One-hundred forty-one days. That’s how long it’s been since the NBA’s last game. One-hundred forty-one days without Twitter losing its mind over a Zion dunk, 141 days without a Mike Breen “bang!” or James Harden dropping a 50-burger on 15-of-40 shooting with 20 free-throw attempts. One-hundred forty-one agonizing days without Pop (ever the word economist) gracing us with one of his patented one-word answers or Damian Lillard draining a three from outer space. One-hundred-forty-one days without Gordon Hayward’s rugged good looks or Giannis putting some fool on a poster for all eternity. One-hundred forty-one days without Lavar Ball saying something completely incoherent on First Take and traveling rules not applying to LeBron James. One-hundred-forty-one days without bloodthirsty WIP listeners calling for Brett Brown’s head (just kidding—that never stopped).
That’s 141 days too long, if you ask me. But basketball’s palpable four-month silence will soon be rectified with the NBA’s bubble season coming to a head Thursday in Orlando. Not half-hearted, testing-the-water exhibitions either, but actual games of real consequence. The NBA schedule-makers went for the top-shelf too, treating us to a couple opening-night doozies with Jazz/Pelicans followed by a primetime showdown between the top-seeded Lakers and their Staples Center bunkmate, the Kawhi Leonard-led Los Angeles Clippers.
To get you in the hoops spirit, Jordan Cohn and I conducted our own, 12-round draft comprised exclusively of players competing in the bubble. That means no Steph Curry, Trae Young, Kevin Durant or anyone else missing the league’s upcoming Orlando festivities. Which of these star-laden rosters packs the most punch? Allow Jordan and I to plead our cases.
1. Jesse: LeBron James, F
Some will take exception to this pick, but hear me out. I get it—Giannis is the reigning MVP and, unless Russia rigs the vote for LeBron or Harden, the Greek Freak will add another to his tally this season. If the exercise was starting a franchise from scratch, I’d sprint to the podium and take the 25-year-old Giannis. But in a win-or-go-home setting, give me the position-less monstrosity that is LeBron James, a veteran of nine NBA Finals who has outscored all but two other players in league history and will someday occupy his own wing in Springfield. Pacing the sport in assists at age 35, even 16 seasons into his illustrious career, LeBron’s limitless arsenal is still evolving. You’re up, Jordan.
2. Jordan: Giannis Antetokounmpo, F
3: Jordan: Anthony Davis, F/C
Did I just draft the two best defenders in the NBA? I believe I did, as Defensive Player of the Year voting will soon show. In June, Giannis was the betting favorite at -230 while AD was right behind him at +150 (Rudy Gobert was a distant third at +2500). But when you consider Giannis and AD are also scoring machines—and I don’t use that term lightly—this duo seems like a no-brainer. With scoring averages of 29.6 and 26.7, respectively, it’s almost unfair to pair this much talent in one frontcourt. One area I’m lacking in is long-range shooting, but I figure I’ll have plenty of time to fix that.
4. Jesse: Kawhi Leonard, F
5. Jesse: Luka Doncic, G
Let it be known that Jordan sniped me ENDLESSLY throughout this draft. Just dagger after dagger. But my Fantasy Show colleague extended a rare peace offering here, letting the reigning NBA Finals MVP slip to me at No. 4. Versatility is the bedrock of any successful team and I think I’ve accomplished that with a pair of lockdown wings (James and Leonard) and two players capable of running the point in LeBron and Doncic. Jordan holds a noticeable size advantage at this early juncture, but that’s a need I can address later on with plenty of bigs still available (Embiid, Jokic and Gobert).
6: Jordan: Jayson Tatum, F
7. Jordan: Paul George, G/F
LeBron, Kawhi and Luka. Sheesh. As phenomenal as Giannis and AD are defensively, I’m definitely going to need some more wing defense if I want to combat that three-headed monster. Luckily, I have two guys who fit the bill: Jayson Tatum and Paul George. Tatum’s improvement defensively has allowed him to make the leap from a “great” player to a legitimate superstar talent (even Celtics coach Brad Stevens was surprised how quickly he became a “defensive example”) and last year Paul George was labeled the “most disruptive force in the NBA” by ESPN. There are only 11 players in all of basketball who have attempted more than seven three-pointers per game this season while converting at a rate of 39% or better. Tatum and George are two of the 11. I must say, I was very close to snagging Damian Lillard here. He has ice veins and you need that mentality come playoff time.
8. Jesse: Damian Lillard, G
9. Jesse: Joel Embiid, C
You can already see strategy coming into play with Jordan loading up on wings to combat my early selections of LeBron and Kawhi. I especially respect the George pick—he’s a punishing defender with the length (6’8”) to match up with two-guards, threes and even fours. After playing point guard chicken through the first seven picks, I finally took the plunge with Lillard, whose ruthless walk-off to stun OKC in last year’s playoffs cemented his status as one of the league’s elite long-range marksmen. I have to acknowledge my own personal bias here as I suspect most of you are wondering why I faded Harden at No. 8 and again at nine. Simply put, I don’t enjoy watching him—I question his excessive dribbling, high-volume scoring approach and reckless shot selection (enough with the step-back threes already), among other off-putting traits. Rather than force the issue with a player I consider a poor fit schematically, I finally added a big in the form of Sixers seven-footer Joel Embiid, who provides a much-needed low-post presence to a team otherwise lacking in that regard.
10. Jordan: James Harden, G
11. Jordan: Jimmy Butler, G/F
Welp, there goes Lillard. I’m starting to regret not taking him. I really value his clutch factor and the intensity he plays with on a Blazers team fighting for its playoff life. I also like Jesse’s Embiid pick. I’m a Sixers fan, so I know how frustrating Embiid can be at times, but I also know just how dominant he is when firing on all cylinders. I’m relatively happy with my picks, though. It seems neither of us are sold on Harden’s ability to lead a playoff team, but in this case, he wouldn’t really have to “lead” and could just be a scorer. Getting him this late to round out my starting five feels like highway robbery. Harden, George, Tatum, Giannis and Davis is a bear of a lineup. And Butler makes for a perfect sixth man, providing leadership, grit and outstanding perimeter defense to help those wings and replace Harden when we need a stop.
12. Jesse: Russell Westbrook, G
13. Jesse: Nikola Jokic, C
Jordan thankfully took Harden off my hands at No. 10, then followed that selection by scooping up a gritty, albeit high-maintenance wing in Butler, a standout defender and efficient scorer who has quickly taken Miami from fringe playoff status to a legitimate Eastern Conference threat. Not that I’d been drafting choir boys, but when you’re battling in the trenches, you want someone who can stir it up and I think Westbrook, who plays every game with a mountain-sized chip on his shoulder, brings just enough edge to the equation. He’s also a nightly triple-double threat, which is never a bad quality. With Jokic, a dime-dropping big who also boasts plenty of low-post muscle (as his 10.2 boards per game would attest to), I now have five capable ball-handlers at my disposal. The lineup possibilities are endless. Good luck, Jordan. You’re going to need it.
14. Jordan: Pascal Siakam, F
15. Jordan: Zion Williamson, F
To be honest, I don’t love the Russell Westbrook pick. The way Jesse feels about Harden is kind of how I view Westbrook—he’s too erratic for my taste and has proven inconsistent as a leader. I certainly wouldn’t mind him at this juncture, but with Lillard already on Jesse’s roster, I wasn’t worried about Westbrook getting taken. The pick I am concerned about is Nikola Jokic because now I have to deal with both him and Embiid inside. Jesse’s initial lack of height has now become a strength and eventually, I’ll need to counter that. But reaching for Adebayo or Gobert here would prevent me from taking two of the most intriguing players available, so I’ll just have to take my chances and hope they make it another turn. Instead I’ll go with Siakam, who was a legitimate MVP candidate early in the year. As you can see, I’m also taking the plunge with Zion. Williamson carries a top-five floor, especially if he can catapult the Pelicans to a surprise playoff berth. He’ll help on the interior as well, though I still need to address the center position.
16. Jesse: Khris Middleton, F
17. Jesse: Bam Adebayo, F
The Adebayo pick may have been a bit reactionary, not that I regret it. I wanted someone physical to combat the size Jordan just added with Zion, who is basically a moose with a jump shot. That said, Adebayo has really come into his own this year (career-highs across the board in points, rebounds and blocked shots) and I like what he brings defensively. Between Bam (5.1 assists per game), LeBron, Luka, Lillard, Westbrook and Jokic, this team’s ball movement is going to be off the charts. Known for being the Pippen to Antetokounmpo’s Jordan in Milwaukee, the criminally underrated Middleton has length (6’7”) and a silky smooth three-point touch (41.8 percent success rate this year). My team could use a little of both.
18. Jordan: Rudy Gobert, C
19. Jordan: Chris Paul, G
Adebayo didn’t make it to me and Khris Middleton was someone I was eyeing as a “3-and-D” specialist. That said, I’m pleased I was able to snag Gobert, who might be the second-best interior defender in the entire league (though Joel Embiid and Brook Lopez may have something to say about that). Chris Paul is a good get as a veteran backup. He brings with him a wealth of playoff experience and OKC’s surprising success this season shows he’s not done yet. If Harden can’t deliver, CP3 is a great option off the bench.
20. Jesse: Ben Simmons, G/F
21. Jesse: Devin Booker, G
With all that’s been made of Simmons’ shooting woes and how it’s affected his confidence, I wasn’t sure I wanted the hassle, but there’s still plenty to like about the 24-year-old LSU product, who leads the association in steals (2.1 per game) and is also fifth in assists (8.2). He’ll never be Steph Curry from beyond the arc, but I think I can still find use for a ball-hawking 6’10” point guard who runs the floor like a thoroughbred at Churchill Downs. Simmons’ familiarity with longtime teammate Joel Embiid also makes him an asset. As the 11th option in my team’s pecking order, I’m not asking much of Booker. I just need a shooter off the bench who can score in bunches. I think Booker (26.1 points per game on career-high 48.7-percent shooting) can handle that assignment.
22. Jordan: Donovan Mitchell, G
23. Jordan: Kristaps Porzingis, F/C
Here I targeted players with high ceilings, considering all my team needs are filled. I’ve plugged up the interior (AD, Zion, Gobert), assembled a strong backcourt (Harden, CP3), loaded up on wing shooters (Tatum, George), addressed veteran leadership (CP3, Butler) and if none of that works, I have an athletic monster in Giannis who can clean it all up. I would have loved either of Jesse’s last two picks, because like he said, Simmons’ ball-handling and defense are second-to-none and Booker’s bench scoring is extremely valuable. However, Donovan Mitchell is as capable as anyone when it comes to getting buckets and Kristaps gives me another inside-out option who, when healthy, has helped contribute to arguably the most prolific offense in the NBA.
24. Jesse: CJ McCollum, G
I could have gone any number of directions here and I’m still not entirely convinced I chose the right one, not that my 12th man is going to make or break me. Victor Oladipo and Kemba Walker each crossed my mind, but both are coming off injuries that could limit their effectiveness in Orlando. I also came close to pulling the trigger on first-time All-Star Brandon Ingram, but ultimately landed on the sharp-shooting McCollum instead. Tempted as I was by Ja Morant and other high-upside youngsters of similar pedigree (Jaylen Brown was another angle I workshopped), I opted for the sure thing in McCollum, a proven playoff performer and longtime sidekick of Damian Lillard, who also happens to be on Team Jesse.
With McCollum tapped as Mr. Irrelevant, that puts a bow on our draft. You can see the full rosters below and decide for yourself which team is better equipped for the bubble.
Team Jesse: LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Joel Embiid, Russell Westbrook, Nikola Jokic, Khris Middleton, Bam Adebayo, Ben Simmons, Devin Booker, CJ McCollum
Team Jordan: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Jayson Tatum, Paul George, James Harden, Jimmy Butler, Pascal Siakam, Zion Williamson, Rudy Gobert, Chris Paul, Donovan Mitchell, Kristaps Porzingis