Dark Horse Contenders in the Bubble

In a season as unique as this one, anything can happen. Never before have players endured a four-month break before diving head-first into a playoff push. With all of the unusual circumstances teams have endured, it would be to no one's surprise that a dark horse brings home this years’ NBA bubble title. In this article I will examine four teams that are currently considered to be only fringe-title contenders, but due to this seasons’ dynamics, have the potential to be crowned NBA champions.

Houston Rockets

Before the stoppage, the Houston Rockets were written off by many as unprepared and undersized due to their mid-season adjustment to full-time small ball. Now, Houston is fully healthy, completely rested, and will have organized a training camp to further integrate small ball. Houston is among everybody’s top picks for dark horse favorite, and reasonably so.

The Rockets ran a nine-man rotation, where Westbrook and Harden averaged 37 minutes per night. The 82 game season would have left the superstar duo exhausted and gassed before the season's climax. After a four-month break, the duo has fresh legs and no late-season fatigue. Rest aside, the Rockets also regained a fully healthy Eric Gordon, who has a penchant for bailing out Harden in the postseason spotlight. 

In the past, the Rockets could never quite manage to surpass the Golden State Warriors. Now with Golden State amongst the very worst in the league, and there being no clear-cut championship favorite, the Rockets biggest roadblock has vanished. The Lakers lost their best perimeter defender in Avery Bradley. The idea of having Dion Waiters and or JR Smith guard Harden or Westbrook must have the Rockets’ coaching staff buzzing with anticipation.

The Rockets could find their way to the NBA Finals because of their health, playoff experience, a well-prepared coaching staff, and this season’s utter wonkiness. A streaky team like the Rockets just needs to catch fire, and they will find themselves champions of the Western Conference. The only thing holding Houston back: who’s guarding Giannis?

Boston Celtics

Few people are considering the Celtics a serious title contender. Yet many fans seem to forget that just two years ago this Celtics team took LeBron and the Cavs to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. A young star-studded team with lots of playoff experience has benefited greatly from the season’s break. Kemba Walker and Robert Williams have been able to fully recover from their knee injuries, while Gordon Hayward has been continuing his road back to being an All-Star level player.

Although appearing to be the very best team in the East, Giannis and the Bucks have yet to figure out how to escape the Eastern Conference under the bright lights of the postseason. This Boston team has the depth and experience to take Milwaukee to seven games, and possibly win the Eastern Conference. A potential Lakers vs. Celtics Finals would be the first since 2010, revitalizing the NBA’s greatest rivalry. 

Philadelphia 76ers

Arguably the most disappointing team in the league, Philadelphia has fallen to the East's sixth-seed due to their lack of spacing and G-league worthy bench. 

Philadelphia’s plummet out of championship contention has underachieving written all over it. Whether the front office is to blame or the players, no team’s success can be written off in the bubble. Anything can happen in Orlando - even Ben Simmons shooting threes - so one has to think that a team as talented as Philadelphia has as good of a shot at the title as any dark horse contender.

The injury-riddled Embiid played only 44 games before the league’s suspension. With plenty of time to recover, Embiid can now operate in a less crowded paint with Horford moving to the bench. Inserting Shake Milton into the starting lineup while placing Simmons at the power forward spot will only improve the 76ers’ floor spacing issues.

The pre-Orlando training camp should provide an opportunity for Philly to continue hammering out an effective offensive identity. Horford excels at making players around him better, so putting big Al on the bench should serve to boost the second unit’s production greatly. 

Throughout the season, the Sixers have flashed title-worthy play between stretches of dismal shooting and incoherence. Philly beat the Lakers by 17 on January 25th, only to lose three days later to the Atlanta Hawks. This team is truly a mixed bag, and can give you a convincing win or a horrid loss on any given night. After four months to regroup and alter their sets, Orlando is wide open for Philadelphia to turn around their season and rattle off win after win.

Toronto Raptors

Amidst this one-of-a-kind NBA playoffs, many questions loom amongst championship favorites. How will the Lakers fare with the loss of Avery Bradley? Has Kawhi Leonard fully recovered from his knee problems? Is it true that Kris Middleton has not shot a basketball in three months?

The one team that has barely changed since the stoppage of play? The NBA's defending champs. Chemistry is key, and the Raptors boast some of the best roster continuity in the bubble. The crucible-forged chemistry of these title-defending Toronto Raptors, in a postseason characterized by disorganization and uncertainty, may be enough to keep the Larry O'B north of the border for yet another NBA season.

Many have counted Toronto out since the loss of Kawhi. Nobody wants to talk about how the Raptors have a great argument as the second best team in the East. Plus, who knows if the Bucks have solved their playoff woes yet?

The coaching excellence of Nick Nurse, combined with superb team chemistry and a cadre of talented, youthful, and ultimately healthy players may very well be enough to crown Toronto a city of champions for the second year in a row.