If this unprecedented season hadn’t brought enough twists and turns, the 2020 NBA playoffs have surely stirred us some more. Neither the East’s no. 1 or no. 2 seed reached the conference finals for the first time since 1984. The Nuggets became the first team to overcome two 3-1 deficits in the same postseason. And “home” teams are actually under .500 as we hit the midpoint of the conference finals. With the field down to four inside the bubble, and some notable teams having left, it’s time to take a look at the board and analyze what we’ve seen and what we might see in both the Finals and the upcoming offseason.
Who has been the bubble MVP so far?
Dan Devine: LeBron James. You can make compelling statistical and/or holistic cases for a handful of other players—Nikola Jokic or Jamal Murray, Jimmy Butler or Bam Adebayo, maybe Jayson Tatum, definitely Anthony Davis. But if it’s all the same to you, I’ll stick with the guy flirting with 26-10-9 on a .650 true shooting percentage—something that no other player has ever done—to lead the team with by far the best point differential in the playoffs despite rarely needing to really step on the gas yet. Yeah, AD’s making life easier for LeBron. But LeBron’s making life easier for everybody, to a degree that nobody else in the bubble can match.
Zach Kram: Anthony Davis. Before Sunday’s game, Davis led all players this postseason (albeit by narrow margins) in both Basketball-Reference win shares and FiveThirtyEight wins above replacement—and then he nailed a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give the Lakers a 2-0 lead in the conference finals. It feels silly to give any award to a non-LeBron Laker, and Bam Adebayo, Nikola Jokic, and Jamal Murray are all clamoring for inclusion as well, but at least for now, I’ll lean toward a harmonious meeting of numbers and narrative.
Jonathan Tjarks: LeBron. LeBron and AD have been the two best players in the bubble. But you have to give LeBron the edge for the way that he’s set the tone and assumed the leadership role for the Lakers. The difference between the level of control that he has over his franchise is stark in comparison to Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Logan Murdock: Damian Lamonte Ollie Lillard Sr. from Oakland, California. Lillard led the most entertaining stretch of basketball, averaging 37.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 9.6 assists over his last eight games, reminding everyone to put some respect on his name.
J. Kyle Mann: LeBron. You absolutely would be in your right mind to argue that it’s Nikola Jokic. Taking his production away from the Nuggets would significantly lower their ceiling. That said, LeBron is still the best player in the world, and the way he can basically operate as a basketball necromancer—players that seemed done are somehow raised from the dead—is still incredible after 17 years. That is not a quantifiable thing that you can line up alongside his impressive stats. He paces himself, but he’s still the only guy who can anchor a team’s decision-making at an elite, championship level on both sides of the ball.
Matt Dollinger: LeBron. There was no question Giannis deserved the regular-season award, but there’s also no question who is the more valuable player. At 35, James would have tied Karl Malone for the oldest player to ever win MVP. And since he’s so focused on “narrative,” maybe he’s just laying some “I’m under appreciated” groundwork for the 2020-21 season. Hopefully that one isn’t inside a bubble.
Which eliminated playoff team needs to make the biggest change this offseason?
Tjarks: Bucks. The first thing they need to do is get in one of the machines from Tenet and go back to a year ago when they decided not to re-sign Malcolm Brogdon. Then fire Mike Budenholzer while they are at it.
Devine: 76ers. Having written about all of these teams, it’s hard to pick just one, but Philadelphia still feels like the right answer to me. If the 2019-20 Sixers were a rough draft of a team that could beat Giannis Antetokounmpo on the way to a title, the 2020-21 model requires wholesale revisions—in terms of the front-office infrastructure evaluating and acquiring players, the tactical acumen and overarching philosophy of the new coach, the construction of the roster complementing Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the approach to preparation and development of those two incumbent stars. Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Josh Richardson might be depressed assets right now, but there’s talent to work with here. If all parties involved can just get a cosmic kick in the head to realign their thinking about what makes a basketball team good in 2020, maybe this season’s most disappointing team can deliver something worth believing in again.
Mann: 76ers. The Bucks can’t just run this back. The Rockets would appear to be in the same boat, but they’ve painted themselves into a corner when it comes to short-term options. My gut says Philly. We’re talking about a potential era-defining decision, albeit one that could end up being positive. Their choice of coach could seriously dictate their personnel decisions, and they have two immensely valuable young pieces on their roster who could yield big returns. Most of the Sixers fans I know are answering “Embiid” without hesitation when asked who they’d punt. Will the team have the stomach to do that?
Kram: Bucks. Milwaukee’s problem isn’t just the risk of losing Antetokounmpo next offseason. It’s also an old team for an ostensibly up-and-coming contender. Of the 10 Bucks who played at least 100 minutes in this postseason, Giannis, in his age-25 season, is the second youngest; only Donte DiVincenzo (23) is younger. In other words, aging another year should harm rather than help most of the rotation; it’s hard to imagine playoff fixes coming from the current roster. The Bucks hold the Pacers’ first-round pick in this draft and have promised to spend into the luxury tax after eschewing Malcolm Brogdon’s match in restricted free agency last summer. Their next decisions will swing the franchise’s direction for years to come.
Murdock: 76ers. After three years together, it is clear the fit between Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons is funky. Each season, the duo brings championship aspirations. And each season ends with an early playoff exit. Brett Brown is out of the picture, but it may be time to consider a bigger move and trading half of their All-Star pairing.
Dollinger: Rockets. No team has stubbornly slammed its head against the ceiling the last few seasons as much as Houston. Daryl Morey has squeezed every last drop out of his blood-red orange. No amount of tinkering or toying is going to put this James Harden–led team over the edge. It’s not Morey’s or Harden’s fault—the superteam competition is just too good. It could be time to reset. A Harden haul would likely be similar to what the Thunder got for Paul George last summer—and there’s no better man to lead a rebuild than the one who would be making the trade.
Have the bubble playoffs been more entertaining than a normal postseason?
Mann: Novel? Noteworthy? Something I’ll tell my kid about years from now? Sure. Entertaining? Even though it pales miserably in comparison to raucous road environments for visiting higher seeds, overcrowded outdoor watch parties, celebrations and all that jazz, you’ve got to acknowledge the fact that it’s basically been an oasis of joy in an otherwise bleak day-to-day existence. For that reason it gets a bump. I still lean “no,” because I would much prefer to have our normal setup.
Tjarks: The playoffs have been fun, but they always are. I’m not sure if they have been “better.” So much of that is determined by the quality of teams. I think a postseason with Steph Curry and Kevin Durant is more entertaining than one without them.
Devine: As great as the quality of play has been—to the point that it feels even more imperative for the league office to seriously consider more schedule tweaks to reduce travel once, y’know, the world is OK again—there’s not a single incredible and entertaining thing that’s happened in the bubble that I wouldn’t have found even more incredible and entertaining had it been accompanied by either the sound of 19,000 fans roaring in ecstatic delirium, or the sound of 19,000 fans silently reconsidering every life choice that led to them watching this brutal defeat. This has been amazing, and stunningly so. But it’s not the same thing, I don’t think.
Murdock: Think about how lit the Donovan Mitchell–Jamal Murray duel would have been if it were in Salt Lake City. Or how wild the Clippers’ collapse would have been at Staples Center. The NBA knows this too, which is why they’re willing to delay the start of next season for the prospect of getting fans back in arenas.
Kram: All the best moments from this postseason would have been even better with hordes of cheering fans: Luka Doncic’s game-winner, which would have sent Mavericks fans into a frenzy; the Nuggets’ numerous comebacks, delighting the Denver denizens in an alternate world; OG Anunoby’s Game 3 winner against the Celtics, which would have completely silenced the Boston crowd if one had been in the building. All the virtual screens and imported sound in the world can’t compete with organic elation and disappointment on a mass scale.
Dollinger: There’s no replacing rabid fans and what homecourt advantage can do in the playoffs, but the NBA has done an unbelievable job of replicating the atmosphere and creating the Impossible Burger Playoffs. I still prefer the real thing, but I’m not ashamed to admit I sometimes can’t tell the difference.
On a scale of ice-cold to red-hot, how confident are you the Heat can win the title?
Murdock: This is a tricky one. This squad gives off real 2011 Dallas Maverick vibes—a team centered around one veteran star and a bunch of badass dudes. At the moment, I’m lukewarm.
Kram: Our Restart Odds give the Heat 22 percent title odds, which sounds right to me—although they lead 2-1, it will still take a real battle to get past Boston, and then Miami would be a likely underdog to the Lakers in the Finals. So for the parameters of this question, lukewarm.
Devine: I’ll go with “room-temperature tap water.” (No team as gnarly as Miami would be caught dead drinking sparkling.) I can see them knocking off Boston (though Gordon Hayward coming back and instantly being helpful muddies that vision somewhat). I think the Lakers will beat the Nuggets, though, and I’m not confident at all in the Heat’s chances in the first series all postseason in which they wouldn’t have the best two-way perimeter player or the best do-it-all big man. But holy crap, would it be fun to be wrong.
Dollinger: Baby bath water. Warm enough that I’m not shivering, but not too far removed from room temperature. I’m old enough to remember the Toronto Raptors winning the title, so I’m not going to rule out the NBA’s hottest and maybe most cohesive team. They won’t shrink on any stage and they look like a team that believes it can win a title.
Mann: It’s hard to say “red-hot,” seeing as Boston could conceivably be up as much as 3-0 if a handful of things had gone their way. I’d say I’m right in the middle. Probably leaning cool ever so slightly.
Tjarks: I’m not confident they will beat the Celtics. So wherever that puts me on the scale.
Which NBA Finals matchup would be most fun?
Tjarks: Watching LeBron play at this high a level in his 17th season is the kind of thing we will tell our grandkids about. The Celtics have more talent than the Heat, but they don’t have the size up front to match up with LeBron or AD.
Murdock: Since the Bucks bowed out early, it’s easily Celtics-Lakers. Boston has the bodies to match up with the Lakers and an elite coach in Brad Stevens. Jayson Tatum is blossoming into a star. And another chapter of Lakers-Celtics is intriguing. Sign me up.
Devine: Nuggets-Heat. Damn the man, fuck the punditry, put your war paint on, chaos and entropy reign supreme.
Mann: I think the Lakers are still the best team left, but I don’t find immense joy in watching them play. Stylistically, the offense of Nuggets-Heat would be very fun. The defensive versatility of Bam countering the genius playmaking of Jokic? I need to see that.
Dollinger: Nuggets-Heat. Lakers-Celtics would feel the most important, but the unpredictability of Nuggets-Heat would be pretty fitting for 2020.
Kram: Unless you live in Los Angeles or Boston, you’re not allowed to answer Lakers-Celtics for this question. Instead, consider Lakers-Heat because the Lakers would have the best and second-best players, and then the Heat might have the next ... six? seven? eight? best guys. And beyond the strategic implications, such a series would overflow with story lines: LeBron James vs. his old team and coach, Pat Riley vs. the Lakers, Bam Adebayo vs. Anthony Davis in a clash of Kentucky centers. Who would Dwyane Wade root for? What about Shaquille O’Neal on Inside the NBA? The war for Shaq’s heart is the most fun outcome remaining.