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The NBA Bubble Awards

Earlier this week, the NBA announced that they would hand out awards for the eight regular season games played in the bubble along with the awards for the pre-pandemic regular season. Though it’s unclear which honors will be handed out, there are compelling debates for almost all of them. Let’s take a look at those debates and see who’s most deserving.

COTB (Coach of the Bubble): Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns

This was a tricky award to call, but ultimately this award has to go to the leader of the undefeated Phoenix Suns. At first, this call should seem obvious. Phoenix has the best record in the bubble, having defeated solid teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Dallas Mavericks, and Los Angeles Clippers. The case against Williams is a little more nuanced: the Suns’ offense is relatively simple, relying more on their players’ ability to score in isolation than complicated actions to open up great shots. Their victories were also tainted by some notable absences. You could build an NBA Finals contender with a lineup of players who have missed games against the Suns (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Bradley Beal, Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, Domantas Sabonis). It’s much more difficult to make those arguments against Toronto’s Nick Nurse, who ran complicated schemes to beat tougher competition, all while only dropping one game.

What ultimately swung the award to Williams was his ability to optimize the personnel he’s worked with. Cameron Payne was nearly out of the league this year, yet Williams has him averaging 10 points per game on 50% (!!) shooting from three. He’s not even the best shooter on the team– Jevon Carter has been shooting a scorching 54% from downtown on 3.4 attempts per game. The Suns were laughed out of this year’s draft after selecting Cameron Johnson at pick 11, yet he’s fit into the starting lineup as the perfect complement to Deandre Ayton. One player breaking out could be due to random chance, but I refuse to believe that three players could break out without a heavy helping of involvement from the coach. 

6MOB (Sixth Man of the Bubble): Gary Trent Jr., Portland Trail Blazers 

The two clear candidates for this award were Trent and Rudy Gay of the San Antonio Spurs. Both have put up over 15 points per game off the bench, but in radically different ways: Gay has relied more on steady work from the post whereas Trent got most of his work from beyond the arc, shooting over 50% from three on eight attempts per game. Gay has contributed more on the boards, but ultimately came up just short for a few reasons. First of all, Trent faced a tougher schedule and came out with a better record. On the court, Gay turned the ball nearly as often as he assisted baskets, whereas Trent has only coughed up the ball once in Orlando. Though Trent’s defense has been shaky, he’s been closing out games for the Blazers and been a large part of their push for the eight seed.

ROTB (Rookie of the Bubble): Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

No Ja Morant or Zion Williamson? Get your pitchforks out everyone! Morant and Williamson obviously project to be better players than Herro, but awarding them based on their bubble play would be to ignore the fact that both of them put up disappointing performances. Morant has been comically inefficient, shooting 41% from the field and 25% from three. His net rating tanked from -1.0 to -4.7, signaling that his defense also took a nosedive. The Memphis Grizzlies have only won a game in the bubble, dropping out of the playoff race entirely. That cannot be rewarded, regardless of how promising Morant is.

As for Williamson, the story is fairly similar. Many NBA fans were expecting the New Orleans Pelicans to make a run at the eight seed, yet the Pels were one of the first teams eliminated. While Zion’s 18.6 points per game may seem impressive, he hasn’t hit a single three in Orlando, and his +/- has bottomed out at -11.7 over bubble play. Simply put, Williamson has been empty calories for New Orleans,

One could make a case Tyler Herro, who’s improved greatly in his time in Orlando. Herro is picking up an assist on 23.1% of baskets made while he’s on the floor, an uptick of more than 10% from the regular season. He also added a sneaky 1.8 blocks per game on the defensive end, something fans were not accustomed to seeing him do in the regular season. In Orlando, clutch time was Herro time, most notably in a 25 point performance to keep the Miami HEAT in the game against Phoenix and in a 30-piece against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

However, it would be almost ridiculous not to give this to Porter Jr. A large reason why the Nuggets secured the three seed, Porter made the leap from showing flashes of being the real deal to consistently looking like a starter. MPJ is already one of the most impressive scorers in the league, utilizing his 6’10” frame to rain buckets from everywhere on the court. He’s been no slouch on the boards either, putting up 8.6 boards per game. Though he tends to fall victim to occasional lapses on the defensive end, he’s still averaging a steal and a block in each of his contests, and so even with his subpar defense, his excellent offensive efforts propel him to the top of this year’s rookie class.

DPOB (Defensive Player of the Bubble):  OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

Another two-horse race, this time between Anunoby and Mikal Bridges of the Phoenix Suns. Statistically, their profiles are nearly identical: both average 1.3 steals per game and around a block per game. Anunoby is +7.0 in his minutes, Bridges is +6.4. Anunoby’s defensive rating is much lower than Bridges’, but to settle this award off that difference would be misleading. A player’s defensive rating isn’t teammate-independent, meaning Anunoby benefits from playing alongside defensive savants like Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Serge Ibaka. Bridges doesn’t benefit from the same privilege. Toronto allows 0.3 less points per 100 possessions with Anunoby off the court, whereas Phoenix’s defense allows 3 more points.

Ultimately, two factors tip the balance towards Anunoby. Primarily, he’s consistently faced tougher competition. The only subpar player he’s been matched up against was the Grizzlies’ Anthony Tolliver, whereas Bridges has had nights off against Abdel Nader, Troy Brown Jr., and Alec Burks. Players also tend to shoot significantly worse against OG in nearly every area on the court, most notably from midrange, where players are shooting a horrid 31.0% percent in isolation. Bridges is certainly one of the best defenders in the bubble, but he’ll have to wait for his recognition. 

MVBP (Most Valuable Bubble Player): Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

By far the easiest call of any of these awards. Booker is putting up major stats, to the tune of 31.0 points, 6.1 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game. Though he’s not the league leader in any of those categories, all other candidates for this award have flaws on their resume. Damian Lillard was fantastic, but choked away a crucial game against the Los Angeles Clippers. TJ Warren put up a stinker against the HEAT. Luka Doncic played a very uninspiring role in a fourth quarter collapse against the Houston Rockets. Booker’s profile is flawless thus far, hitting clutch shot after clutch shot en route to an undefeated record. The Suns have been the story of the bubble, and even if they weren’t able to make the playoffs, it only makes sense that their best player takes home the MVP.

All-NBA-Bubble First Team:

G: Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

G: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

F: TJ Warren, Indiana Pacers

F: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

F: James Harden, Houston Rockets

Of the four candidates joining Booker, it’s strangely been the two regular season MVP candidates in Harden and Doncic that have been pushed aside. Booker and Warren are getting shine due to their leaps in play and Lillard has been in the public eye securing a spot in the smack talk hall of fame. Still, the Texas Two deserve their spots on this team just as much: Harden has been very good defensively in the bubble (to the tune of four combined blocks and steals per game), and Doncic is quietly averaging a 30 point triple double. 

All-NBA-Bubble Second Team:

G: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics 

G: Demar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs

F: Giannis Antetokoumnpo, Milwaukee Bucks

F: Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

C: Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks

Get out your pitchforks again! Giannis on the second team? Absolutely. He missed several games down the stretch, and was much worse defensively when he saw the court. He averaged far fewer steals per game, and his defensive rating increased by over 10 points. As for the other players making this team, their name value might not outweigh that of a LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard, but they certainly deserve their place on the team. Each of those four played every game in the bubble, leading their teams to meaningful wins (unlike either of the LA stars). 

That being said, their respective journeys to the all-bubble teams couldn’t be more different. Porzingis took most of the season to get comfortable playing second fiddle to Luka Doncic, but seems to have figured it out in the bubble, averaging over 30 points per game. Jayson Tatum had an abomination of a game against Milwaukee, but recovered nicely, shooting a scorching 22/45 from three afterwards. DeRozan recovered from a damaged reputation to lead the Spurs to a 5-2 record. Porter wasn’t even in the rotation when the regular season ended, yet somehow seems to be locked in as a playoff starter after averaging 23.8 points per game in six starts. Could the all-offense nature of this team be criticized? Sure. But with scoring averages up across the board, it’s good to have a team that reflects bubble basketball.

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