Five Takeaways from the NBA Bubble

Photo via CBS Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers have just won the NBA Finals. They defeated the Miami Heat in a six-game series to win their 17th championship in franchise history. The two teams were in the bubble for a little over two months, an honorable feat in pursuit of completing this historic season. The Lakers were undeniably the best team, with their superstar duo of Lebron James and Anthony Davis, proving too much for the rest.

Now, as the season has just wrapped up, I thought I would look at some of the things the bubble taught us. Here are the five biggest takeaways I have gotten from watching the last two months of bubble basketball.

1. The Lakers are the best team in basketball, and they have zagged in a potentially league-altering way.

By winning the championship, the Lakers have established themselves as the model for NBA success. But how did they do it? By going against everything the last five years have taught us. They played a supersized lineup that struggled with three-point shooting, the staple of the recent champions in the NBA. While every other team was busy trying to copy the Golden State Warriors model of shooting and small ball, the Lakers went the other way. They started 6’10 Anthony Davis alongside a seven-foot center, with 6’8 LeBron running the point. They ranked 12th among the 16 playoff teams in three-point percentage. With this result, the rest of the team will be faced with a tough question. Are the Lakers the new model for success, or was this a fluky year during which the Warriors were simply out of contention? This will be a hard question to answer, but given the Lakers success, and the success of a team like the Denver Nuggets, whose best player is a center. I think we will see a bigger variance in strategy among NBA teams. Some will undoubtedly continue their pursuit of the Warriors model, but some will divert their efforts and model themselves after the supersized Lakers. This should lead to an interesting clash of strategical ideologies.

2. The bubble was an extreme circumstance that exacerbated both hard-working culture and chemistry flaws in certain teams.

This is a note about the bubble, so it won’t be something useful to take into the future, but it did reveal which teams have good culture and chemistry. In a normal year, the Los Angeles Clippers would probably have beaten the Denver Nuggets, but the bubble exposed their chemistry issues. The Milwaukee Bucks were similarly exposed. The teams known for continuity and culture, namely the Portland Trail Blazers, the Miami Heat and the Denver Nuggets, all outperformed expectations. This became a season where chemistry and culture were more important than ever, and this revealed the flaws in some teams, while revealing the strengths in others.

3. Young teams defied NBA history during successful bubble.

Throughout the history of the league, teams built with veterans almost always outperform young teams. This year’s playoffs flipped that narrative on its head. The Denver Nuggets made the conference finals led by two players in their mid to early 20’s. The Boston Celtics achieved the same, led by a 21-year-old Jayson Tatum. The Miami Heat made the Finals with Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo, and Duncan Robinson playing key roles. The Lakers won it all with a veteran team, but they were the exception in this year’s postseason. What was the reason for this? Probably the fact that all these players had to focus on in the bubble was basketball, instead of temptations young players normally face. This whole bubble was also exhausting to the players, favoring those with younger legs. This is a trend that I don’t expect to carry into the future, but for this unique season, the historical dominance of veteran teams was completely reversed.

4. The team with the best player in the series rarely loses.

When I was making my series predictions, a common trope I fell back on was picking the team with the best player. Unfortunately, sometimes predicting which teams has the best player is just as difficult to project. In the Bucks/Heat series, it would seem reasonable to assume the league MVP would be the best player. However, due to matchups and play style, Jimmy Butler was the best player in that series, and his team ultimately won. There is definitely wisdom in picking the team with the best player, but the best player can change from series to series based on matchups, among other reasons. The Nuggets beat the Utah Jazz in the first round because Jamal Murray prevailed over Donovan Mitchell as the best player in the series. In the following round, the Nuggets beat the Clippers because Nikola Jokic was the best player. Moving forward, while leaning on the best player in the series argument almost always works, more thought will need to be given to projecting which player will be the best in that given series.

5. The West could be the best it has ever been next season.

This is a takeaway that became apparent during the seeding games, where the lowly Phoenix Suns went 8-0 and showed that they will be a threat in the West next season. But which team won’t be a threat? I would contend that all 15 teams will enter next season with playoff aspirations. The Sacramento Kings almost made the playoffs last year, had a good second half of this season and will hopefully be getting a full season of Marvin Bagley. The Minnesota Timberwolves have the number one pick in the draft, and will find out how the Karl-Anthony Towns/D’Angelo Russell pairing plays. The New Orleans Pelicans are a team on the rise, with a promising young core of Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball. The San Antonio Spurs always find a way to playoff contention. All of the perennially bad teams in the West have reason for optimism next season, and it will be fun to see whether the playoff mainstays remain at the top, or if we will be seeing a few new teams in the playoffs next season. Either way, the regular season will have much fewer games where the outcome seems settled from before the tip, and this should lead to a very competitive regular season, as well as postseason.

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