NBA Bubble: Which Outside Teams Have the Best Shot at the 8th Seed?


After nearly a five-month hiatus, the NBA is back.

Throughout the hiatus, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had a lot to think about for the return of the 2019-2020 NBA season. It wasn’t fair for some teams to go straight to the playoffs. There were still teams that had a legit shot of fighting for the postseason. Joining the current Orlando field will be the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns and the Washington Wizards.

To make sure that these teams don’t travel to the Disney bubble “without something to play for,” in Damian Lillard’s words, Silver and company agreed on a format that will give these six franchises a fair possibility of making the playoff teams. All of these teams are within six games of the 8th seed in their respective conferences.

The NBA decided to hold a play-in tournament with the franchise that is positioned in the 9th spot if they are within four games of the 8th seed at the conclusion of the resumed regular season. For example, if the Kings end up 9th within 1-4 games of the Grizzlies (currently the 8th seed), those two will have a single/double-elimination play-in tourney for the playoff spot.

The format is settled and teams are ready to go, but how legit are these big upset chances? Every squad has a different scenario. Some of them will have the calculator right by their side to measure their possibilities.


The Wizards are in a unique spot. They are 5.5 games behind the eighth-seeded Orlando Magic. Washington only needs to cut 1.5 games of this deficit to force a play-in. On paper, it seems effortless. When the Wizards step on the court, however, it will be the opposite.

This franchise is involved in a weird paradox. They are one of the best offensive teams, playing on the 5th-highest pace and scoring the 6th-most points per game. Bradley Beal and his 30.5 PPG are a big part of that, alongside a surprising Davis Bertans (15.4 PPG on 43.4% shooting and 42.4% from three-point range on NINE attempts per game).

Both of Washington’s leaders and John Wall, however, will not be in Orlando, paving the way for rookie Rui Hachimura to see an increased role from his 13.4 points per game on nearly 48% shooting this season.

By contrast, their defense is horrendous. Washington has the worst defensive rating of all 30 teams. As good as the Wizards are on offense, their abysmal defense essentially cancels that out.

They’re tied with Detroit for dead last in rebounding. They are second-to-last in personal fouls, ahead of only the Atlanta Hawks. Their defensive performances will leave everyone thinking how an NBA team can play defense like this.

So, if the Wizards want to have a shot at outpacing the Magic or the Nets for a playoff spot, they better get to work on that side of the floor. And even if they end up winning the elimination tourney, good luck beating the Bucks.


There are five teams out West that can chase Memphis’ 8th seed. The Suns have the tools to do so, but it seems like a long shot. They are currently 13th in the West and six games behind the Grizzlies. With eight games remaining, it seems almost impossible for Phoenix to reach that milestone. They are also 3.5 games behind the 9th-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.

Their schedule isn’t as tough as other teams, but it’s not easy either. They have a light start with the Wizards, but the rest of the schedule is going to be painful: Mavericks twice, Clippers, Pacers, Heat, Thunder and the 76ers.

Rise, Crash, Downfall

The Suns’ season review can be summarized in three words: rise, crash, downfall. They started the season on fire, winning five out of seven games. It seemed that the 10-year playoff drought was going to end this season. The crash occurred on October 24th, when Deandre Ayton was suspended 25 games for using PEDs.

Let the downfall begin. Aron Baynes — who had a good season overall but wasn’t consistent enough — Frank Kaminsky and Dario Saric couldn’t cover the absence of Ayton, and the team started to fall in the standings. Even when Ayton returned with solid play, those three names weren’t sufficient for the young Bahamian center down low.

Meanwhile, Devin Booker had one of the best seasons of his career. His performances put him in the All-Star conversation and, eventually, in the game itself. D-Book was averaging 26.1 points, 6.6 assists, and 4.2 rebounds until the hiatus. At some point earlier in the season, Booker nearly averaged 30 on 50% shooting. The former Kentucky Wildcat ended up shooting 48.7% from the field– still very good for a shooting guard. Besides Ayton, he found other musketeers in Kelly Oubre Jr. (career-high 18.7 points per game) and Ricky Rubio, the most-needed addition for this Suns roster, who averaged 8.9 assists per game.

It wasn’t and isn’t enough for Phoenix to be mentioned in a playoff conversation. Since they (surprisingly) got the invitation to Orlando, however, they could shock some solid teams at Disney.


It wasn’t looking good for a 23rd consecutive playoff appearance. The NBA decided to give them one last chance, however. Even with this chance, it seems very unlikely for the squad coached by Gregg Popovich to keep that streak alive.

The Spurs are currently 12th in the West, four games behind the Grizzlies. They would have to make a good run and hope that teams above them fall apart. These Spurs have not been precisely similar to the previous years’ team. Their offense, despite having DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, never found the much-needed groove to succeed. Dejounte Murray has been struggling since returning from his October ACL injury. The lack of a reliable three-point shot in that offense held them back (28th in three-point attempts and 27th in %PTS from downtown). To make matters worse, Aldridge is out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery.

Their defense, however, was the weakness that surprised NBA fans the most. No fan could ever dream about a Pop-coached team having a dysfunctional defense.

Stats Incomplete

They are currently ranked 24th in defensive rating. But the stats, once again, don’t show the whole story.

The Spurs make basic defensive mistakes, don’t rotate properly, and sometimes completely lose focus. Besides Murray (one of the best young defenders in the league) and Derrick White, San Antonio’s backcourt defense is terrible. In the paint, they have good bodies like Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl, but they can’t crash the glass when LA isn’t there (the second-best rebounder on the team is Murray). Their quickness and reaction don’t seem to be enough either to stop the opponent’s stars when facing them at the rim. Players like LA, Poeltl, and Trey Lyles suffer playing defense on the perimeter. They are a legit weakness for the team and a mismatch favoring opponents in that situation.

Saying that the Spurs only got an invite because of their history would be disrespectful. San Antonio needs to do more than fixing their issues to reach the postseason and justify their presence in Orlando. Even with a modest schedule, (Kings, Grizzlies, 76ers, Nuggets, Jazz twice, Pelicans and Rockets), Pop and his squad will have tons of work to do to win some games.

The Spurs need a miracle, but everyone knows that no one can count the Spurs out, even when they are not at full strength.


The Kings didn’t find their groove until the latter part of the traditional season, but that’s the main reason why they are headed to Orlando.

Sacramento is currently locked in a three-way tie with the Blazers and Pelicans for 9th in the West– 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies. They might not be in the Bubble if it weren’t for their success in 2020.

In the last 20 games before the hiatus, Sacramento went 13-7. De’Aaron Fox played brilliantly after his mid-season injury. Buddy Hield, despite being benched for Bogdan Bogdanovic, was starting to find the efficiency he needed. Luke Walton’s squad, with offensive and defensive ratings in the 19th and 18th spots in the league respectively, proved a lot of people wrong. ESPN, however, gives the Kings a 0% chance of making the playoffs through the play-in tourney– so they have a little extra motivation heading into the restart.


Richaun Holmes has been sensational this season for Sacramento and is coming back healthy after the hiatus. Contrarily, Fox and Hield are both liabilities on defense. Bogdanovic doesn’t contribute much on that end either, so their backcourt defense is a problem. Holmes is arguably the best interior defender the Kings have, and when he is in the lineup, opposing teams have a hard time going through him.

The Kings have one thing in their favor– their schedule. They’ll face the Pelicans twice, along with the Magic, Rockets, Spurs, Pacers, Mavericks and the wounded Brooklyn Nets. It’s not a walk in the park for Sacramento, but it’s certainly possible they could beat the Pelicans and Blazers for that 9th spot.


After a slow start to the season without Zion Williamson, the Pelicans started to find their way into the playoff race. Slowly but steadily, they are officially in the mix, and their fans have significant reasons to hype themselves for postseason basketball.

The last stretch of the season was very significant for New Orleans. They went 9-5 in the 14 games leading up to the shutdown, with a healthy Zion putting up ridiculous numbers, Lonzo Ball contributing hot shooting, and Brandon Ingram being an All-Star.

That fast-paced basketball — 2nd-highest pace in the league behind the Bucks — with Lonzo pushing the offense and finding Zion in transition, has been unstoppable for many teams. Zion’s domination on the glass and in the post has also been a tremendous part. Meanwhile, Ingram provided most of the team’s scoring, shooting the mid-range with ease and being productive from deep (38.7 percent from downtown).

Defensive Struggles

What took them so long to shine, despite Zion’s injury? Their defense. Lonzo and Jrue Holiday provide a positive defensive impact on the backcourt. Zion’s athleticism seems to be enough down low, being good company to Derrick Favors, a super-underrated defender that has been doing his part defensively. Unfortunately, the Pelicans are still third-to-last in opponent points allowed, with a whopping 117 points allowed per game.

Collectively, the Pelicans’ defensive system struggled big-time during most of the season, especially with injuries. Once Zion returned and the team started to gain chemistry, however, they began to grow at that end.

After the All-Star break, the Pelicans had the easiest schedule remaining. Since the NBA didn’t make any substantial changes to it, the Pels have a sizable chance to win most of their remaining games and grab that 8th seed.

If the team stays healthy and Williamson logs solid minutes while not making any atrocious defensive mistakes, the Pelicans may be the front-runners over the Kings and even the Blazers for that 8th-seed race.


The Blazers are arguably the most prominent name in the playoff race. They are the leading candidate to overcome the Pelicans and Kings in the 9th spot and win the play-in tourney. When a team has Damian Lillard on their roster, their name should be in every conversation. Lillard has been sensational this season: 5th in points per game (28.9) while playing the most minutes in the NBA (nearly 37 per game). His supporting cast, however, hasn’t been talented enough to put his Blazers in a stable playoff position. Still, he’s not going down without a fight.

The main problem with the Blazers is, as it has been over the last few years, their defense. They are 27th in defensive rating and 25th in opponent points per game allowed. It is a flimsy defense despite the 3.1 blocks per game (most in the league) that Hassan Whiteside is averaging. Lillard and CJ McCollum have been trying for years to improve outside the paint, but they aren’t even decent defenders. Their wing defense is non-existent, and as a collective, they have a very rough time against strong offensive teams with multiple scoring threats.

Portland had the fifth-easiest schedule remaining before the NBA suspended the season. After the league adjusted their calendar, however, the Blazers have the sixth-hardest slate, with games against the Grizzlies, Celtics, Rockets, Nuggets, Clippers, 76ers, Mavericks and Nets.

Despite their defensive woes, Portland will have an improved roster. Jusuf Nurkic is returning back from last season’s gruesome leg injury, and Zach Collins is also good to go. Those two provide a substantial defensive impact that the team needs– especially after losing Rodney Hood (Achilles) and Trevor Ariza (personal). If they don’t suffer significant setbacks, they should be able to at least get in the play-in and fight for that 8th seed.

Let the games begin.

Follow us on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok @TheLeadSM for the latest NBA news and insight.


About Santiago Núñez

From Argentina. NBA lover. Journalist (in the process).

Recommended for you

Powered by