Before the NBA season restarted, the league decided that the 88 seeding games at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex would not count toward season-long awards voting this year. Then on Tuesday the league announced that it would name an MVP and All-NBA teams for the restart games before the playoffs begin. So we asked our experts for their vote in those categories, plus the other regular-season awards the NBA typically doles out. And, as a bonus, we even added two categories, because the longest season in NBA history deserves some extra awards.
Here are the players our experts chose to take home the (virtual) hardware in the bubble.
Rookie of the Bubble
He was overshadowed by the hype around teammate Bol Bol in the pre-restart scrimmages, but Michael Porter Jr. quickly emerged as the best rookie in seeding games. The 2018 draft pick, who missed all of the 2018-19 season after undergoing back surgery, has averaged 22.0 points and 8.6 rebounds in the restart for the Denver Nuggets, while shooting 55.1 from the field. Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant is the only other rookie averaging at least 20.0 PPG in the bubble.
Michael Porter Jr.: 14 votes
Ja Morant: 1
Comeback Player of the Bubble
The NBA hasn’t actually handed out a Comeback Player of the Year Award since the ’80s, but the league’s return after a four-month hiatus provided the perfect opportunity to bring this back for the bubble (and it should be noted that the true best comeback was the league itself). We asked our experts to pick the most outstanding player among those who missed most or all of the pre-hiatus season, either due to injury or simply being unsigned.
Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic, who hadn’t played since breaking his leg in March 2019, was a near-unanimous choice for this award. Through the first seven seeding games, Nurkic averaged 17.0 PPG (which would be a career high for a full season) and 10.3 RPG. Oh, and — spoiler alert — he isn’t the only Blazer taking home a Bubble trophy.
Sixth Man of the Bubble
When three-time Sixth Man winner Lou Williams was quarantined for the start of bubble play, the door award quickly opened up. Gary Trent Jr. just as quickly closed it. The second-year shooting guard averaged 20.6 PPG on 57.6% shooting in 33 minutes per night off the bench in Portland’s first five seeding games. And while he has cooled off a bit in the past two, he’s still a big reason why the Blazers are in 8th place heading into Thursday.
With so many tight games, there were plenty of thrilling moments for our voters to choose from, but in the end, one play stood out above the rest: Devin Booker‘s buzzer-beater to lift the Phoenix Suns to a victory over the LA Clippers. Depending on what happens Thursday, that shot could end up being the difference between Phoenix playing for a playoff spot this weekend or going home early.
Booker’s buzzer-beater: 6 votes
Coach of the Bubble
No one gave the Phoenix Suns much of a chance of making the playoffs when the NBA season resumed. Phoenix entered the bubble six games back of the 8th-place Memphis Grizzlies, needing to jump four other teams just to reach the West play-in. All the Suns have done since arriving in Florida is go 7-0, giving them a chance to do the unthinkable. Because of that, Monty Williams was an easy choice for our experts as Coach of the Bubble.
Monty Williams: 14 votes
Gregg Popovich: 1
Jacque Vaughn: 1
Most Improved Bubble Player
In the last game before the NBA season shut down in March, Gary Trent Jr. went scoreless in 18 minutes, missing all five shots he attempted. While not every pre-bubble game went like that for Trent, he wasn’t a huge factor on a nightly basis for Portland. He was inactive or a DNP-CD 13 times, and in the 53 games he did play, he averaged 7.7 points per game on 42.6% shooting. In the bubble he’s averaging 17.0 PPG on 52.6% shooting, ranking second on the team in shooting and fourth in scoring since the restart.
Defensive Player of the Bubble
Whoever won this award, it almost certainly had to be a Toronto Raptor. Three different players from Nick Nurse’s squad earned at least one vote from our experts. In the end, 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol edged out Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is a finalist for the full-season award. Gasol has been the anchor for a Toronto defense that has an NBA-best 101.8 defensive rating in the bubble (more than four points lower than the second-best defense).
Marc Gasol: 5 votes
Giannis Antetokounmpo: 4
Kyle Lowry: 3
Bam Adebayo: 1
Derrick White: 1
Most Valuable Bubble Player
After he dropped 51 and 61 points in back-to-back games, could it have been anyone else?
Damian Lillard dominated the voting after averaging 37.0 points and 9.3 assists in Portland’s first seven seeding games, helping the Blazers move into 8th in the West. Whether Portland holds on to that spot on Thursday will go a long way toward determining if Lillard takes home the NBA’s official award when that gets announced on Saturday. If Portland loses and Phoenix wins, don’t be surprised if Lillard and Suns guard Devin Booker end up flipping their spots from this vote.
Voters selected a top three; players received 5 points for a first-place vote, 3 points for second and 1 point for third.
Damian Lillard: 72 points (13 first-place votes)
Devin Booker: 44 (2)
T.J. Warren: 18 (1)
James Harden: 8
Giannis Antetokounmpo: 1
Luka Doncic: 1
Not surprisingly, Lillard and Booker were both unanimous picks for our All-Bubble Team. Rather than stick to the NBA’s relatively rigid two-guard, two-forward, one-center rules for All-NBA, we allowed our voters some positional flexibility (if the Spurs can start a lineup with four guards in real games, then our All-Bubble team can feature a three-guard lineup).
G: Damian Lillard
G: Devin Booker
G: Luka Doncic
F: T.J. Warren
F/C: Giannis Antetokounmpo