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What’s Sustainabubble, What’s Not?

Is Michael Porter Jr.’s bubble breakthrough a fluke? Can Gary Trent Jr. continue to scorch the net? We decide what’s real and what’s not as the seeding-games phase nears its end.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What’s happening in the bubble doesn’t necessarily have to stay in the bubble. Cameramen on the baseline can kick rocks, permanently. Audible bench taunting, Devin Booker pulling up from half court, and lemon-pepper-wing scandals are all welcome to stay, too.

Of course, not everything will carry over. The Phoenix Suns, regretfully, will eventually have to lose a basketball game. Even if the small-sample-size theater may be the only one we can visit at the moment, the question still looms large: Which bubble breakouts should you believe in?

Michael Porter Jr., Nuggets

When Games MPG PPG Rebounds Assists FG%/3PT%/FT% USG%
When Games MPG PPG Rebounds Assists FG%/3PT%/FT% USG%
Pre-Bubble 48 14 7.5 4.1 0.7 49.5/42.2/76.7 20.4
In the Bubble 6 34.6 23.8 9.2 1.5 56.8/46.3/96 22.9

There’s a world where the Nuggets enter the bubble at full strength and MPJ is still catching DNP-CDs. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, and now there’s no turning back. We’re no longer hearing that Porter should play, or Porter needs to play—now, Porter has to play.

Porter is a cheat code. He materializes to clear contested rebounds a foot above where everyone else is. When wing defenders try to crawl up into his 6-foot-10 frame, Porter renders the closeout obsolete by shooting right over the top with his high release. He moves like a luxury sedan—he hits top speed smoothly, with no loss of control.

Porter zooming around a handoff from Nikola Jokic is almost unfair. Even if smaller defenders guard the action perfectly, they’re simply not on the same vertical plane as the sizable pair.

The ball tends to find Porter a lot, even though his understanding of team spacing appears to still be pretty rudimentary. Porter will often get caught creeping a few feet inside the 3-point line for no real reason, like a moth to a flame, or end up standing on top of a teammate on the weak side. That’s all correctable, but team defense will remain a puzzle for a while.

Still, there’s no ceiling here. Porter is one of 30 rookies in league history to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds, per 36 minutes (min. 750 minutes). No one has done it with a higher effective field goal percentage.

Ever since trading Malik Beasley, the Nuggets have desperately lacked a “shake cutter” who could lift the tagging help defender and clear more space for Jokic and Jamal Murray to operate in the pick-and-roll. That action all of the sudden has real teeth to it now, and will be just one of many moving forward with Porter on the floor. He’s by far the most interesting late addition to the Western Conference playoff picture.

Sustainabubble stars: 5 out of 5

T.J. Warren, Pacers

When Games MPG PPG Rebounds Assists FG%/3PT%/FT% USG%
When Games MPG PPG Rebounds Assists FG%/3PT%/FT% USG%
Pre-Bubble 61 32.5 18.7 4 1.4 52.9/37.5/81.2 22.4
In the Bubble 6 36.4 31 6.3 2 57.8/52.4/88.9 27.9

I’m looking forward to 20 years from now when highlights of Warren’s 53-point game come across the timeline with a backhanded caption I don’t fully understand. Warren is indeed a bucket, and always has been, and his massive scoring performances of late aren’t all that surprising when you zoom out a bit.

The NBA is chock full of players who could drop 40 on any given night—it’s just a matter of how efficiently they could do it, and whether or not that player could create higher value shots and turn the ball over less frequently than a more balanced offensive approach could. With Domantas Sabonis injured and the starting backcourt of Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon on the mend, Warren checked all the right boxes.

Warren’s wide frame creates a lot of natural separation coming off pin-down screens, and his floater game (once he turns the corner) is at the tippy-top of the league. Covering Warren used to be a little more straightforward, but after stretching his range to the 3-point line over the past two seasons, Warren is no longer a short closeout candidate or someone you can duck under screens against. He’s simply torching defenders who are guarding him with an outdated scouting report.

Give credit to Pacers coach Nate McMillan for letting him rock. In five seasons with the Suns, Warren recorded only 12 career games (minimum 20 minutes played) in which his single-game usage percentage was over 30 percent. He’s hit that mark nine times already this season, including three times in the bubble. It’s not wrong to say that the Pacers haven’t had a streak scorer like this since Reggie Miller. We can even take that one step further: Warren is putting up prime Miller Time numbers this season:

  • 1993-94 Reggie Miller: 19.9 PPG on 23.5 USG%, .562 EFG%
  • 2019-20 T.J. Warren: 19.8 PPG on 23.4 USG%, .581 EFG%

There’s some obvious regression coming, mainly because the Pacers are getting healthy again and Warren doesn’t get to the line enough (3.1 free throw attempts per game) to consistently drop a 30 piece every night. But when he gets on a heater? Get him the ball, and start trotting back on defense.

It’s all a little ironic: The Pacers might have the least modern offense in the league, but are now being carried by someone enjoying the best season of his career because he modernized his own game. He’s been worth the cash considerations he was traded for, to say the least.

Sustainabubble stars: 3.5 out of 5

Gary Trent Jr., Trail Blazers

When Games MPG PPG Rebounds Assists FG%/3PT%/FT% USG%
When Games MPG PPG Rebounds Assists FG%/3PT%/FT% USG%
Pre-Bubble 53 20 7.7 1.7 0.9 42.6/38.8/83.3 15.1
In the Bubble 7 33.7 17 1.6 1.4 52.6/52.6/77.8 14.6

Stan Van Gundy (a bubble breakout star in his own right!) quipped that Trent was “now the best shooter in the world” after lighting up the Clippers for his sixth made 3. Maybe he was only half-kidding?

Trent’s hot streak is the product of a perfect storm: Rodney Hood and Trevor Ariza’s absences on the wing have cleared a path to playing time, the defenses are more than a little rusty with their help rotations, and everyone is fighting like hell to get the ball out of Damian Lillard’s hands. That’s not to diminish what Trent has done in his past seven games, or to suggest that someone who shot 40 percent from deep in his lone year at Duke isn’t capable of being one of the league’s best shooters.

It’s just hard to imagine Trent will get these kinds of quality looks for much longer. Thirty-seven of Trent’s 51 3-point attempts through his first six bubble games have come with a defender not within four feet of him, according to NBA.com’s shot dashboard. Teams have been content to live and die with Trent instead of Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic, and Trent has been killing them.

I say this mostly with admiration: Trent is irritating as hell. He’s reminiscent of former Celtics guard Eddie House in that he’s on the floor solely to shoot 3s and talk all the shit. The game instantly gets chippy whenever he’s on the floor. If the Blazers make the postseason, the chances he and Dion Waiters hijack a second quarter with a back-and-forth battle are about 100 percent.

Shooting it at this clip is obviously unsustainable, and the open looks are going to become less frequent as teams recognize him as a legitimate threat. But Trent has earned that recognition.

Sustainabubble stars: 2 out of 5

Derrick White, Spurs

When Games MPG PPG Rebounds Assists FG%/3PT%/FT% USG%
When Games MPG PPG Rebounds Assists FG%/3PT%/FT% USG%
Pre-Bubble 61 24.1 10.4 3.2 3.4 45.9/35.6/85.7 17.5
In the Bubble 7 29.8 18.9 4.3 5 45.5/39.3/83.3 23.5

The Spurs are quietly back to playing beautiful basketball, complete with real spacing and everything. With LaMarcus Aldridge out, Gregg Popovich is often choosing to close games with Rudy Gay at the 5, opening up driving lanes and putting the ball in the hands of the backcourt trio of White, Dejounte Murray, and Lonnie Walker IV.

White seems particularly empowered by the new space and offensive responsibility. He’s functioned mostly as a glue guy next to DeMar DeRozan and Aldridge, but he’s shined as a no. 1 option offensively during San Antonio’s push for the play-in game. White’s pump fake is the trickiest this side of the Mississippi (Jonas Valanciunas makes me jump off the couch with his random BS), and his footwork attacking closeouts has no wasted movement.

The ability to make lightning-quick decisions on the catch is the hallmark of San Antonio’s player development system, and White is finally thinking shoot-first instead of catching and looking to pass. He’s not blindingly fast, but removing hesitation gives the appearance that he is.

It’s a welcome development. White has good size and strength and can finish around the rim, and he sees the floor better than anyone else on San Antonio’s roster. There are no perfect combinations with this group, particularly defensively, but White is playing like the type of star you can build around—something the Spurs desperately need moving forward.

Sustainabubble stars: 4 out of 5

D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California.