The Playgrounder’s 2020 NBA Regular Season Wrap-up

The NBA restart’s seeding games came to a conclusion on Friday, August 14, and on Saturday, the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Memphis Grizzlies in the Western Conference play-in game to finalize the playoff bracket. Ahead of the postseason, some of the Playgrounder’s staff members handed out some bubble hardware, made their postseason predictions, and laughed at a certain Eastern Conference ninth-seed who shall remain nameless. Here’s what we came up with:

All-Bubble First Team

Lawlor: Damian Lillard, Devin Booker, James Harden, Luka Doncic, TJ Warren. Lillard is my MVP, for reasons outlined above. Booker is right behind him after leading the Suns to an 8-0 record while averaging 30.5 points and 6.0 assists per game on 50.3/31.3/94.0 shooting. Harden and Doncic took on enormous offensive loads. They had the ball in their hands nearly every possession, and produced for good teams. For the last spot, I went with TJ Warren after his scorching start, although he did not continue it.

Cinquini: Lillard, Harden, Booker, Warren, Doncic. For second-team, let’s go with Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Michael Porter Jr., Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic.

Wilson: Lillard, Harden, Booker, Warren, Doncic. I really struggle leaving Giannis Antetokounmpo off this list, because he probably did play better than a few of these guys in the bubble. But with a small sample of eight games, Giannis missed a quarter of them, and that’s what slides him off the first team for me.

Trizzino: Lillard, Harden, Booker, Warren, Doncic. Really no one else within shouting distance of these five.

Bubble MVP

Andrew Lawlor: Damian Lillard. In the Trail Blazers’ game against the Nets, Brooklyn often trapped Lillard before he even got to half-court. He was so dominant that they had to do so. When they gave him even an inch of space, he rose and scored. Lillard led bubble players in scoring 37.6 points per game, with 49.7/43.6/88.8 shooting splits, while throwing in 9.6 assists per game. He stormed back with a vengeance after missing two late free throws against the Clippers, carrying the Blazers to the playoffs. Devin Booker certainly has a claim to Bubble MVP as well. But I’m going with Lillard.

Jesse Cinquini: Lillard. He’s the best point guard in the game right now. And considering the influx of talent at the position, that’s saying a lot. There’s no denying Lillard is a superstar in this league. The numbers he put up in Orlando were historic. 37.6 points and 9.6 assists per game across an eight-game span. Wow. He dominated the Bubble unlike any other, and thanks to him the Blazers dug themselves out of a hole in the Western Conference standings and are set to take on the Lakers in the first round.

Zach Wilson: Lillard. This is a fairly easy answer. He was the best player on a team that went 6-2, and won multiple must-win games. The defense as a whole for the Trail Blazers was poor, but you have to give credit to a guy who combined for 154 points in his final three seeding games, to go along with an average of nine assists per game across those three.

Nick Trizzino: Lillard.  It hurts my soul to snub Devin Booker here, but picking anyone other than Lillard feels like contrarianism for its own sake. The man averaged 50 points over three games. Ask yourself: did you ever really believe the Blazers wouldn’t at least make the play-in game? When he pulled up for this shot, was there a doubt in your mind it was going in? If Dame had to score 200 points to win, I’d have bet my life on Dame scoring 200 points. There might not be a better closer in the league right now.

What’s your dream Finals matchup?

Lawlor: Lakers-Bucks. The all-time great vs. the (possible) reigning back-to-back MVP. Does it get any better than that? LeBron James has been the defining basketball player of his generation, and, at 35, it is unclear how many more elite seasons he has left. I want to see more of him while he is still great. Giannis is already a superstar, but he has not broken through to the Finals. I need to see them face off.

Cinquini: Lakers-Celtics. There’s something special about seeing Boston and Los Angeles duel it out on the NBA’s brightest stage. The two franchises account for nearly half of all the league’s titles, and their rivalry — which is arguably the most notorious in all of sports — has granted fans some epic series over the years. Also, a Lakers-Celtics Finals would be star-studded. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker all can drop 20-plus points on any given night. This matchup would be an uber-intense battle between illustrious organizations with a known disdain for one another. Sign me up.

Wilson: Clippers-Raptors. We have never seen a Finals MVP leave a team directly after winning the award. Upon leaving the common view amongst fans, the Raptors were seen as a team that would be an easy first-round exit, and some even had them missing the playoffs altogether. Even though I didn’t expect them to be poor, the fact that Toronto has come back this strong is a slight shock to everyone. If they can manage to make the finals, and play against their former star teammate, it would be a treat.

Trizzino: Cavaliers—Lakers. Seeing since Cavs weren’t invited to the bubble, though—what with their being an awful, awful basketball team—I’ll say Clippers-Bucks. Milwaukee very nearly went up 3-0 on the Raptors in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals before Kawhi Leonard entered instant kill mode. This time around, Giannis is better, the Bucks are deeper, Kawhi is well-rested with (*gulp*) a better supporting cast. I’ll take seven games, please.

Should we have a category dedicated to making fun of the Wizards?

Lawlor: All I’ll say about the Wizards is that they got passed in the standings by the Hornets, who did not even get invited to the bubble. They were terrible.

Cinquini: While the Wizards obviously fared poorly in the Bubble, members of their young core performed encouragingly. Rui Hachimura possesses a unique skill set for a power forward and I think he’ll be a solid fit alongside Beal and Wall going forward. Additionally, both Jerome Robinson and Troy Brown Jr. put up points in more advanced roles than they had pre-Bubble. It was not all bad for the Wizards in Orlando, but there were a lot more downs than ups.

Wilson: I honestly feel bad for the Wizards. They were the weakest them there to begin with, then their best two players opted out. They honestly competed hard, and had some bright moments from some young players. I don’t want to take this time to rag on them, because they already had a bad enough experience in the bubble.

Trizzino: Here’s a list of things that you could do with two weeks:

The Wizards used their two weeks to lose seven professional basketball games in two weeks. Bless their souls.

Who’s your 2020 NBA Champion?

Lawlor: The Lakers. At the end of the day, the NBA is a star-driven league, and LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the best top two that any team has. Rotations will tighten, and their lack of depth will not hurt them as much. I am a little worried that they have not been able to score in the bubble. But I trust LeBron and Davis to turn it on in the playoffs.

Cinquini: The Clippers. Moreso this year than most others, the league feels pretty wide open. There are a number of squads with a chance at taking home the Larry O’Brien Trophy. But because of the Clippers’ depth, I’m giving them a slight advantage over the rest of the pack. I mean the offensive firepower they have is just absurd. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Lou Williams are practically unguardable. Shamet, Jackson, and Morris are floor-stretchers who can score off the bounce as well. Harrell and Zubac are beasts inside. Not to mention they can lock you up defensively. They’re top-five in defensive rating and defensive rebounds.

Wilson: Clippers. This team has it all: A top-three player, a top-fifteen second star, depth, defense, and scoring from all levels. They may lack rim protection, but at full health, they contain the strongest group of perimeter defenders in the league. I still believe that Kawhi is the best player in the league until proven otherwise, and he has an extremely solid supporting cast around him. Kawhi could win back-to-back finals and become the first player to win three championships with three separate organizations, and I am here for it.

Trizzino: The Rockets. Only one team has managed to knock James Harden out of the playoffs the past two seasons, and they were so good people nicknamed them after the grim reaper. Some have attributed Harden’s recent postseason flameouts (if you want to call them that (which you shouldn’t)) to fatigue, and after Houston swapped Clint Capela for Robert Covington, it looked like things were headed that direction again. Consider this a bet on the Tuckwagon lineup coming back from the shutdown with a full tank of gas and a fresh set of tires. (Also, consider it a double-down on a preseason pick, ill-advised as it may be.)

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