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Six Things to Know About the Golden State Warriors

Basketball Insiders’ series six things you need to know continues with the Golden State Warriors.

Nate Duncan

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The Golden State Warriors were the darlings of the first two playoff rounds in 2013 before finally succumbing to the San Antonio Spurs in six games. After a blockbuster offseason brought swingman Andre Iguodala from the vanquished Denver Nuggets, the Warriors looked poised to move into the league’s elite. At times the team has looked that way, especially when their dominating starting unit plays together. Other times, the team has played .500 ball. As the season moves towards the All-Star break, here are six things you need to know about the Golden State Warriors.

David Lee’s Defense Isn’t So Bad Anymore

The 2013 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference saw Lee became the poster child for terrible interior defense courtesy of research by Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry, which showed that teams made an inordinate number of shots when Lee was defending near the rim. Shortly thereafter, Lee essentially missed the Warriors’ surprise 2013 playoff run after tearing a hip flexor in Game 1 against the Denver Nuggets. After this success sans Lee, many posited that the Warriors would be better off playing a four-out style with a three-point shooter like Harrison Barnes or Draymond Green at power forward.

Lee apparently took the criticism of his defense to heart, losing five percent body fat in the offseason and getting into better cardiovascular shape.  This was sorely needed; Lee’s biggest problem in recent years had been sustaining multiple efforts and getting into the right position on defense. His hard work has paid off, as the Warriors allow only 98.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the court.* This year, Lee has allowed 49.1 percent shooting while defending the rim, a massive decrease from last year’s 61 percent as noted by Goldsberry. Indeed, that number ranks a very respectable 21st in the league out of 61 players who defend four or more shots per game at the rim. Subjectively, his pick and roll defense and rotations have improved mightily over past years. Lee has even displayed stout post defense of late, forcing LaMarcus Aldridge into a miserable 2-14 shooting night and even doing well against the powerful Blake Griffin during the times they were matched up on Thursday.

 *In fairness, most of the credit for this solid number should go to defensive stalwarts Andre Iguodala and Andrew Bogut, with whom Lee shares most of his minutes. But at the very least it can be said that Lee is not preventing the Warriors from defending well, which could not be said in past years.

Lee will never possess the imposing physical gifts of the best interior defenders. He remains a liability at times due to his below average weight, length, and two foot jumping ability compared to many power forwards. He is still prone to getting bludgeoned in the post at times, his defensive rebounding has been below average,* and he has blocked 16 shots all year. These problems are compounded when he is forced to play center with some of Golden State’s bench units, or when coach Mark Jackson has benched Andrew Bogut late in games.

 *Especially at the end of games or when he has to box out centers on free throws.

But despite these warts, Lee’s failings are now largely the result of his physical limitations instead of a lack of effort, awareness or conditioning. In 2013-14, Lee competes as hard as he needs to and is now close to maximizing his limited defensive potential.

The Warriors Are Most Likely to Be the Sixth Seed

Predicting a Warriors playoff berth does not exactly go against the grain of conventional wisdom, but after a recent spate of home losses to the Nuggets, Pacers, Timberwolves and Wizards took the shine off a franchise-best East Coast road trip it suddenly appeared as if their assumed playoff position might be vulnerable. But recent events have bolstered the Dubs’ chances to a near certainty. The Warriors righted the ship with back to back wins against the Clippers and Jazz. But perhaps more importantly, the surging Grizzlies (Mike Conley) and Wolves (Nikola Pekovic) suffered ankle injuries to one of their top two players that should have them both out a week and potentially longer. Meanwhile, Dallas does not appear to have the personnel on defense to make a significant move. All of the aforementioned competition is at least 2 games back in the standings.

The Warriors are in seventh position in the conference, in a virtual tie with Phoenix for sixth. Mark Jackson’s squad has a better point differential than the Suns, and Eric Bledsoe should still be out for a while. The Warriors seem likely to pass the Suns, pending any potential trades by Phoenix.

At 3.5 games behind the Clippers for the fourth seed, Golden State is unlikely to seize homecourt advantage in the first round. But getting at least the sixth seed is paramount for the Warriors. This would allow them to avoid a first round matchup as a heavy underdog against likely one and two seeds Oklahoma City and San Antonio. Instead, the likely opponent would be Portland or the Clippers, both of which the Warriors would stand a decent chance of beating. In fact, with little difference between those two potential opponents (at least at this juncture), the sixth seed might serve the Warriors better than the fifth seed, currently held by the Rockets. This would allow them to avoid a matchup against first-seeded Oklahoma City until the conference finals. As proven in last year’s playoffs before Bogut and Stephen Curry were injured, the Warriors matchup reasonably well with projected second seed San Antonio, though they would still be an underdog in a series against a healthy Spurs team.

The Warriors Need Klay Thompson to Diversify His Game

The 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft is a great three-point shooter and solid defender. Those two things alone make him a valuable player. The problem is that those two things are alone—he does virtually nothing else well. The Washington State product is 30th among shooting guards in PER due to his lack of rebounds, assists, steals and free throws. The Warriors rank a disappointing 16th offensively by points per possession, a very poor result for a team featuring the Mark Jackson-christened best shooting backcourt in NBA history.

Part of the problem is how one-dimensional Thompson is on offense. Passing is a particularly neglected aspect of his game. Thompson is one of the worst and least frequent passers among the league’s guards. His assists per 36 minutes ranks 50th among the 54 guards who have qualified for the minutes leaderboard and have a usage rate above the league average of 20 percent. Moreover, he averages a mere 20 passes per game in his 38 minutes per game. How bad is that? Among the 116 players at all positions who play 30 minutes per game or more, Thompson ranks 116th in passes per game.

This is not to imply that Thompson is selfish or takes an inordinate number of bad shots. His role is to shoot the ball. At 41 percent from deep, pretty much any shot he takes out there is a good one. And while his True Shooting Percentage is disappointingly near the league’s average due to his propensity to take long twos and inability to get to the line,* he is not mindlessly gunning away. But, the only way Thompson helps the Warriors’ offense is by shooting from the outside. That certainly has value outside of the box score statistics, as his man must remain glued to him at all times. Unfortunately, his offensive impact is limited because he is not a passing threat when he does try to create on his own, whether off a close out or postups.

*Thompson might be well-served to watch tape of guys like Reggie Miller and Richard Hamilton, two players who got to the line at solid rates despite their jumpshot-based games. However, emulating them may not be possible since Thompson lacks the athleticism of even those players.

As a third year player, Thompson will be eligible for an extension to his rookie contract this offseason. The negotiations will be fascinating, as there are many conflicting indicators on his value.

The Warriors Cannot Create Without Curry

A season-long problem for the Dubs has been their putrid offense without Curry on the floor. With him, they score 108.8 points/100; without him that drops to 89.7. The former rate would nearly lead the league, the latter is far below the worst team in the league. Why are they so bad without Curry? He is their only real offensive creator. He ranks in the 84th percentile in points per possession out of the pick and roll. Thompson ranks second on the team at the 40th percentile, but as discussed he cannot create for others. The rest of their perimeter players, namely Harrison Barnes (22nd percentile), Andre Iguodala (6th) and Jordan Crawford (3rd), are even worse.* Until the Warriors can find someone else to create offense out of basketball’s most basic play, they will continue to struggle without Curry on the floor.

*Crawford was brought in to upgrade the shot creation on the second unit, and he has—departed point guard Toney Douglas was only in the 2nd percentile out of the pick and roll.

Andre Iguodala is Essential to the Defense

Andrew Bogut has gotten the most buzz as the key to the Warriors’ defense, and his rim protection and defensive rebounding have been fantastic in his first healthy season in several years. Nonetheless, Andre Iguodala has the most impressive on/off court numbers on that end. With Iguodala in the game, the Warriors allow a mere 95.8 points/100, which would rank second in the league. Without him, the D falls to below league average at 103.7 points/100. Subjectively, Iguodala has not appeared to be the individual stopper he once was, especially upon returning from his hamstring injury. However, his team defense is still outstanding, especially against teams without a dominant wing. He was all over the floor in recent home victories when the Dubs shut down the elite Portland and Clippers offenses.

Get Used to This Team

For better or for worse, this Warriors starting five will likely be in town for quite a while. Curry is in the first year of a 4-year, $44 million contract extension that may be the best value non-rookie contract in the league. Bogut just signed a 3-year, $36 million extension that kicks in next season. Iguodala is in the first year of a 4-year, $48 million deal he signed as a free agent over the summer. And Lee still has 2 years and $30.5 million remaining after this year on the 6-year, $79.5 million contract signed in the summer of 2010. Meanwhile, Thompson is under team control for at least another year, and the Warriors can match any offer to him as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015 if they fail to agree on an extension this offseason. Finally, the Warriors gave up 2014 and 2017 first round picks to Utah to help clear salary for the Iguodala signing, so they are prohibited from trading any first rounders aside from their 2019 selection.

In my recent interview with him,  General Manager Bob Myers intimated that the Warriors still have flexibility to add to the roster. I must respectfully disagree. The Warriors really have no major trade chips left aside from Thompson and Harrison Barnes, who has fallen short of the high expectations many (though not your writer) had for him in his second year. Dealing Thompson would leave the Warriors with a giant hole at shooting guard, so that seems unlikely. That would leave a potential trade of Barnes’ perceived upside for a legitimate third big man or a more established wing scorer. It is unclear how much value Barnes still has around the league, but one would imagine the Warriors will simply hold onto him and hope he can evolve into the fourth scorer this team desperately needs right now.

With no salary cap space, few tradeable assets, no 2014 first-rounder and big long-term contracts for their key players, this is likely the Warriors’ team for at least the next two seasons.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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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

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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

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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

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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