In spite of COVID-19 spikes in the U.S., the NBA’s bubble has gone pretty well so far. No players have tested positive for COVID-19. Worst-case scenarios aside, we can focus on basketball. This unprecedented season still has a lot riding on it for several franchises. Here are the three teams with the most to lose in the bubble:
3. Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers have been a disaster all season, reports ESPN, but it’s impossible to look away from them. Philly’s already been living out the worst-case scenario for all of their offseason moves from last summer. Letting Jimmy Butler go to for Josh Richardson and a suddenly-washed Al Horford looks worse by the day. Ben Simmons still won’t shoot. Tobias Harris is paid like an All-Star and plays like a role player.
The preseason expectations that they would be, at worst, one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference seem like a thing of the past. (And not just because anything that happened before the pandemic began seems like it occurred in a different universe.) An early exit in the playoffs probably spells the end of Brett Brown’s time as the head coach and the questions around whether Simmons and Embiid can play together will intensify even more.
Even after a season of ugly offense and simmering frustrations, Philly went into the bubble with the hope that yet another lineup change that gave fans reason to hope for better results on the horizon … Then Simmons suffered a “subluxation of the left patella.” He’s out indefinitely. The Sixers haven’t been right all year. The consequences of this could be huge.
2. Los Angeles Lakers
By contrast, the Lakers lived up to all the expectations. LeBron James remains the league’s central figure and an MVP candidate in his mid-thirties. Anthony Davis has arguably played just as well. And the role players mocked before the season started have held up all year. (Although making fun of Dwight Howard will always be OK.)
When the season was suspended, the Lakers were playing like the best team in the league. But none of that matters if they don’t win the title. Every team with LeBron on the roster is in a championship-or-bust situation. His presence turns each season into a pressure cooker where the only release comes by lifting the Larry O’Brien trophy when it’s all over.
There are several teams with high ambitions for their playoff runs, but none of them have a star that carries the wattage of attention that James does. If he doesn’t leave the bubble with a fourth ring, then the season is a failure, and the rest of the roster will receive the brunt of the blame.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
But for all the pressure resting on the collective shoulders of the Lakers, they can still play without the fear that the cornerstone of the franchise might leave and doom them to mediocrity for the foreseeable future. This is what the Bucks have to deal with until Giannis Antetokounmpo signs his next contract.
They’ve done everything they can to show him that he should stay there. Prior to the shutdown, the Bucks were on course for 70 wins until Antetokounmpo suffered a knee injury. The supporting cast has improved from last season, and the team has a real chance of winning the NBA title. But time is running out to make that happen.
Antetokounmpo’s contract is up after next season. Unless Milwaukee wins a championship before then, every big market franchise will be lined up at his door to convince him that he’s better off playing elsewhere. Making it to the Finals is the absolute minimum for this to be a successful season.
Milwaukee can offer Antetokounmpo a max contract this offseason. Another deep postseason run would go a long way to showing the reigning MVP that he doesn’t need to leave to accomplish his goals.