“It’s really hard to judge and analyze where we’re at when you don’t have four of your five starters playing.”

That was Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone on Saturday night following the second straight scrimmage for the Nuggets with only eight players suiting up on Denver’s side. Throughout the media interview with Malone, one could sense his building frustration for the situation the Nuggets found themselves in. Not only were several starters missing in both games, but several important bench players (almost all guards and wings).

As fun as it is to see Bol Bol playing small forward, it isn’t going to help the Nuggets in a playoff series, and Malone knows it. He knows that the Nuggets are behind the curve, with only one exhibition game left to go before seeding games begin that affect Denver’s win-loss record for real.

Instead of focusing on the Nuggets though, let’s turn our attention to the other teams in the Western Conference, the playoff teams more specifically. Every contender has handled the bubble differently thus far, but for the most part, every contender is ahead of where the Nuggets are at right now.

Let’s take a look:

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Los Angeles Lakers

After entering the bubble nearly three weeks ago, the Lakers are much better off now than they were at the start of their bubble experience. With Avery Bradley deciding not to take part in the Orlando playoffs and Rajon Rondo suffering a broken right thumb in practice just two weeks ago, it was looking like the Lakers were losing some important depth at guard. In addition, Dwight Howard’s comments and actions surrounding masks, vaccines, and other topics appeared harmful not just to the Lakers, but to the NBA.

Still, some of LA’s issues appeared overstated when they took the court for their two preseason games when fans were reminded that they had LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the roster. Both players made a major impact in the brief time they spent on the floor together, and LA’s role players appeared to generate enough value to at least supplement the two stars.

It remains to be seen how much the Lakers will miss Rondo and Bradley during the bubble experience. Rondo will eventually return if the Lakers make it to the second round, and there’s no reason to think they won’t. At that point, things will become more difficult for them, and relying on Dion Waiters and JR Smith in any capacity probably isn’t the recipe for success; however…LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

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Los Angeles Clippers

Perhaps more than any team, the Clippers have been on the receiving end of several departures from important players while the team resides in the bubble. In total, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, and Patrick Beverley all left the bubble at various points, and it appears that Williams may be in trouble because of it.

The last part of the above tweet is the key: Williams will miss the first two seeding games for the Clippers, and that could be important for playoff seeding purposes. The Clippers play the Lakers in their first game and the upstart New Orleans Pelicans in their second. Losing those two games in itself would be bad for LA, but dropping to the 4th seed would be even worse. The Clippers are still unlikely to drop, but missing important players in a new environment could change that.

Beyond the absences though, the Clippers still look like a formidable basketball team. They remain my pick to win a championship.

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Utah Jazz

For a team that sustained a lot of turmoil at the beginning and throughout the coronavirus outbreak, the Jazz appear to be in a good place. Even without Bojan Bogdanovic, who had surgery prior to the bubble and will miss the playoffs, the Jazz have a quality starting lineup they can throw out there every night. Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell, Joe Ingles, Royce O’Neale, and Rudy Gobert only spent 14 minutes on the floor all together this year, but there are multiple ball handlers, shooters, and defenders that should create a solid environment for offense.

Where the Jazz will really be tested is when reserves replace the starters. Jordan Clarkson will be a solid spark plug off the bench, but the three players beyond that with the most amount of minutes in the regular season were Georges Niang, Emmanuel Mudiay, and Jeff Green. Niang is solid but extremely limited, and Mudiay has progressed but is a ball handling guard on a roster that doesn’t need anymore ball handlers in a playoff environment. Green isn’t even on the roster anymore. He’s with the Houston Rockets.

Utah’s fate probably comes down to Mitchell’s performance as the top scoring option and Conley’s ability to regain some of the zip and effectiveness on his game. Can Mitchell be the Dwyane Wade clone he’s been touted as for the last couple of seasons? Can Conley have some throwback performances? If either of those answers is no, the Jazz are in some trouble.

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Oklahoma City Thunder

The big story with the Thunder is the return of forward Andre Roberson, former CU Buff, after over two and a half seasons spent on the sidelines due to injury. There was a major fear that Roberson would never play basketball again, but now, in the bubble, Roberson is playing well:

How great is that?

The Thunder, while an excellent regular season team, have a formula that could be exploited in the playoffs. Their three guard lineup featuring Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder is offensively potent but very small. A team with a lineup that features size on the perimeter will give the Thunder problems. Roberson would be an interesting counter to that, as before his injuries, he was perhaps the best perimeter defender in the NBA.

Will the Thunder put it all together? It seems unanimous that they will at least be a tough out in the playoffs, if not win a series against an opponent that doesn’t treat them with respect and caution.

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Houston Rockets

While it took him some extra time to get into the bubble, it appears that James Harden is better than ever. He leads the NBA in points per game (27.5) and assists per game (9.5) in the bubble thus far (Troy Daniels is 2nd in the NBA with 25.0 points per game). Harden spent the quarantine period getting into the best possible shape he could for this playoff run, and it appears that his hard work paid off.

While much has been made of Houston’s microball experiment, nothing really matters for the Rockets beyond how far Harden and Russell Westbrook can take them. The Rockets could roll out Harden, Westbrook, PJ Tucker, and two random players around the NBA (as long as they aren’t centers) and Houston would still have a top five offense. Their formula is sound, and it will give the Rockets a chance in every game as long as the outside shooting holds up.

There isn’t much to discuss here. Either Harden and Westbrook show up and carry the Rockets across the finish line or they don’t.

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Dallas Mavericks

Luka Doncic appears as dominant as ever in the bubble environment, using his size and skill combo along with many hesitations to get to the rim at will. Help Doncic’s defender, and the young Slovenian will find the open man. Don’t help, and Doncic will get to the rim for a layup/dunk or get fouled along the way. The only question in his game is how efficient the outside shot will be in a playoff environment, because Doncic takes a ton of difficult threes and makes them at a below average rate.

Outside of Doncic, the questions are pretty straightforward. Kristaps Porzingis, like Paul Millsap for Denver, missed his daily COVID-19 test and was forced to sit out of Dallas’ second scrimmage. Can he be an effective second option next to Doncic in the playoffs? His play style projects well, but only time will tell. Can Tim Hardaway Jr. and Seth Curry maintain excellent shooting seasons to space the floor properly for Doncic and Porzingis? Do the Mavericks have enough top end talent to compete with other playoff teams?

It appears that the Mavericks have a legitimate superstar on their hands, and that makes every subsequent question less important. Still, the Mavericks do have questions until we get to see their group in the playoffs for the first time. At that point, we will see just how good Doncic can be and whether he can outpace some of the other Western Conference superstars.