Roundtable: Bubblin’ Up to the Playoffs
Are you pleased with the viewing experience of the NBA’s bubble action?
David Brandon: I’m thoroughly enjoying it, though it’s a bit strange seeing the virtual fans. I’m mostly just happy to have basketball back.
Olivia Panchal: Yes! In fact, in some ways, it has been better than a normal season. I have always felt like 82 games is too long of a season and usually players look exhausted and injury-prone by the end of the regular season right when you need them at their best. The break gave players a chance to rest and return in early season form, which is awesome for players like Chris Paul and Steven Adams. I was also suspect about letting in so many “bad” teams, but the Bubble format is giving teams like the Blazers and Suns an opportunity to compete that they might not have had otherwise. It has been fun to see those teams rise to the occasion. I definitely think the NBA should institute an 8th seed play-in tournament every season so that when my children ask me why the play-in tournament exists, I can tell them about what an absolute mess the year 2020 was.
Logan Meyer: I’m loving it! So glad that basketball is back. Obviously it’s not quite the same without 18,203 people cheering, but basketball in its purest form is still awesome.
Rylan Stiles: The viewing experience has been sensational given the obstacles the NBA has obviously had to overcome. Even the fans on the jumbotrons do not look silly or out of place. They had a good mix of crowd noise as well for the TV audience.
John Napier: It was always going to be different, but I’ve enjoyed how the NBA and teams have innovated. While I don’t get a lot out of the virtual fans, I love that the ideas are flowing to make this experience immersive and innovative.
Now that most of the seeding games are under the Thunder’s belt, do you feel more or less positively about their first-round chances in the playoffs?
Brandon: I’m feeling a little better about them than I was before, honestly, though I do still worry about depth. The young guys look like the time off has given them some time to work on their games (particularly Dort and Bazley). The older guys look like they’re fresh. Steven Adams looks rejuvenated. He always gets nicked up over the course of the season, and having him fresh in the playoffs should be helpful. Although we’ll see how his leg holds up. That was a nasty fall the other day. Overall I think the depth improved, getting Roberson back helps, and coming in fresh should help them.
Panchal: Much better! I was a little bit worried that the players and coaching staff were over-hyping the progress the players had made during the break, but every single player (especially the rookies and of course, Roberson) truly looks better than before the season postponement. I’ll feel even better about it if the Thunder can get one seeding game with everyone healthy and playing, including Schröder.
Meyer: I actually feel better about their chances. Even without Schroder, they should be sitting at 5-2 in the Bubble, but those missed free throws cost them against Denver. The depth of this team has improved with Dre back and healthy, and the young guys have all taken steps forward in development.
Stiles: I think this team still has a great chance to advance out of the first round for the first time since Kevin Durant left. Once they add Dennis Schroder back to the fold, I think OKC will look much closer to that game against the Utah Jazz than the Nuggets or Grizzlies game. Since Thanksgiving they are one of the best teams in basketball, and it is time we accept that.
Napier: I feel the same. This team has consistently overachieved this season, so I’m not going to start assuming this team is a championship contender, yet. Pre-COVID, I thought this team was going to be a tough out in the playoffs, and I still think the Thunder will be a tough out in the playoffs, first-round or any succeeding rounds.
How do you think Billy Donovan’s final postseason rotation will look?
Brandon: My guess is some of the young guys get pushed down. Starting five is set. After that it’s Schröder and Noel. That gets you seven deep and I think he’ll probably go nine as a general rule. Vets usually get more burn than young guys so if Roberson’s back to normal I could see him getting a look. Diallo and Bazley are the obvious two young guys, but I’m a bit hesitant to crown them part of the playoff rotation this early (especially given Diallo’s penchant for playing out of control at times). You’ll have to play at least one, otherwise you’re leaning on Nader or Muscala.
Ultimate answer? Paul/SGA/Dort/Gallinari/Adams, bench probably Schröder/Roberson/Bazley/Noel. I think Diallo gets burn early in the playoffs but I’m not sure he stays in.
Panchal: Yeah, I don’t envy the decisions that Donovan has to make regarding who gets big minutes off the bench. However, I think the last couple games with most of the starters sitting have been a real opportunity to see who is ready and who is not. Assuming Dort starts, you’ve got 3 spots available off the bench. I’d give them to Nader, Bazley, and Muscala, but I think Billy is leaning more towards Diallo over Nader (not a huge fan of that). I don’t see many minutes for Ferguson or Burton, and Roberson’s minutes depend entirely on the opponent.
Meyer: I think the rotation will vary depending on matchups. The players guaranteed to see minutes, regardless of matchup, are the Starters, Schroder, Noel, Bazley, Diallo, and Roberson. I could see Muscala and Nader getting some minutes if they need to stretch the floor.
Stiles: The starting five of course will be Paul, Dort, SGA, Gallo, and Adams. Dennis Schroder will of course be the first off the bench with Nerlens Noel getting run as well. Billy Donovan inside the bubble has fallen in love with Hamidou Diallo, and I would expect him to get a ton of chances in the postseason rotation. Andre Roberson is the biggest wildcard, as his minutes have fluctuated. I am still on the side of Andre leveling out at about ten minutes per game. From there you have to imagine Donovan will ride the hot hand of Bazley, Nader, Muscala and Ferguson searching for a new spark plug each game. I am going to guess the starters along with Noel, Schroder, and Diallo get the most playing time with Bazley close behind.
Napier: Donovan has shown flexibility in adjusting rotations based upon the opponent. If I look ahead to the Rockets as the first-round opponent, the first question you have to ask is who lines up on defense against Russell Westbrook and James Harden. There are a lot of challenges in defending those two–Dort probably makes the most sense against Harden but that will probably put Dort in foul trouble often, while I don’t know if Shai or CP3 make sense against Russ. Really, Schroder is probably the best defender for Russ, but he’ll be coming off the bench. Anyway, I imagine Donovan will have to deploy different packages to contain Westbrook and Harden, so I don’t know if we’ll see a ton of consistency in how the rotations look, since foul trouble and whoever has the hot-hand from the Rockets will dictate a lot. But I should answer. Starters: Chris Paul, Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, Lu Dort, Danilo Gallinari, and Steven Adams. Core Bench: Dennis Schroder, Darius Bazley, Nerlens Noel. Occasional minutes: Mike Muscala, Hamidou Diallo, and Abdel Nader.
Are you ready to remove the asterisk from this season’s conclusion?
Brandon: There’s an old cliche athletes rely on when people talk about asterisks: you play the team in front of you. Same goes for any situation. There’s not really an asterisk for me. You can talk about this championship being flawed or different or whatever, but at the end of the day one of these teams is walking out of there with the Larry O’Brien trophy. And that’s all there is to it.
Panchal: There never was one for me.
Meyer: I never was putting an asterisk on this championship. The team that wins it totally deserves it. Period.
Stiles: Seeing how competitive the seeding games have been, and the lack of positive COVID tests while even seeing limited injuries to this point, I am totally on board with this season’s champion not having an asterisk next to it. A wild story and 30-for-30? Absolutely, but I think this will be viewed as a legitimate champion.
Napier: Is there an asterisk on the Heat’s 2012 championship? That was a lockout shortened season, and while you may remember that, no one really views that season as having an asterisk. Champions are remembered, and the champion of this COVID-affected season will be the NBA Champion.
Correction (8/13/20 at 11:16 am): An earlier published version of this article mistakenly attributed David Brandon’s answers to Brandon Rahbar.