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NBA AM: Lakers Rebounding Sooner Than Expected?

Jabari Davis takes a look at the Lakers’ 7-7 start and what to look for moving forward.

Jabari Davis

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While many anticipated a quick turnaround from teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns or even Miami HEAT this year, the Los Angeles Lakers (7-7) have actually gotten off to one of the better starts of teams currently undergoing a youth movement.

The potential was obvious, but given just how negative the trajectory of the franchise appeared to be over the past three seasons (just 65-181), there were still plenty of people openly questioning the direction and decision-making capabilities of the front office even as recently as training camp about a month back. The ‘healing properties’ of success when it comes to professional sports are unquestionable, but there appears to be the type of total team buy-in under head coach Luke Walton and his staff that leads one to believe this start is the foundation for the success to come.

Of course, it is still early, but the Lakers currently have the ninth-ranked team offense in terms of efficiency and appear to have embraced Walton’s preferred style of working the ball around the floor for the most optimum shot available (for the most part). While there’s still a tendency to revert to negative habits at times – Sunday’s iso-heavy second-half in a loss to the Chicago Bulls, for example – this group genuinely appears excited for one another when everyone is involved in scoring and playmaking.

Although the defensive effort is collectively better for stretches at a time, let’s just say it is still a work in progress as they are currently just the 26th-ranked team defense (efficiency) and are dead last in terms of opponent’s points in the paint (49.9 per game). The addition of Timofey Mozgov has been a clear upgrade over the productivity they received from the pivot in 2015-16, but one rim-protecting big man (playing 21.4 minutes per contest) isn’t enough of a deterrent when opposing guards and wings get into the paint at will. Although they do have players who can rebound, that can’t be something left simply to the big men. Currently sitting at 20th overall, they’re at their best when everyone focuses on rebounding as a team – especially when you are shooting 27.4 three-pointers as a team per contest.

If the guards don’t track the ball when the opportunity presents itself, then long rebounds can generate fast breaks for opposing teams. The 15.6 fast break points per contest the team is surrendering is third-worst in the league and also contributes to them giving up so many points in the paint. None of this is to be overly critical of a young team, but there are some pretty obvious defensive issues all around the court that contribute to such high output from opposing teams.

When the Lakers have locked in and played together on the defensive end (proactive vs. reactive) and collectively attacked the glass this year, they’ve gone on the type of runs (often after halftime) that have perhaps prematurely gotten folks into the “maybe we could make the playoffs this year” mindset that can be a bit dangerous, or at the very least problematic for young teams. Not that you don’t want your fan base excited over such a start, and you certainly don’t want to curtail the positive vibes currently circulating within that locker room, but you also don’t want to lose sight of the fact that some lessons take a bit longer for young teams. Especially when so much of this core is still learning how to play the game at this level, let alone being expected to learn how to immediately win at a pace that would keep them in the playoff race. Adjusting expectations is totally fine, but you can also run the risk of “polluting” the process, or at least your ability to fully appreciate the progress along the way if you are inappropriately focusing on wins and losses as the primary measure of success in year one with this current roster, staff and system.

Following the aforementioned loss at the hands of a scrappy Bulls team, Coach Walton acknowledged such lessons in particular when facing a player of Jimmy Butler’s capabilities: “He’s a pretty fantastic player, but if he’s going to do that, then we have to shut down the rest of the guys. We let him get his and the role players all chipped in and did their part as well. You either take away the star, or take away the role players. You can’t let everyone have a night.”

This staff realizes that while there is no need to bury this group for making the mistakes young players tend to make (evidenced by their tone on the matter), that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be an equal amount of focus aimed toward rectifying the issues. Currently just 22nd in team fouls per game, Walton also addressed the pitfalls of repeatedly fouling scorers early in games and permitting them to find a rhythm from the free throw line and leaving the defense in a disadvantaged position once the top players get rolling.

Beyond Butler’s 40-point game, these Lakers have also given up large scoring nights to Andrew Wiggins (47), Devin Booker (39) and James Harden (34) among several others. To a certain degree, that’s what the league’s best scorers are simply going to do, because that’s what makes them so special. You just can’t appear to be comfortable with the notion that someone is going to do it on a nightly basis against you. In recent years, whether it was the reality or not, that certainly appeared to be the case from the outside looking in.

All of these things can and should eventually come over time, especially when dealing with young players who are eager and willing to continue developing on both sides of the court – as these guys seem to be. The process of learning proper defensive rotations, tendencies and roles of teammates, how/when to ‘help the helper’ as well as the strengths, weaknesses and preferences of opponents might sound “boring” to some of us, but for this group to reach its full potential, these guys are going to have to love it as much as they love knocking down threes or finishing over the top of someone.

The Lakers could naturally improve in that area over the course of the season, but one of the obvious remedies should already be on the roster. At a certain point, you figure Brandon Ingram will join the starting lineup, but you can also understand why they went with the decision to ease the 19-year-old into the mix here in the early going. Luol Deng was specifically brought in to not only mentor these young wing players, but to also act as a bit of a buffer as Ingram (7.8 points, 2.6 rebounds on 40.6 percent from the floor over his last five games) adjusts to life in the league. Deng’s on-court production has been slow to start the year (6.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, 32.7 percent from the floor), but the front office and coaching staff have to be collectively hoping the behind-the-scenes and in-game knowledge he’s able to bestow upon Ingram makes it all worthwhile.

Ingram has already shown he can make an impact on the defensive end at times, although it is difficult to slow a veteran player down once he’s gotten off to a good start. Ideally, you’d like to see Ingram continue to work himself into that starting lineup and perhaps bolster the versatility and effectiveness of the defensive strategy, so that Deng could transition into a designated role of support over the last few years of that deal he signed this past summer.

As our Eric Pincus alluded, Russell has looked better and certainly shot the ball more effectively (outside of Sundays) this year. The goal moving forward, as is the case for all young guards, must be in finding a way to be even more consistent with his effort even in the face of adversity or a rough shooting night. Each of them has been better about it, but there are still too many possessions and short stretches when the defensive focus isn’t what it should be as a result of not getting off to a strong start on the other end of the court.

Walton went into the year with praise for the effort a resurgent Nick Young provided throughout camp and even mentioned challenging an improving Jordan Clarkson to embrace that role of being a defensive disruptor around the perimeter. The thing is, everyone needs to take that challenge head-on and understand this team’s ultimate success will be directly correlated to it.

Reserves Larry Nance Jr. (28th overall) and Tarik Black (33rd) are the team’s highest rated defensive players by real plus/minus, according to ESPN.com, but the Lakers need guys like Julius Randle (21st among power forwards), Russell (66th among point guards) and Clarkson (13th among point guards) to also become top-tier defensive players if they want to truly be in a playoff discussion anytime soon.

To his credit, Randle has been significantly better on both ends (50th in power forward DRPM last year, for perspective) and is actually taking the open jumpers opposing teams are encouraging. He’s at 14.1 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 3.9 APG while shooting 54.2 percent from the floor as a career 44.5 percent shooter. Randle also continues to improve as a decision maker and even though he’ll still pick up the occasional offensive foul while attempting to create, he’s a far cry from the whirling dervish or Tazmanian Devil (if you will) he was with the ball in his hands when he entered the league.

Still a bit undersized for his position against certain matchups, the extra conditioning already seems to have helped him attack with even more confidence around the basket. As his range and overall face-up game continue to improve, Randle has been eager to take advantage of defenders left in the unenviable position of being on their heels as he approaches with a full head of steam.

Much of the focus coming into the year was understandably on how Walton and staff would do, what Ingram might look like or even how Russell would progress in a more favorable system, but Randle has been the one to really hit the ground running and has probably shown the most overall improvement of the bunch.

Another positive through the first month of the year has been the play of the bench. Indicative of the balance this roster has throughout, the second unit actually makes up the highest scoring bench in the league. Lou Williams (16.9 PPG) and Clarkson (14.6 PPG) lead the unit in scoring, but Nance Jr., Black and Ingram also provide the type of defense, intensity and versatility that has permitted them to be so effective. There is a genuine chemistry and connectivity on the court that goes beyond simply being familiar from one year to the next.

Last year’s approach didn’t appear to be nearly as conducive to the development of this generation of players, so the Lakers have to hope Walton and his staff are ultimately more effective with their current approach to concerns of this nature. If this start is any indication of things to come, they’ve already gotten through to this group in ways you might have anticipated taking a full year.

All in all, you couldn’t have realistically anticipated any better start from this group, but perhaps the most promising thing is that you can see the further potential beyond what they’ve already shown. You also see a group that appears to understand this is only the beginning, and that’s something that everyone needs to keep in mind when it comes to maintaining realistic expectations along the way.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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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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