With the NBA playoff seeding games wrapping up, we thought it’d be a good time to rank the Top 10 players at the Orlando bubble.
Some of the league’s top stars went all out for the NBA’s season restart with playoff spots hanging perilously in the balance.
But there were also some non-superstar players stepping up their games over the past couple of weeks, sneaking their way onto this list when that wouldn’t have seemed possible even just five months ago.
10. Michael Porter Jr.
Bubble stats: 22.0 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 1.6 apg, 42.2 3P%
Denver Nuggets swingman Michael Porter Jr. has looked like a new player since the season restart, one more than ready to reach the massive ceiling he had as a draft prospect when he would often receive comparisons to Kevin Durant.
The best bubble performance for the supersized wing came against Oklahoma City Thunder when Porter went off for 37 points and 12 rebounds in what was a tight overtime win for Denver.
Porter’s rare quickness and agility for a player of his size (6-foot-10 with a 7-plus-foot wingspan) give him the makings of a special player, and if he continues playing at this level through the playoffs, we could be looking at a Most Improved Player candidate for the 2020-21 campaign next year.
9. Fred VanVleet
Bubble stats: 17.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 6.7 apg, 41.7 3P%
The No. 10 player in assist average in the bubble, Toronto Raptors floor general Fred VanVleet has been an important factor in his team going 6-1 since the season restart, including an impressive win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
VanVleet does an excellent job of running Toronto’s offense, both knowing when to set up teammates for open looks and when to call his own number to get a bucket himself, and his pestering defense has helped the Raptors absolutely stifle opponents. Since the season restart, Toronto ranks No. 1 in points allowed per 100 possessions by a mile, giving up over five fewer points than the No. 2 ranked defense in that span.
VanVleet is showing out at the right time, too, as the tough-nosed floor general is set to hit free agency this summer in what’s considered to be a weak overall class, meaning he’s about to get paid.
8. Jayson Tatum
Bubble stats: 22.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.7 apg, 44.9 3P%
After an uncharacteristically terrible start to bubble competition, Jayson Tatum took his play back to All-Star level, averaging 25.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists over his final six seeding games before he sat out the Boston Celtics’ final bubble contest prior to the playoffs.
Boston went 5-1 in that stretch, including a 34-point win against the Brooklyn Nets and a 22-point win over the Raptors.
After his five-point outing in his bubble debut, which came on horrendous 2-for-18 shooting, Tatum immediately got right back on track, dropping 34 points in his very next game and sinking five of his eight three-point attempts.
With Tatum playing like an All-Star again, the Celtics will have high aspirations come playoff time next week.
7. DeMar DeRozan
Bubble stats: 21.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 5.7 apg, 58.1 FG%
San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan picked the right time to play some of his most efficient basketball of the season, as his 58.1 field-goal percentage is the second-tidiest mark of any bubble player with at least 90 field-goal attempts, trailing just the MVP front-runner for this season.
DeRozan may not get as much credit as he used to during the height of his Raptors tenure, but he’s still a creative bucket-getter with a knack for midrange scoring, and someone who can be counted on to produce at a high level.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Bubble stats: 27.8 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 4.2 apg, 62.6 FG%
The bubble leader in high-volume field-goal percentage, Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t have to do much for the Milwaukee Bucks during the seeding games considering their No. 1 spot in the East was already secured.
Even so, Antetokounmpo still found the time to have four 30-plus-point performances during that stretch and four 12-plus-rebound games.
Antetokounmpo’s seeding games will be remembered most for his Zidane-like headbutt of Washington Wizards big man Moritz Wagner…
…but overall, the Greek Freak was his usual dominant self, a good sign for a Bucks team hoping to win their first championship since 1970-71.
5. Luka Doncic
Bubble stats: 30.0 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 9.7 apg, 47.8 FG%
Luka Doncic has been nothing short of spectacular since the season restart.
Doncic’s best performance came against the Bucks, when he exploded for 36 points, 14 rebounds and 19 assists, which made him the only player in league history to have at least that many points, rebounds and assists in a single game.
Doncic’s extremely high level of play hasn’t helped the Dallas Mavericks much in the win column in the bubble, but head coach Rick Carlisle has to be comforted knowing that his best player is in fantastic form heading into the playoffs.
4. TJ Warren
Bubble stats: 31.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.0 apg, 52.4 3P%
Had we put these rankings together a week ago, TJ Warren would have finished a spot or two higher than he did, but a couple of subpar performances against the Phoenix Suns and Miami Heat brought Warren’s numbers down a bit.
Regardless, that he’s still averaging 31 points per bubble game after two mediocre outings just goes to show how excellent Warren has been in the season restart.
Add in the fact that Indiana Pacers head coach Nate McMillan admitted Warren is playing through the same foot injury that has Domantas Sabonis sidelined makes his career-best level of play all the more impressive, too.
3. James Harden
Bubble stats: 35.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 8.7 apg, 53.6 FG%
A Top 3 finisher in regular-season MVP voting this year, James Harden likewise finished in the Top 3 of our bubble MVP voting.
Harden ranks second in scoring average in the bubble at 35.3 points per contest while shooting 53.6 percent from the floor and 89.5 percent from the foul stripe on over 12 free-throw attempts per game.
What’s more, the Houston Rockets are 4-2 in bubble games Harden saw action in, including impressive wins over the Lakers and Bucks. The bearded 2-guard’s best performance came in the first game of the season restart when he dropped 49 points (on 20 shot attempts), nine rebounds and eight assists in a four-point win over Dallas.
Harden wasted no time getting straight to business in the bubble.
2. Devin Booker
Bubble stats: 30.5 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 6.0 apg, 62.7 TS%
Finally given the chance to show what he can do in late-year games that actually matter for postseason contention, Devin Booker has passed the test with flying colors.
Not only did Booker put up ridiculous numbers in the seeding competition, but he did so in high-profile contests with a lot of people watching and – most importantly – his impact led directly to wins for his Suns squad, who went 8-0 in the bubble. That should put the ‘Is Devin Booker a good stats-bad team guy?’ argument to bed for good.
Unfortunately for Phoenix fans, the Suns still just barely missed out on the play-in game for the final playoff spot in the West, but this was surely a step in the right direction for Booker and Co. and could be the moment we look back on one day as when Phoenix finally turned the corner again as a franchise.
1. Damian Lillard
Bubble stats: 37.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 9.6 apg, 49.7 FG%
The no-doubt MVP of bubble competition, Damian Lillard has been absolutely insane since the season restart, leading the league in scoring in that span and ranking third in assists.
In the seeding competition, Lillard had 45-point, 51-point, 61-point and 42-point performances in four of the Portland Trail Blazers’ final five games (that last one made Lillard the first player ever to end a season with three-straight 40-plus-point games), helping lead his team to a 6-2 record in the bubble and a spot in the play-in game for the final playoff spot in the West.
Besides his 61-point brilliance, Lillard’s most awesome performance might have been in Portland’s last game, where the Brooklyn Nets built up a bit of a lead and started doubling the five-time All-Star to get the ball out of his hands.
So how did Lillard respond?
By shooting from halfcourt instead.
This hasn’t been a new development for Lillard, as the explosive floor general has been playing at an elite level all season long, but he has taken his play to almost unfathomable heights in Orlando, and he did so with a place in the playoffs hanging in the balance.
That made Lillard a no-brainer decision as our 2020 bubble MVP.