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A Tar Heel fan’s guide to the NBA Bubble

If we’re really doing this thing, then here’s who to root for based on teams’ ties to Chapel Hill

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Some way, some how, the NBA is gearing up to restart, with its by-now infamous “bubble” in Orlando being pretty much test-run by all the athletes living there before games start on July 30th. The 22 teams will play a few final regular season games to determine playoff seeding, before, as usual, 8 teams per conference get into the playoffs and battle it out to determine what will probably be the most asterisked championship in the history of asterisks and championships. But hey, it’s sports, and where there are sports, there are often Tar Heels within them. If you’re here, there’s a decent-to-good chance that your interest in the NBA is at least partially determined by getting to watch your favorite former Heels keep playing basketball, and also that you don’t take much of an interest in the NBA regular season - not that many outside diehard fans do. So this guide is for you: A list of all 22 teams in the bubble, ranked with Tar Heel Blue goggles. Also, go check out Matt’s piece on the WNBA’s simultaneous restart: I know I want to take in all the sports my eyes can handle, and - spoilers - there’s a decent chance a Heel gets a ring over in Bradenton. Okay, now let’s get started.

Heels not in the Bubble

First, let’s give a quick shout-out to Reggie Bullock, Wayne Ellington, and Theo Pinson (New York Knicks), Vince Carter (retired; Atlanta Hawks), John Henson (Detroit Pistons), and Coby White (Chicago Bulls), whose teams will not be in Orlando. They may end up playing a top-of-the-lottery round-robin kind of deal, or they might just be sitting on their couches until next season, but this article definitely isn’t about them. Okay, now to Orlando:

Heel-less Teams

22. Houston Rockets

I didn’t think the Rockets’ style could get much less likeable, and then they added Russell Westbrook just to spite me, I guess. James Harden may have been having the best offensive season of all time, but that doesn’t make him any less tedious to watch - and this is from somebody who likes his stepback.

21. Toronto Raptors

If only because nobody likes a repeat champ.

20-11. LA Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic

Nothing really differentiates these teams for me. If you want, put teams like the Pelicans and Celtics towards the bottom because of their young Blue Devil stars (Zion Williamson and Jayson Tatum, respectively), or put a team like the Thunder near the front because you like Chris Paul’s local-ness even if he terrorized UNC a little back in the day, but, as starved as I am for basketball at all, I’m not going to be nitpicking these teams to tease out an order even more arbitrary than this list already is.

10. Washington Wizards

The Wizards really shouldn’t be in Orlando, but I guess not putting them in the mix would have made the West:East ratio even more unbalanced than it already is. John Wall won’t be playing in the bubble, he’s finally healthy but between his not having practiced with the team in so long and the Wizards’ next-to-zero chances of doing anything of note in Orlando, he and the team have mutually decided it’s in nobody’s best interest for him to play. Still, it’s fun to root for a miracle, and if it happened, it’d be cool to see a Raleigh kid and childhood UNC fan get a ring.

9. Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies are fun and uptempo, and Ja Morant is the kind of player who reminds you how cool college basketball can be - which I think is exactly what UNC fans are always looking to root for.

Tar Heeled Teams

8. San Antonio Spurs (Heel on the squad: Tyler Zeller)

Gregg Popovich is very possibly the best basketball coach alive, but even he is still figuring out what his team’s identity is without the trinity of Duncan/Parker/Ginobili, and after the early departure of onetime heir apparent Kawhi Leonard. Lonnie Walker and Dejounte Murray are fun guards, but LaMarcus Aldridge won’t be joining the team in Orlando, leaving it bereft of bigs. Zeller might get some run because of that hole, but right now the Spurs are a little discombobulated and thus, probably not a team to attach your wagon to.

7. Sacramento Kings (Heel: Harrison Barnes)

I like the Kings a lot, actually. They have a dope color scheme, De’Aaron Fox is a pleasure to watch, and they’re really young, which means you get to see a roster develop individually and as a unit in real time if you follow them. For the purposes of this list, though, Barnes is a key piece of the roster but a) he’s already got a ring from his time in Golden State, and b) he recently tested positive for COVID-19 and isn’t in Orlando with the rest of the team (they’re holding a spot for him) yet.

6. Dallas Mavericks (Heel: Justin Jackson)

Luka Doncic is like nothing we’ve seen in a while in the NBA, and whether or not you’re rooting for the Mavericks, take some time to watch them, because he is something special. Here’s a fun stat: Doncic shot about 32% on all three-pointers in the 19-20 season, but 35% on stepback 3’s. Moving to the Heel factor, though, Jackson had a major slump during the year and had gotten kind of buried on the bench towards the NBA’s postponement. Rick Carlisle clearly likes him, but I’m not sure how much action he’ll see or if he’ll have been able to get back into form. If he does, this team shoots up to the top 3 of this list.

5. LA Lakers (Heel: Danny Green)

Let’s be completely honest: Whether or not you root for the Lakers in this restart depends completely on your feelings towards LeBron James. I know my audience, and it’s likely that a majority of you readers feel a slight antipathy towards him by virtue of your holding on to Jordan’s GOAT status. As a Heel fan who didn’t really start watching basketball until after Jordan had retired, I don’t compare today’s players to an era I never saw, so you’re not going to get an opinion on that debate from me, but I will say that I respect immensely how LeBron, who came into the league an absolute freak of nature, has remodeled himself in his later years to become possibly the highest basketball IQ player and best on-the-move passer in the game. If you want him to get another ring and better balance his Finals W/L record, Danny Green’s on his team, too, waiting to Horry himself a third trophy. If not, Green’s two rings make it okay to look elsewhere without feeling bad.

4. Phoenix Suns (Heel: Cam Johnson)

If anything justifies how high Johnson was taken in last year’s draft (it doesn’t, but I’m not complaining), it’s how almost universally awful this lottery class has been. Some players, like Cam Reddish and Coby White, had started picking up their play by February-March, but the vast majority of last year’s top 14 just didn’t look ready for the NBA yet. Johnson has provided a steady presence for Phoenix, shooting nearly 40% from distance on high volume, playing very good team defense, and playing within the system when he’s not setting up to catch and shoot. He’s a little bit of a man without a starting position on that roster, with Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges unlikely to give up their wing spots and his own being a little too skinny for extended minutes at the 4, but he’s making real contributions and the fanbase has been, by all accounts, pleasantly surprised. Devin Booker’s also grown tremendously as a player this year, so the Suns are a solid team to hop on the bandwagon for.

3. Portland Trail Blazers (Heel: Nassir Little)

First of all, who doesn’t love Damian Lillard? He’s one of the best point guards in the game and one of the league’s really good guys, and generally just really easy to root for. It’s also super cool that possibly the league’s best backcourt consists of players from Weber State and Lehigh (and yes, I will always have a soft spot for C.J. McCollum for doing this), and they’re also very wholesome. Little, after really emerging as an effective energy guy and very good defender halfway through the year, was mostly buried on the Blazers’ depth chart with the arrival of Carmelo Anthony, but might be in line for more playing time in Orlando after reportedly being the team’s most improved player during this hiatus and some roster shakeup due to the pandemic. This team will be fun, and hopefully there’s a Heel in the thick of it.

2. Milwaukee Bucks (Heel: Marvin Williams)

The Bucks are probably the favorite to win the title, and that’s fine by me. Williams has toiled in the league for 15 years, doing exactly what was asked of him and turning in an extremely productive career even though, unlike the non-Heels in his draft’s top 5, he’s never been selected to an All-Star Game, an All-NBA Team, or won a ring thanks to being stuck on mostly bad teams for his career. He’ll play a valuable role on the Bucks, backing up Giannis Antetokoumnpo as a stretch 4 with the physicality to check NBA power forwards. It’s unclear how much longer he’ll play in the league, so it’d be awesome to see him get a ring before it’s all over. Also, the Bucks are just a really good team even outside having the absolute freak that is Giannis, and fans of good basketball should enjoy them.

1. Utah Jazz (Heels: Tony Bradley and Ed Davis)

I’ve had a soft spot for the Jazz ever since they drafted Marcus Paige, and now I get to put them at the top of the list! Bradley has been toiling at the edge of the Jazz’s bench for the past two and a half years, but he’s made real progress this year, becoming a very good player starting in March, and is expected to be a major player in Orlando backing up Rudy Gobert. He’s also gotten super jacked, apparently, even compared to his teammates. Davis, meanwhile, will not play in Orlando after breaking his leg in November, but is one of the easier guys in the league to root for given his commitment to mentoring younger players and doing the dirty work on the court. Donovan Mitchell makes the Jazz must-watch TV, and the possibility of two Heels getting rings alongside him is enough to put them at the top of this list.

Hopefully, this has been helpful for those of you without NBA rooting interests, or for those of you whose NBA team has been left without the bubble experience (like me, a Hornets fan). Pick a team, enjoy the games, and wear a mask, everybody.