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How the Gameplay and the Playoff Race Has Changed After One Week in the Bubble

The fouls are up, and the Grizzlies are down. We look at the biggest trends so far on the court and in the bracket.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA’s return inside the Disney bubble feels like real basketball—all day, every day. The fans are virtual and home-court advantage is nonexistent, but Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden and Kawhi Leonard are playing competitive hoops again. What more could a starved fan want?

This first week has not only produced entertainment; some takeaways have already started to emerge about play in this unprecedented environment. So at the halfway point of the seeding game period, let’s take a look at the stylistic trends inside the bubble, and how the playoff picture is shaping up for the final sprint.

The Gameplay

Coronavirus concerns aside, the greatest question entering the bubble was how players would perform after four months off. Previous lengthy stoppages in league history augured worry: The 1998-99 season, for instance, came after a lockout and was the lowest-scoring season since the invention of the shot clock.

Those concerns have been all but allayed early on. Ballhandling has been a smidge sloppier than normal (14.3 team turnovers per game in the bubble versus 13.5 outside in games involving the top 22 teams), but not to a point of concern. And shooters have performed like there was no layoff at all, with no evidence of rust on a macro scale.

This chart contains three columns. The first shows leaguewide figures for all teams before the restart. The second shows leaguewide figures before the restart but with games involving the eight non-bubble teams removed, to avoid the Knicks’ offense or Cavaliers’ defense mucking up the numbers. And the third shows leaguewide figures for play inside the bubble so far. (All bubble-based statistics in this section are through Wednesday’s games.)

Shooting Inside vs. Outside the Bubble

Statistic Pre-Bubble, All Teams Pre-Bubble, Top 22 Teams In Bubble
Statistic Pre-Bubble, All Teams Pre-Bubble, Top 22 Teams In Bubble
Games 1942 1032 74
2-Point % 52.3% 52.0% 53.2%
3-Point % 35.7% 35.9% 35.2%
eFG% 52.8% 52.7% 53.1%
Free Throw % 77.1% 77.9% 79.4%

Shooting efficiency is up a bit, and free throw performance, the purest measure of a shooting stroke, has the biggest positive differential for any offensive statistic since the restart. The differential isn’t enough to conclude the Orlando environment is necessarily better for shooters, but they also might be telling the truth that they’re playing inside “a hooper’s gym.”

One interesting wrinkle so far is that players with two free throws are shooting a bit worse than normal on the first shot, and much better than normal on the second. That difference might be the result of mere small-sample strangeness—but it also might confirm some players’ perceptions that the novel environment is uncomfortable at first, but after an adjustment it provides cleaner sight lines to facilitate more accurate shooting. If true, the early shooting numbers from the field could reflect the same broader idea: Perhaps these courts are shooter-friendly, but players are also still readjusting to the full rhythm of an NBA game, so the two forces balance each other out. Either way, shooting looks normal so far.

Fouls, however, look very abnormal. All manner of whistle-related statistics—from shooting fouls to non-shooting fouls to free throws overall—are way up in the bubble. Before the restart, teams averaged 21 fouls and 23 free throw attempts per game; since the restart, those figures have risen to 25 and 28, respectively. Put another way: Scoring is up by about four points per team per game in the bubble, and all of those extra points are coming from the free throw line.

The shift looks even more drastic when applied to individuals. Players have collected three fouls in the first half more than twice as frequently in the bubble, and they’ve fouled out more than three times as frequently—one per every 2.6 team games in Orlando, versus one per every 8.2 earlier in the season.

Several theories could explain this phenomenon. One concerns the players, who might not be up to speed and thus are more prone to reach than slide their feet against drivers. Another concerns the environment; as The Athletic’s Seth Partnow explains, “in empty arenas, the referees are hearing so much more of the contact which occurs … causing them to blow the whistle more than they might when the ambient noise in the building allows them to ignore some of the more incidental contact.”

The rise in fouls is quite noticeable, from the raw numbers, to the missing players who have fouled out, to the sheer increased length of games. A reversion to normal before the playoffs begin would be a welcome sight, so crucial games don’t end with superstars on the bench.


The Bracket

Let’s start in the Eastern Conference, where the play-in race is effectively over. For the Wizards to force a play-in round, they need to go 4-0 in their remaining games while either the Nets or Magic go 0-4. Considering that the Wizards haven’t won four games in a row since 2018—their longest winning streak this season is two—it’s safe to say the Magic and Nets are secure in their playoff position. The only question is which team gets to lose to the Bucks in the first round as the no. 8 seed, and which team gets to lose to the Raptors in the first round as the no. 7 seed.

Speaking of those Eastern heavyweights, Milwaukee and Toronto are effectively locked into the top two seeds, and Boston should join them at no. 3, with a 2.5-game lead on the fourth-place Heat and an easy remaining schedule. The only extant drama comes in the middle of the conference, where the Heat-Pacers-76ers troika is battling to avoid the Celtics in the first round. Miami has the advantage for the no. 4 seed, thanks to a one-game lead in the loss column, but between the Pacers and 76ers in particular, the middle is a complete toss-up. Potential longer-term absences for Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons loom large.

Here are the chances that each Eastern team lands in the various slots in the standings, according to The Ringer’s NBA Restart Odds.

In the Western Conference, the main race is for the no. 8 and 9 seeds. Portland has crept within half a game of Memphis, with both the Spurs and Suns—one of just two undefeated teams in the bubble—two back. The Grizzlies entered the restart as the leading contender to win the conference’s final playoff spot, but four straight losses, a season-ending injury to Jaren Jackson Jr., and a brutal remaining schedule mean the Grizzlies might not even qualify for the play-in round. Still, until Memphis actually surrenders the no. 8 seed, it will retain a decent chance to reach the postseason, given the inherent advantage the no. 8 team has over no. 9 in the play-in. In more than half of the simulated scenarios per the Restart Odds, Memphis plays Portland in that matchup.

New Orleans also has a moderate chance to rise into the play-in spots, but the Pelicans are in the midst of squandering the easiest schedule for any team in Orlando. And the Suns, Spurs, and Kings have a slim chance too, though they might need to play perfect basketball the rest of the way given the crowded competition for those spots.

Elsewhere, the Lakers already clinched the no. 1 seed, but every spot between no. 2 and 7 is up for grabs. The Clippers are favored to stay in the no. 2 spot and the Mavericks in no. 7, but 3 through 6 is a total mess—the Nuggets, Jazz, Rockets, and Thunder are all separated by just two games. That makes for compelling theater, but also isn’t incredibly meaningful: The four teams will just end up playing each other in some combination in the first round of the playoffs anyway.