The NBA playoffs finally started in earnest on Monday, though most of the league has been in a Disney World bubble since July for the season restart (which included eight games for every team, plus a play-in contest for the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies). And what did we learn from that sample of games? For players on each team in the bubble, we crunched the numbers in RAPTOR — our new(ish) NBA metric — to see who played the best in the “regular season” portion of the restart, who exceeded his pre-break performance the most … and who underwhelmed his pre-bubble expectations.
Overall, the best player of the restart was not unanimous seeding-games MVP Damian Lillard of Portland, though he was close. According to RAPTOR, James Harden of the Houston Rockets generated slightly more WAR in the bubble — edging out Dame 2.8 to 2.4 — followed by Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns (who went a perfect 8-0):
RAPTOR’s top players of the NBA restart
Most RAPTOR wins above replacement (WAR) generated by NBA players during the 2019-20 regular-season restart
PLAYER TEAM OFFENSE DEFENSE TOTAL WAR
James Harden HOU +15.0 +4.4 +19.4 2.78
Damian Lillard POR 13.8 -2.6 11.2 2.42
Devin Booker PHO 9.8 0.1 9.9 1.76
Kawhi Leonard LAC 11.0 2.4 13.4 1.65
Paul George LAC 6.9 6.5 13.3 1.62
Nikola Vučević ORL 4.2 4.1 8.3 1.33
Nemanja Bjelica SAC 2.8 7.5 10.3 1.28
Derrick White SAS 3.5 5.3 8.8 1.25
Luka Dončić DAL 6.7 0.1 6.8 1.22
Gary Trent Jr. POR 6.4 -0.6 5.8 1.19
Bogdan Bogdanović SAC 6.1 0.0 6.0 1.17
Chris Paul OKC 4.5 3.8 8.3 1.16
Thomas Bryant WAS 3.2 3.2 6.4 1.11
Nikola Jokić DEN 7.1 -0.6 6.5 1.11
Cameron Payne PHO 4.2 4.6 8.9 1.08
Stats from July 30 through Aug. 14.
SOURCE: NBA ADVANCED STATS
Booker’s restart performance was a great story, even if his season technically ended without a postseason appearance. But what about the rest of the players who did actually move on to the playoffs? Let’s run down the highlights and lowlights of the restart for each team, beginning with those at the top of our predicted odds for the championship:
Los Angeles Clippers
Restart record: 5-3
Elo change:1 +13 (6th)
Best restart player (by RAPTOR wins above replacement): SF Kawhi Leonard (1.65 WAR)
This was a close race between Leonard and Paul George, who put up 1.62 WAR in the restart. But Kawhi earned the edge with his performance on offense, where we estimate he’s adding 11.0 more points per 100 possessions than an average player. Compared with his regular-season numbers from before the restart, Leonard improved his true shooting percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio in the seeding games, and the Clippers scored a ridiculous 127.0 points per 100 with him on the court — 24.7 points per 100 better than their offensive rating without him.
Most impressive player:2 SF Paul George (+7.3 change in RAPTOR during restart)
George was already a top player before the NBA season shut down, accumulating 5.5 WAR (21st-most in the league) with a +6.0 RAPTOR during the pre-coronavirus section of the 2019-20 season. But he has stepped his game up significantly during the restart, with a +13.3 rating since play resumed. Of particular note has been George’s improved defensive RAPTOR, which rose from a +1.8 (good but not great) to a +6.5 (seventh-best in the league), a number much more in keeping with George’s reputation as an elite stopper earlier in his career.
Most disappointing player: SG Landry Shamet (-3.5 change in RAPTOR)
RAPTOR doesn’t usually think too highly of Shamet, whom it has considered a subpar player in the past couple of regular seasons. But Shamet’s rating usually consists of a decent offensive contribution — fueled by good 3-point shooting — and a below-average defensive grade. In the restart, Shamet has kept the latter (his defensive RAPTOR is -0.3), but his offense has fallen to -4.9 points per 100, a dip of 5.3 points from his pre-break average. After making just 21 percent of his threes during the seeding games, Shamet needs to rediscover his touch in order to help the Clippers reach their championship potential.
Restart record: 3-5
Elo change: -44 (15th)
Best restart player: PF Giannis Antetokounmpo (1.08 WAR)
In terms of WAR, Giannis essentially tied with teammate Brook Lopez for the team lead during the restart. Antetokounmpo did it while taking things relatively easy, logging just 25.7 minutes per game (versus the 30.9 he averaged before the pause),3 and the Bucks themselves did not have an overly impressive seeding round, winning just three of eight contests. But on a per-possession basis, Giannis continued to dominate; his rating of +10.8 since the restart was higher than his +9.2 rating from before, part of a very likely MVP season. Even if Milwaukee was guilty of treating the seeding games like a tune-up, Giannis’s game was still firing on all cylinders.
Most impressive player: C Brook Lopez (+6.3 change in RAPTOR)
Before the season was put on hold, RAPTOR thought Lopez’s primary value to the Bucks lay in his defense, where he rated 3.9 points per 100 better than an average player. Offensively, his rating had slipped some because he was less valuable as a floor spacer, shooting under 30 percent from downtown. Since the restart, though, Lopez remained a stellar defender (+4.4 RAPTOR), and he was markedly better on offense (+3.7), making nearly 40 percent of his threes and averaging over 20 points per game. Although Lopez struggled in Game 1 of the Bucks’ playoff series against Orlando Tuesday, Milwaukee is hoping he can maintain his restart form — or even reprise his performance from last year’s postseason, when Lopez’s playoff RAPTOR was 6.2 points per 100 better than his regular-season rating.
Most disappointing player: SG Donte DiVincenzo (-8.4 change in RAPTOR)
Looking beyond better-known players such as Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, DiVincenzo had been one of the best-kept secrets behind Milwaukee’s dominating regular season. With a RAPTOR of +4.5, including a +3.0 on defense, the second-year guard out of Villanova was excelling at both ends of the court. But he has struggled at both ends during the restart, as his RAPTOR has fallen to -4.0 with poor shooting and a sky-high turnover rate. That dropoff in overall RAPTOR (a whopping 8.4 points per 100) was the third-worst of any qualified player during the seeding games.
Los Angeles Lakers
Restart record: 3-5
Elo change: -67 (16th)
Best restart player: PF Anthony Davis (0.85 WAR)
The Lakers had an incredibly uninspired restart upon arriving in the bubble, and that even shows up with their best player from these games. LeBron James, who had a strong case for MVP when play ceased in March, was just L.A.’s fourth-best player (with 0.38 WAR) during the seeding round, with a RAPTOR 7.1 points per 100 below his previous regular-season norm — and somehow he wasn’t even the most disappointing Laker (see below). For his part, Davis outplayed LeBron but also produced a RAPTOR 2.0 points below his rating from before the break, with a marked decline on offense.
Most impressive player: PF Kyle Kuzma (+7.9 change in RAPTOR)
Only one Laker who played at least 120 minutes in the bubble actually improved on his RAPTOR from before the pause — and that was Kuzma, who has gotten significantly better at both ends of the floor in Orlando, particularly on offense. Kuzma shot much more efficiently (improving his true shooting to 59.3 percent after knocking down 44 percent of his threes) and was far more careful with the ball (improving his assist-to-turnover ratio from 0.81 to 1.83). James and Davis will most likely be just fine in the playoffs, but it was encouraging for the Lakers to see Kuzma potentially take a long-awaited step forward when L.A. needs it most.
Most disappointing player: SG Danny Green (-7.7 change in RAPTOR)
Somehow, Green undershot expectations even more than James did during this mostly listless return to play. Green was having an incredibly effective season (+3.4 RAPTOR) as a 3-and-D wing before the break, knocking down 38 percent of his shots from deep and contributing a +2.6 rating on defense per 100 possessions. In the seeding games, however, Green was merely an average defender (0.0 RAPTOR) and made only 25 percent of his threes, to go with a terrible assist-to-turnover ratio (0.56) and a dreadful -4.2 offensive RAPTOR overall. L.A. needs better from Green in a crucial support role around James and Davis.
Teams in the next group all have at least a 1 percent chance to win the title — but all are also clearly in a lower tier than the top three. So we’ll quickly break down their best and worst performers of the restart thus far:
Restart record: 5-3
Elo change: +19 (4th)
Boston’s best player in the restart was SF Jaylen Brown (0.95 WAR), who built on his strong pre-break numbers with a much-improved defensive RAPTOR — going from -0.5 to +2.5 — since play resumed. But the most impressive Celtic has been PG Brad Wanamaker, owner of a +7.2 RAPTOR during the restart … 9.3 points per 100 better than his pre-restart number. At the other end of the spectrum, PF Semi Ojeleye was Boston’s most disappointing player in the bubble, with a RAPTOR 5.5 points per 100 lower than before the break — including a dip of 5.6 points per 100 on defense for a player whose calling card has been his defense.
Restart record: 4-4
Elo change: -21 (10th)
As we mentioned earlier, SG James Harden was RAPTOR’s most valuable player of the restart (2.78 WAR). He was also Houston’s most improved player in the bubble, elevating his rating by 9.9 points per 100. What makes that extra ridiculous is that Harden already had the highest RAPTOR of any qualified NBA player beforehand. So the most dangerous player in the league went out and doubled his rating in the most recent sample of games — ones that saw Harden average over 34 points per game with a 73 percent true shooting percentage and an assist on nearly 47 percent of teammate baskets, to go with solid defensive tracking numbers. As for Houston’s most disappointing player? That would be SG Austin Rivers, whose RAPTOR dropped by 4.4 points per 100, from a passable -1.3 to a -5.7 (nearly equally bad on offense and defense).
Restart record: 7-1
Elo change: +24 (3rd)
The defending champs were one of the most impressive teams of the seeding round, and a lot of that had to do with SF OG Anunoby. Anunoby was both Toronto’s best player (0.87 WAR) and its most improved one, elevating his RAPTOR from a respectable +0.5 through March to a strong +7.1 during the restart (including a +6.9 mark on defense). Along with Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Anunoby spearheads a deep defense that finished the regular season ranked second in efficiency. One of the only concerns for Toronto might involve rookie SG Terence Davis, whose RAPTOR dropped by a team-worst 8.7 points per 100 during the restart, thanks to a variety of statistical indicators that were significantly worse across the board.
Restart record: 3-5
Elo change: -28 (12th)
With everyone waiting to see how C Nikola Jokić would play after slimming down and fighting off the coronavirus, the multitalented 7-footer didn’t disappoint. Jokić led the Nuggets during the seeding games with 1.11 WAR, improving his seasonlong RAPTOR to more closely match his output from a season ago (when he finished fourth in MVP voting). Denver’s most impressive breakout came from rookie PF Michael Porter Jr., who was merely average (+0.2 RAPTOR) before the pause but improved to a +4.1 RAPTOR during the restart. Meanwhile, PG Monte Morris continued to slide in his second year as a regular. After already dipping from a +2.8 RAPTOR last season to a -0.8 rating through March, he registered a -5.4 RAPTOR in the bubble, fueled by a miserable -6.4 rating on defense.
Restart record: 4-4
Elo change: +12 (7th)
With Ben Simmons suffering a season-ending knee injury, the bubble has already been unkind to the Sixers. But his absence has meant an expanded role for SG Alec Burks, who led Philly with 0.80 WAR during the restart, edging out PF Tobias Harris (0.72). Burks was Philadelphia’s most impressive performer as well, erupting for a RAPTOR of +8.3 in the bubble after sitting at -0.4 at the break (and doing little of note in 11 games after arriving via trade with the Warriors in early February). Burks has a scorching +8.6 RAPTOR on offense alone, thanks to a 135.8 individual offensive rating during the seeding games. In reality, the most disappointing Sixer is probably Simmons, since his injury all but ruins whatever chance Philly had at the title — but statistically, SG Shake Milton had the roughest restart, with a RAPTOR 6.4 points per 100 below his regular-season level heading into the bubble.
The rest of the playoff field all boasts less than a 1 percent chance of winning the championship, but we can summarize their best, most surprising and most underwhelming players of the restart thusly:
Best player: PG Luka Dončić (1.22 WAR)
Most impressive: PF Dorian Finney-Smith (+3.8 change in RAPTOR)
Most disappointing: SG Seth Curry (-7.0 change in RAPTOR)
Best player: PG Goran Dragić (0.87 WAR)
Most impressive: Dragić (+10.5 change in RAPTOR)
Most disappointing: PF Bam Adebayo (+0.4 change in RAPTOR)4
Best player: C Rudy Gobert (0.82 WAR)
Most impressive: PG Mike Conley (+3.6 change in RAPTOR)
Most disappointing: C Tony Bradley (-6.1 change in RAPTOR)
Best player: SF T.J. Warren (1.06 WAR)
Most impressive: PG T.J. McConnell (+11.6 change in RAPTOR)
Most disappointing: PF Doug McDermott (-8.1 change in RAPTOR)
Oklahoma City Thunder
Best player: PG Chris Paul (1.16 WAR)
Most impressive: SF Hamidou Diallo (+6.8 change in RAPTOR)
Most disappointing: SG Luguentz Dort (-0.9 change in RAPTOR)
Portland Trail Blazers
Best player: PG Damian Lillard (2.42 WAR)
Most impressive: SG Gary Trent Jr. (+7.0 change in RAPTOR)5
Most disappointing: SG CJ McCollum (-6.1 change in RAPTOR)6
Best player: C Nikola Vučević (1.33 WAR)
Most impressive: SG Evan Fournier (+7.7 change in RAPTOR)
Most disappointing: SF Wes Iwundu (-3.6 change in RAPTOR)
Best player: SG Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (0.73 WAR)
Most impressive: SG Tyler Johnson (+6.5 change in RAPTOR)
Most disappointing: SF Joe Harris (-3.8 change in RAPTOR)
Check out our latest NBA predictions.