeling like I can stay on the floor for a while, I can run the floor, I can fight in the post with guys, I can rebound. Everything with my conditioning getting back, I can get on another level in every aspect of my game.”

Before his performance against the Mavericks, Zubac had a pretty solid game against the Suns – but the center was obviously still readjusting to his teammates and being able to make the right reads and be in the correct spots on the floor. He played solid defense on Deandre Ayton, but he also ended up having a costly turnover late in the game that set up Devin Booker’s eventual game-winner.

Following the Suns game, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers had mentioned there were a few areas that Zubac could use improvement in, and he was much more effusive in his praise after his performance against the Mavericks.

“He was phenomenal. We talked about it, he did all the things we needed, he really ran the floor, that didn’t show up statistically, but what it did, it created space, it created mismatches,” Rivers told media after the game.

“I loved that our guys were looking for him. I thought his rebounding was fantastic. Really coming off the way we ended the game the other day with Zu, then coming back, playing like that, that was fantastic for his confidence.”

Throughout the season, Zubac has been a player that doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. He does have a soft touch around the rim and can establish a strong position in the post, but he does a lot of damage when he’s rolling to the rim, cutting and moving without the ball and catching lobs from his teammates.

He’s also a good rebounder who gets points off of offensive putbacks, and he’s a solid defender who acts as the team’s interior defensive anchor. He’s also usually on the bench at the end of games when Harrell is in with the starters. But depending on potential matchups, perhaps against the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic, or even the Lakers and Davis, Zubac could find himself finishing some games.

What is certain though, is he’s proving his importance to the team and he’s showing that come playoff time, he could end up being the X-factor. He knows that his teammates are going to look for him and he’s ready for that.

“It’s just communication on the floor, knowing what Kawhi and P.G like, knowing how to get a better angle on a screen, just the plays we run, got to have a better understanding what’s good at the time. It’s mostly communication on the floor,” Zubac said. “It feels great to get rewarded by my teammates after doing all the hard work.”

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Free Agency Update: Changes In The Bubble

Drew Maresca explores the free agency implications of the first week of play in the bubble as the NBA continues its return to post COVID-19 play.

Drew Maresca



Free agency is always a fun time for the NBA and its fans, but particularly so in 2020. Most free agents have usually earned their next deal by the 65th game of any given season – but this year is far from typical. Instead, the NBA has returned, sans its eight worst teams, meaning that competition is consistently better. And with limited competition for our attention, every game is a major event that draws more eyes and has a greater effect on the paydays of to-be free agents.

We’re still only three or four games into the official return of the NBA, but there have already been some changes to how we perceive some players. Take T.J. Warren, for example, who’s averaging over 39.7 points per game through three contests. Or Michael Porter Jr., who looks more like the focal point of a team than a player in his first year of professional action.

This article will focus explicitly on the changes in perception of free agents to-be as a result of their play in the bubble in Orlando.  We understand that the players listed below can still hurt their standings and that teams rate free agents differently. While the sample size is small, we’ve seen deals made based on an equally small body of work (e.g., Jerome James to the New York Knicks).

One caveat to keep in mind is the unprecedented fiscal challenges facing the NBA and its club in 2020. Not only will the COVID-19 pandemic inevitably hurt the 2020-21 salary cap, but there’s also still a conclusion to be had with the preseason China situation.

With all of that in mind, let’s explore the players that have made the loudest cases for a payday come this offseason.

The Stars

Mike Conley Jr., Utah Jazz – Player Option

Conley Jr. has a player option for 2020-21 – but he played poorly enough through March, relative to what we’ve come to expect from him, that it was more than reasonable to assume he would opt-in at $34.5 million.

But wait, there’s a chance that Conley does us all a favor and makes free agency 2020 more interesting. Conley’s averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists per game, way, way up from 13.8 points and 4.3 assists per game prior to the stoppage in March. If Conley keeps this going – and especially if he performs well in the playoffs – he might want to test the market considering the lack of elite talent that’s anticipated to hit it – assuming he’s unhappy in Utah, that is.

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – RFA

Ingram’s looked similar to the guy we saw in 2019-20 before the play stoppage – he’s averaging 23.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game when playing 30 or more minutes. While he was less effective in a loss against the Clippers (14 points and two rebounds in 24 minutes), he’s demonstrated growth in how decisively he makes his move and how seamlessly he then scores on the move.

Ingram was probably going to get max offer as of the All-Star break – especially after reaching his first All-Star team at 22 – but COVID-19 probably altered the ability for teams to dole out lucrative deals. But then play resumed and Ingram picked up right where he left off – and with a confidence to use it liberally. Ingram is nearly a lock for a max deal now.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – UFA

VanVleet started off his time in the bubble with a solid performance (13 points and 11 assists), but he really showed out in his second game against the Miami HEAT. VanVleet led the Raptors to a win against Miami with a career-high 36 points. And then he got right back to being Mr. Consistent for Toronto by posting 21 points and 10 assists in a win against Orlando.

So ultimately, VanVleet has led the Raptors to a 3-0 (re)start, and he’s either scored a career-high or dropped 10-plus assists. James Dolan and Leon Rose are somewhere together – albeit socially distanced, we’re sure – drooling – as are all of the teams in need of a lead guard, like Detroit. VanVleet can only increase his value from here. He’s not assumed to be a max-level player, but if he plays well enough through the playoffs, it’ll be interesting to see just how high he can reach.

 DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option

It’s hard to imagine DeRozan’s value increasing much at this point in his career. After all, he’s an 11-year veteran that has been named to the All-Star Game four times and an All-NBA team twice.

But still, there’s always been presumed limitations to his game, namely his inability to shoot three-pointers. Since being traded to San Antonio, he’s fallen out of the national spotlight a bit. As a 31-year-old capable of reaching unrestricted free agency, DeRozan is at a major inflection point in his career. He could attempt to a final big deal or snag a smaller one if the market for his services doesn’t meet expectations. Or he could just opt-in.

But DeRozan has done his part to remind everyone that he has loads of high-quality basketball left in him. He tallied 30 points on 11-for-20 shooting on Tuesday in a close loss to the 76ers and he’s averaged 22.3 points, 7.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game since the Spurs resumed play last Friday. While those averaged mostly coincide with what he did this season, it also represents a decent boost in assists. But more importantly, it solidifies that DeRozan should still receive a serious look as a lead star. And he’ll probably get interest from a number of teams.

The Known Commodities

Marcus Morris Sr., Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

While Morris Sr. is a known commodity, teams could use additional poor performances against him in negotiations. He’ll probably still have the option to sign for a veterans minimum or mid-level exception with a contender like the Clippers or Lakers. But if he’s eyeing another payday that pays him an annual salary equal to what he made in 2019-20, it would behoove him to make his mark on the stat book. 

Making A Case

Trey Burke, Dallas Mavericks – UFA

Burke hasn’t been overly consistent since NBA play resumed last week. But he did have a huge breakout game against the Rockets, scoring 31 points on 8-for-10 for three-pointers in only 30 minutes, while also dishing six assists.

Yes, Burke is averaging just 5.5 points in 18 minutes in the two games since, but the fact that he scored 31 in an NBA game will be enough to get looks as an off-the-bench scorer. And it’s a narrative that can be supported by his past work, too. Remember, Burke is still just 27-years-old  and he has a 42-point career-high. He’s also exploded for 30 four times and eclipsed the 20-point mark on 38 occasions in his 389 career games. So even if it’s just a reminder, it’s good to know that Burke can still get it done offensively – and teams are always looking for ways to manufacture offense.

Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz – UFA

Clarkson’s shot only 40 percent from the field since play resumed last Thursday, with an even worse 20 percent from three-point range. Still, scorers are as valuable as ever. It’s what made J.R. Smith so much money in this league, as well as Lou Williams and countless others – and rightfully so. Ultimately, it’s about putting the ball in the hoop. And with that being said, a franchise is going to pay Clarkson and they’ll end up paying more than they would have as of March.

Reggie Jackson, Los Angeles Clippers – UFA

Jackson has less to prove than most guys in this part of this list – but given his injury history, he does have to make a statement.

On the whole, Jackson has looked good – but not necessarily great. He averaged 12.5 points, seven rebounds and two assists in his first two contests, but he regressed in the Clippers’ most recent game against the Suns. But on a positive note, Jackson received only 23 minutes on Tuesday versus Phoenix and his 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals accumulated in just 20 minutes.

If Jackson continues to be a contributor to the contending Clippers, someone will overspend on him. After all, good point guards are few and far between.

The Unknowns

Harry Giles III, Sacramento Kings – UFA

Giles III only played four minutes in the Kings’ first game back against the Spurs and he didn’t fare much better over 12:55 versus the Mavericks on Tuesday. But when you’re a fringe player that had injury concerns throughout your young career, any positive outings are good – especially those that come in a contract year. Giles tallied 23 points and eight rebounds in only 20 minutes against the Orlando Magic – a significant jump from his 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds averages this season.  And that’s probably enough to generate interest amongst a number of teams.

The Kings curiously declined Giles’ fourth-year option, making him an unrestricted free agent as of the end of this season. That’s an interesting decision because the option was relatively cheap given that he was only the No. 20 overall pick (2017). Further confusing matters is the idea that by passing on the fourth-year option, they also lost matching rights – so Giles won’t even be restricted.

To make matters worse, the Kings can’t even bid more than $3.9 million to retain his services. So the Kings ultimately wasted a first-round draft pick on Giles for a grand total of 14.5 minutes per game across 99 games – and he’ll walk before they even know what they had in him.

But this all works out nicely for Giles, who will absolutely get an opportunity elsewhere – and he’ll be paid more than he would have received in Sacramento for it. How good is still an unknown, but he’s shown enough for a team to take a flyer on considering his size, skill set and versatility. He was the No. 1 overall recruit coming out of high school according to ESPN just four short years ago.

Free agency is going to be different than ever before and, up until very recently, that was assumed to be a bad thing. But with some of the above players changing the narratives around them, it could become even more exciting than it’s been in the recent past. Add in the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis Bertans, Christian Wood – and we’re looking at an under-appreciated free-agent class.

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NBA Daily: Breaking Down The Bubble’s Race For 8th

Ben Nadeau analyzes the race for the No. 8 and 9 spots in the Western Conference – who will make the cut?

Ben Nadeau



As the NBA inched toward its inevitable rebirth, the instant drama surrounding the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed became a conversation wildfire.

Was the league rolling out the red carpet in hopes of a Zion Williamson-LeBron James showdown in the first round? Could the healthier Portland Trail Blazers make another historic run toward history? De’Aaron Fox, the Sacramento franchise cornerstone, took umbrage over a lack of Kings-related faith, while the Memphis Grizzlies had more than enough ground to protect their standing in the current hierarchy.

Three or so games in to our bubbled adventure, everything has changed – and fast.

The Pelicans, still worrisome over Williamson’s health and conditioning, played him about 15 minutes in each of their first two contests – coincidently, New Orleans went 0-2. With their backs against the wall and slowly losing traction in a muddied race, the Pelicans played the future superstar for 25 minutes, where he racked up 23 points, seven rebounds and used a personal 6-0 run to clinch a much-needed win. Not only did the victory signify an important swing in momentum for the veteran-laden squad, but it was another crushing defeat for Grizzlies, who fell to 0-3 and further loosened their once-gridlocked hold on the final playoff seed.

Long perceived to be a five-team fight for the right to face Memphis in the play-in game(s), the Grizzlies’ early struggles have now nearly opened both spots up. All the more interesting, the San Antonio Spurs have begun 2-1, alongside the Phoenix Suns’ 2-0 effort. Although invited without much media afterthought, both the Spurs and Suns – who boast two of the most reliable constants of the bunch, Gregg Popovich and Devin Booker, respectively – are within the four-game window needed to force a play-in too.

So then: Thanks to the Grizzlies’ scuffles, who’ll be the two franchises to reach that play-in showdown?

Let’s start with the Pelicans, a team that’ll be better the more Williamson is allowed on the floor, obviously. While that variable remains up in the air, New Orleans’ remaining schedule is not. They’ll finish with the Kings twice, plus winnable matchups against the Spurs, Wizards and Magic. Although that opening day loss versus Utah stings, there’s no shame in falling to the Clippers, so the opportunity is certainly still there for the Pelicans to reach Nos. 8 or 9 in the coming days.

The Spurs, following a hard-fought effort against Philadelphia on Monday, unfortunately, have a much harder path forward: Denver, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and Utah. No Magic, no Nets, no Kings, even. Just New Orleans and three teams currently fighting for ‘home court’ advantage in the first round. Of course, betting against Gregg Popovich is beyond stupid and that is a lesson some select few must re-learn every spring – but they still seem like the least likely of six to leapfrog into a spot.

Likewise, it isn’t much better for Phoenix. They’ll conclude with the Clippers, Indiana Pacers and T.J. Warren’s supernova act, Miami HEAT, Oklahoma City Thunder, Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. Thankfully, Mikal Bridges’ efforts in Orlando and Ricky Rubio’s trusty playmaking have served as great foils for Deandre Ayton and the aforementioned Booker. Overall, their offensive rating just cracks the top half (15th, 110.4) and their defense remains in the lower half – but stars win games and Booker fits the bill.

Even the Kings, losers to the Spurs and Magic to open their bubble campaign, get the Pelicans twice but also a downright bad Brooklyn Nets squad and a potentially-resting Los Angeles Lakers team in four of their final five games – so don’t count them out either. With their destiny firmly in hand, expect the Kings to make a run of their own. Fox put up 39 points against San Antonio before tallying just 13 versus Orlando – and, in the latter, Sacramento’s only scorer above 15 went to Harry Giles’ 23. Given the context and a very winnable schedule, the next week or so bodes well for the Kings’ hopes.

As for Portland, the squad with the most bankable 1-2 punch of the collection, have an impossibly-tough Rockets-Nuggets-Clippers-76ers run-in before ending with the Mavericks and Nets. Worse, that stretch of difficult opposition will come fast and furious – a classic three games in four days slog. But above all, their defense leaves too much to be desired, even with the return of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Before the shutdown, Portland’s defense was only better than the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards at 113.6 in the ratings department.

In the two games back, well, it’s actually been even worse and their putrid 132.0 defensive rating is a whopping 7 points behind the Kings’ 29th-rated unit. It’s early and the sample size is certainly small – but with only six games left, they’ll need to figure it out in the against some of the league’s best. Still, Damian Lillard is a big-moment killer – he did, after all, break up the Thunder core on his own last April – and he’s capable of hot streaks that few others are.

Lillard and Nurkic put up 30 points apiece against Boston – plus 17 from CJ McCollum and 21 notched by Gary Trent Jr. – and totaled 124 as a team… yet it still wasn’t enough. The heroics of Portland’s stars will be relentless, but if they can’t stop the opposition – they’ll come up short.

In the end, even guessing at Nos. 8 and 9 is a fool’s errand. The Bubble has provided shock after shock already – and the added hurdle of rested players for locked-in seeds are soon to come – but six teams will be whittled down to two before long. Despite the slow start, Memphis remains in the driver’s seat – if they can pick up a win on Wednesday versus a seriously-slumping Jazz side, it’ll go a long way toward clinching their place.

And they’d better hope so: If they don’t, they’ll need to hope for some load management with the Thunder, Raptors, Celtics and Bucks to end the mini-campaign. It’s one of the tougher schedules left in the Western Conference, but their cushion, no matter how rapidly it is shrinking, is still reason to believe they’ll limp into the do-or-die scenario.

As for the second spot, it still feels like the Pelicans’ to lose. Between Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, JJ Redick, Brandon Ingram and, duh, Williamson, there’s too much firepower here to completely struggle through an easier-than-most schedule.

But, sure, bet against Gregg Popovich, Damian Lillard, De’Aaron Fox and Devin Booker at your own risk – conventional wisdom suggests that at least one of them will crash the party, no matter how unlikely it seems today.

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