NBA's Most Improved Bubble Players According to Analytics
The NBA Bubble has provided an opportunity for its inhabitants to reestablish their identity within the league, and a handful of teams have taken full advantage. The once overlooked Phoenix Suns have risen to the occasion in Orlando and established themselves among the league's best young teams moving into the 2020-2021 season. The sub-500 Portland Trailblazers have induced fear in the minds of Lakers fans awaiting their first round playoff matchup. And at the individual level, a number of players have made the most of a second chance season to emerge into greater roles - ranging from sixth man to superstar. As major sports media outlets roll out their All-Bubble lists going into the 2020 Playoffs, I want to analyze which players saw the greatest improvement in impact from the regular season to the bubble... according to data. To do so, I'm primarily using the NBA's Player Impact Estimate (PIE). NBA.com defines PIE (full PIE formula here) as follows: "It is a simple metric that gives an excellent indication of performance at both the team and player level... a high PIE % is highly correlated to winning. In fact, a team’s PIE rating and a team’s winning percentage correlate at an R square of .908." Long story short, PIE takes into account a player's points, rebounds, assists, etc. to determine how impactful that player is in helping his team win. This analysis reveals which ten players saw the greatest PIE increase in Orlando, using advanced analytics to further highlight the significance to the players' respective teams and the factors affecting player contributions. NOTE: Stats only include players who played at least 20 pre-bubble games, 5 games in the bubble, and 20 minutes per game in the bubble. PIE, True Shooting %, Points, and Points Per 36 Min tables used for this piece are all available at the end of the article. 10. Brad Wanamaker - Boston Celtics Brad Wanamaker has improved his per 36 minutes plus/minus by 16 points over the course of the NBA bubble, trailing only Jevon Carter for greatest improvement in the NBA. Additionally, the second year product out of Pittsburg has scored 5.6 points per 36 minutes above his regular season average. 9. Rudy Gay - San Antonio Spurs Rudy Gay nearly doubled his points per game output due to number of factors including increased minutes, a 5.5% increase in True Shooting Percentage, a 4.2 % increase in Usage Percentage, and the absence of LaMarcus Aldridge. 8. Brook Lopez - Milwaukee Bucks Brook Lopez has improved his points per 36 minutes more than any other player in the Disney World Bubble, nearly doubling his regular season points per game average. A 6.8% increase in Usage Rate has contributed to his increased impact as have rare performances including as a 6 block game against Boston, a 12 rebound showing against an undersized Houston team, and perfect 5 for 5 three point outing against Washington. "Splash Mountain" has also shot 93.5% from the foul line through 7 games. 7. Tyler Herro - Miami Heat Tyler Herro has improved his True Shooting Percentage by 13% in the bubble, scoring nearly 5 points per game more than his regular season average. The rookie sharpshooter's impact is due, in part, to perfect shooting from the free throw line as well as an expanded role during the absence of Jimmy Butler. As has been the case all season, Herro has shown flashes of brilliance when presented with opportunity, and he continues to grow in all facets of the game. 6. Austin Rivers - Houston Rockets Rivers' ranking can be attributed largely to his 41 point outing against Sacramento last week. The rest of the self-proclaimed "premier scorer's" additional impact can be attributed to an expanded role during the absence of Eric Gordon. 5. James Harden - Houston Rockets James Harden is the only NBA All-Star on this list. An elite scorer coming into the bubble, Harden improved his already impressive True Shooting Percentage by 9 percent. Expect Harden to carry a heavier load in the coming week with Russell Westbrook sidelined for the Rockets' first few playoff games. 4. Dario Saric - Phoenix Suns Devin Booker wasn't the only Phoenix Sun who stepped his game up in Phoenix. Dario Saric improved his True Shooting Percentage by 14.9% and his per 36 minute scoring output by 7.7 points. And no one performance skewed these numbers. Saric has been consistent. 3. Darius Bazley - Oklahoma City Thunder Darius Bazley exceeded 20 points in 3 straight games to wrap up the Thunder's 2020 regular season. The 23rd pick in the 2019 NBA Draft has shot 50% or better from deep in 4 of his 7 bubble games so far. Bazley has been a pleasant surprise for a team that ESPN gave a .2% chance at making the Playoffs prior to the season. 2. Timothe Luwawu-Caborrot - Brooklyn Nets The former Philadelphia 76er has shot over 50% from deep in half of the Nets' games so far and hit 14 out of 15 shots from the charity stripe - earning him a 12.1% increase in True Shooting Percentage. Luwawu-Caborrot's emergence has played a major part in Brooklyn achieving a winning bubble record without eight of its original players. 1. TJ Warren - Indiana Pacers No player has broken out in the bubble quite like TJ Warren. The 26 year-old small forward exploded offensively for 30 or more points in 4 of his 6 games, increasing his regular season average by 12.3 points per game. The void left by NBA All Star Damantas Sabonis undoubtedly opened up offensive opportunities for Warren as his Usage Rate increased by 5.5% in Orlando. Warren's minutes increased as well. But make no mistake… TJ Warren earned his place on this list by raising his Effective Field Goal Percentage by 9.5 percent. Honorable Mentions Michael Porter Jr. Behind TJ Warren, Michael Porter Jr. was atop the bubble's breakout stars via the eye test as the second year Missouri product bested his regular season average in points per game by 14.5 points. How did the NBA's PIE metric fail to recognize his jump in performance? One explanation is this: while Porter Jr.'s per-game statistics improved drastically (2nd overall increase in points per game), the marginal change in his per-36 minute stats were relatively small (25th overall increase in points per 36 minutes). In other words, Porter Jr.'s increased output was due primarily to his increase in minutes - from 14 per game to over 33. Kristaps Porzingis Kristaps Porzingis increased his scoring output by over 50% in the bubble, quietly scoring more points per game than the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and LeBron James. It appears as though the extra time off allowed Porzingis to return to pre-ACL injury form. Gary Trent Jr. During the bubble, Gary Trent Jr. has scored more than 9.3 points per game above his pre-bubble average. This is due largely in part to the 3 point specialist's 18.1% improvement in Effective Field Goal Percentage. Trent Jr.'s 13.9 point increase in his plus/minus per 36 minute may have been the difference in Portland making the Western Conference Play-In Game and a long plane ride back to the Pacific Northwest. Aaron Gordon Aaron Gordon did not make the list due to the limited number of games he played prior to his injury. However, the two-time Slam Dunk competition snub played some of his best ball in the bubble, helping Orlando secure the 8 seed with highly efficient play against Brooklyn and Sacramento. Jusuf Nurkic Jusuf Nurkic did not make the list because he did not play in the regular season. However, the Blazers have looked like an entirely different team since the "Bosnian Beast's" return. Nurkic posted the highest PIE of 2020 season newcomers in the bubble, besting the likes of Cameron Payne, Andre Roberson, and Bol Bol. Robert Williams Robert Williams III did not play enough minutes for Boston to make our list. But the second year product out of Texas A&M improved drastically in bubble play when it comes to his True Shooting and Effective Field Goal percentages. Jae Crowder Jae Crowder improved both his True Shooting Percentage and Effective Field Goal Percentage more than any player in the Disney Bubble. Enough said. Devin Booker It's difficult to leave Devin Booker off of any bubble-related list after the 23 year-old led Phoenix to a perfect 8-0 record. Booker blossomed in bubble play, besting his 26.1 PPG regular season average by 4.9 points. Jevon Carter Suns point guard Jevon Carter saw the largest increase in plus/minus per 36 minutes of any player during bubble play. How? Carter improved his True Shooting Percentage by 20.2% this Summer - the second best improvement in the NBA behind Jae Crowder. Kyle Kuzma Kyle Kuzma needed to improve from a disappointing pre-bubble campaign. And so far, he has. The Laker's 6th man has oozed with confidence offensively as his True Shooting Percentage has increased by 7.1%. On the other side of the floor, Kuzma has improved his defensive rating by 5.2 points. Kuzma will have to continue his improved play for the Lakers to win an NBA Championship in 2020.