NBA bubble awards: Our experts pick the MVP, best play and top rookie

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Blazers eyeing more than just the 8-seed (1:52)

Portland's inspired play during the NBA restart has the Trail Blazers looking to make a deep run in the playoffs. (1:52)

Before the NBA season restarted, the league decided that the 88 seeding games at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex would not count toward season-long awards voting this year. Then on Tuesday the league announced that it would name an MVP and All-NBA teams for the restart games before the playoffs begin. So we asked our experts for their vote in those categories, plus the other regular-season awards the NBA typically doles out. As a bonus, we even added two categories, because the longest season in NBA history deserves some extra awards.

Here are the players our experts chose to take home the (virtual) hardware in the bubble.

MORE: Western Conference play-in scenarios


Rookie of the Bubble

He was overshadowed by the hype around teammate Bol Bol in the pre-restart scrimmages, but Michael Porter Jr. quickly emerged as the best rookie in seeding games. The 2018 draft pick, who missed all of the 2018-19 season after undergoing back surgery, has averaged 22.0 points and 8.6 rebounds in the restart for the Denver Nuggets while shooting 55.1% from the field. Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant is the only other rookie averaging at least 20.0 PPG in the bubble.

Voting results

  1. Michael Porter Jr.: 14 votes

  2. Ja Morant: 1

  3. Cameron Johnson: 1

MORE: Michael Porter Jr. and eight more breakout NBA players in Orlando

Comeback Player of the Bubble

The NBA hasn't actually handed out a Comeback Player of the Year Award since the '80s, but the league's return after a four-month hiatus provided the perfect opportunity to bring this back for the bubble (and it should be noted that the true best comeback was the league itself). We asked our experts to pick the most outstanding player among those who missed most or all of the pre-hiatus season, either because of injury or simply being unsigned.

Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic, who hadn't played since breaking his leg in March 2019, was a near-unanimous choice for this award. Through the first seven seeding games, Nurkic averaged 17.0 PPG (which would be a career high for a full season) and 10.3 RPG. Oh, and -- spoiler alert -- he isn't the only Blazer taking home a Bubble trophy.

Voting results

  1. Jusuf Nurkic: 14 votes

  2. Trey Burke: 1

  3. Andre Roberson: 1

MORE: What Jusuf Nurkic gained from losing a year to injury

Sixth Man of the Bubble

When three-time Sixth Man winner Lou Williams was quarantined for the start of bubble play, the door award quickly opened up. Gary Trent Jr. just as quickly closed it. The second-year shooting guard averaged 20.6 PPG on 57.6% shooting in 33 minutes per night off the bench in Portland's first five seeding games. And while he has cooled off a bit in the past two, he's still a big reason the Blazers are in eighth place heading into Thursday.

Voting results

  1. Gary Trent Jr.: 9 votes

  2. Rudy Gay: 4

  3. Michael Porter Jr.: 2

  4. Jevon Carter: 1

MORE: Finding the biggest flaw with every NBA playoff lock

Best Play

With so many tight games, there were plenty of thrilling moments for our voters to choose from, but in the end, one play stood out above the rest: Devin Booker's buzzer-beater to lift the Phoenix Suns to a victory over the LA Clippers. Depending on what happens Thursday, that shot could end up being the difference between Phoenix playing for a playoff spot this weekend or going home early.

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Booker beats buzzer with incredible game winner

Devin Booker fades away with seconds remaining and buries the jumper at the horn to defeat the Clippers.

Voting results

  1. Booker's buzzer-beater: 6 votes

  2. Lillard's high-bouncing 3 vs. Dallas: 4

  3. Doncic's between-the-legs assist vs. Milwaukee: 3

  4. Kuzma's game winner vs. Denver: 1

  5. Gobert scores the first basket of the restart: 1

MORE: Suns perfect, Lillard spectacular, but who gets in?

Coach of the Bubble

No one gave the Phoenix Suns much of a chance of making the playoffs when the NBA season resumed. Phoenix entered the bubble six games back of the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies, needing to jump four other teams just to reach the West play-in. All the Suns have done since arriving in Florida is go 7-0, giving them a chance to do the unthinkable. Because of that, Monty Williams was an easy choice for our experts as Coach of the Bubble.

Voting results

  1. Monty Williams: 14 votes

  2. Gregg Popovich: 1

  3. Jacque Vaughn: 1

MORE: Why some NBA coaches love the new casual look -- and some don't

Most Improved Bubble Player

In the last game before the NBA season shut down in March, Gary Trent Jr. went scoreless in 18 minutes, missing all five shots he attempted. While not every pre-bubble game went like that for Trent, he wasn't a huge factor on a nightly basis for Portland. He was inactive or a DNP-CD 13 times, and in the 53 games he did play, he averaged 7.7 points per game on 42.6% shooting. In the bubble he's averaging 17.0 PPG on 52.6% shooting, ranking second on the team in shooting and fourth in scoring since the restart.

Voting results

  1. Gary Trent Jr.: 6 votes

  2. T.J. Warren: 5

  3. Derrick White: 3

  4. Jevon Carter: 1

  5. Michael Porter Jr.: 1

MORE: What Executive of the Year voting tells us about the NBA's values

Defensive Player of the Bubble

Whoever won this award, it almost certainly had to be a Toronto Raptor. Three different players from Nick Nurse's squad earned at least one vote from our experts. In the end, 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol edged out Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is a finalist for the full-season award. Gasol has been the anchor for a Toronto defense that has an NBA-best 101.8 defensive rating in the bubble (more than four points lower than the second-best defense).

Voting results

  1. Marc Gasol: 5 votes

  2. Giannis Antetokounmpo: 4

  3. Kyle Lowry: 3

  4. Bam Adebayo: 1

  5. Robert Covington: 1

  6. Fred VanVleet: 1

  7. Derrick White: 1

MORE: Zach Lowe on the most exciting nerd thing in the NBA

Most Valuable Bubble Player

After he dropped 51 and 61 points in back-to-back games, could it have been anyone else?

Damian Lillard dominated the voting after averaging 37.0 points and 9.3 assists in Portland's first seven seeding games, helping the Blazers move into eighth in the West. Whether Portland holds on to that spot on Thursday will go a long way toward determining whether Lillard takes home the NBA's official award when it's announced on Saturday. If Portland loses and Phoenix wins, don't be surprised if Lillard and Suns guard Devin Booker end up flipping their spots from this vote.

Voting results
Voters selected a top three; players received 5 points for a first-place vote, 3 points for second and 1 point for third.

  1. Damian Lillard: 72 points (13 first-place votes)

  2. Devin Booker: 44 (2)

  3. T.J. Warren: 18 (1)

  4. James Harden: 8

  5. Giannis Antetokounmpo: 1

  6. Luka Doncic: 1

Not surprisingly, Lillard and Booker were both unanimous picks for our All-Bubble Team. Rather than stick to the NBA's relatively rigid two-guard, two-forward, one-center rules for All-NBA, we allowed our voters some positional flexibility. (If the Spurs can start a lineup with four guards in real games, then our All-Bubble Team can feature a three-guard lineup.)

All-Bubble First Team
G: Damian Lillard
G: Devin Booker
G: Luka Doncic
F: T.J. Warren
F/C: Giannis Antetokounmpo

MORE: Kirk Goldsberry's early NBA all-bubble team