Heading to Orlando, it looked as though the race for the eighth spot in the NBA’s Western Conference playoffs was really down to two teams, Memphis and Portland. The drama would surround whether the Blazers could stay within four games of the Grizzlies to force a play-in round.
Perhaps there was an outside chance New Orleans would make a push. After all, everyone would love to see Zion Williamson take on LeBron James and the top-seeded Lakers in a playoff series.
Sure, other Western Conference teams were within the requisite striking distance — six games or fewer back of the final playoff spot — to earn a pass into the bubble, but Sacramento, Phoenix and San Antonio were largely viewed as filler.
Sacramento proved to be as much, but Phoenix and San Antonio have been nothing short of excellent during their time in the NBA bubble. The Spurs are 5-2. And Phoenix, the darling of the NBA restart, is a perfect 7-0.
Memphis and Portland, who also is 5-2 in Orlando, still enter Thursday’s deciding day of competition in control of their own destinies, but Phoenix and San Antonio are somehow still alive. Both have found their collective rhythms and, at the very least, generated ample momentum for their respective franchises heading into next season.
And while these teams are fighting for a spot in the playoffs, the Minnesota Timberwolves have remained idle. It was one of the major talking points when the league decided to invite only 22 of its 30 teams to Orlando, at least in the markets of the group aptly referred to as the “delete eight.” Is it not a major disadvantage moving forward for these teams to not get the extra practices and eight games the rest of the league has been afforded ahead of the playoffs in Orlando?
The answer is more obvious now than ever before: absolutely.
Look at the Timberwolves, who are full of young players in need of development and decisions that need to be made as to how to proceed forward as Gersson Rosas looks to form the best possible roster around Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell.
Can Malik Beasley be the team’s third-best player? Is Juancho Hernangomez a viable option at power forward who should be re-signed this offseason? Can Jarrett Culver prove worthy of the No. 6 overall pick he was selected with last summer? Is Jordan McLaughlin a long-term piece in this team’s puzzle? Is Naz Reid a true rotational piece? Can a team featuring two young stars not known for their defensive prowess eventually compete at a high level in this league?
We still don’t know. Neither do the Timberwolves. Remember, they collected almost no data of Russell and Towns playing together before Towns’ season ended prematurely with a wrist injury.
The same sizes of the trade deadline acquisitions are also small.
If you’re trying to continue to grow players like Culver, Josh Okogie and Reid, more time in the gym together would have proved beneficial. Reports suggest efforts are still ongoing to make some type of minicamp for the eight teams excluded from Orlando a reality, but as weeks pass with no concrete plans in place, the likelihood of such an outcome seems to dwindle.
Meanwhile, Devin Booker has found a new gear for Phoenix in Orlando, scoring at a high level while impacting the game in a number of ways as the Suns have put together lineups that amplify floor spacing. If Booker previously didn’t think he could win in Phoenix, he probably thinks otherwise now.
The Spurs have continued to see progression from the likes of Derrick White, Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV, Jakob Poetl and Drew Eubanks — all of whom are major rotation players 25 years of age or younger — further evidence San Antonio is again on the right track as a franchise.
And Portland is healthy again with the return of Jusuf Nurkic. Pair that with Gary Trent Jr.’s emergence into a high-level rotational player, and the Blazers look to have a roster around Damian Lillard again capable of producing deep playoff runs.
Even Sacramento’s bubble struggles have perhaps shown the Kings’ front office that its current core may need adjusting this offseason. At least that is some kind of answer. What Minnesota wouldn’t do for one of those right now. Not to say eight games in Orlando would have given Rosas and Co. a crystal-clear picture of the franchise’s path forward, but it would have been better than nothing.
Whether teams advance to the playoffs or not, the time in Orlando has proven valuable to so many, and likely would have done the same for the Timberwolves, had their 2019-20 on-court incompetence not disqualified them from such an opportunity.