Just because 22 teams were invited to the NBA Bubble in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida this summer, that doesn’t mean every team used their time there for the same purposes. Some title contenders like the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics, the Denver Nuggets, the Houston Rockets, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Miami Heat and the Toronto Raptors fought for a title. Others were eventual fodder for the big boys or experimented for the future. But some were able to compete in the bubble and keep an eye on their future, and none took more advantage of those opportunities than the Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs.

Let’s start with the Spurs. Though they missed the playoffs for the first time since 1997, they still have plenty of positives to look back upon. The last time they missed the postseason, I was not even one year old. Only a year later would the first non-original trilogy ‘Star Wars’ movie get released. Yes, it’s been *that* long. My how things change and change the Spurs did in the bubble. Without the services of LaMarcus Aldridge, they shifted DeMar DeRozan to play the small-ball four while starting their three exciting guards in Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker IV. Before the restart, the Spurs had six minutes all season where these three shared the floor together, per NBA.com; just Murray and White shared the floor for just 102 minutes. The Spurs were smack dab in the middle of the league in pace at around 100 possessions per game before the season got suspended.

However, the Spurs flipped the script in Orlando. The Spurs turned into the roadrunner in the bubble, running at a blistering pace at around 105.5 possessions per game, which would’ve led the league pre-shutdown. Dejounte Murray and Derrick White played more together in the bubble than they did outside of it this season and were quite successful together, boasting a net rating of +5.1 points per 100 possessions. Derrick White looked all the more comfortable as a primary and secondary playmaker. White’s usage bumped up in the bubble from about 19% to roughly 23% and his production got a boost as well: he averaged just under 19 points a game shooting 45% from the field and 39% from deep (on eight attempts from three per game, no less) while still providing excellent defense. The film backed up the numbers too; White showcased a more nuanced handle and versatility to score with and without the ball and used it to help the Spurs win five of the seven games he played. Dejounte Murray reminded us again of his All-NBA game-wrecking potential defensively he was on track to be before tearing his ACL before the start of last season. Shooting still is not Murray’s strong suit, but he flashed a bit more scoring off the bounce from midrange. Perhaps stardom is not in either of these two’s future, but both showed they are building blocks worthy of helping the Spurs as they usher in a new era.

It wasn’t just these two that showcased their potential for the Spurs. Keldon Johnson was the 29th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft (the pick the Spurs got from Toronto in the Kawhi Leonard trade). Johnson makes up for a youthful skillset with energy aplenty. That dude plays HARD. All. The. Time. He’s the type of guy who is going to fall into a dozen points or so with sheer effort. He isn’t there yet in terms of delivering on asking him to go get you a bucket but he does have some skill, touch, and feel as a secondary playmaker or when he’s got a head of steam going at the basket. He had three games scoring over 20 points, including a 24 point, 11 rebound performance against the Houston Rockets. Only Jakob Poeltl and Patty Mills were more impactful per 100 possessions than Keldon Johnson. Combine that with versatility defensively and being able to guard all around the perimeter, the Spurs look like they found another gem in the 20s of the NBA draft. Lonnie Walker IV wasn’t nearly as successful as his fellow backcourt mates, but again brought youthful athleticism and solid playmaking to a backcourt that could use as much as it could get. Both Jakob Poeltl and seldom-used center pre-bubble Drew Eubanks looked the part of solid, rim-protecting centers. The Spurs added to their group of young versatile players in the draft, bringing in the steady Florida State wing Devin Vassell and Duke point guard Tre Jones. 

Again, I’m not sure there is a super bright burgeoning star amongst this group of young players, but they all showed their worth during these seeding games and why the Spurs should continue to develop them. They’ll be in a great spot to continue their upward trends this year while playing alongside veteran options DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. I think the hate has gone a bit too far on these two: DeRozan is good for over 20 points a night on good efficiency (even if he doesn’t shoot threes) with solid playmaking chops. Aldridge shot a career-best three shots (which may not seem like a lot but is Aldridge’s most in a season by a mile) from deep a night and hit nearly 39% of them. These stars have become more easy to play with than previous iterations of them as All-Stars, which should continue to accelerate the ascent of the Spurs’ young players. All fit their system and can help the Spurs win games.

The Phoenix Suns literally had a less than 1% chance of making the play-in game(s) when the NBA announced they would be among the 22 teams entering the bubble. Perhaps them missing out on the play-in despite going 8-0 is proof they shouldn’t have been invited in the first place if the goal of the NBA was to limit possible exposure of the coronavirus in the bubble. However, I am glad they didn’t, even though Damian Lillard ripped the hearts out of the Suns and their long-suffering fan base with his halfcourt heave he makes look like a walk in the park. But despite the opportunity to build upon their growth in the postseason, the Suns still showed why their future is bright.

First off, they have a legitimate star. If ever there were any concern Devin Booker was a stat-padding gunner on a loser team (I’m looking at you, Bill Simmons), he ended them. Booker ended the season with a 29.4% usage rate and an effective field goal percentage of 54.4%. There were only four other players in the entire league to have that kind of efficiency with that high of usage. Who are those players? Oh, presumptive back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, one-time MVP James Harden, four-time MVP LeBron James, and Bubble MVP (does this count? Screw it I’m gonna allow it) Damian Lillard. That is some incredible company. I’m not here to convince you that Devin Booker is awesome or that was the main reason why Phoenix went undefeated in the bubble. His supporting cast finally caught up to his stardom.

Before the bubble in the 2019-20 regular season, the Suns were 6.5 points per 100 possessions better when Booker was on the floor. However, their offense went from 114.2 points per 100 possessions (that would’ve been 2nd best in the league) down to 99.7 points per 100 possessions, otherwise known as a mark that would’ve been miles away from last place in the league. Ironically, in the bubble, the Suns had the same on/off net rating with Booker on the floor, but their offense was miles better when Booker was off the floor, up from 99.7 points per 100 possessions to 107.3. Perhaps that is because the Suns finally figured out how to play and who to surround Booker with.

The trade of paying the Indiana Pacers a second-round pick to take on bubble star TJ Warren was universally panned and is still a hilariously bad trade because it was unnecessary to move Warren like that, but at the very least, it did pave the way for the Suns to add Ricky Rubio. Rubio may not be the flashy guard he was fabled to be coming into the league, but he is always solid and helps his teams win games. Getting Rubio allowed the Suns to play Booker more off the ball and not rely on him constantly to create good offense. 

Rubio still was not a great shooter by any means, but now comes Chris Paul, who is and always will be a great shooter, gives them an upgrade over Rubio to improve upon lineups without Booker, and now gives them an adult in the room to close games. I’m convinced that even if you put me in a closing lineup with Chris Paul that he’d find a way to make it work. Of the top nine players according to Net Rating who have played in at least 20 games last season where the game was within five points in the last five minutes of a game, six of those were teammates of Paul in Oklahoma City. Of players with a usage rate of at least 25% in Clutch situations, only Giannis Antetokounmpo posted a better Net Rating than Paul a year ago. This should work wonders in Phoenix; a season ago, the Suns were 21st in the NBA in Net Rating in clutch situations. Paul should be able to buy the Suns a few wins off improvement in those situations alone, let alone his impact during the rest of the game.

Including Paul, the Suns have started to provide Booker with more shooting. Mikal Bridges shot 39.3% and 43.5% from three in his last two seasons at Villanova. Though he hasn’t quite gotten to those percentages in the NBA, he shot 36% from deep this season and is a career 82.5% free-throw shooter. Cameron Johnson was one of my favorite players in his draft a year ago, and even though I didn’t love where the Suns took him, he quickly has proven his shooting in the prowess in college was not a joke. He shot 39% on nearly five attempts a game his rookie season. These weren’t all gimmes either: he’s already great at hitting shots on the move and his quick release allows for shooting windows that aren’t there for those with a more mechanical launch. On top of that, Johnson is already a savvy cutter, great for playing alongside strong passers like Booker, Rubio, Deandre Ayton, and Dario Saric.

Speaking of Ayton, he showcased his versatility in the bubble. Ayton is not Luka Doncic, and likely will never be the star Doncic is, but he still is a good player. Ayton may not have a particular strength in his bag, but he’s skilled enough to score in just about every way. He’s got a good touch in the midrange and started to expand his range beyond the three-point line in the bubble. He can catch just about any pass delivered to him, including lobs as a roller in the pick and roll. Again, he’s a solid passer, and that allows Phoenix to run the offense through him at the elbow and let him be the one delivering slick passes to his teammates for easy layups. You’d like to see him be a more bruising force on the post (he only generates 0.78 points per possession on post-ups. A big reason why? He hardly gets to the free-throw line. Only Marc Gasol, Khris Middleton, Tristan Thompson, and Al Horford get to the free-throw line less frequently than Ayton on post-ups, per NBA.com.) and better defensively (he has surely improved from his rookie season, but scoring still was quite too easy for his opponents going after him at times), but he still has plenty of time to improve. His game should take off with the arrival of Chris Paul, as seemingly that’s been true with any big man Paul has played with.

The Spurs and Suns could have waffled through those bubble games and just look forward to getting back home. Instead, they took full advantage of their opportunity and flashed their brimming potential for the future. Unfortunately, both were on the outside looking in for their playoff hopes. But at the very least it wasn’t for not, as both teams got better in that unique experience. The Suns should expect to be in the playoffs this go around, and I think they will. It’ll be tougher for the Spurs (who could imagine saying it’d be tougher for the Spurs to make the playoffs than the Suns any time the last 10 years) with how loaded the West is, but no one expected their young players to play as well as they did, and now have more experience under their belt. Who knows! Why not? Gregg Popovich is still their coach; why couldn’t they make a playoff run? Regardless, we’ll see what happens soon enough.

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