Which players changed their reputations most in the NBA bubble?

Jamal Murray, #27, Denver Nuggets, (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Jamal Murray, #27, Denver Nuggets, (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) /

The NBA Bubble has seen some shocking performances, smashing expectations in both positive and negative ways. Which players have changed their reputations the most, for better or worse?

While the world around them seemed to rotate in the wrong direction all summer, the NBA played on. Whether teams like it or not, these games mean something, and decisions will have to be made accordingly. The draft is coming soon, and free agency after that, and before we all know it, makeshift training camps will launch across the country. So while players in the NBA Bubble who defied expectations had as much to gain as ever, measuring the reality of their surprise performances is much harder.

Playing fluke or fact is a dangerous game, but what about the NBA hasn’t been dangerous in 2020? A handful of players changed their fortunes mightily in the NBA Bubble and must be evaluated differently moving forward. Who is looking better or worse than they did a few months ago?

Better: Superstar play-maker Jamal Murray

Nobody had a Bubble like Murray, so it’s only right that we address him first. What Nikola Jokic did — especially in closing out the Clippers — was special, but we knew he could do that already. Much less expected was the way Murray consistently created shots for himself at teammates against elite defense.

In 19 playoff games, Murray scored 26.5 points per game on 50/40/90 shooting and dished 6.6 assists compared with just 2.8 turnovers. That’s star stuff. Murray out-played Donovan Mitchell and Joe Ingles and Lou Williams and Paul George, and those are just the guys he directly competed with. Murray, by proving he could be a go-to scorer in the depths of the playoffs, pulled off something other Bubble stars like Russell Westbrook, Pascal Siakam, Victor Oladipo and Khris Middleton could not.

The way we think about Denver is still way too precious. Jokic is a silly yeti who challenges our notions of NBA superstardom post-Michael Jordan. The team has a bunch of unknown role players and awkward dudes like Miles Plumlee and P.J. Dozier. But they are a great team. That much is certain now. And it is that way in large part because Murray plugged the biggest hole any playoff team ever has, the player who when games turn into nightmares and nobody has an answer, can make something happen.

Worse: Superstar play-maker Pascal Siakam

Can’t let a drive-by diss of Siakam like that slide without defending it. The Raptors came out in full force to defend Siakam after their seven-game second-round loss to Boston, and much of what Masai Ujiri, Kyle Lowry and Co. argued was true. Siakam is young and proved himself as a winning player already. He will also get better from the failure of these playoffs.

But there is no doubt he failed. After a regular season in which he finished in the 50th percentile in total halfcourt offensive efficiency per Synergy Sports play type data, Siakam was even worse in the postseason. He shot just 39.6 percent from the field and a putrid 18.9 percent from deep. All-in-one defensive metrics pegged him as nearly neutral rather than the common (and earned) perception of his All-Defense talent. Because they had no better options, Toronto repeatedly went to Siakam in isolation and in the post, but the Celtics wrapped him up.

The unheralded forward has improved greatly each season he’s been in the league, so we should expect him to get better going forward. But at age 26, Siakam is getting closer to a complete product, and this playoff run showed it’s unlikely he is the type of scoring hub who can replace Kawhi Leonard and lead the Raptors back into championship contention.

Worse: Max-player Tobias Harris

This one had to breathe for a while but let’s face it: The entire Harris fiasco is perhaps the biggest reason that the Sixers have thus far failed to sail the ship Sam Hinkie left when he stepped down. After trading half the state of Pennsylvania for him, Philadelphia rewarded him with a huge contract last offseason seemingly because they just had the money to burn. Harris responded by falling apart in the playoffs.

In a first-round sweep at the hands of the Celtics, Harris shot 38.3 percent from the field and generated just 16 assists in 150 minutes. Without Ben Simmons, the Sixers were a longshot to topple Boston, but an optimistic take could have seen Harris at least stepping up as a second banana to Joel Embiid and putting up a fight against Boston’s wings. Instead, Harris couldn’t do anything offensively and also actively hurt the Sixers’ defense in a matchup he needed to win. Set to pay Harris $34.3 million next season, it’s obvious the Sixers have a huge problem on their hands.

Better: Starting playoff forward Jerami Grant

When no one else could get it going in Game 5 against the Lakers, Grant found his groove. The rangy forward, who was acquired by Denver for a first-round pick last offseason, has turned into a consistent deep shooter, and in the conference finals flashed some quick-hitting isolation buckets as well. Nobody’s going to sign him this offseason as a free agent to take over their offense, but he showed that he can score in the post, in face-up situations and by attacking closeouts behind the arc.

That, combined with a highly valuable and versatile defensive skill set, make him the exact type of player the entire NBA has been hunting for since Draymond Green played center for the first time in 2014. A long run with Denver will help Grant’s market greatly and prove to the league that Grant is a capable playoff player.

Better: Franchise player Luka Doncic

Maybe most of us expected Doncic could do this in the playoffs, but it’s not a sure thing until we see it. In his first playoff series, Doncic shredded the longest, most athletic defensive wing group in the NBA, putting up 31, 10 and nine every night on a .596 true shooting percentage. Go ahead and read through that again if you need to. What a monster.

Aside from injury problems, every game in the series was played on Doncic’s terms. Playing against a team with Leonard and Paul George on it, Doncic dictated the adjustments. The Mavericks were in every game thanks to his ability to generate historically efficient offense on a possession to possession basis and his prolific court awareness. It was only six games, but this will very likely be Doncic’s 63 points against the 1986 Celtics or his 48-point Game 6 against the Pistons. Doncic, a legend in the making, looked every bit the part.

Better: Best pure shooter in the NBA Duncan Robinson

Does any more need to be said? Let’s leave Steph Curry and Damian Lillard out of this, but as shooting specialists go, Robinson has the crown. After shooting 45 percent from deep in the regular season, Robinson has followed up by nailing 40 percent of his 7.3 threes per game in the playoffs so far. His off-ball movement and gravity are perhaps the single most important ingredient of a Heat offense that just took down two top-five defenses in the Bucks and Celtics in back-to-back rounds. Until further notice, Robinson is the NBA’s best pure shooter, and these playoffs have just been his highlight reel.

Worse: Championship No. 2 Paul George

What happened here? Without getting too tangled in the psychological reasons George struggled, the Clippers simply did not get the player they mortgaged their future for. If they want to avoid having the George trade added to the Hall of NBA Trade Shame alongside the Knicks’ deal for Carmelo Anthony or the Nets’ trade for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Clippers need to figure out how to get George right. George was unable to contain Doncic or Murray or score consistently as he finished the playoffs with a barely-positive 0.4 overall Box Plus-Minus. The good thing is we’ve seen George dominate in the playoffs before, but whether a coaching change empowers him or George simply needs a mental reset, something needs to change if the Clippers are going to redeem themselves next season.

Better: Defensive juggernaut Luguentz Dort

Never forget that Dort, who is undrafted and was probably Oklahoma City’s fourth or fifth choice to start playoff games when the season began, nearly outdueled an NBA MVP in a playoff series.

Better: Rotation wing Gary Trent Jr.

Nearly all of Trent’s stock was sold off by the time he left Duke, which is why he fell to the middle of the second round of the 2018 draft. Desperate for anyone to play on the wing, Portland gave Trent a try, and he answered by looking quite the part of a 3-and-D stud for most of the Bubble games. With great functional strength and shot-making ability, Trent is exactly the type of player the Trail Blazers need to put around Damian Lillard. They found one for extremely cheap and out of necessity, he proved himself big-time in the postseason.

Worse: Healthy and effective Russell Westbrook

There may not be a player whom the hiatus hurt more than Westbrook. It’s widely assumed he came down with the coronavirus over the summer and was late to the Bubble, then he struggled with injuries and poor play that ultimately cost the Rockets their season. Westbrook took full blame when he spoke with reporters after Houston lost to the Lakers in the second round, but it’s little consolation to a Rockets team whose window is closing to have their super-highly paid second star admit failure.

The Rockets traded for Westbrook as a last-gasp means of moving Chris Paul, but it’s clear now that move backfired entirely. They are now stuck with Westbrook, who not only looked bad against the Lakers but looked borderline unplayable. With a new coach coming in soon, Houston has much bigger issues than who’s wearing a suit on the bench with Westbrook highjacking games and losing them for the Rockets.

Better: Top-five player Anthony Davis

In nearly every aspect of the game, Davis has improved in 2020. Long an incredible shot-blocker and scorer, Davis is now an impeccably polished post playmaker, isolation creator, defensive anchor, and winner.

The playoffs have been a parade of Davis’ excellence. The man has guarded Jusuf Nurkic, Russell Westbrook and Nikola Jokic over the past three rounds and will have to deal with Bam Adebayo in the Finals. All the while, he’s shouldered a 29.1 percent usage rate and scored with a .663 true shooting percentage on a Lakers roster that lacks scoring talent almost entirely. As with Murray, stardom translating into winning has to be seen to be believed, and Davis has shown up repeatedly and loudly throughout the Lakers’ romp through the West.

Worse: All-Star Victor Oladipo

Things got ugly for Oladipo in the Bubble. Initially thought to be a complete scratch for these games, Oladipo responded well to treatment while recovering from his ruptured quad tendon and played in every contest for Indiana. When he was on the court, however, he looked far more like Jordan Crawford or Ricky Davis than the two-way star that led the Pacers to the No. 5 seed in 2018. As he tried to get comfortable again, Oladipo had a bright green light to shoot, but finished Indiana’s sweep at the hands of the Heat with a .393 shooting percentage from the field. No one can fault Oladipo for his injury, but the Pacers and the rest of the NBA need to think about him as damaged goods who may never return to his athletic prime rather than a bona fide All-Star.

Better: Blue chip stud OG Anunoby

The game-winner against Boston will stick in our memories, but Anunoby was stellar all playoffs for Nick Nurse and the Raptors. After missing last year’s championship run, Anunoby averaged nearly 36 minutes per game for Toronto this postseason and made good on the potential he flashed at Indiana years ago. Anunoby made 42 percent of his 41 three-point attempts and posted a 1.5 Defensive Box-Plus Minus, which estimates that he made his team 1.5 points better per 100 possessions than an average player.

With Siakam and Fred VanVleet also in tow as part of an experienced young core, Anunoby gives Nurse and the Raptors another piece to trust long-term who fits the vision of the team and the direction of the league.

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