Bubble Trouble: 15 Players Declining in the NBA Bubble According to Analytics

Updated: Aug 20

After I released a report detailing the seeding games' most improved players, Mike asked me which key players most declined in bubble play. I had no answer at the time, but the question spurred me on to create an analysis... this time breaking down which players saw the greatest drop off in production from the regular season to the bubble. Just as I did in my last article, I'm primarily using the NBA's Player Impact Estimate (PIE) as an all-in-one statistic to measure a player's contributions. 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 15 players have seen the greatest PIE decrease in Orlando. I supplemented the PIE metric with basic stats (PPG, AST, etc.) as well as other advanced statistics to identify specifically how a player's performance dropped off.

NOTE:

In order to uncover data pertaining to key contributors with ample sample sizes, I limited this study to players who played at least 20 games during the regular season, players who played at least 5 games in the bubble, and players who played at least 25 minutes per game in each.


15. Nikola Jokic - Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic showed up to Orlando with a new and improved physique, stirring speculation that the Serbian phenom would play the best ball of his life while in the best shape of his life. But "Slim Jokic" posted 4 less rebounds per game and 2 less points per game in seeding games while committing 4 or more turnovers in 4 straight contests. While this drop off in performance coincides with reduced minutes for the Joker, one can't help but wonder if Nikola's drastic body transformation has negatively impacted his post play. Luckily for Denver, Michael Porter Jr.'s emergence has more than compensated for Jokic's slight drop off so far.

14. Josh Richardson - Philadelphia 76ers

It's hard to make sense of Richardson's PIE decline when looking at basic offensive statistics. His shooting percentages largely resemble his pre-bubble average as does his scoring. But a few advanced analytics indicate a drop-off in Richardson's performance outside of scoring points. A negative Net Rating indicates overall decline as do decreases in Richardson's Assist Percentage, Assist-to-Turnover Ratio, and Rebound Percentage.

13. LeBron James - Los Angeles Lakers

Sealing the 1 seed with 5 games remaining likely played a part. As did 3.2 less minutes per game. But LeBron saw his league-leading 10.6 assists per game diminish to 6.9 during the seeding games. And the King's +/- dropped from 8.1 to -5.9. LeBron must return to his regular season form this post-season for the Lakers to bring home their 17th NBA Championship. If Game 1 of the Lakers' series against Portland was any indication, LeBron's play should be the least of Lakers fans' worries. I get the feeling we'll see Game 7 LeBron earlier than usual in these Playoffs.


12. Joel Embiid - Philadelphia 76ers

Embiid has had a significantly lower Assist Percentage and Assist-to-Turnover Ratio in Orlando. Yet, he improved his +/- from 3 to 4.7 in seeding games while shooting better from the field. Embiid's decrease in PIE seems due to less playing time (Embiid played nearly 5 less minutes per game in seeding games), a decline in passing efficiency, and struggles from deep (Embiid has hit just 9.1% of his shots from beyond the arc).

11. Tim Hardaway Jr. - Dallas Mavericks

Unlike Embiid, Hardaway has seen an increase in minutes in the bubble. Poor shooting from deep (32.8%) and a +/- of -6.5 highlight the veteran's struggles in Orlando. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis have been phenomenal, but players like Hardaway Jr. and Seth Curry must step up for a short-handed Dallas squad to compete with the Clippers in Round 1. The absences of Willie Cauley-Stein, Jalen Brunson, Dwight Powell, and Courtney Lee certainly don't help their chances.

10. Marcus Morris Sr. - Los Angeles Clippers

Marcus Morris Sr. was late to join his teammates in Orlando and scored 6.3 less points than his regular season average due to reduced usage. But a 50 FG% should ease any concern that Morris returned as a different player.

9. Jrue Holiday - New Orleans Pelicans

The oldest Holiday brother scored 4.4 less points per game and dished out nearly 2 less assists per game in the bubble, leading to a decreased PIE (although his Player Impact Estimate certainly would have been higher had it taken into account off-the-court impact). Nevertheless, Holiday still feels like the missing piece for contenders who struggle to defend Bubble MVP Damian Lillard. Expect Holiday to return to form under a new head coach in 2021.


8. PJ Tucker - Houston Rockets

PJ Tucker shot just 28.8% from the field, 28.6% from deep, and 50% from the line during seeding games. Reportedly, Tucker has been playing through nerve damage in his hand and shoulder. But the nerve damage didn't seem to affect Tucker in game one of the Rockets' series with Oklahoma City. Tucker looked much improved in that contest as Houston outscored the Thunder by 13 with Tucker on the floor.

7. Anthony Davis - Los Angeles Lakers

As the second Lakers star to make our list, AD scored less points, shot lower from the field, and recorded less rebounds per game than his regular season average… in the same number of minutes per game. According to StatMuse, AD and LeBron have seen a +/- of -61 when sharing the floor in the Bubble as Davis's per game +/- dropped from 8.1 to -5.9 in seeding games.

LA needs its star forward to return to dominance this postseason. And while a 28 point, 11 rebound performance against Portland may ease concerns surrounding AD, Davis failed to take over Game 1 when Laker Nation needed him most. I, personally, expect much improved numbers for the remainder of the Portland series at least. The Blazers have given up an average of 33 PPG to opposing centers since the season's restart.


6. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope - Los Angeles Lakers

Consistent guard play has been the Lakers' primary concern all season long, and Caldwell-Pope came up short when called upon amidst the absences of Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo. The former Georgia Bulldog shot just 27.8% from deep as his +/- decreased from 3.4 to -9.8.

The Lakers have limited options to replace KCP's production and desperately need a resurgence from their starting shooting guard. Should KCP's shooting woes continue, expect increased minutes for Dion Waiters and/or JR Smith.

5. Landry Shamet - Los Angeles Clippers

Shamet, like teammate Marcus Morris Sr., joined his teammates late in Orlando. The former Wichita State star then shot just 30% from the field, 21.4% from 3, and 61.5% from the foul line… Not what Doc Rivers wants to see from his supposed sharp shooter. While the Clippers have no shortage of 3 point shooters, a return to the mean from Shamet would provide a boost in LAC's quest for the franchise's first ever NBA Championship.

4. Pascal Siakam - Toronto Raptors

Dips in Spicy P's shooting percentage from the field and foul line have contributed to the All Star forward scoring nearly 7 less points per game in Orlando. No one's questioning Siakam's ability to perform in big moments after watching him break out in last year's Finals. But without a player like Kawhi Leonard demanding an opponent's full attention, Siakam faces increased difficulty in these Playoffs as defenses scheme around his attacking style.


3. Lonzo Ball - New Orleans Pelicans

Lonzo Ball's regression played a major part in New Orleans' failure to make the Playoffs. After what felt like a bounce back year in Alvin Gentry's system, Ball shot just 30.5% from the field, 28.1% from 3, and 55.6% from the foul stripe in Orlando as opponents outscored New Orleans by 7.7 points per game with Ball on the court. The second Pelicans guard to make this list had the bubble's lowest Effective Field Goal percentage and 3rd lowest free throw percentage among guards who played at least 30 minutes per game in the bubble.

2. Eric Bledsoe - Milwaukee Bucks

Bledsoe's +/- dropped from 8.1 to -4.6 in seeding games as Milwaukee struggled to recapture its regular season swagger. And a game 1 loss to the depleted Orlando Magic outing has Bucks fans in panic mode… especially considering Giannis's 31 point, 17 rebound performance in that game. Milwaukee needs improved guard play to reach the 2020 NBA Finals. Continued struggles from Bledsoe could be catastrophic for Milwaukee's championship hopes… and its efforts to sign Giannis to a long-term extension this offseason.

Note: Bledsoe's teammate Donte DiVincenzo would have made the list had we not filtered out players with under 25 minutes per game.

1. Seth Curry - Dallas Mavericks

Curry's shooting percentages decreased across the board in seeding games, most notably his free throw from 84.1% to 66.7%. And Curry saw major declines in his Assist Percentage as well as his Rebound Percentage while playing more minutes. The result? Opponents outscoring Dallas by 5.6 points per game with Curry on the floor.

The formerly undrafted free agent earned his current deal with consistent shooting in last year's Playoffs, and Dallas needs its prized 2019 offseason acquisition to emulate his 2019 play to pull off an upset against the Clippers.

As the 15 players above declined during seeding games, a handful of players rose. Some emerged to become their team's sixth man. Some became superstars. Click to read about the NBA's Most Improved Bubble players.

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