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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Minnesota Timberwolves

At first, the future seemed bright as could be. But now, outside of Karl-Anthony Towns, it couldn’t be any murkier for the Timberwolves, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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After a whirlwind month of action, the basketball-watching world has approached the most boring month of the year in the NBA — so looking over each and every team’s offseason is more imperative than ever. In this edition of “Grading the Offseason”, we’re taking a peek at the suddenly-erratic Minnesota Timberwolves.

Remember when the Timberwolves had the most exciting future in the league? Boy, a lot can change in just two years.

Minnesota, of course, was supposed to be the next big thing, all thanks to one of the most promising young duos in the league in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Back then, they had an accomplished head coach calling the shots in Tom Thibodeau. Plus, adding an All-Star player in Jimmy Butler meant the future was here in the midwest.

Looking at where this team is at today, 2017 seems so very long ago. Butler and Thibodeau are gone, while Wiggins isn’t panning out as well as he had once projected. Towns has come into his own, but the Wolves need more than just him. Suddenly, more questions than answers regarding Minnesota’s future have arisen.

How exactly did the franchise get here after everything appeared to be going so well? Let’s examine.

Overview

It goes without saying, but things could not have started out worse for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2018-19. It’s one thing when your star player wants out — but when he demands a trade just as training camp is about to begin, that puts everything out of whack with very little time to put it all back in order.

Despite making the playoffs, it only took one year for the Jimmy Butler situation to turn sour, holding absolutely nothing back when he made his trade request. So much drama went on during the Timberwolves’ training camp that, if filmed, it could have made for a very entertaining episode of Hard Knocks.

In any situation like that, obliging a trade request should be done ASAP. Instead, Thibodeau, for some reason, decided to drag it out 13 games into the season, a move that undoubtedly affected the team’s psyche. The Timberwolves went 4-9 before Butler was sold off to Philadelphia for Robert Covington and Dario Saric.

Technically, Minnesota improved from there by going 32-37 the rest of the way — but their 36-46 season overall was unremarkable.

As a whole, the roster didn’t leave any lasting impressions, but Towns — now a budding superstar  — played the best basketball of his career. At first glance, Towns’ traditional statistics seem typical, but his per-36 averages tell a more in-depth story.

Per-36 statistics are flimsy numbers, especially so when used for players whose teams wouldn’t dare give that many minutes on a nightly basis. In Towns’ case, it’s different.

Since being coached by Thibodeau, Towns ranked fifth in minutes played on average with 37 — naturally, second behind Wiggins — in 2016-17, then 13th the following year with 35.6. Both Thibodeau and his replacement, Ryan Saunders, decreased Towns’ minutes to 33.1 this past season. When you factor in his numbers from that into per-36, Towns averaged career-bests in points (26.6), rebounds (13.5), and assists (3.7).

He also averaged a career-high in turnovers (3.4), but that probably had to do with the higher usage rate he had — almost 29 percent — in fewer minutes. With Butler gone, Towns took the bigger role in the Wolves’ offense and ran with it. With a higher number of shots, Towns still maintained his usual field goal percentage, almost 52 percent, and his solid three-point percentage of 40 percent.

With the fifth year of the KAT era swiftly approaching, Minnesota knows by now that he’ll be worth every penny of that contract extension that will take effect next season. Unfortunately, they can’t say the same for their other former No. 1 overall pick, Andrew Wiggins.

Wiggins continues to boggle fans everywhere on how far his value has fallen as a player. Just two years ago, the guy was averaging over 23 points on 45/35/76 splits. His stats were bound to decline when the team acquired Butler but, since that departure, Wiggins has failed to regain his old form.

18.1 points on 41/34/70 splits is just an odd regression for someone who is only 24 years old and possesses the physical advantages that Wiggins does. Still, he hasn’t been a total net negative for Minnesota — in fact, the Timberwolves are plus-1.1 with Wiggins on the floor. But when you’re paying somebody almost $25.5 million, that person needs to make a bigger impact. “Maple Jordan” has shown he has talent, but the less progress he makes, the more accurate the Jeff Green comparisons become.

Besides them, the next significant storyline was the play of Derrick Rose. Though he only played 51 games, Rose had his most efficient season as a shooter, sporting a true shooting percentage of 55.7. Rose has never been hailed as a three-point shooter, but on almost three attempts a game, the long-time veteran hit on 37 percent from distance.

His prime may be behind him, but this new version of D-Rose could hopefully make him a more vital player for his next team, even if it’s not with the Timberwolves. With all that he’s gone through, seeing him being in contention for the Sixth Man of the Year award tugs at the heartstrings.

As for the rest of the team, Covington put up some of the best numbers in his career in Minnesota — but most of his season was cut short because of an ongoing knee injury. Dario Saric performed adequately in his role, but his minutes took a hit after being traded from Philadelphia. Jeff Teague spent half the season on the shelf and Tyus Jones continued to be under-utilized.

Even still, lots of turnover and injuries went on in Minnesota. This time around, regardless of results, the Timberwolves won’t need to endure the same amount of drama this coming season than they did in this last one — and that, ultimately, is a good start.

Offseason

The Timberwolves wasted no time getting to work this offseason. On draft night, they traded Saric as well as the No. 11 overall pick to Phoenix for the sixth selection. With it, Minnesota took Jarrett Culver, whose high draft position stemmed from his all-around game.

Rumor had it that the real target they had in mind when they made the trade was Darius Garland. Whether that’s true or not, Culver has the potential to be a good fit next to Towns. His three-point shot definitely needs work, but his defense, versatility and playmaking abilities should make him a productive player from the start for the Timberwolves.

Since Culver sat out of Summer League, we won’t know for sure what he can do until the season starts. This trade also signified that the Timberwolves weren’t interested in committing to Saric, who was going to fetch some change and then some next offseason.

Next came free agency. Minnesota’s plans started and ended with D’Angelo Russell. The fit seemed flawless. Russell was coming off of a remarkable season, he would be a phenomenal second-in-command next to their center and, even better, he and Towns are best friends. What’s not to like?

With Brooklyn wrapped up in Kyrie Irving-Kevin Durant rumors, Minnesota seemed poised to swoop in with a big-time offer sheet. So, until it wasn’t, Russell to the Timberwolves seemed not only feasible but nearly inevitable. And yet, as things currently stand, Russell won’t be donning a Timberwolves uniform this coming season. Golden State kiboshed Minnesota’s plans by getting a Russell in a sign-and-trade, a fine replacement for the injured Klay Thompson too.

The heartbreak over Minnesota’s failure to obtain Russell overshadowed a summer that was full of savvy moves. On the cheap, they signed and traded for Jake Layman, added Noah Vonleh and Jordan Bell and traded for Shabazz Napier and Treveon Graham as the third party in the aforementioned Russel deal, all of whom can be solid rotation players that cost $3.6 million or less each.

If the Timberwolves had just reeled in the big fish, their offseason would have been a wild success. Since they didn’t, their roster still has questions as far as how high the ceiling actually is.

PLAYERS IN: Jarrett Culver, Jake Layman, Noah Vonleh, Jordan Bell, Jaylen Nowell, Treveon Graham, Shabazz Napier, Naz Reid, Jordan McLaughlin (Two-Way)

PLAYERS OUT: Derrick Rose, Tyus Jones, Taj Gibson, Jerryd Bayless, Anthony Tolliver, Mitchell Creek, C.J. Williams, Jared Terrell

What’s Next

Over the past few years, Minnesota has had the luxury of waiting for their two young starlets to blossom. In that time, one has come along nicely while the other hasn’t. With Towns’ extension kicking in this season, the Timberwolves are now on the clock for the next five years to build a better team around him before any potential trade request.

Towns has pledged his loyalty to the franchise and that shouldn’t be questioned. For now at least. Something that Glen Taylor and co. should keep in mind: Anthony Davis and LeBron James shared a similar sentiment with their first teams. Both wound up leaving because neither of those teams succeeded in building a playoff contender around them. It’s on management to do its best to avoid the same fate.

With the moves they made, the Timberwolves didn’t get worse per se, but they didn’t get better either. Where they finish depends on how they compare to their competition in their conference. What would tip the scale in their favor would be if they somehow managed to get their hands on Russell, but he’s ineligible to be moved until later on next season.

Even though they may have missed out on acquiring D-Lo, many are skeptical that Russell lasts the season with the Warriors. If the doubters are correct, expect Minnesota to bid like crazy for his services.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. For now, if Minnesota wants to avoid a repeat of Kevin Love, they have to do everything in their power to remove the un from the uncertainty they have engulfed themselves with.

OFFSEASON GRADE: C

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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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

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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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NBA Daily: The Bubble’s Biggest Dark Horses

With the NBA’s restart underway and the postseason around the corner, Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that could make some noise and prove the league’s biggest dark horse title contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official: basketball is back.

It may have taken 142 days, but the NBA has returned and seeding games are underway in Orlando. Better yet, and while the heightened intensity of these first few games may make it seem like we’re already there, the postseason is just around the corner.

But what are the playoffs going to look like, exactly? Aside from the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, the field is wide open — even teams that struggled during the regular season have a real chance to make some noise.

In fact, the lead up to the postseason has afforded those teams a clean slate, a fresh start and the opportunity to tweak with the formula that failed them in the regular season.

Of course, some rosters are simply too depleted to make any noise. But others, if they can pivot and put their best foot forward, have the chance to emerge as dark horse title threats.

So, which teams have the best chance to come out of nowhere, surprise everyone and, just maybe, punch their ticket to the NBA Finals?

Philadelphia 76ers

The regular season wasn’t exactly kind to the 76ers. And, staring down a 10-24 road record pre-restart, the move to Orlando may only prove worse for them.

But their talent is undeniable, and there’s too much of it on the roster to just cast the team aside.

Despite that abysmal record, the 76ers proved they could dominate with their collective head in the game — their 29-2 record at home was the best in the NBA. They sport a stingy defense and two of the NBA’s best on that end with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Meanwhile, their size — Raul Neto and Zhaire Smith are the only two on the roster shorter than 6-foot-5 — should give them an advantage in almost any situation.

It may even make them the best potential matchup for the top-dog in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks.

Yes, they are a bit of a clunky fit on offense. But Embiid and Simmons represent two of the brightest young stars — they can make it work, adjusting as needed on a series-to-series basis. Paired with Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson, among others, they shouldn’t lack for help, either.

An early-season favorite to at least make the Eastern Conference Finals, Philadelphia no doubt disappointed this season — for some reason, it just didn’t click for them. It may never.

But on paper, the 76ers have enough talent to compete with anyone. If they can fit the pieces together and hit their stride in the first round, don’t be surprised if they go on a lengthy postseason run.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Currently the sixth seed out West, can the Thunder even be considered a dark horse?

But since they never should have been there in the first place – most definitely.

With Paul George gone to Los Angeles and Russell Westbrook to Houston last summer, nobody expected Oklahoma City to be relevant in 2020. With an aging star in Chris Paul — who, at the time, looked like he wanted nothing to do with the team — and a bunch of players that looked more like trade bait than contributors, they looked dead in the water and stocked up on draft picks.

And yet, here they are, giant slayers in position to snag a top-four seed.

Paul, in a bounce-back year, has elevated the entire roster. Steven Adams and Danilo Gallinari, quality veterans in their own right, have been strong, uber-efficient contributors. Dennis Schroder has emerged as one of the league’s best sixth-men, while Sam Presti’s diamond-in-the-rough, Luguentz Dort, has grown from a raw defensive specialist into a surprise starter and arguably their best defender.

And, most importantly, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander seems to have leaped toward stardom. The Canadian guard was a stud as a sophomore, averaging 19.3 points, six rebounds and 3.3 assists on strong shooting splits.

They don’t have a legit star to carry them — Paul, despite the resurgence, isn’t the player he once was and Gilgeous-Alexander isn’t quite there yet. But come the postseason, it may not matter. The Thunder are one of the most balanced teams in the NBA; they spread it out on offense — Gallinari, Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul and Schroder averaged at least 17 points for the season — and are a top 10 defensive unit returning one of the league’s best on that end in Andre Roberson.

It’ll be ugly, for sure, but the Thunder don’t care. They’ll scratch and claw their way to wins as they have the whole season. They may not make the Finals, but they are a lock to make life difficult for some other team(s) looking to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

Portland Trail Blazers

Portland has yet to punch their ticket to the big dance, and they have a long road ahead of them before they can. But should they sneak in, they may prove the most dangerous team in the postseason.

Just a season ago, the Trail Blazers were a top-four seed and, despite the loss of Jusuf Nurkic, a Western Conference Finals participant. Unfortunately, it all seemed to come crashing down in the regular season. Already at a disadvantage without Nurkic at the center spot, the team lost Zach Collins to a major shoulder injury just three games into the season and, later, Rodney Hood to a torn left Achilles.

Had the season gone on as scheduled, no one would have blamed the Trail Blazers for throwing in the towel. An ugly 29-37 before the shutdown, there just wasn’t much the team could do to bolster their postseason odds.

But now they’ve been gifted a second chance. The stoppage in play allowed every team to rest and recuperate, yes, but arguably no team benefited more from that time than Portland — and teams are starting to take notice.

The threat presented by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum is obvious. But with the roster back near 100 percent health, the team may pose a legitimate threat to the Western Conference crown. Collins’ presence on defense was sorely missed, to say the least. Nurkic, meanwhile, has played as if he hadn’t missed the last year and change. In two bubble games, the Bosnian Beast has averaged 24 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and 3.5 blocks.

Both players should significantly alleviate the burden placed on Lillard’s shoulders as well, further enabling him to crush opposing defenses.

At the moment, the Trail Blazers are the Western Conference’s ninth seed, just two games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth spot. If they remain within four games, Portland could earn themselves a play-in and potentially jump the Grizzlies (or whomever the eighth seed might be) and steal the last spot in the postseason.

And if they force their way in? The NBA better watch out.

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NBA Daily: Scattered Bubble Thoughts

Four days into The Bubble, Matt John relays some of the observations he’s made since the 2019-20 NBA season has resumed play.

Matt John

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It didn’t sound possible back in March, but the 2019-20 NBA season has finally resumed! We should enjoy the rest of the regular season while we can because, before you know it, we’ll be entering the playoffs. Though Major League Baseball definitely has some more kinks to work out, the NBA has had no issues to speak of since continuing the season in Disney World and its Bubble.

We’ve only had four days of NBA games so far, and we’re going to learn a lot more in the coming weeks, but in the short time we’ve had basketball back, there’s plenty that may have an impact on the final result of the 2019-20 season.

“Defense? What’s that?”

Let’s face it: The NBA is more fun to watch when there are more points on the board. Thanks to the three-point revolution, we’re more likely to get high-scoring games than in the past because of every team’s emphasis on spreading the floor. Thus far, we’ve seen a lot of high scoring games. A lot. More so than we would expect during a typical season.

It’s still early, but in the 19 games we’ve had so far, only two boasted a team being held to less than 100 points – both were on Aug. 1 when the Utah Jazz put up 94 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers put up 92 against the Toronto Raptors. Besides those rare instances, every team has scored 100+. In fact, on Jul. 31, the lowest scoring output for a victorious team was when the Milwaukee Bucks hung 119 on the Boston Celtics.

Honestly, none of this should have come as any surprise. Many suspected that while players have been working earnestly on their games, both individually and with their team, getting their defensive timing back was going to take some time. This should clear up when everyone gets their legs back, especially when the pool of teams shrinks from 22 to 16 and beyond that. Over time, anticipate lower scores, or at least scores to not be nearly as consistently high

Kemba’s Knee – So Far, So Good

There was a lot of justified concern surrounding whether Kemba Walker’s ailing knee would be ready for when the season started. The fact of the matter was that the injury coincided with him tallying some putrid numbers before the season was put on pause. And given his need to still rehab it four months after that is a flag so red you may as well call it scarlet.

In spite of his insistence to play more, Boston has been conservative with their All-Star point guard since the league resumed play. In the 41 minutes total that he’s played in Boston’s first two games, Walker looked more like his old self than he did in February and March.

In Boston’s first game against Milwaukee, he put up 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting which included hitting three of the six three-pointers he attempted in all of 19 minutes. The next game against Portland, he put up 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting from deep in only 22 minutes.

Even when Walker was slumping, he still had a couple of 20+ scoring performances – so why are these so encouraging? Because, besides the fact that his burst looks back to normal, the last time Walker shot better than 40 percent was on Jan. 26. Efficiency was never really Walker’s strong suit to begin with, but barely shooting over 30 percent is definitely not something you expect to see from him. So this, even in spurts, is worth celebrating.

What is yet to be seen is if Walker can do this when his workload increases or, better yet, when the stakes get higher – but Boston has to be excited to smoothish sailing so far. If these numbers aren’t a fluke and the Celtics get Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker at their individual peaks this season, then they become just as dangerous as they were potentially feared to be. If not more so.

Two Playoff Teams Trending In Different Directions

Utah and Oklahoma City squared off on Aug 1, and even though the Thunder won by 16 in the end, the game was pretty much never in doubt. OKC controlled the pace from the very start and led by as many as 29 at one point. Despite Utah remaining in the thick of the playoff race, this was another in what seems like a long line of frustrating losses during an overall underwhelming season. At least now, Bojan Bogdanovic’s season-ending wrist injury gives them an excuse they didn’t have before.

Jazz fans have probably heard all about what’s gone wrong for the boys in Salt Lake so there’s no need to harp over the issues they’ve had both on and off the court. What’s really stood out about their game against the Thunder was the opposing team’s roster design. That bunch is currently led by the likes of:

  • An aging but very experienced/skilled All-Star point guard (Chris Paul)
  • One of the league’s promising young guards (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander)
  • A monster defensive presence on the interior (Steven Adams)
  • A secondary scorer capable of shooting from anywhere (Danilo Gallinari)

Hold on, wasn’t this who the Jazz were supposed to be this season? A playoff contender that may not have boasted the most star power, but the lack of holes in its roster should have made them incredibly hard to topple? We did get to see that team after all. It just wasn’t in Utah. The Thunder have become one of the league’s most entertaining underdogs, while the Jazz have mired in disarray and uncertainty.

Despite that the two’s records are neck-and-neck – Utah (42-24) has a half-game lead over Oklahoma City (41-24) – the former seems stuck in the same rut they were before the season halted. While the latter has been deceptively better than we’re giving them credit for even though they were already exceeding expectations in the first place.

About That Last Spot In The West

Remember the whole conspiracy everyone had that the NBA constructed these temporary playoff rules in The Bubble as just an excuse to get Zion Williamson into the playoffs? Well, whether it’s true or not, New Orleans doesn’t seem to be taking advantage of it. They’ve restricted Williamson’s minutes pretty strangely thus far. With him being off the court for the majority of the game, the Pelicans flat out don’t look ready for the big time just yet. They lost a very winnable game against Utah in the first game back, then got flat-out embarrassed by the Los Angeles Clippers. A lot of rookies don’t usually single-handedly alter a team’s fortunes, but we all know Williamson is a rare breed.

Lucky for them, their schedule eases up a lot following those two games. They then face Memphis, Sacramento (twice), Washington, Orlando and San Antonio. Those are among the lower squads in the 22-team bubble, but they still have to get through a fair amount of competitors for that last spot. San Antonio and Phoenix have won its first two games, and, of course, they’re dealing with Portland now too.

The Trail Blazers, as we are all being reminded, are a much different animal with Jusuf Nurkic back and healthy. Nurkic’s smarts and girth make him such an intimidating presence on the floor that it opens up much more of the floor for the two backcourt stars. He’s primarily the reason why they beat Memphis and were one basket or two away from defeating Boston. Zach Collins’ return also makes a difference, but Nurkic alone makes Portland so much better than their current record is.

It really is such a shame that Portland never had its full squad healthy this season. Imagine what this team could have been with Trevor Ariza and Rodney Hood, too.

After losing its first two games, Memphis is going to have its hands full trying to stave off rivals for that last spot. Many thought the Pelicans were going to be the team to overthrow them, but the Trail Blazers won’t be going down without a fight.

Of course, there have been more noteworthy instances that have come up but we can only talk about so much. There’s plenty of basketball left to be played, so many of this scenarios could be turned on their head in the next week. Still, the early signs are of overall success for the NBA – but there’s rust to kick off around the league.

What has stood out to you since the NBA resumed in The Bubble?

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