Can The NBA Bubble Sample Size Be Trusted?

Aug 25, 2020, 2:30 PM | Updated: 2:34 pm
Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz and Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Mitchell Leff...
Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz and Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The Utah Jazz appear to be on the verge of advancing out of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. With a 3-1 lead, and no home court for the Denver Nuggets to return to, moving past the first sounds feels like more of a question of when, and not if. While advancing gets the Jazz closer to the immediate satisfaction of their top goal, winning, it also grants them a quiet, and perhaps more long term gift, that of patience after the NBA bubble.

The NBA bubble has been a bizarre one-off event caused by the worst pandemic in more than a century. While teams may return next season still separated from fans, they won’t be asked to play three scrimmages, eight seedings games, and four playoff rounds in a total of 11 weeks. It’s an aggressively small sample size and one that may have long term impacts for many franchises across the league. To make matters worse, the shorter your team survives the elimination process, the more dangerously small the sample size gets.

Teams Altered By NBA Bubble Small Sample Size

Let’s look at three examples of teams who are almost destined to make long term implications off of an impossibly small number of games. First, the Phoenix Suns.

Phoenix was the only team in the NBA bubble that went undefeated during eight seeding games. The success was so great that many fans and media members asked why Phoenix was invited if they stood no chance of controlling their destiny?

While Phoenix’s success was a good storyline for the franchise inside the bubble, and will certainly drum up excitement for the next season, what impact will it have on the team’s offseason moves?

Before the season’s suspension, the Suns had the third-worst record in the Western Conference through 65 games. The Suns were just 26-39 on the season, and a full six games back of the eight seeded Memphis Grizzlies.

After the end of the bubble seeding games, Phoenix had managed to leapfrog three Western Conference teams and full into a tie with the Grizzlies for the ninth seed. Due to a tie-breaker, the Suns missed the postseason and were left with positive momentum, but no playoffs to show for it.

It’s perhaps the worst-case scenario for the Suns. they played well enough to believe they are a playoff contender, and maybe they are, without the added sample size of playoff games to test their might.

Phoenix’s Free-Agent Dilemma

With just over $90 million in committed salaries next season, Phoenix could be one of the few NBA teams to have money to pursue the top free-agents this offseason.

Guard Jevon Carter, a free-agent this summer has career averages of 4.7 points per game, 1.9 rebounds per game, and 1.6 assists per game, shooting 36 percent from the floor and 38 percent from the three-point line.

In the bubble, his numbers climbed to seven points per game, 2.5 rebounds, and 2.4 assists shooting a remarkable 50 percent from the floor and 55 percent from the three-point line. With his terrific defensive mindset, and now excellent shooting numbers, Carter may appear to be an indispensable piece for the Suns but likely didn’t have that reputation before the Suns eight seeding games.

How much to pay Carter this offseason could have a major impact on the Suns over the next few seasons, and alter their dealings with free agents Dario Saric and Aron Baynes.

If Phoenix terrific eight-game run pans out, the sample size worked in their favor. However, if Phoenix decides to make offseason decisions based on this run, and once again find themselves 10 games under .500 for most of next season, they may look back with despair at the false hope provided in the NBA bubble

The Denver Nuggets NBA Bubble Sample Size

The Jazz first-round foe, the Denver Nuggets may find themselves in a similar boat. Before the two teams face off in a potential series-clinching game five, storylines are already beginning to emerge about the Nuggets’ long term inadequacies. The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks wrote a lengthy and well-thought-out article on the trouble with Denver’s lineup pairing Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., and Nikola Jokic.

None of the three are above average defenders, and Tjarks proposes an interesting trade moving either Murray or Porter for Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons.

The move has obvious upside, which Tjarks lays out in the article, but is based on an impossibly small sample size. Considering Porter Jr. is just a rookie and has been in and out of Michael Malone’s rotation, mixed with Murray’s injuries this season, the trio has played a combined 151 minutes in 33 games together.

Making matters worse, 68 of those minutes have come in the four playoff games alone. Meaning, the other 83 minutes have been played over a 29 game stretch, for a rough average of just under three minutes per game.

Murray appears to be ready to compete for a spot in the Western Conference All-Star team, while Porter Jr., as Tjarks said, has as much potential as any 22 years old in the NBA. Blowing up a potentially three-headed All-Star lineup, all on players under 25 years old and firmly in Denver’s control is a bold move for a team that may have simply run into an unimaginable hot-streak from Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell.

Philadelphia’s Bubble Conundrum

On the flip side of the proposed trade, though with an admittedly larger sample size, the 76ers have fired coach Brett Brown, and are believed to need to trade one of their franchise cornerstones in Simmons or Joel Embiid after a disastrous first-round sweep at the hand of the Boston Celtics.

While the season has been an inarguable failure for Philadelphia, are they ready to move either All-Star cornerstone after getting swept in a series that didn’t feature the injured Simmons? Had the fourth-year guard played and helped Philadelphia advance past Boston, would their perspective on the off-season look dramatically different?

General Manager Elton Brand has committed to additional shakeups in the front office beyond firing Brown, and while he says there are no plans to trade either All-Star, the general consensus is either player could be had for the right price.

For Phoenix, Denver, and Philadelphia, their successes and failures within the bubble could come with a high long term priced that will be felt long beyond the inconvenience of the NBA bubble.

Jazz Sample Size Noise

While the Jazz offseason priorities likely remain relatively unaltered as a result of their first-round success to date, they may also have some small sample size noise making its way into off-season conversations. Mitchell’s play as the team’s primary ball-handler for long stretches has been series changing against the Nuggets, but how does that project over the next several seasons? Jordan Clarkson has played the best four games of his playoff career in a Jazz uniform, how does that impact his pending contract negotiation? Rudy Gobert has outplayed Jokic through four games, is he worth signing to an early contract extension this summer as a result?

With the Jazz on the verge of advancing beyond the first round of the playoffs, they should also accept that any information gained within the bubble comes within the constraints of a strict small sample size. But unlike Phoenix, Philadelphia, and likely Denver, they’ll have the opportunity to use another playoff round to shed more light on the data.

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Can The NBA Bubble Sample Size Be Trusted?