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Anatomy of a Bubble Team: Who Will Sneak Into the Playoffs in the Crowded West?

The NBA’s Western Conference is stacked with title contenders, but there is also room for a few less-heralded squads in the postseason. Who will rise above the rest?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The real winner this NBA offseason isn’t league parity, Los Angeles, or even Marcus Morris. It’s the betting people of the world, the first time gamblers have ever collectively won something since the Steelers spawned Black Sunday. No, gamblers didn’t predict D’Angelo Russell to the Warriors or Paul George to the Clippers; unless their bookie had recently seen Steve Ballmer’s face form in the stars during an annual ayahuasca trip in a remote area of Peru, those bets weren’t even on the table. Free agency was either too unbelievable, like Russell’s signing or George’s trade, or too predictable, like Kawhi Leonard’s winding up in L.A., to rake in much of anything. The gift to gamblers came after the dust settled. New favorites, new underdogs, new odds, all drastically different than before.

Golden State’s no longer being the default title favorite creates a space for the wager of all wagers. There hasn’t been an interesting answer for “who do you have to win it all?” since Kyrie Irving hit the 3 heard ’round the world in 2016. Even then, in the short weeks before Kevin Durant signed with the Warriors, we knew the Cavs were unlikely to repeat. Now the two Los Angeles teams are favored, with the small-market Bucks not too far behind. The Western Conference standings as a whole have changed, which leads to my favorite stakes for the 2019-20 season: Who will make the playoffs in the West?

The six Western Conference teams with the best title odds—the Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, Warriors, Jazz, and Nuggets—are almost assuredly safe to make the postseason. These are the conference’s true title contenders. After Denver is the long-shot Blazers (plus-2800 to win the Finals), continuing Portland and Damian Lillard’s grand tradition of being slighted. Next come the Mavericks, Pelicans, Spurs, Wolves, and Kings. These teams would need a miracle to contend for a championship, but there is room for two of them in the postseason. To break down the NBA’s middle class and their odds of making it in, here’s the anatomy of each bubble team:

Portland Trail Blazers: Minus-200 to Make the Playoffs

Almost every fan base believes it’s slighted each year. Almost all are delusional, except for the teams I cheer for, and except for the Blazers. Half of Terry Stotts’s six postseason runs with Portland have ended in the first round, two of them sweeps. But while the team under Stotts may not have often advanced in the playoffs (outside of last season’s WCF run), they have a knack for finishing the season strong. Last season, Portland started 32-23 before a 20-6 finish; in 2017-18, it went 29-25 before a 20-8 finish; in 2016-17, it started 24-35 before a 17-6 finish. Don’t deny the juice. Just remember, for betting’s sake, that it tends to run out.

Portland’s Bubble Team Checklist

Player who bails the rest of the team out: Lillard, of course. He’s known for streaks, getting hot in the fourth quarter, and ending Russell Westbrook’s time in Oklahoma City with one bad shot.
Perpetual weakness: Perimeter defense. Stotts resisted switching for years until forced into the idea by his players before Game 2 against the Warriors in the conference finals. New acquisition Kent Bazemore will help, but he’s a patch where new drywall is necessary.
Don’t forget about: Hassan Whiteside. Portland has had to do without Jusuf Nurkic in the playoffs and will be without him for some time as he recovers from a leg fracture he suffered in March. Without Enes Kanter to fill in, Whiteside will take over the center spot.

San Antonio Spurs: Minus-200 to Make the Playoffs

BetOnline gives San Antonio the same playoff odds it does Portland, while Bovada has the Spurs less likely than the Blazers (and the Mavericks and Pelicans) to win the title. There’s a number of reasons this could be, simplest of all that different sportsbooks offer different odds. In recent history, the Spurs’ outcomes haven’t been all that different than the Blazers’ reputation. San Antonio always finds a way to make the playoffs. Like, for 22 straight years and counting. In each of the past two, however, it was eliminated in the first round. But as it stands right now, Portland’s superstar has much higher stock than DeMar DeRozan.

San Antonio’s Bubble Team Checklist

Player who bails the rest of the team out: DeRozan, if he’s not traded.
Perpetual weakness: Playing on the road. The Spurs’ gap between home and away performances was egregious last year, as the team finished last season 32-9 in San Antonio and 16-25 everywhere else.
Don’t forget about: Dejounte Murray’s return. After a year of missing Kawhi followed by a year of missing Murray, San Antonio will finally be healthy.

Dallas Mavericks: Plus-150 to Make the Playoffs

No ceiling and floor are farther apart than the Mavericks’. In Mark Cuban’s dream world, his young, European tandem of Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis are as rapidly franchise-altering as the Nuggets’ Big Little 3 of Jamal Murray, Nikola Jokic, and Gary Harris. New signings (like Seth Curry) will make a significant difference in this world; past signings (like Dwight Powell) that have yet to make a significant difference will suddenly do so, too. (The chances of this are greater simply because Wes Matthews is gone.) That’s the ceiling. The floor features these transitions taking time, load management and recurring injuries, the roster’s top-heaviness, and the rest of the West.

Dallas’s Bubble Team Checklist

Player who bails the rest of the team out: Doncic, especially while Porzingis navigates playing his first minutes since February 2018.
Perpetual weakness: Slow pace—though there are a couple of options here, as is the nature of any multiyear tank job. Dallas was the 19th in pace last season, which is surprising considering how talented Doncic is in transition.
Don’t forget about: Seth Curry. There’s no clear answer to who will be the Mavericks’ third option behind Doncic and Porzingis, and while Curry, a perennial backup and career journeyman, isn’t apt for that responsibility, he is another playmaker and shooter who pairs well in any lineup.

New Orleans Pelicans: Plus-250 to Make the Playoffs

Zion Williamson. That’s it; that’s the bet.

New Orleans’s Bubble Team Checklist

Player who bails the rest of the team out: Again, all success and failures depend on Zion. Last year Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram showed how far they can take a team next to a generational talent and, spoiler alert, it’s not the playoffs. Jrue Holiday had a similar experience next to Anthony Davis. Altogether, they provide more support to Zion than either LeBron or Davis had last year, but New Orleans will go only as far as its new superstar takes it.
Perpetual weakness: Surviving the second night of back-to-backs. David Griffin nearly wiped the roster of all former problems by rebuilding it, but one old issue—health—persisted. Injury watch never ends in New Orleans, and Ingram, Ball, and Holiday are all prone to missing time.
Don’t forget about: Holiday and JJ Redick, two veteran guards who bring starting-caliber defense (Holiday, not Redick) and shooting (Redick, not Holiday—lately) to an otherwise inexperienced team.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Plus-315 to Make the Playoffs

Minnesota is a contradiction, a technically young team already stuck in its old ways. What 33-year-old head coach Ryan Saunders is tasked with, at least for this season, is figuring out what to do with one star who’s progressed as far as he can with this roster (Karl-Anthony Towns) and one who’s not progressed much at all (I’ll let you guess who I’m referring to). With Jeff Teague still under contract and Shabazz Napier recently acquired, there’s less room for rookie Jarrett Culver to cook. Three-fourths of the Wolves’ roster is 25 or younger, but there’s little indication that they’ll turn into a modern-style team.

Minnesota’s Bubble Team Checklist

Player who bails the rest of the team out: Towns, at least on offense.
Perpetual weakness: 3-point shooting. The Wolves finished with the seventh-least made 3s last season. In Minnesota, that’s called improvement; for three of the four seasons before 2018-19, the Wolves finished dead last in made 3s. And the fourth? Well, in 2015-16, they finished second to last. KAT’s been the team’s best shooter for two years running (40 percent from deep last season!), and with Jimmy Butler and Dario Saric long gone, that leaves Robert Covington and maybe Napier to fend on the wing.
Don’t forget about: Josh Okogie, an unexpected delight.

Sacramento Kings: Plus-315 to Make the Playoffs

Kangz no more, the finally competent Kings might be a casualty of an ever-improving conference. They have one of the few rosters in the West that will look familiar in 2019-20, and it’s a successful—relative to Sacramento history—one at that. If a duo could win the Most Improved Player award, De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield would’ve been last year’s favorites. If even half of Sacramento’s developing players can make a similar jump, taking them at plus-315 will be one of the best bets on the board.

Sacramento’s Bubble Team Checklist

Player who bails the rest of the team out: Hield, who holds the power to turn a game quickly with his shot (42.7 percent from deep last season) on an already-speedy offense. This is no knock to Fox, who could easily hold this spot, but a testament to Hield’s playmaking.
Perpetual weakness: Frontcourt defense. The Willie Cauley-Stein years are over, long live the Willie Cauley-Stein years. Having a tall body under the basket who isn’t WCS might’ve improved the frontcourt alone—maybe even Red Panda if she could let go of the plates thing—but Sac is hoping that Dewayne Dedmon, who was signed to a three-year, $41 million deal with a partial guarantee on the last year, will do right by rebounding and rim protection, instead.
Don’t forget about: Harry Giles. Anthony Davis may not know who Giles is, but the 2017 predraft boards haven’t forgotten.