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Who’s Who In The NBA Bubble: The Inner-Circle Contenders

We’re back for the final installment of our NBA bubble preview series. Last week, we reintroduced the teams that the NBA brought along for the ride in order to maximize games and revenue, as well as the teams whose playoff spots are secure but who nevertheless seem like long shots to win the title. Today, we’re going to finish up by talking about the inner-circle contenders. This time around, we’ll dig a bit more into each team’s potential title odds — and why our projections shake out the way they do.

Houston Rockets

40-24, 6th in West, 9.5 games back
FiveThirtyEight predictions: Clinched playoffs, 12% West, 7% Finals
Projected Seeding W-L: 5-3; 45-27 (5th in West)
COVID-19: Russell Westbrook (announced)

The league’s most eclectic team is back, and our projections love it. The short-ball Rockets are one of the biggest beneficiaries of the season’s resumption at Disney World, which neutralizes home-court advantage and eliminates road games the Rockets would have played against higher seeds. We have them finishing fifth in the West after the seeding games, so they would likely have been the road team in every playoff series.

Houston’s full-strength roster rating is third among teams invited to the restart, and its playoff roster rating is fifth. That explains much of why we give the Rockets better chances than the teams we have finishing both third (the Denver Nuggets, eighth in full-strength roster and seventh in playoff roster) and fourth (the Utah Jazz, 12th in both full-strength and playoff) in the West.

Philadelphia 76ers

39-26, 6th in East, 14 games back
FiveThirtyEight predictions: Clinched playoffs, 33% East, 14% Finals
Projected Seeding W-L: 6-2; 45-28 (4th in East)
COVID-19: Three unnamed members of the organization (announced)

The Sixers are the primary beneficiaries of the neutral-site tournament. Philadelphia’s chances of winning the NBA Finals rose by 3.7 percentage points in the bubble version, compared to the version of our projections that played out a standard postseason (with four home games for higher seeds and three for lower seeds in a seven-game series). The bump was more than double that of the next-closest team, the aforementioned Rockets, at 1.7 percentage points.

The Sixers also benefit from the four-plus months that Ben Simmons had to heal his back injury. With a healthy Simmons, we project them to go 6-2 in the seeding games, jumping from their current slot at sixth in the East to fourth. They’ll presumably also benefit if Joel Embiid hits coach Brett Brown’s target of 38 minutes per game during the postseason, putting one of the league’s best players on the floor nearly 80 percent of the time. Philly’s strong playoff-roster rating (third among restart teams, behind only the two L.A. squads) is the primary driver of its surprisingly high chances, but not having to travel to Boston, Toronto or Milwaukee at any point also helps — especially given that the Sixers went a disastrous 10-24 on…

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