Updated: Jul 28, 2020
Allow me to take you back to March 11th, 2020. It’s a normal Wednesday night. The Jazz are about to tip-off against the Thunder in Oklahoma City. Both teams are solid, currently fighting for favorable seeding in the stacked Western Conference. The Jazz, hoping to prove themselves as a legit contender, are fueled by young studs Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, as well as offseason free-agent additions Mike Conley Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic. The Thunder were expected to tank after amassing Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, and a bazillion draft picks in the offseason while losing superstars Paul George and Russell Westbrook. Turns out they’re actually pretty good. All is well!
I guess there have been murmurs about some weird-ass virus potentially blowing up, but it’s not like the NBA will actually cancel games, right? I mean, Rudy Gobert was making fun of the virus just two days ago by touching a bunch of microphones after a press conference. There’s no way this is gonna be a big deal. Fuck it, I need to stop stressing. I took the Jazz ML tonight, let’s hope Mitchell goes off!
Wait, what’s that? Shams Charania just tweeted that Gobert tested positive for the Big Rona? Holy shit, the players are leaving the floor? Fans are flooding out of the arena? Holy shit, maybe this weird-ass virus may actually cause the NBA to cancel games. Holy shit, Gobert is the biggest fucking idiot alive. Wait, HOLY SHIT, if the NBA gets canceled, I wonder what other implications this will have on our lives both short and long term. I mean, HOLY SHIT! My mind is racing…
Okay, back to the present day. Sorry for making you revisit those memories. As a wise man (I’m just gonna attribute the quote to pre-nutjob Kanye) once said, “They say you never know what you got ‘til it’s gone.” With no NBA basketball since that fateful day on March 11th, that quote really resonates with me. I mean, I guess watching old highlights and experiencing some nostalgia was cool. For about three days. After that, I realized that the lack of live sports had left a gaping black hole in my life. It literally disrupted my daily routines. Everything felt off-kilter. I found myself yearning for new footage of Giannis Antetokounmpo yamming on people’s heads, LeBron James fully embracing his transformation into an elite point guard and Kyrie Irving crossi—actually, never mind.
And now, FINALLY, after 141 long and basketball-less days, the NBA is officially BACK! Busti the Bookie already gave you AFTR PRTY’s official NBA Power Rankings, so I’m here to bring you AFTR PRTY’s Five Players "We Can’t Wait to Watch" in the NBA bubble. Games start on Thursday, July 30th. Man, it feels like I’m gearing up for my birthday parties in elementary school. Remember bringing all your boys to a bowling alley and eating infinite pizza and ice cream? That was the greatest shit ever. Anyway, let’s get into it:
#1: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder
Earlier, I described the Thunder as “expected to tank” but “actually pretty good.” I mean, let’s give some credit to Thunder GM Sam Presti, right? Think about it – the guy lost prime Kevin Durant, prime Russell Westbrook, prime James Harden, prime Paul George, even prime Serge Ibaka. Alongside stud coach Billy Donovan, he’s somehow taking a weird, point guard-heavy roster into the playoffs AND has, as I mentioned, a preposterous number of draft picks in the future. Oh yeah, and did I mention his team plays in fucking Oklahoma City? Honestly, a miracle every player on that roster doesn’t demand a trade within their first season. Why can’t my stupid-ass Knicks get a guy like Presti?
Anyway, back to one of my favorite young players in the league, Mr. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. At just 22, SGA is averaging 19.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists this season. He’s also an analytics darling and posts solid defensive metrics, both of which are rare for young point guards. And by the way, Chris Paul, who is also a point guard, is also on this team? And will get MVP votes after putting up 17.7/4.9/6.8 per game? Oh wait, you’re telling me Dennis Schröder is ALSO on this team? And he’s ALSO a point guard? And he’s ALSO averaging 19 a game?! How the fuck do they make that work???
It turns out that the Thunder’s lineup with the three-headed monster at point guard has been one of the best in the entire NBA this season. And while I’d love to watch that lineup wreak havoc on the Western Conference juggernauts, Schröder’s wife is due on August 4th, so he’ll leave the bubble as soon as she goes into labor (congrats, Dennis!). That means the Thunder can unleash SGA to pick up the slack, which I can’t wait to watch.
#2: Alex Caruso, PG, Los Angeles Lakers
Alex Caruso has had a fascinating couple of seasons. On one hand, he’s the balding, meme-able white dude who rocks headbands and looks kinda hilarious but somehow has like a 40-inch vertical and can absolutely YAM. On the other hand, he’s officially a legit, exciting role player on a team with championship aspirations. Now, think about this roster the Lakers have in the bubble. Who are their guards? Avery Bradley opted out. Rajon Rondo broke his hand and is done for the year. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been reduced to a spot-up shooter. Dion Waiters and JR Smith are on this team, which is hysterical but doesn’t exactly give the Lakers reliable ballhandling options. Realistically, how the fuck is Jared Dudley still in the NBA? I guess Quinn Cook is a decent option at guard, but his ceiling is limited and he’s a liability on defense.
Enter The Bald Mamba (that’s his official nickname on Basketball Reference, lmao). While LeBron will certainly play point guard, he can’t handle the ball 100% of the time. Caruso seems like the next-best option. He’s a solid playmaker, is shooting 35.5% from beyond the arc, and is obviously a great athlete. He can also guard multiple positions at 6’5, which is a huge plus, especially because Cook can’t. Look for Caruso to have an expanded role in the bubble while leaving behind his reputation as the funny-looking white dude. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget that he’s skipping his sisters’ wedding to play (probably because LeBron and AD forced him to). That’s dedication (but probably blackmail).
#3: Bol Bol, C/SF(?), Denver Nuggets
Time for the man everyone seems to be talking about. It’s funny when I think of Bol Bol, I have two schools of thought. It’s like I have the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other:
Devil😈: “There’s a reason this kid slipped to the 44th overall pick in the draft. Scouts said they didn’t like his attitude, that he was lazy, that he was too focused on creating highlights and draining threes. I don’t think he’ll understand the nuances of the NBA game enough to be a true impact player.”
Angel😇: “Dude, how the fuck did this kid slip to the 44th overall pick in the draft?! He’s 7’3 with a 7’7 wingspan, and he’s, like, skilled! He has a handle and can drain threes! Did you see him block JJ Redick’s jumper the other day? JJ is T-14th all-time in made threes, so he’s seen plenty of shot blockers in his day, and he literally said ‘how the fuck did he get to that shot?’ It’s crazy that no team took a flier on him in the first round, especially considering how weak the 2019 Draft was.”
Listen, the jury is still out on Bol. Let’s not forget that he’s only played two scrimmages so far. Regardless, I can’t wait to watch Bol get real playoff minutes for the Nuggets. Keep in mind that the Nuggets probably won’t roll out their big ass lineup in meaningful games. They only used that lineup because Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton weren’t available. Again, I don’t care who the hell Bol plays with, I just can’t wait to watch his impossibly lanky ass swat people… then come down the floor and bury pull-up threes in their face.
#4: Ben Simmons, PF/PG, Philadelphia 76ers
So let’s get this out of the way real quick – I hate the Sixers. I’m a New Yorker through and through, so any teams from Boston and Philly are an auto-hate. Regardless, I can’t help but be absolutely fascinated by this Sixers team. You get the sense that they have all the pieces, but they just can’t quiiiiiiite figure out how to make it work. I mean, theoretically, how does anyone score on this team? They’re huge and switchable across the board. And while we’re on the topic, how does anyone stop this team? Joel Embiid is a force, Josh Richardson is a very solid player, Tobias Harris is a (preposterously overpaid) quasi-star, and Al Horford can stretch the floor with the best of em. Oh wait, I forgot…
Yeah, so Ben Simmons can’t shoot. We all know that. But here’s the thing – I think the bubble is the perfect environment for Simmons to thrive. For starters, he’s reportedly seen a sports psychologist about his refusal to shoot threes. I think that’ll go a long way, especially when he won’t have fans jeering at him. I guess he also won’t run back on defense while looking at a disappointed Kendall Jenner. The mental aspect of shooting a basketball can’t be overstated. With an ideal environment, it looks like Simmons is primed to let it fly in Orlando.
From a basketball standpoint, Sixers coach Brett Brown is asking Simmons to relinquish his point guard duties to Shake Milton (side note: every Sixers fan on the planet is saying Milton is nice. Let’s just say I’ll believe it when I see it). That means that Simmons will have the freedom to play off the ball, zipping around screens and cutting to the rack with his giant 6’10 frame. With Embiid attracting so much attention on the interior, Simmons should be able to play inside-out and get some good looks from deep. Even if he hits between 25-30% of his threes, that’s a game-changer for Philly. Watch out.
#5 Ja Morant, PG, Memphis Grizzlies
Zion Williamson, SF, New Orleans Pelicans
Hand up, I totally cherry-picked this one. First of all, this covers two players. Second of all, the previous four guys all have storylines specific to the Orlando bubble that I think will be fascinating to watch. Ja Morant and Zion Williamson don’t have those storylines, but guess what? I don’t give a shit. And yes, I know there’s a very good chance that neither the Grizzlies nor the Pelicans make the playoffs, but guess what? I don’t give a shit!
Let’s start with Ja. You know, it really sucks that he plays in such a shitty media market because the guy is absolutely amazing to watch. He plays the point guard position like he’s in a pickup game with his boys. He’s out there trying crazy moves, flashy passes, absurd poster dunks, you name it. But here’s the thing – it works. It all works. Some guys try those moves and create the occasional highlight, but end up with inefficient numbers, poor assist to turnover ratios, etc. Not Ja. Ja is style AND substance. He’s the total package offensively. If you haven’t gotten the chance to watch Ja run the point yet, make sure you sit down and watch a Grizz game in the bubble.
Last but not least, the man who needs absolutely no introduction (since every media outlet has crowned him as emperor of the universe), Zion Williamson. The NBA blatantly expanded the field to 22 teams just to give the Pelicans a shot at the playoffs, but I don’t care. Zion really is that electric on the floor. With reports that he lost some weight in quarantine, looking for Zion to throw down a couple of insane dunks per game.
The best part is that these two teams will be duking it out to try to sneak into the playoffs. Even if neither team makes it, I can’t wait to watch them try.