When the NBA suspended its 2019-20 season in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, the prospects of finishing a season looked slim. Fast-forward to present day, and we’re a couple days away from the return of the NBA and its playoff bracket thanks to the NBA turning the Disney World complex in Orlando, Florida into a basketball bubble for the next couple of months (a Disney-basketball crossover gets a huge check mark from me).
To break down the state of the bubble and preview the playoff excitement ahead, I talked to Daniel Olinger, a contributor of — let me check my notes to make sure I have all of it — the Liberty Ballers SB Nation 76ers blog, the Inside NU SB Nation Northwestern blog, his own Back to the Basket blog and a couple of podcasts, as well as my roommate last year and as knowledgeable an NBA person as I know. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. Enjoy!
John Riker: The NBA has been in a bubble quarantine for a good period now. We’ve seen a couple vlogs and player comments, too. What is your reaction to how it has gone so far and how would you rate the job the NBA is doing?
Daniel Olinger: The bubble has been great. The NBA portrays itself as the social media-friendly league, and you can tell because people love all the storylines. People are interested in who the players are and how they are as people, and to see them out having fun with each other is enjoyable.
I’m a Sixers fan, a Sixers writer [for SB Nation’s Liberty Ballers blog], we spend so much time talking about Matisse Thybulle’s vlog. He’s already gotten over 870,000 views on his first three videos. I’ve watched his fourth one, it’s probably already up there. He’s been interviewed on the New York Times, he had a five segment on Good Morning America because it’s gone so well for him.
They have news this week that there’s no positive cases for players, so it seems like everything’s going fine. The NBA’s already a league where people are interested in the players, and putting them in an environment that is fun like this with a lot of things they can do and some free time, it’s cool to see what they’re like as people.
JR: How well do you see the bubble working as a long-term solution?
DO: It’s hard because it’s a different feel between staying at that place two weeks and three months. I don’t know how that will go through — their morale and attitude toward the situation. Especially when they bring families in, that could make things complicated. The way things are starting, I think it will all get done. Honestly, the thing I am more concerned about is how it goes on next season, because there’s so much we don’t know. There’s a difference between playing in the playoffs in the bubble and a whole season in the bubble. If I had to bet, they’re back in the stadiums but without the fans. They could have done without inviting the Suns and Wizards and might have overdone it a bit with too much time, but overall the bubble’s a good idea and worthwhile.
JR: What storylines are you looking for with the first regular seasons before the playoffs?
DO: The teams that generate the most interest, the Lakers and the Bucks, there’s not much interest because their seeds are locked up and they might bench their players. I’m not sure how many players will be in the scrimmage. There will be no awards race either because the voting has already started and the ballots will be sent in before the eight regular season games. Whoever gets the eighth seed in the Western Conference will be most interesting. All those teams are interesting: the Pelicans, Grizzlies, Kings, Spurs, Blazers. Seeing how that all works out and how a play-in tournament would work. Out East, it’s probably the seeding with the Pacers, Sixers, and Heat.
JR: Of the Big Four sports, the NBA is probably the chalkiest, but it’s obviously a strange year. What chaos factor do you see in the title race?
DO: I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of chaos in the title race. It’s people trying to come up with content, like, “oh, we haven’t played for four months, will the better teams be worse?” It’s almost like a new season, like rookies almost being in a second year, but that’s not making too much of a difference.
Basically, it’s what I would have said if none of this would have happened. The teams that can create chaos, like my 76ers, have the talent to do it. Another team like the Mavs — the Mavs could definitely beat teams like that. My pick for the Finals, I’ll probably go Bucks over Lakers in six. The Bucks have been the best team in the NBA all year. They’re really incredible top to bottom, I don’t see a lot of ways they will get beat. If you’re talking about the top four teams, I’d write it in pencil that they’ll advance to the second round. I wouldn’t expect too much chaos unless an injury or a COVID diagnosis, but barring the unforeseen, I think it will be the same that it will usually be.
JR: Do you see any factors coming to the forefront in the bubble, and teams that could affect?
DO: There probably will be more turnovers from the rust and sloppy play, and the shooting could be a little rough. I think youth versus experience will have the same ratio of affect as it usually does. Yeah, experience can help, but you can see one argument for and one against. The Blazers outlasted the Nuggets last year, but you look way back to 2012 when the Spurs had won their first 10 playoff games, then the Thunder were too young, too athletic, and they exploded the last four games. Those things balance themselves out. It’s probably a boring answer, but I’d expect those things to remain the same.
JR: Going to your Western Conference pick for now, should we be worried about the Lakers depth, especially considering Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo, and Dwight Howard?
DO: Avery Bradley is a big concern not having him, because he offered a lot for point-of-attack defense. The Lakers don’t have a ton of great guard defenders. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is okay but he’s better on taller wings that aren’t primary ball-handlers. Alex Caruso is actually one of the better defensive guards in the league. As much as we love to joke, him and LeBron have one of the best net ratings in the league. He’s 6’4”, 6’5”, so he has a height advantage over a lot of point guards. Say they play the Grizzlies in the first round, I don’t think he could keep up with the foot speed of a Ja Morant. I would not rely at all on J.R. Smith or Dion Waiters. If those two are playing, something has gone horribly wrong. Alex Caruso will probably be a starter most of the time. Caruso skipped his sister’s wedding because he would have had to quarantine for another ten days. My biggest concern for the Lakers is for the other guard types, what they would do. It’s not a huge concern, but still a concern.
JR: Going to the other team from Los Angeles, it seems like the Clippers have the most impressive team on paper, but didn’t tear through the NBA. Is there another gear they can show in the playoffs?
DO: They started to show some of that tear before the suspension, they had won six of seven before the Lakers game. The Lakers took it to them in that matchup. The Clippers have 12 or 13 players they can throw out at any time and are all good. They can play any style they want. They have a big lineup and throw that out, they shut out the Rockets with a small-ball lineup. Pat Beverley and Montrezl Harrell have both had to leave for emergency family matters, so that could be a concern. The Clippers could drop to the three seed because they don’t have a huge lead. The argument for the Clippers is simple — they have great depth and can match up as well with the Lakers as the Rockets, which not a lot of teams can say, and they have the guy who holds the crown, Kawhi Leonard. My worry with them is that they’re not huge, and I’ve never been a huge Paul George guy. My pick for the Western Conference Finals is definitely Lakers-Clippers.
JR: One of the interesting storylines is a couple of the guys, such as Giannis and Anthony Davis, who are superstars but haven’t shown it as much in the playoffs. Which superstar is going to prove themselves in the playoffs this year?
DO: I’d push a little bit against that. AD, that Pelicans team was horrible both times when he was there. He wrecked the Blazers in the playoffs. We have proof that AD doesn’t have the LeBron level to carry a team that isn’t very good to a contending level, but there’s no proof that AD is a bad playoff player. AD has lived up to what we thought he would be in the playoffs.
Giannis was pretty good in the first two series last year. He does need to get better as a passer. The Raptors were funneling him off and it felt like no one on the Bucks could hit a spot-up jumper. I believe in Giannis. That Bucks team is awesome. Khris Middleton went from a pity All-Star last year to on my second-team All-NBA. So Giannis will prove himself, he’s the primary guy. If I had to pick one, I think Giannis is going to come through.
JR: Lastly, how much NBA do you think you’ll be watching the next couple months?
DO: I’ll be glued to the TV as much as possible. I still have some stuff I have to attend to so I can’t watch every single game, but I will be watching as much as possible. If I miss games, I’ll probably be rewatching them on League Pass late at night. I’m looking forward to it.