You could say that, as strange as these games-in-the bubble circumstances are, they have actually created the purest form of basketball.
In the controlled environment of the NBA Bubble, players have minimal distractions other than the lure of cheap beer-shotgunning contests, Call of Duty confrontations, and hopelessly broken golf swings. There are no families around to ask them to mow the lawn or call the landscaper to "do it already." No portly, potty-mouthed fans in the stands to question their athletic ability and mental acuity. No long flights to sap their stamina. Everyone is equal, in the sense of encountering the same odd, but stable, conditions.
So when players break out in Orlando, it matters. It shows they can handle change better than most, and rise above others. It's particularly significant when those players are up for new contracts.
Here are three emerging stat players who are expected to receive huge new contracts after the season ends, which probably inspires an all-out effort right now:
Fred Van Vleet, Toronto Raptors
No secret after the Raptors' run to the title, the repeatedly overlooked guard from Wichita State has been Toronto's best offensive player in the bubble. averaging 20.8 through four games on 46/43/87 splits while averaging 7.3 assists. For some reason, defenders keep going under screens against him, but the secret's out about how important he is. So important that the Raptors can't afford not to pay him, even with Kyle Lowry still impactful. He's quite a good defender too, even when undersized in the post, as he showed against Miami's Jimmy Butler.
What's next: Without question, rudderless teams without point guards and with cap space (Knicks and Pistons come to mind) will come after him, forcing Raptors GM Masai Ujiri to make a choice, a choice that might include trading Lowry's $34 million to keep Van Vleet -- especially with Pascal Siakam due an extension and Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka free agents.
Betting Edge: Bet on Van Vleet playing big in the postseason too, with the Raptors a real shot to return to the Finals. Don't read too much into Friday's rout by Boston. The teams should match up evenly in the second round.
Gary Trent Jr., Portland Trail Blazers
A totally different player than his bruising father, the deep shooter from Duke has been fearless in the Bubble, averaging 8.8 attempts in his first four games and making a ludicrous 63 percent of them. For a team that seemed wingless beyond CJ McCollum, he's become the X-Factor the Blazers needed to complement the return of their bigs. Is there enough of a sample size? Well, he's at 40.9 percent from three for his career, and he's beginning to show other offensive elements.
What's next: Trent Jr. is in the middle of a three-year contract that pays him a relative pittance this season ($1.4 million prior to the Covid-19 prorate). Assume that the Blazers sign him to an extension before he becomes a restricted free agent, especially with McCollum so expensive, putting the eternally underrated McCollum in play for a trade.
Betting Edge: If the Blazers can get in the play-in game(s), Trent's emergence and Jusuf Nurkic's strength inside make them the favorite against any opponent, even if Portland needs to win two. And they are the only one of the possible play-in teams that can push the Lakers in the first round, because of all their shooting.
Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets
He did win the Three-Point Contest in 2019, so it's not a surprise he can stroke it. But the former Cleveland Cavaliers second-round selection has been forced to diversify his game in light of all the Nets' injuries and opt-outs, and he was exceptional as they exceeded expectations with a 2-2 record to start. Harris averaged 19.0 points and 5.3 rebounds, taking as many twos as threes, and making 61.2 percent overall.
What's next: An unrestricted free agent, he would seem to be an ideal fit as a third option with the returning Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but Brooklyn is about to have an expensive roster, and Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert are still in the offensive mix. Will the Nets see him as an accessory while another team (Knicks? Hawks?) sees him as a necessity.
Betting Edge: Whether Harris and the Nets get the 7th or 8th seed, it's hard to see them winning more than a game against the Bucks or Raptors in a playoff series, in their current state. Still, Harris is dangerous enough to take the points a couple times.
Headline Photo Credit: www.raptorsrapture.com