The NBA’s return is fast approaching and fans are anxious to see how the Orlando bubble’s format affects players’ success in the playoffs. Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and others were on their way to MVP-caliber seasons. Now, it’s unclear how over four months without competitive basketball will benefit or hinder these stars.
The league resumes without some of the game’s greatest players like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and others who are either injured, elected not to participate or their teams weren’t good enough. The several superstars still left are looking to cement their legacies amidst unprecedented circumstances. Will Kawhi Leonard return to his dominant playoff-form from last postseason? Will an up-and-comer like Luka Doncic falter under the pressure of the playoffs or take his game to another level?
Several stars also either lost weight or took the quarantine time to improve their conditioning. Some gained weight and didn’t return to camp in the best shape. With so many factors to consider, let’s rank the top-10 players playing in the NBA bubble.
George finished third in MVP voting last season on the Thunder and was perhaps the best perimeter defender in basketball, with his active hands helping him lead the league in steals (2.2), according to basketball-reference. Offseason surgeries on both shoulders made him unavailable to start this year with the Clippers, and he didn’t look like a superstar in the 42 games he did play for Los Angeles.
He’s averaging under 30 minutes per game this season, likely because coach Doc Rivers didn’t need to rush him back since the Clippers are deeply talented. The team went 30-12 in the games George played and he started to gel alongside Leonard, a promising sign for the coming playoffs.
These four months off surely helped George get 100% healthy, and if he’s in better shape, there’s no reason he can’t be dominant on the defensive end like he was last season while scoring 25-plus points per game with elite 3-point shooting. Although his play this season was sub-par by his standards, George can easily rank highly on this list by the time the playoffs conclude.
10. Nikola Jokic
The Nuggets center garnered plenty of attention before the season began when a picture of him surfaced showing he didn’t come to training camp in playing shape. He honestly looked quite chubby. His numbers for the first month and a half of the year were less than his All-NBA First-Team production of last season and it was clear he was still getting his condition in order.
As the season progressed he returned to his elite form, with his stretch of play in January and February being his peak when he averaged about 25 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists per game.
Recent pictures of Jokic in the bubble show that he’s lost even more weight. The Internet collectively gasped as it looked like the Denver star’s body completely changed and people began questioning whether the drastic weight change would help or hurt his game.
Jokic’s new frame might accentuate his superior playmaking skills at the center position and likely help him run the floor, but his rebounding and defense may also suffer. No amount of weight loss can take away Jokic’s unique ability to create open looks for his teammates and score in a variety of ways, and the Nuggets’ record of 43-22 is in large part owed to Jokic being virtually unguardable for most centers in the league.
9. Luka Doncic
Everyone knew Doncic was a special talent after his spectacular rookie campaign. His ball-handling, passing vision and balance were way beyond that of most teenagers. No one, however, saw him developing into an MVP candidate at just 20 years old.
He’s had his ups and downs along the way, particularly with two separate ankle injuries that sidelined him for a few weeks, and yet no one has figured out how to slow him down. Doncic had a legendary November in which he averaged a 32-point triple-double, and his numbers were close to that for nearly the entire year. Truly remarkable.
What keeps Doncic lower on this list is his defense and his inconsistent 3-point shooting. It’s difficult for a player with his emphasis in the offense to have enough energy to give his all on defense. Still, he’s a sliding door at times.
His shot is greatly improved by the eye-test, yet he’s only hitting 31.8% of his triples. That’s largely due to his shot selection, which includes a handful of deep stepbacks each game, although it seems to be his signature move. He’s clutch, confident and a great teammate, so fans can only hope he’ll rank near the top of this list in the near future.
8. Joel Embiid
Embiid was a monster last season and appeared poised for another breakout campaign this year. Instead, 76ers fans were treated to 44 inconsistent games, with Embiid rarely showcasing his fun-loving self of old.
Almost all of his numbers dropped as a result — except for a somewhat improved 3-pointer — and Philadelphia as a team wasn’t living up to its preseason rankings. Embiid at times appeared out of shape, disinterested and downright moody. He also, yet again, failed to stay healthy for extended periods.
When he’s focused, Embiid is one of basketball’s most dominant offensive forces and impactful defenders. He possesses a combination of size, skill and strength no other player can match. Embiid and the 76ers say the big man is now in great shape and motivated to be the best version of himself, so fans should get excited and opponents should be wary. If Embiid can reach his true potential, there’s no stopping him.
7. Damian Lillard
With Curry out of the bubble, Lillard is the best point guard in Orlando. Although his Trailblazers are in the midst of a relatively poor season, it’s no fault of Lillard’s. He’s averaging career-highs in points (28.9), assists (7.8), field-goal percentage (45.7%) and 3-point shooting (39.4%), all while leading the league with 36.9 minutes per game.
He’s mastered getting to his spots and routinely fools defenders with his deceptive handles and athleticism. Lillard’s range is as deep as ever and opponents are forced to guard him well beyond the arc.
It’s no secret Lillard isn’t a plus-defender and showed fatigue in the past during the playoffs. These last four months off should rejuvenate the recently turned 30-year-old guard, who will have to play his best for Portland to have a shot at making the playoffs. The Trail Blazers will be heading home after the preliminary eight games in all likelihood, but that doesn’t mean Lillard won’t give viewers plenty of highlights.
6. Russell Westbrook
Westbrook is a historically perplexing player. For someone as physically gifted and mentally ferocious as he is, something always seems to be missing. As a new member of the Rockets, though, Westbrook’s strengths are bolstered by the team’s ultimate small-ball lineup that no longer features a true center.
With five players outside of the 3-point line, Westbrook can beat almost any defender off the dribble and finish with authority at the rim, and he’s shooting a career-high 47.4% from the field and leading the league in 2-point shots attempted.
His long-range jumper has seemingly deteriorated over the years and he can barely keep his 3-point percentage above 25% these days, but he doesn’t have to. His endless energy allows him to continuously attack the rim and kick-out to four other shooters once defenders collapse.
Alongside an MVP-caliber player like James Harden, Westbrook appears comfortable. His 27.5 points, eight rebounds and seven assists per game are still elite numbers, even if he doesn’t average a triple-double anymore. It is unclear how Houston’s new strategy will work in the playoffs, but anyone sleeping on Westbrook still being a top-tier player is in for a rude awakening.
5. Anthony Davis
Davis, unsurprisingly, thrives alongside James. The tandem led Los Angeles to a Western Conference-best 49-14 record with Davis’ inside-out skill set shining bright in purple and gold. He’s one of the game’s premier defenders and is lethal in both the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop, which allows the center duo of Javale McGee and Dwight Howard to succeed in their roles.
Playing alongside those two bigs and James lowered Davis’ rebounding average to under 10 per game for the first time since his rookie season, but he’s just as effective on both ends as ever.
He never had the right team around him in New Orleans to prove himself in the playoffs, and although this postseason presents unique challenges, Davis looks poised to prove his doubters wrong. Davis is the ultimate modern big and doesn’t have a real weakness in his game.
What he has to display is an ability to finish games if the Lakers end up facing a team like the Clippers with multiple players who can slow James down. If he rises to the occasion, Davis could soon hoist a Finals MVP trophy.
4. James Harden
Harden began the season on a scoring tear, averaging about 38 points per game through December. Once Westbrook and the rest of the Rockets settled into their roles, however, his production dipped. He’s still leading the NBA in scoring at 34.4 points per contest, although his jumper went cold before play was suspended.
Harden is arguably the most unguardable player in the league and mastered baiting defenders into fouling him at the right moment. Sometimes it looks like he’s toying with his matchup.
The knock on Harden historically is his shortcomings in the playoffs. He seems to tire and come up short at the worst times, so it makes sense that these four months off allowed him to re-group and be fresh once again.
Some pictures from the bubble also showed a slimmer version of Harden, so if he’s in truly great shape and determined to help himself and Westbrook prove the doubters wrong, fans may see one of the best offensive guard duos ever winning with the ultimate small-ball roster.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Antetokounmpo is the reigning NBA MVP and was on pace to finish first or second in the voting this season, with his main competition being James. The Bucks centerpiece led his team to the league’s best record, 53-12, and continued to weave his way in the paint for dunks despite the opposition’s best efforts.
Antetokounmpo leads the league in PER (31.6), usage rate (37.4%), defensive win shares (4.8), defensive rebounds and 2-point shots made, as well as the NBA’s best defensive rating when on the floor (96) and several other advanced statistics. He’s about as unstoppable a player as there is in the modern NBA on a nightly basis.
His 3-point shot still needs work, but he’s now serviceable enough from that range to keep defenses honest. Opponents will force him to take jumpers in the playoffs, and he’s shown an improved ability to make teams pay for that tactic when he’s in rhythm.
If he improved his jumper even more during the four months off, Antetokounmpo will have zero weaknesses. His “take no prisoners” mentality is rare in the modern NBA, so he’ll be ready to prove his loss in the Eastern Conference Finals last year was a fluke.
2. Kawhi Leonard
Antetokounmpo’s team and individual production were both better than what Leonard showed this season. Until Antetokounmpo proves himself in the postseason, though, you have to give Leonard the benefit of the doubt that he’s still capable of reaching his playoff level from last year.
Leonard put together a remarkable regular-season in 2020, with his career-high five assists per game coming from his much-improved playmaking ability. Yet everyone knows he doesn’t take the regular-season too seriously and likes to save himself for the most important time of year.
Leonard’s Clippers is the most dangerous team he’s been on since becoming a superstar, so there’s little doubt he’ll lead them far in the playoffs. He can score from anywhere on the court — his midrange game is the best since Kobe Bryant — and is still one of the best defenders in basketball.
He’s the most silent of assassins and also the most dangerous. Fans are surely clamoring for a James and Leonard Western Conference Finals matchup.
1. LeBron James
James isn’t the explosive athlete he once was and his 3-point shooting is overly streaky for the types of looks he attempts at times. Somehow, the 35-year-old legend adapts his game every year to adjust to his team and declining physical abilities, and this season is no exception as he’s leading the NBA with 10.6 assists per game.
His all-time great vision alongside Davis and several shooters makes him still the game’s greatest offensive orchestrator. James has even shown a revived commitment on the defensive end, a heavily criticized aspect of his play last year.
James’ resume leaves no doubt he turns up his already elite play another few notches in the postseason, so until another player can truly dethrone him with a relatively equal roster, he deserves to be atop this ranking.
James outplayed both Antetokounmpo and Leonard in their matchups before the season paused and garnered heavy MVP consideration as a result. With four months off and James’ reputation for taking care of his body, one can assume he’s as ready to go as any other player in Orlando.