The NBA regular season was racing toward its conclusion when play was suddenly shut down in March after COVID-19 crept into its locker rooms. Several players were having the best year of their career and looked poised to help their team make a deep playoff run when everything came to a halt.
After more than four months on hiatus, the league got back in action in July, tipping off a unique sprint to the NBA Finals that will take place entirely in a so-called bubble in Orlando and devoid of any fans in the arena. The return to play will see 22 of the league’s 30 teams pick up where their records left them in the standings, playing a handful of final regular season games before the playoffs start on Aug. 17.
Some of the league’s best players, like Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Bradley Beal and Karl-Anthony Towns will be missing for various reasons, despite some of their teams making it into the bubble. But plenty of the game’s brightest stars are there, and these are the best of them, ranked in order of greatness.
30. Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat)
Bam Adebayo is one of a few players on this list who has first-hand knowledge of the effects of COVID-19. The Heat forward tested positive for the virus, forcing him to arrive in the bubble two weeks later than his teammates. The 2019-20 season saw Adebayo make his first All-Star Game roster after averaging a double double with 16.1 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. Heat fans are hoping his bout with the illness won’t stifle his production, and coach Erik Spoelstra has said Adebayo has looked “sharp” in practice.
29. Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks)
Giannis Antetokounmpo is the league’s reigning most valuable player, but his teammate, Khris Middleton, may be Milwaukee’s secret weapon to a title in the bubble. The veteran small forward was having the best season of his career when everything got shut down, making his second consecutive All-Star Team. Middleton’s averages of 21.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game were both career highs for a guy who’s been steadily upping his game since he debuted in 2012. His exemplary play helped the Bucks to the league’s best record before the long break.
28. Devin Booker (Phoenix Suns)
The Suns have the worst record of any Western Conference team to qualify for play in Orlando, but Devin Booker was having another great year. The All-Star shooting guard was good for more than 26 points and 6.6 assists per game this season, which was on par with his output in 2018-19. He’s one of the most dangerous offensive threats in the bubble, even if his team will likely be headed home before the playoffs start in mid-August. The Suns are the youngest team to qualify, with an average player age of 24.7, and Booker is just 23 himself.
27. Brandon Ingram (New Orleans Pelicans)
The “Slenderman” is another one of the NBA’s youngest stars who will get to shine during this unique finish to the season. While teammate Zion Williamson was sidelined for much of the year, Brandon Ingram had no problem picking up the slack. He’s averaged career highs of 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game during his fourth season in the league. Those figures helped him make his first All-Star roster and have the Pelicans fighting for the final playoff spot in the West as play resumes, which seems likely with him and Williamson at full power.
26. Malcolm Brogdon (Indiana Pacers)
Malcolm Brogdon put up All-Star-level numbers this season for the Pacers but didn’t get invited to the game. The star point guard was contributing 19.2 points and 8.4 assists per 36 minutes on the year when play was suspended. His dynamic with teammate Domantas Sabonis led the Pacers to a 39-26 record heading into the bubble. A foot injury has left Sabonis questionable for the return to play, which will leave Brogdon and T.J. Warren as the main playmakers if the Pacers are going to make a run.
25. Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics)
Rising star Jayson Tatum has been brilliant this season, helping the Celtics secure the third-best record in the Eastern Conference as play resumes. He landed on his first of what will likely be many All-Star Game rosters and will be a key ingredient to Boston making a deep playoff run in Orlando. Before play was halted, Tatum was averaging 24.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per 36 minutes played and was the Celtics’ leading scorer.
24. Montrezl Harrell (Los Angeles Clippers)
The Clippers are loaded with talent, and their long-suffering fans had to be among the league’s most bummed when the season suddenly came to a standstill in March. L.A.’s most overlooked franchise racked up the second-best record in the Western Conference at 44-20. Center Montrezl Harrell was a big part of that success, despite starting only two games. Harrell’s efficiency has been remarkable, with him averaging 9.2 rebounds and 24.1 points per 36 minutes this season, the latter of which is the best scoring output for all centers. He had to briefly leave the bubble for a family emergency but is expected to rejoin his teammates soon.
23. Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies)
Ja Morant won three of the Western Conference’s four rookie-of-the-month awards during the 2019-20 season, and he’ll be one of the must-watch stars as play resumes. He dazzled Grizzlies fans this season by averaging 21.2 points and 8.3 assists per 36 minutes played. The team was just below .500 when the season was suspended but had won four of its last six games and was holding on to a playoff spot. If he keeps up what he was doing all year inside the bubble, Morant could easily be the NBA’s rookie of the year.
22. Chris Paul (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Chris Paul has been in the NBA a long time, but he’s never experienced a season as strange as this one. The future Hall of Famer had led the Thunder to three straight victories before the shutdown, making the timing pretty unfortunate as they were on the verge of improving their seeding in the Western Conference playoff tree. Paul was selected to his 10th All-Star Game this year — after a three-year hiatus — thanks to his averages of 7.7 assists and 20 points per 36 minutes played.
21. Kemba Walker (Boston Celtics)
It seems unfair that after all those years of toiling away in Charlotte, Kemba Walker is finally leading a contender and he won’t even get to experience the atmosphere of the playoffs. He made his fourth consecutive All-Star Game appearance in 2020 and is one of the most consistent scoring threats to take a spot in the bubble. Walker has battled some knee issues this season that caused him to miss 14 games, but he looks ready to roll when play tips back off, according to reports. That’s great news for Celtics fans, who are counting on the average of 21.2 points he’s provided every game so far this season.
20. Kristaps Porzingis (Dallas Mavericks)
Kristaps Porzingis will likely be missing from the first couple games the Mavericks play in the bubble after being put in quarantine. That’s going to hurt them, because the Latvian superstar was a major part of Dallas qualifying for the NBA’s return to play. He gave the team 22.1 points and 10.9 rebounds per 36 minutes played this season. All that scoring is essential, but the squad will also miss him on defense, where his 7-foot 3-inch frame helped him swat 2.4 blocks per 36 minutes this year.
19. Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz)
Another first-time All-Star who will shine in the bubble is Donovan Mitchell. The Jazz’s leading scorer has been a huge reason for the team’s success the past couple seasons, including their 41-23 mark in the first part of the 2019-20 slate. He’s averaged 23.9 points per game over the last two years and is chipping in 24.1 points per game this season, making him one of the most consistent scorers in the game. The Jazz will need him to keep that up if they’re going to make a run at the franchise’s first title.
18. Hassan Whiteside (Portland Trail Blazers)
After five seasons of steady but uninspiring work in Miami, Hassan Whiteside came to Portland and dialed his numbers up to star level this year. When the season came to a halt, Whiteside was only one behind Giannis Antetokounmpo as the league’s leader in double doubles, giving the Blazers 51 of them in his 61 appearances on the year. Whiteside’s stats per 36 minutes were also among the best in the game this season, as he was good for 18.7 points, 16.4 rebounds and 3.5 blocks, the latter of which led the league. His pairing with Damian Lillard gives the Blazers one of the best one-two punches in the NBA.
17. Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz)
It was Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test that helped cause the NBA season to shut down in March, so it was a pretty cool bit of symmetry that he scored the first two points when play resumed on July 30. The French 7-footer also scored the last two points of the game, helping the Jazz get a tough victory over the Pelicans. Gobert has been that kind of leader for the Jazz for several years now, averaging 14.7 points, 12.6 rebounds and a monstrous 2.3 blocks per game since the 2016-17 season. His 45 double doubles when play was suspended put him at fifth in the league.
16. Jimmy Butler (Miami Heat)
Jimmy Butler’s figures this season put him near the top of the Eastern Conference’s most effective players and landed him back in the All-Star Game. Butler coming to Miami has put that franchise back in play for a deep run as they get set for action in Orlando. Butler has contributed 20.2 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.1 assists per night on the year, which are numbers right in line with his star-making days in Chicago.
15. Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers)
Speaking of the best players in the Eastern Conference, Ben Simmons is about as versatile as they come. He made his second straight All-Star Game this season by putting up some stellar all-around figures that 76ers fans have frankly gotten used to over the past few years. His averages of 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game made him a nightly triple double threat, and he led the entire league with 2.1 steals per game. He missed eight games with a back injury ahead of the season stopping, but hopefully the long break will have him back at full strength.
14. Paul George (Los Angeles Clippers)
Nagging injuries made Paul George’s 2019-20 season one of his most forgettable in recent years, but he’s still easily one of the most talented players in the NBA. He was averaging 21.0 points and 5.7 rebounds per game in his first year with the Clippers at the break — down from 28.0 and 8.2 last season with the Thunder — and had missed 22 games. But it was still enough to help the Clippers to the second-best record in the Western Conference and the fourth-best offense in the NBA. George was back in full force for the Clippers first game in the bubble, scoring a monstrous 30 points in 34 minutes and looking like his old self.
13. Nikola Vučević (Orlando Magic)
The Magic had won three straight games before play stopped and put themselves in position for a likely playoff spot. Nikola Vučević has led the way for them, giving his team 19.5 points and 11.0 rebounds per game, both of which were just shy of the career-high figures he averaged a year ago. He somehow missed the All-Star roster even with that double double average, showing he’s still a little underrated. It’s going to take all he can muster to make the Magic championship contenders in their hometown.
12. Jonas Valančiūnas (Memphis Grizzlies)
Jonas Valančiūnas has reportedly been doing a lot of fishing on the NBA’s campus inside the Orlando bubble. Grizzlies fans are hoping that hobby will help keep his mind sharp for action on the court, where the Lithuanian has been a shark this year. He was chipping in 20.4 points and 15.4 rebounds per 36 minutes at the break, both of which rank him among the best centers in the NBA. He and teammate Ja Morant could end up being a lethal combination for years to come.
11. Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans)
Count Zion Williamson among those players who most hated to see the NBA season take a sudden break in March. After missing a good chunk of his rookie season while recovering from an injury, 2019’s top draft pick debuted in January 2020 and was living up to his hype. He earned the Western Conference’s player of the month award for February, which was the last one given before the break, and looked nigh unstoppable. The Pelicans came up short in their first game in the bubble, but Williamson’s 28.6 points and 8.0 rebounds per 36 minutes make the Pelicans a must-watch team as play resumes.
10. Russell Westbrook (Houston Rockets)
Russell Westbrook was another NBA star to be diagnosed with COVID-19, but he is reportedly recovering nicely. He’ll likely miss a little time as the Rockets restart their season, but they’ve already clinched a playoff berth, so it shouldn’t affect them too much. When Westbrook leaves quarantine he’ll hopefully be back to giving Houston the 27.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game that he was averaging before the shutdown. He’s a major reason why the team had the best offense in the Western Conference and was one of only two in the entire league averaging more than 118 points per game.
9. Nikola Jokić (Denver Nuggets)
After clearing the quarantine protocols in the bubble, Nikola Jokić rejoined his Nuggets teammates and will be ready to go when their season restarts. It’s a good thing, too, because he was one of only three players in the NBA that had more than 10 triple doubles before the hiatus. His average of 22.5 points per 36 minutes was the best among all starting centers, and his 7.6 assists per 36 minutes were the best among all non-guards. The Nuggets are serious contenders for their first championship thanks to his efforts down low.
8. Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers)
The 76ers have already clinched a playoff spot, but they’re going to need everything their stars can give them to mount a challenge for the Eastern Conference crown. Joel Embiid will be a major part of that effort as he’s continued to stake his claim as one of the most dominant centers in the NBA today. In the past three seasons — all of which earned him All-Star status — Embiid has averaged 24.8 points, 12.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game. The major knock against Embiid is that he misses a lot of games, but with the restarted season being so brief, hopefully he’ll suit up for all of them in Orlando.
7. Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)
Damian Lillard’s second career in hip-hop has apparently benefited from his time stuck inside the bubble, where he’s been using his free time to record new music. When the Blazers hit the court, they’ll count on “Dame Time” being in full effect and giving them 28.9 points and 7.8 assists per game. Those career-high averages landed Lillard in his fifth All-Star Game this season. The break likely benefited him even more than some other players, as his average of 36.9 minutes per game was the highest in the league before the hiatus.
6. Luka Dončić (Dallas Mavericks)
Luka Dončić will be the key to the Mavericks clinching one of the last two playoff spots available in the Western Conference. The Slovenian guard had put up the most triple doubles in the NBA this season when the action was halted, recording 14 of them and narrowly outpacing LeBron James. Dončić averaged 31.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 9.4 assists per 36 minutes, all of which ranked him among the elites and landed him in his first All-Star Game. Dallas has a pretty good cushion on the teams below them, but they’ll immediately be in a fight for seeding as soon as they restart in the bubble.
5. LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers)
The Lakers had the best record in the Western Conference at the break, and they added to it with a hard-fought win over the rival Clippers in their first game of the restart. LeBron James finished the game with 16 points, 11 rebounds and 7 assists, which counts as a middling effort for him but was enough to secure the win. “The King” was averaging 10.9 assists per 36 minutes this season, making him the league’s leader in that category by far. Many people would call the Lakers the favorite to win the crown in Orlando, and James’ leadership is obviously a huge part of that.
4. Kawhi Leonard (Los Angeles Clippers)
Kawhi Leonard’s Clippers came up just short in their opening game against the Lakers inside the bubble on July 30, but he looked as good as he did before the break. The four-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion gave his team 28 points in that game, which was up from his career-high season average of 26.9 points per outing. He’s put the Clippers in a great position to win their first title, the same way he did with the Raptors a year ago. Given the short schedule in the bubble, we’re not expecting him to miss many games for load management.
3. James Harden (Houston Rockets)
The Rockets were thrilled to see James Harden join the team inside the bubble after a delayed arrival in Orlando. After all, “The Beard” is the main reason the team has had the most high-powered offense in the game this season. He was putting up 34.4 points per game at the break, which led the league and was nearly four points better than the player at second place in that category. Houston has already clinched a playoff spot, and his pairing with Russell Westbrook will make them a tough out in mid-August.
2. Anthony Davis (Los Angeles Lakers)
The addition of Anthony Davis to the Lakers roster has made them into the odds-on favorites to win the Western Conference inside the bubble. They racked up the league’s best road record, at 26-6 before the break, which may be an indicator of how well they’ll compete on the neutral floor in Orlando. Davis was a huge part of the team’s stifling defense, which was one of only three in the NBA allowing less than 107 points per game. In the team’s first game back, he led all players with 34 points and 35 minutes, showing he appears to be ready for this sprint.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
The Milwaukee Bucks had lost three straight games before play was halted, which was a strange skid for the league’s best team this year. Reigning NBA most valuable player Giannis Antetokounmpo led them to the best record in the league at 53-12, and they’re obvious favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals. He was named the East’s player of the month three of the four times it was awarded this year because his stats have been even better than they were in his MVP year. The “Greek Freak” was averaging 29.6 points and 13.7 rebounds a game, and there’s no reason to see those figures shrinking in the bubble.