Buying or Selling 2020 NBA Bubble Breakout Players
We've learned enough about the value of sample size to view hot streaks with skepticism, and the especially unusual conditions surrounding the 2020 restart and playoffs should only increase our suspicion.
The lack of fans, single location, extended in-season layoff, inability to partake in the extracurriculars of road cities and several other factors make performances in the bubble inherently tricky to evaluate. So just as we can't pillory players for underperforming, we have to be careful not to overrate the ones who elevated their play.
The field up for consideration excludes current stars who shone especially bright from late July on. That eliminates almost every major guy who stepped up during the restart and playoffs, a list that includes Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Jimmy Butler, Donovan Mitchell, Luka Doncic, Devin Booker, Damian Lillard and others.
We're looking more at players who appeared to become new and different versions of themselves.
Which breakouts can we bank on, and which ones should we write off as anomalies?
TJ Warren, Indiana Pacers
TJ Warren has been a bucket for his entire career, as evidenced by his average of 14.4 points per 36 minutes on 52.8 percent shooting as a rookie in 2014-15. His gradual improvement accelerated in 2018-19, when the burly forward added volume and efficiency to his three-point shot. Prior to that season, which saw him attempt 29.5 percent of his shots from deep and hit them at a 42.8 percent clip, Warren stood out mainly for his love of mid-range looks.
In 2019-20, Warren proved his three ball was real, hitting 37.5 percent from beyond the arc while sustaining his increased volume prior to the shutdown.
The Warren who emerged in the restart was essentially a souped-up version of the player he'd worked to become. He rained in nine treys on his way to 53 points in an Aug. 1 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers and then put up 34 and 32 points in his next two outings before adding one more scorching 39-point effort Aug. 8.
Warren's playoff stint was brief, lasting just four games against the Miami Heat. There, facing an elite defense, he averaged 20.0 points per game and hit nine of the 19 threes he attempted. Solid, but not quite what he pulled off during the pre-playoff portion of the Orlando schedule.
Really, we're looking at four incredible games (the nights he scored 53, 34, 32 and 39 points) spanning a little more than a week. Those contributed to Warren's average of 31.0 points per game on 57.8 percent shooting from deep in six bubble contests prior to the playoffs.
At 27, Warren isn't too old to keep improving, but he's not exactly in that early-20s age range where players tend to take leaps. His Orlando run is better viewed as a validation of the improvements he's made. He's now a proven perimeter threat who can still get to his spots nearer the bucket at will. It doesn't, however, mean he's going to shoot like Klay Thompson on a hot streak for the rest of his career.
Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
With the Denver Nuggets missing Will Barton and Gary Harris during the restart, head coach Mike Malone had little choice but to hand Michael Porter Jr. the consistent role he'd denied him during the regular season.
Inconsistent defensive effort prevented Porter from securing a steady rotation spot to that point, but he finally got one by default. All he did with the opportunity was unveil one of the most undeniable scoring touches in the league. Four of his five highest-scoring games of the regular season came during the restart.
At 6'10", MPJ's lift and length make contesting his jumper all but impossible. Pair those physical advantages with a brash demeanor, and it's no wonder we watched him bury so many rise-up, in-your-face treys over hopeless closeouts.
A nose for the ball, particularly on the offensive glass, helped Porter accumulate loads of easy points in addition to the ones he produced from the perimeter. In all, he averaged 22.0 points and 8.6 rebounds with a 55.1/42.2/93.1 shooting split in seven games during the restart. His numbers and playing time dipped during the Nuggets' 19 playoff contests, as the preservation of defensive integrity gained even more importance for Malone.
But Porter still averaged 17.2 points and 10.1 rebounds per 36 minutes with a 60.1 true shooting percentage during Denver's magical postseason run, and he was a key reason the team lasted as long as it did. Most memorably, Porter came up big on both ends to help the Nuggets stave off elimination against the Los Angeles Clippers, hitting a key three and denying Ivica Zubac at the rim to secure the victory in a must-win Game 5 of the conference semifinals.
It seems safe to say Porter, still just 22, is going to be an elite scorer in the NBA. He's smooth off the dribble, has a variety of finishes and knows how to use his size at close range. He should make several All-Star Games, and if he plays adequate defense going forward, All-NBA slots aren't out of the question. Orlando gave us our first extended look at the talent that had been there all along.
Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs
Admit it, you forgot what Derrick White did in the bubble.
It's understandable that both he and the San Antonio Spurs aren't top of mind these days, considering they haven't played a game since mid-August. White, though, was terrific during the restart, averaging 18.9 points, 5.0 assists and 4.3 rebounds in only 28.9 minutes per game. He upped his long-range attempt frequency and accuracy over their pre-bubble levels, draining 39.3 percent of the 8.0 treys he tried per game. An incredible four of his seven 20-point games this year came in Orlando.
White is a valuable two-way rotation player. He looked like something more than that in July and August, and at 26, it's possible he really is hitting a new level.
Problem is, White has done something like this before. He appeared to bust out during the 2018-19 playoffs, when he upped his scoring average from 9.9 points in the regular season to 15.1 in seven postseason contests. He changed games with his defense and turned in one of the signature highlights of the playoffs when he baptized Paul Millsap with a right-handed hammer.
The 2019-20 regular season saw him come back to earth and average a somewhat disappointing 11.3 points while playing fewer minutes per game than the prior season. We'll need to see more than a hot stretch before buying all the way in again.
White's trend line is still pointing up, but it's not quite as steeply sloped as you might think after his work in the bubble.
Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
Whether you focus on the abundance of swag, the litany of "youngest to ever..." milestones he racked up or the undeniable creativity and skill, Tyler Herro's bubble and postseason performance was one for the ages.
The rookie guard peaked with 37 points in Game 4 of the Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics, leading his team to a win and a 3-1 series lead. Everyone's going to remember that game as Herro's official arrival, but his consistency on the biggest stage would have been enough to do that on its own.
He scored in double figures in every postseason appearance. As a rookie. For a team that reached the Finals.
Herro is far from a finished product, which shouldn't even have to be said about a 20-year-old. He's improved defensively but has a long way to go, and he'll remain a target for opponents who want to wear him down—largely because they fear what he can do with a full tank on offense. Even amid so much ahead-of-schedule success, Herro has tasted conspicuous failure.
Don't expect the guy head coach Erik Spoelstra noted "has a fearlessness that is uncommon" to be deterred.
If Herro's work in the bubble was a fluke, it's going to be remembered as one of the biggest of all time. Fortunately for him (and for everyone who gets to watch the career of one of the league's most promising young guards unfold), there's nothing flukey about it.
Herro's outsized confidence and game are for real.
Rajon Rondo, Los Angeles Lakers
Rajon Rondo didn't play during the restart and didn't make his postseason debut until Game 1 of the Los Angeles Lakers' second-round series against the Houston Rockets, starting with an inauspicious eight points and four assists on 3-of-9 shooting in a 15-point loss.
From that point on, the veteran point guard, presumed washed for several years, was everything the Lakers needed him to be.
Rondo gave L.A. the secondary facilitator it desperately needed, allowing the offense to function at an acceptable level without LeBron James. Though his scoring totals were characteristically pedestrian (just one 20-point playoff game), Rondo was a credible threat from three, an opportunistic loose-ball collector, a predictably savvy passer and, critically, a reliable defender.
After producing just five games with at least nine assists in 48 regular-season games, Rondo handed out at least nine dimes five times in 15 postseason contests. Anthony Davis did plenty of work unassisted, but Rondo was especially helpful in setting AD up for easy buckets at close range.
"Playoff Rondo" is a thing, and much as it feels hackneyed to embrace that narrative, the results speak for themselves. Maybe we'll see him return to less inspiring levels when the stakes are lower, but we can no longer assume a lackluster year means anything when the lights get brighter.
Verdict: Hold...Until Next Postseason