Zero positive coronavirus tests in two consecutive league-wide batches have given us overwhelming feelings of optimism that the remainder of the 2019-2020 NBA season will play out with some normalcy, unlike baseball, which has already come dangerously close to a screeching halt.
The bubble is working. And it's also working to bring the best possible experience into fans' homes, be it from the interactive arenas through social media or from the vlogs and documentaries made by players like the 76ers' Matisse Thybulle and the Lakers' JaVale McGee. We're going to have basketball, we're going to have playoff basketball and we're going to crown a 2020 NBA champion. I feel really good about it, so long as Lou Williams doesn't get any more hankerings for chicken wings.
The last time I built a power rankings list was in mid-June, and a good amount has happened in the five to six weeks that have passed. However, these rankings are largely similar to what I had last time. The same powerhouses will dominate most ranking lists. The same cabooses will bring up the rear. And there are a good amount of dark horses lurking in the middle that no one wants to play.
But the rankings aren't identical to what I had last time. There's a small shuffle near the very top, and the back end is the recipient of some mixing due to opt-outs, scrimmage play, injuries and more.
Basketball officially returns tonight. How crazy is that? Let's see how all 22 bubble teams stack up.
Tier 6: What Are We Doing Here?
22. Washington Wizards (24-40 | 5.5 games back)
Previously: No 22
21. Brooklyn Nets (30-34 | East No. 7 seed)
Previously: No. 17
The Wizards just don't belong in Orlando, period. Without Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans, they really don't have anyone in their corps that can help them make a splash. The Nets at least have Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen. With all due respect to Rui Hachimura and Shabazz Napier... why are they even there?
Well, we know what the Nets are doing there. They actually had a decent regular season, thanks to guys like Kyrie Irving, Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and DeAndre Jordan. But three out of those five guys didn't make the trip to Orlando for one reason or another, and instead we'll see the likes of Tyler Johnson, who was waived by the Suns in February, and Jamal Crawford, who didn't belong to an NBA team throughout the 2019-20 season, take the floor.
Tier 5: Playing the Spoiler
20. San Antonio Spurs (27-36 | 4.0 games back)
Previously: No. 21
19. Orlando Magic (30-35 | East No. 8 seed)
Previously: No. 20
18. Phoenix Suns (26-39 | 6 games back)
Previously: No. 18
17. Sacramento Kings (28-36 | 3.5 games back)
Previously: No. 19
If I've learned one thing about the NBA, it's that you can never completely rule out Gregg Popovich. That's like ruling out the New England Patriots while Bill Belichick is still the head coach: it's imprudent. But without LaMarcus Aldridge at his disposal, Popovich loses arguably his best player, and will have to trust DeMar DeRozan and a group of role players to lead the Spurs out of a four-game hole.
The Magic are in a similar boat because no one is expecting this middle-of-the-pack team to do much damage to the serious contenders of the East. They were 0-2 against Boston, 1-3 against Miami, 0-3 against Toronto, 0-4 against Milwaukee, 0-2 against Indiana and -- wait for it, Sixers fans -- 2-0 against the Sixers, though one of those games came without Joel Embiid. They're not going to hurt anyone, though Jonathan Isaac's return could help the Magic shake up the seeding for an unprepared team.
I feel like the Suns should have had a better season. Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton form a really, really talented duo. Ricky Rubio was quite good this season. Mikal Bridges, Aron Baynes and Frank Kaminsky all fill important roles, and they do it well. But they just couldn't convert it into wins, and now they'll be without a top scorer in Kelly Oubre. Do they have the talent to upset some higher-ranked teams? Definitely. Will they make a miracle run for the eighth seed? Very unlikely.
The scrimmages actually bode well for the Kings' chances at making a run at the eighth seed, though I'm being cautious (once again) not to put too much stock into the scrimmages. But De'Aaron Fox is back, the players who missed time for various reasons (Harrison Barnes, Buddy Hield, Richaun Holmes, etc.) are healthy and playing well, and a win against the Clippers marks the end of the team's scrimmages. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George did play, but they weren't in the game when the Kings stormed back and took the lead at the end, so don't get too excited.
Tier 4: We've Got Work to Do
16. Memphis Grizzlies (32-33 | West No. 8 seed)
Previously: No. 16
15. Portland Trail Blazers (29-37 | 3.5 games back)
Previously: No. 14
14. Utah Jazz (41-23 | West No. 4 seed)
Previously: No. 13
13. New Orleans Pelicans (28-36 | 3.5 games back)
Previously: No. 15
The Grizzlies have two teams at their tail with potentially more talent. This isn't a knock on the core of Ja Morant -- who looked awesome in the scrimmages --, Brandon Clarke, Jaren Jackson and Jonas Valanciunas. The loss of elite defender Justise Winslow doesn't help, though, and the lack of experience, combined with proven superstars looking for that eighth seed, means that the Grizzlies have to really buckle down here.
One of the aforementioned teams with more talent is the Portland Trail Blazers. I'm not sure there are too many people in the league I'd rather have handling the ball and taking the last shot over Damian Lillard, and his presence alone is enough to give these Blazers a shot. Of course, Hassan Whiteside and Jusuf Nurkic (now healthy) are both underrated on the interior, and C.J. McCollum is the Robin to Lillard, Portland's Batman. The X-factor may be Nurkic, who missed the entirety of the regular season, though Trevor Ariza will not be with the team in the bubble.
What do the Jazz have to work out? A few things. For one, they still need to make sure that the team's chemistry is in order after Rudy Gobert's microphone gaffe started a chain reaction of events that ultimately ruptured he and Donovan Mitchell's relationship. But perhaps more importantly, they'll have to come up with a way to replace the high-volume three-point scoring of Bojan Bogdanovic (20.2 ppg on 41.4 3P%).
The Pelicans have work to do in the sense that they're 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies and need to come close enough to the Grizzlies, or surpass them, in order to get a play-in game. With a healthy core of stars on their side, though, including the unfathomable Zion Williamson, breakout stud Brandon Ingram, and tested veteran Jrue Holiday, they're in good shape to do so. They also have the easiest schedule in the seeding games, but will they be able to keep that momentum up if they face off against the Lakers in the first round? That's hard to imagine.
Tier 3: Surprisingly Serious Contenders
12. Indiana Pacers (39-26 | East No. 5 seed)
Previously: No. 10
11. Dallas Mavericks (40-27 | West No. 7 seed)
Previously: No. 9
10. Oklahoma City Thunder (40-24 | West No. 5 seed)
Previously: No. 12
The Pacers are a surprise team -- and were one of my favorite dark horses -- given the fact that Victor Oladipo missed a large portion of the regular season and didn't play very well for some of the games that came after his return. But he has looked great in the scrimmages, and he and Brogdon form a fantastic backcourt. The reason they were one of my favorite dark horses, but have lost some steam, is because Domantas Sabonis's injury has left a noticeable void in the paint. This team's success will depend on his availability, but it's not looking too promising, at least for now.
The Mavericks' ascension in 2019-20 is surprising for a few reasons, especially considering they were 33-49 last season. Obviously, the addition of Kristaps Porzingis was a major change, but even he wasn't playing too well in the beginning of the season. Nonetheless, the Mavericks are sitting pretty in the No. 7 seed, but are missing two major pieces in centers Dwight Powell and Willie Cauley-Stein. Maxi Kleber will be the big man opposite Porzingis, and the Mavs will have to rely on their three-point bombers and the Doncic-Porzingis duo to carry their high-octane offense.
The Thunder are surprising because, quite honestly, this roster didn't seem like a playoff-bound one at the start of the season. The move to acquire Chris Paul was widely dismissed as a strange move for both CP3 and OKC, with Rob Mahoney of The Ringer finding it odd to find a "ruthless competitor stuck on a merely decent team." Merely decent may have been the thought beforehand. But the emergence of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, along with a rebound from Danilo Gallinari, an awesome sixth-man effort from Dennis Schroder and continual strong play from Steven Adams have made OKC one of the best-gelling units in the association. Schroder will exit the bubble at some point, as his wife is expecting, but hopefully it won't take away from the Thunder's postseason chances.
Tier 2: Boom or Bust
9. Houston Rockets (40-24 | West No. 6 seed)
Previously: No. 7
8. Philadelphia 76ers (39-26 | East No. 6 seed)
Previously: No. 11
7. Miami Heat (41-24 | East No. 4 seed)
Previously: No. 8
I lean heavily toward the "bust" side of the equation for the Rockets, especially after learning that Eric Gordon could miss two weeks after suffering an ankle injury. My fellow RADIO.COM Sports writer John Healy agrees. People are saying that the Rockets were a team who benefitted greatly from the postponed season and the league restart, as it gives them time to mix and match different players to find the best rotation and practice with their notorious small-ball approach. But I really just can't imagine how, a) they'll keep that energy up the whole time and, b) defeat teams with taller wings or dominant big men with consistency.
I lean heavily toward the "boom" side of this equation, though, as the Sixers are at or near full health, which is a complete rarity. They also have the new-and-improved Shake Milton at their disposal, and they have some time to work out their best lineup going forward, which I am fairly certain will have veteran big man Al Horford on the bench. It's such a luxury -- one that the team didn't really take advantage of throughout the season -- to be able to seamlessly replace Joel Embiid with Al Horford, both of whom are top-tier inside-outside big men, both with two-way abilities. Signing Ryan Broekhoff to improve outside shooting was a great thought, but family safety understandably came first for the Australian sharpshooter, who opted not to travel to Orlando. Shooting could be the downfall for Philly, as it has many times before, but guys like Milton, Tobias Harris, Furkan Korkmaz and Mike Scott, along with mid-season acquisitions Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III, are at least capable. Will they be able to execute? Will they be able to stay healthy? Those are the burning questions.
I also think the Heat are a "boom" candidate, if only because Jimmy Butler is such a great leader. He plays with passion, and when the Heat follow his lead and are firing on all cylinders, this young and energetic group of blossoming stars is as tough to take down as any. Butler, Andre Iguodala and Goran Dragic, in fact, are some of the best veteran leaders you'll find in the Eastern Conference, and the emergence of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson and other young talents make this roster as deep and as versatile as any.
Tier 1: The Main Contenders
6. Toronto Raptors (46-18 | East No. 2 seed)
Previously: No. 6
5. Boston Celtics (43-21 | East No. 3 seed)
Previously: No. 5
4. Denver Nuggets (43-22 | West No. 3 seed)
Previously: No. 4
3. Los Angeles Lakers (49-14 | West No. 1 seed)
Previously: No. 1
2. Los Angeles Clippers (44-20 | West No. 2 seed)
Previously: No. 3
1. Milwaukee Bucks (53-12 | East No. 1 seed)
Previously: No. 2
The three teams at the back end of this tier stay exactly where they are, and for good reason. The Raptors proved all the doubters wrong by repeating as an exceptional team without the services of Kawhi Leonard, though, and the Nick Nurse effect carries the team into the top tier of postseason play. Everyone is healthy. Between Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry, you have the star power. Between Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, you have the veteran experience. What's not to like?
The Celtics could actually move higher up if Kemba Walker proves to be healthy and back to his early-season form. A widely-cited stat is that they were in the top five in both offensive and defensive rating this season, and it's not a statistic to be ignored. They're deep enough where every lineup they roll out will contain a go-to scorer, a shutdown defender, and a mix of capable role players. I previously labeled Gordon Hayward as the X-factor for them, as the veteran has a chance to truly prove his worth as a high-quality free agent option -- though he'll probably accept his player option, regardless --, and hopefully his eventual departure from the bubble for his wife's pregnancy won't come at an important time in this squad's expected deep playoff run.
You know what the Nuggets needed to add to their already-incredibly diverse lineup? The one that contains the unicorn that is Nikola Jokic, who passes as well as some of the league's top guards and can drain the three just as easily as he can bamboozle opposing bigs with a devastating post-hook? They needed to introduce Bol Bol, who is perhaps more unique than Jokic, and who has been dominating in scrimmage play. Versatility is huge -- being flexible will allow the Nuggets to gain an advantage over the somewhat one-dimensional Rockets, Mavericks, and even Lakers -- and this team poses the realest threat to the L.A. juggernauts.
One of the said L.A. juggernauts is the Lakers, who I've demoted a few spots in what was a neck-and-neck race at the top to begin with. But losing Avery Bradley truly hurts, as he was a valuable two-way asset and one of the best perimeter defenders on the team. Still, though others will give the Rockets the title of the "biggest beneficiary" of the hiatus, I give that label to the Lakers. LeBron James on that much rest? Uh-oh. He's probably the best player the tournament has to offer, not only because of how great he is, but because of how great he can make everyone around him.
But the Clippers, to me, present the biggest threat in the West. Though they've had to deal with some players going in and out of the bubble, be it warranted (Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley) or unwarranted (Lou Williams), all that should hopefully be a thing of the past by the time the seeding games heat up. Both former GM Ryan McDonough and former NBA player Brian Scalabrine, the hosts of RADIO.COM Sports podcast "Scal & Pals," have the Clippers as title favorites. That's where I differ, albeit very slightly.
But that's only because I, like so many others, think that the Bucks are just going to cruise through the Eastern Conference playoffs and take home the title. They're just so utterly dominant in every facet of the game. They're dealing with a total of zero significant health issues. They're by far the best defensive team in the NBA and, according to Basketball Reference's simple rating system (which takes into account point differential and strength of schedule), the 2019-20 Bucks are the second-best NBA team in the past 20 years. And that rating comes with the caveat that, oftentimes, Giannis and co. were removed from the game early due to an overwhelming lead. Give me the Bucks as the title winners.