The 6 Biggest Surprises from NBA's Orlando Bubble so Far
One month into the NBA's Disney bubble experience, it's safe to say play has lived up to expectations.
Despite the absence of fans, game action has been nothing short of extraordinary. We've come to expect that from some of the NBA's most notable stars and teams, but a few unlikely candidates have emerged.
In some instances, a young athlete has surpassed expectations. In others, an unlikely team has taken the next step since the season's suspension.
Here are six of those unlikely stories that have taken the seeding tournament by storm.
Gary Trent Jr.
Between Jan. 18 and Feb. 9, the 2018 second-round pick from Duke averaged 14.6 points per game in 11 contests. The breakout was exactly what the struggling Portland Trail Blazers were looking for, and it has followed them into the seeding tournament.
Trent has emerged as the Blazers' fourth-leading scorer with 18.0 points per contest in six seeding games. He's been sizzling from deep, shooting a remarkable 56.9 percent on 8.5 deep attempts per game.
The path is open for the Blazers given the slippages of the Memphis Grizzlies. If Trent can continue his impressive play, they may very well meet the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs.
Michael Porter Jr.
The upside was always there for Michael Porter Jr., the Missouri product and 2017 McDonald's All-American MVP. At 6'10" with a smooth glide, effortless handle and silky jumper, the Denver Nuggets' wild card could move the needle for Nikola Jokic.
Over the past four games, that upside has been on full display against an intimidating array of opponents in the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz. Down Gary Harris, Will Barton and Jamal Murray (for four of five games), Porter finally emerged in the Nuggets lineup.
The beneficiary of an increased workload and 39.8 minutes per game in his last four matchups, he's led Denver in scoring, averaging 29.3 points and 12.5 rebounds while shooting 46.7 percent from three. At 22 years old, Porter fits the mold of a shooter who can play the 3 and 4, traits that seem tailor-made to fit seamlessly alongside Jokic.
In five games since the NBA restarted the 2019-20 season in Florida, Porter is 11th in scoring and the only player shooting above 40 percent from three while collecting 25 points and 10 rebounds per contest.
It's time to move him into the starting lineup permanently. Just ask Barton.
Much has been made of the breakout of T.J. Warren, the bubble's leading scorer who the Phoenix Suns previously moved for cash considerations.
What NBA fans fail to remember is the series of moves that made those Suns the breakout team we see now. At 5-0, they are the only unblemished team remaining in the bubble, boasting impressive victories over the Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers and Miami Heat.
Devin Booker has been simply sensational, averaging 29.4 points on 50.0 percent shooting from the field, including a game-winner at the buzzer over Paul George.
Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 pick of the 2018 NBA draft, has been another bright spot with 18.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game while shooting 56.2 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from three. Most eye-catching, though, has been his improved play on the defensive end. Through five games, he has shown fluidity in his movement on the perimeter and the recognition necessary to police the paint while denying penetration in the pick-and-roll.
The Suns were thought of as honorary guests when play resumed. Now, they have to be considered a legitimate candidate for the play-in tournament.
San Antonio Spurs
It's been 22 seasons since head coach Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs sat at home come playoff time, and this season promised to break the streak.
On June 8, the team announced seven-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge would miss the rest of the campaign after undergoing shoulder surgery on April 24, arguably damning its chances of keeping the streak alive.
However, the chronically overachieving franchise hasn't gone down quietly, winning four of six thus far behind the breakout performances of Derrick White and Keldon Johnson.
Known for his prowess as a backcourt stopper, White has flourished on the offensive end in Florida. Trailing only DeMar DeRozan for the team's scoring lead (20.8 points per game), he has also added 4.8 assists and 4.7 rebounds per contest while shooting 43.8 percent from three.
Far more surprising has been Johnson, the rookie who's now shooting 63.6 percent from three after being mostly inactive through February. The 29th overall pick in the 2019 draft has ideal size (6'5", 211 lbs), high basketball IQ and a relentless motor that often finds him gobbling up deflections and tormenting opponents.
The Spurs are deadlocked in the race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. But with the improved play of their young pieces, plus the unconventionality of their most widely used five-man lineups, they may keep the streak alive.
Kyle Lowry and his Toronto Raptors have been one of the feel-good stories of the NBA following the departure of last year's Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard.
With the steady play of Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, coupled with the ascendance of Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Terence Davis, the Raptors have been more than a Cinderella story. They hold the NBA's fourth-best net rating, ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers, and the second-best defensive rating, trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks.
In the bubble, they've been dominant, defeating the Lakers by 15 on re-opening night and following that with victories over the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic. Their lone blemish, coming at the hands of the Boston Celtics, took place on a night during which only VanVleet logged more than 30 minutes on the court (31).
They're stacked defensively at every level. Lowry and VanVleet are relentless, if undersized. Supporting them is an endless array of limbs and muscle in Anunoby, Norman Powell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Should teams break that barrier, they are then met by Siakam, Gasol and Ibaka in the frontcourt.
Worse still, head coach Nick Nurse's wide variety of zones and defenders capable of matching 1-5 make predicting assignments problematic for opposing offenses.
Whether they can score enough to keep pace with the other contenders for the Larry O'Brien Trophy is still up in the air. Still, the Raptors' performance has to earn them a place in the conversation.
Perhaps the most popular of the storylines coming out of Florida has been the play of Indiana Pacers forward T.J. Warren.
The scoring wing was sent away from the Phoenix Suns in a surprising offseason deal that only brought back cash considerations. He's made them regret that move thus far with his performances at Disney. With four 30-point outings, including his 53-point showcase against the Philadelphia 76ers on Aug. 1, Warren is "on a different planet right now," as teammate Victor Oladipo said, per ESPN's Royce Young.
Warren's workload has increased in part due to the absences of All-Star Domantas Sabonis and Jeremy Lamb, who averaged a combined 24.1 shots per game throughout the regular season. In their absence, Warren is taking 8.6 more shots per game and converting at the ridiculous rate of 60.5 percent from the field and 55.6 from three on 7.2 deep attempts per game.
His 34.8 points per contest lead the NBA in the bubble.
These aren't empty calories, if that's what you're thinking. In the final 90 seconds of a Pacers win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Aug. 8, Warren went head-to-head to with Anthony Davis and LeBron James, scoring seven of the Pacers' last nine points.
The Pacers may not be a favorite to challenge in the Eastern Conference, but Warren's unexpected surge could change that if it continues.
Preston Ellis covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @PrestonEllis.