Before Covid-19’s accelerated, unnerving reach made everyday life feel like it was dangling by a thread, the NBA was connective tissue for millions of people who treated any random weeknight’s slate of games as both part of their daily routine and the most reliable way to preoccupy areas of the brain that might otherwise be wracked with anxiety or stress.
My doctor instructed me to self-quarantine for at least 14 days after I came in contact with Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell at Madison Square Garden earlier this month. Actually testing for the coronavirus isn’t an option, so I’ve bunkered down in my apartment, writing, podcasting, reading books (a new copy of David Halberstam’s classic The Breaks of the Game has been sitting on my night table for the past few weeks), and, for my own sanity, stealing quick solitary walks around my Brooklyn neighborhood. I’ve also, off and on, thought about what all this means for the NBA, in a world where the line between temporary and permanent grows blurrier by the hour.
As trivial as this seems, with the league’s current season on the verge of cancellation, so many long-term consequences that are unrelated to epidemiology exist. For some, pondering what may or may not occur a few months from now is a valuable distraction. This is all bewildering on an unprecedented scale, and, frankly, slow-drip speculation about how an NBA team will look on the other side of such turbulence is almost peaceful; a way to make everything feel as normal as it possibly could be.
With all that in mind, here are some theoretical, fluttering implications for a few different teams, whether the season is cancelled tomorrow or postponed until after it would normally end.
If the postseason is scrapped, no good team will be flung into a more sweeping state of uncertainty than Milwaukee. All year they were the NBA’s new boogeyman, stomping through 29 other teams with near-historic ferocity. But the Bucks also had questions that could only be answered in the playoffs, when we’d finally see how their successful albeit rigid system and rotation would translate, whether they’d need another playmaker, if Eric Bledsoe would melt into a puddle, etc.
Tied to those on-court topics is Giannis Antetokounmpo’s future. No playoffs means Antetokounmpo would be robbed an opportunity to learn some critical information about his team’s championship potential before they offer him a super-max extension during the offseason. If, in the absence of knowing how far his Bucks could’ve gone in the playoffs, Antetokounmpo turns down the offer and tells Bucks general manager Jon Horst he wants to play out the final year of his current contract and then play things by ear, how will Milwaukee respond?
Antetokounmpo is the exact type of franchise player who’s worth betting the farm on. Trading him would not be on the table unless he demanded it. But several teams — in larger markets, with more resources and attractive complementary pieces — will have max cap space in 2021, and an opportunity to sell him on their vision. Losing Antetokounmpo for nothing would obliterate a franchise that’s constructed around his generational ability.
The NBA’s economic future may change how players and owners view long-term, multi-million dollar contracts as a whole, but operating off how we currently see things, no team was more looking forward to the playoffs than Milwaukee, and no team better hope they’re still played, be it in empty arenas, practice facilities, or blacktop playgrounds.
Relatively speaking, the Celtics are in decent shape if no more games are played this season. They’re young, and Jayson Tatum’s emergence as (at least) a top-15 player over the past couple months allowed for a clear hierarchy to establish itself. The league’s sudden financial uncertainty all but guarantees Gordon Hayward will opt into his contract. Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA, but this team should have as much top-end continuity as any contender next year. If games resume in a couple months, that’s critical time for Kemba Walker’s knee to recover from whatever has been bothering it.
Remember when Kenny Atkison got fired 19 years ago? Well, even before that happened Brooklyn’s gap year was an unmitigated disaster. Kyrie Irving had season-ending shoulder surgery on March 3, and despite Caris LeVert’s crafty scoring prowess and Spencer Dinwiddie’s pseudo-all-star capability on any given night, the Nets were skidding into a buzzsaw, regardless of who they played in the first round.
Then, earlier this week, Kevin Durant and three of his teammates tested positive for coronavirus, firmly placing professional athletes in an important role they’ve had to fill: vanguards who can spread awareness and even some modicum of hope about an illness that could very well cripple every element of life as we knew it.
In a world where those four recover — along with every other player who tests positive in the coming weeks and months — and games resume, the delay could have the slightest of basketball-related silver linings.
Regardless of what Durant’s business partner Rich Kleiman has to say in the middle of March, if the NBA playoffs pick up in July and Durant is healthy enough to compete, knowing the following year won’t begin until Christmas, it’s hard to imagine him not itching to do so. This doesn’t mean Brooklyn would be considered a favorite to come out of the East, but if Durant is able to contribute for 30 minutes a night there’s no reason why they can’t upset the Toronto Raptors in the opening round.
The trickle down effect Durant’s mere presence would have on everybody else is huge. His all-time talent overrules the power of continuity and cohesion. Throw him the ball in the fourth quarter and get out of the way. With Dinwiddie, LeVert, and Joe Harris also on the floor, guarding Brooklyn’s offense would be agonizing.
As Rudy Gay told me in a conversation about the value of chemistry earlier this year: “It’d be tough not to be able to play with somebody like Kevin Durant.”
It’s always hard to get a read on this year’s most disappointing team. Even if the season comes back, their pieces still won’t fit. Al Horford won’t be younger, have a quicker release on his three-point shot, or look more comfortable as the fifth option in Philadelphia’s starting lineup — assuming he won’t come off the bench.
But the larger question here surrounds Ben Simmons. If, by June, all concerns about his ailing back are gone and Joel Embiid miraculously shows up to the practice facility in shape, this team’s ceiling may rise closer to where it was back in October. A spark of optimism will be tied to the Sixers for the first time in a long time.
Whether games are played or not, the Jazz will be greeted by two seismic decisions shortly after the NBA calendar resumes. Gobert and Mitchell are both eligible for contract extensions during the offseason. Mitchell is a lock to receive a max offer, but Gobert, who qualified for the supermax when he made an All-NBA team last year, is in a different situation.
All data collected during the playoffs would be a critical factor here, and if Utah is robbed of a chance to see how Gobert would’ve performed in that setting with Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic folded into their system, how would they approach it all? In other words, if Gobert — who turns 28 in June and just made his first all-star team — is expecting the supermax, how will negotiations go? To say nothing about the state of his relationship with Mitchell — a variable that obviously matters and is unknown at the moment — the Jazz probably don’t want to invest a healthy chunk of a dropping cap in someone who barely touches the ball.
As painful as it’d be considering they clearly saw themselves as a title contender before the season began, the Jazz may take a step back for the sake of their long-term health, by shopping Gobert, letting Conley walk in free agency, and then rebuilding around Mitchell. That or they’ll come to some sort of agreement with their franchise center that’s well under the max and carry on like the shrewd franchise they are.
If the season does not return then Mike D’Antoni has likely coached his final game in Houston. Daryl Morey might not be the man who gets to hire his replacement, either. And with no firm evidence as to how their small-ball strategy would work in the playoffs, PJ Tucker, Eric Gordon, Robert Covington, and every other Rocket not named James Harden or Russell Westbrook would immediately find themselves in trade rumors.
However, if this season does return, few, if any teams will benefit more from the extended break. The tax Houston pays with their physically exhausting style of play will be less steep if Tucker, Harden, and Westbrook have several months off to recharge their batteries and hit the ground running on a chase for their first title.
Steph Curry returned from hand surgery shortly before the break, but the Warriors are too far behind in the standings for Klay Thompson’s health to matter, whether he’s good to go in June or not. Here’s another angle, though: What happens to their draft pick?
Assuming the Warriors are looking to move that asset for more win-now contribution at some point before the draft, how does the absence of March Madness, the combine, and every other annual way for teams to study prospects impact how said teams value the picks in this year’s pool? With no obvious franchise-altering player for the taking, and no opportunity for anyone to improve how they’re perceived by evaluators, is this year’s first overall pick the least important in recent NBA history? And if the Warriors get it, knowing their unusual circumstance for a team in that type of position, what will they do?
Ever since Kawhi Leonard chose the Los Angeles Clippers over the Los Angeles Lakers, the basketball world was building towards a showdown between those two teams. Apologies to the Bucks, Rockets, Celtics, and Raptors, but a playoff series that doesn’t leave Staples Center was always the most important subplot of the season.
If it does not return, both franchises are humongous losers. Each has tethered itself to the present day. All their draft picks and intriguing young talent can now be found in Oklahoma City and New Orleans. LeBron James is 35 years old. Leonard and Paul George are in the middle of their respective primes but can become unrestricted free agents in 2021.
Stripping both teams of the opportunity to capitalize on the amount of talent they’ve compiled in the here and now could crush basketball in Los Angeles, even if Anthony Davis re-signs a five-year deal with the Lakers this off-season (which, like everything else in the world right now, is so far from a sure thing).