Who’s Who In The NBA Bubble: The Inner-Circle Contenders

We’re back for the final installment of our NBA bubble preview series. Last week, we reintroduced the teams that the NBA brought along for the ride in order to maximize games and revenue, as well as the teams whose playoff spots are secure but who nevertheless seem like long shots to win the title. Today, we’re going to finish up by talking about the inner-circle contenders. This time around, we’ll dig a bit more into each team’s potential title odds — and why our projections shake out the way they do.

Houston Rockets

40-24, 6th in West, 9.5 games back
FiveThirtyEight predictions: Clinched playoffs, 12% West, 7% Finals
Projected Seeding W-L: 5-3; 45-27 (5th in West)
COVID-19: Russell Westbrook (announced)

The league’s most eclectic team is back, and our projections love it. The short-ball Rockets are one of the biggest beneficiaries of the season’s resumption at Disney World, which neutralizes home-court advantage and eliminates road games the Rockets would have played against higher seeds. We have them finishing fifth in the West after the seeding games, so they would likely have been the road team in every playoff series.

Houston’s full-strength roster rating1 is third among teams invited to the restart, and its playoff roster rating is fifth. That explains much of why we give the Rockets better chances than the teams we have finishing both third (the Denver Nuggets, eighth in full-strength roster and seventh in playoff roster) and fourth (the Utah Jazz, 12th in both full-strength and playoff) in the West.

Philadelphia 76ers

39-26, 6th in East, 14 games back
FiveThirtyEight predictions: Clinched playoffs, 33% East, 14% Finals
Projected Seeding W-L: 6-2; 45-28 (4th in East)
COVID-19: Three unnamed members of the organization (announced)

The Sixers are the primary beneficiaries of the neutral-site tournament. Philadelphia’s chances of winning the NBA Finals rose by 3.7 percentage points in the bubble version, compared to the version of our projections that played out a standard postseason (with four home games for higher seeds and three for lower seeds in a seven-game series). The bump was more than double that of the next-closest team, the aforementioned Rockets, at 1.7 percentage points.

The Sixers also benefit from the four-plus months that Ben Simmons had to heal his back injury. With a healthy Simmons, we project them to go 6-2 in the seeding games, jumping from their current slot at sixth in the East to fourth. They’ll presumably also benefit if Joel Embiid hits coach Brett Brown’s target of 38 minutes per game during the postseason, putting one of the league’s best players on the floor nearly 80 percent of the time.2 Philly’s strong playoff-roster rating (third among restart teams, behind only the two L.A. squads) is the primary driver of its surprisingly high chances, but not having to travel to Boston, Toronto or Milwaukee at any point also helps — especially given that the Sixers went a disastrous 10-24 on the road this season.

Los Angeles Clippers

44-20, 2nd in West, 5.5 games back
FiveThirtyEight predictions: Clinched playoffs, 35% West, 23% Finals
Projected Seeding W-L: 5-3; 49-23 (2nd in West)
COVID-19: Landry Shamet (reported)

The Clippers are just 1.5 games ahead of the Nuggets in the race for the No. 2 seed in the West. The season series between the two teams is currently tied at one game apiece, which means whichever team wins the penultimate game of the regular season (Aug. 12) will own the tiebreaker. We give the Clips a 62 percent chance to win that contest and project that they’ll maintain the No. 2 spot.

L.A. has the highest full-strength and playoff-roster ratings in our projections by decent margins, and it seems like the only thing keeping them from being our title favorites is that they’ll have a tougher road to the Finals than the Lakers. Also, that roster might not exactly be at full strength right away. Lou Williams left the bubble briefly on Friday and will have to miss two games as part of a 10-day quarantine. And both Montrezl Harrell and Patrick Beverley also left the bubble — the former to “tend to a family emergency” and the latter to “address an emergency personal matter” — though both have returned and may be ready for L.A.’s first game on Thursday. Shamet and Ivica Zubac had been absent from the bubble, but both arrived in Orlando over the weekend.

Boston Celtics

43-21, 3rd in East, 9.5 games back
FiveThirtyEight predictions: Clinched playoffs, 22% East, 7% Finals
Projected Seeding W-L: 6-2; 49-23 (3rd in East)
COVID-19: Marcus Smart (cleared)

Boston’s schedule got a bit tougher inside the bubble than it was set to be, had the regular season continued on, but it remains one of the easier slates in the league. Three games back of the second-seeded Raptors, the Celtics currently own the tiebreaker thanks to a 2-1 series lead, but the two teams play each other again on Aug. 7. Despite favoring Boston in that clash (57 percent chance of victory), we project the Celtics to finish a game behind the Raptors after the seeding games and thus open the playoffs against the Pacers, rather than the Magic.

And yet, we still give the C’s a better chance at winning both the Eastern Conference and the NBA Finals. That’s largely due to the Celtics’ advantage in both full-strength and playoff-roster rating, where they check in sixth and the Raptors are in ninth (full-strength) and eighth (playoffs). Without the Raptors getting the benefit of home-court advantage, we’d favor the Celtics in the likely event that the two teams meet in the second round of the playoffs.

Toronto Raptors

46-18, 2nd in East, 6.5 games back
FiveThirtyEight predictions: Clinched playoffs, 8% East, 2% Finals
Projected Seeding W-L: 4-4; 50-22 (2nd in East)
COVID-19: No public reports or announcements

Famously, our CARMELO-based projection system favored the Raptors over the Warriors in last year’s NBA Finals. Though several of us expressed skepticism, the Raptors nevertheless defied (or lived up to?) the odds to win the first title in franchise history. Accordingly, FiveThirtyEight named the new player projection system after them.

Unfortunately, RAPTOR does not feel as strongly about the 2019-20 Raptors as CARMELO did about the 2018-19 team. We project the Raptors to maintain their hold on the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference after the seeding games despite the fact that they face the toughest schedule of any team invited to the restart, but as previously mentioned, we would favor the Celtics in a head-to-head series.3

Los Angeles Lakers

49-14, 1st in West
FiveThirtyEight predictions: Clinched playoffs, 45% West, 31% Finals
Projected Seeding W-L: 5-3; 54-17 (1st in West)
COVID-19: Two unnamed players (now symptom-free)

Our current favorites to win the title, the Lakers essentially have the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference sewn up. There is more than enough cushion for them to figure out how to integrate J.R. Smith, who was signed to replace Avery Bradley after Bradley opted out of participating in the restart. They have a 5.5-game lead on the second-place Clippers, and despite facing the third-toughest seeding-game schedule, we project them to comfortably hold onto the top seed. As such, they’ll be afforded a first-round series against either a) the team that finishes in eighth place, or b) the winner of a play-in round between the Nos. 8 and 9 seeds. Needless to say, it will likely prove easier for them to advance past Memphis, Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio or Phoenix than it will for the Clips to advance past our projected opponent for them, Dallas.

Our projections feel slightly worse about the Lakers’ chances of winning both the West and the title than they would have if the playoffs were taking place with the usual home and road schedules,4 but they still maintain a sizable advantage over the Clippers in both categories. We’d also favor the Lakers in a head-to-head series against their most likely Eastern Conference opponent (the Bucks) because of their superior playoff-roster rating. Unlike the Clippers and Bucks, the Lakers are not dealing with any players currently recovering from a publicly confirmed coronavirus case, and while Dwight Howard might be putting others at greater risk with his aversion to mask-wearing, there have yet to be any announced cases from players or staffers who cleared quarantine after entering the bubble.

Milwaukee Bucks

53-12, 1st in East
FiveThirtyEight predictions: Clinched playoffs, 36% East, 14% Finals
Projected Seeding W-L: 6-2; 59-14 (1st in East)
COVID-19: Eric Bledsoe (returned to practice), Pat Connaughton (announced)

Milwaukee enters the bubble with both the NBA’s best defense and its reigning (and probable repeat) Most Valuable Player. The Bucks have a 6.5-game lead on the second-place Raptors, and they can wrap up the top spot with any combination of Bucks wins and Raptors losses that equals three, given that they already own the tiebreaker over Toronto by virtue of a 2-0 season-series lead. Milwaukee obviously benefited from the interrupted season in that both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton were afforded time to deal with the injuries they were experiencing at the time the league shut down. Two rotation players testing positive for COVID-19 is not ideal, but with the sizable gap between the Bucks and their closest competitors, they have time to get everyone back to full strength.

The Bucks have looked like the best team in the league for much of the season, so the questions about their potential to win the title are largely strategy-based. Will coach Mike Budenholzer, who is famously averse to changing tactics, be willing to play his stars for heavier minutes? Will he be willing to fight left-handed and try out different strategies on offense and/or defense if the Bucks’ usual way of doing things isn’t yielding optimal results? The answer to both of those questions last season was “no,” and it arguably cost the Bucks the conference finals series. Budenholzer maintained even after the team’s Game 6 loss that playing Giannis more was not the solution. Our projections would consider the Bucks underdogs in a head-to-head series against either of the L.A. teams, should they reach the Finals; a heavier dose of Giannis than usual sure seems like their best chance of overcoming that. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but the Bucks will never know if Bud doesn’t give it a try.