The NBA intends to resume this season, should the COVID-19 pandemic run its course over the next month or two, but commissioner Adam Silver acknowledged the entire campaign may be lost.
“Of course it’s possible,” Silver told TNT’s “Inside the NBA.” “I just don’t know more at this point.”
The coronavirus is holding the NBA hostage along with the world. The league acknowledged its suspension of play “will last at least 30 days,” confirming Yahoo Sports senior NBA writer Vincent Goodwill’s report, and at least two weeks after players no longer test positive for COVID-19. Silver indicated the season can return in full if the 30-day timeline holds, pushing the Finals into July, and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban stretched that to 60 days and August on ESPN’s “Get Up.”
Acknowledging that there are far greater concerns than when basketball may return to our lives, including the players who have already contracted the virus, it is still fair to wonder what comes next for the NBA. Here are the unanswerable questions the current hiatus has presented already.
Could this cost LeBron James his last best chance?
Following his most disappointing season in recent memory, James returned this season prepared to reestablish himself as the greatest player going. The 35-year-old did yeoman’s work, leading his Los Angeles Lakers to a sizable lead on the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed and breaking into the MVP conversation with a recent string of play that included wins over the rival Clippers and Bucks.
James has long been in pursuit of championship rings in his quest to chase Kobe Bryant’s five and Michael Jordan’s six, and a fifth MVP award would match Jordan and Bill Russell. In the midst of the greatest age-35 season in NBA history, James sure looked like he can do the same at 36. He may be a robot sent to destroy league records for all we know, but at some point there are only so many MVP-caliber seasons left in a man, and James is already in uncharted territory at his position.
Should the season be canceled, shortened or even resume fully at some point, could this hiatus cost James his last best chance at an MVP and/or a title? The break might halt the momentum his Lakers built with wins over their two chief competitors for the crown, but it may also give James an opportunity to return rested, and it could help teammate Anthony Davis’ lingering shoulder issue.
A shortened season, though, would limit James’ ability to close the gap on MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo. And a canceled season? That could be a killer. Who’s to say James ramps up to this level for another full season? Davis can become a free agent this summer, and while he is a near lock to return to the Lakers, he would come back at a higher price tag. Considering the salary cap may be lower than expected as a result of the league’s suspension, the Lakers will have limited resources to bolster their aging team. Half of their rotation is free to walk at season’s end, and there’s no telling whether the Lakers can recreate the chemistry that led to this season’s success.
Is this the end for Vince Carter?
The 43-year-old announced his plan to retire at the end of this season. He had nine more farewell stops on the schedule, including his last ever trip to Toronto, where his career began 22 years ago.
His Atlanta Hawks played on the night the season abruptly halted. He at least capped his night with a three-pointer in the final seconds of what may have been the final game of a Hall of Fame career.
“It’s a weird way to say I’m calling it a career,” Carter told reporters afterwards, acknowledging this could be it. “It really is. I have 15 games left, technically. But if not, I’m one with it. It’s just weird, as we’re getting briefed on everything … I would just sit there, like ‘Alright, it ended like that.’ ”
Former champions Tyson Chandler and Udonis Haslem have also considered retirement in recent years. How tough must it be to acknowledge their careers may have just ended without notice?
What becomes of Milwaukee’s pursuit of history?
Any chance the Bucks (53-12) had at becoming the third team ever to win 70 games likely went out the window with a recent string of four losses in five games. They still had a chance of eclipsing the franchise record of 66 wins in their 1970-71 championship season. They also had an outside shot at eclipsing the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors for the greatest net rating in history (13.0), although the recent skid also sent Milwaukee’s spread sliding to plus-10.7 points per 100 possessions.
A shortened season would likely cost them those milestones. A canceled one might prevent Antetokounmpo from joining Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, LeBron James and Stephen Curry as the only back-to-back MVPs in history, should the league opt against award winners.
Worse, an aborted season would bring Antetokounmpo closer to 2021 free agency with just the one year for Milwaukee to build a championship team around him before risking his interest elsewhere.
As with James, the hiatus could also benefit Antetokounmpo, whose sprained left knee cost him the final two games before the break. Should the season resume, he will presumably be fully healthy, and the Bucks will enter the playoffs as prohibitive Eastern Conference favorites, interruption or not.
How will player options be approached this offseason?
Should the salary cap drop below projections this offseason, only to return as projected in 2021-22, that could mean a difference of millions of dollars between contracts signed this summer or next. Should the cap stay at $109 million next season and jump to $125 million the following year, the difference between signing a max contract in 2020 and 2021 would be in the $28 million range.
On a smaller scale, there would be similar implications for players opting in or out of contracts dependent on the cap figure. That would present an interesting choice for any number of players, including Gordon Hayward, Andre Drummond, DeMar DeRozan and Evan Fournier. Could it be more beneficial to opt in next season and prove their value for the already loaded 2021 free-agency class? Or is it still best to secure the money now, when fewer players will compete for cap space?
How else will the 2020 free agency market be impacted?
The Phoenix Suns were maybe the most interesting team capable of creating considerable cap space. The presence of All-Star guard Devin Booker, recent No. 1 pick DeAndre Ayton and an improved supporting cast makes them a more attractive destination than in years past — and certainly a more attractive playing destination than fellow spenders Charlotte, Detroit and New York.
A lower cap figure could drop the Suns’ space well below the 25 percent max salary for players with fewer than seven years experience. The good news is there are few players worth that kind of money on the market, but attempts to add multiple players will be hindered by a lower cap figure.
A drop in the cap may answer any question the Miami Heat had about whether to bolster their roster this season at the risk of eating precious 2021 cap space. That was probably unlikely anyway, but the likelihood their space falls below the 30 percent max precludes them from even broaching a meeting with Davis — the biggest and really only worthy prize on the open market.
How might the hiatus affect injury-riddled teams?
A number of key Boston Celtics contributors have battled minor injuries in recent weeks, including All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, who recently had his sore left knee drained and missed two weeks before returning on a minutes restriction. With the caveat that COVID-19 does not interfere, the ailing Celtics can come back from a month-long break healthier than they have been all season.
The Philadelphia 76ers find themselves in a similar scenario, as Joel Embiid had just returned from a left shoulder injury that cost him two weeks and fellow All-Star Ben Simmons is scheduled to be reevaluated for a lower back injury at the start of April. Veteran Al Horford has also looked weary.
Likewise, an extended absence could help Utah Jazz point guard Mike Conley sort out the hamstring issues that have plagued his disappointing season and give Indiana Pacers star Victor Oladipo additional time to return to form after missing an entire year with a knee injury.
It is impossible to say how Jazz teammates Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell — both of whom have tested positive for COVID-19 — will respond if they are cleared of the virus and return to action this season. The physical and mental drain of what is to come is a frightening thought.
As unlikely as it is, Brooklyn Nets stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were both slated to be active in summer workouts after presumed season-ending injuries. Durant said recently he had not ruled out returning for the Tokyo Olympics in late July. If the playoffs do not start until May or even June, might the currently seventh-seeded Nets see either star in uniform? Probably not. But it’s possible.
The race for the Western Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot might also be impacted by the hiatus. Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke are both scheduled to return to health for the Memphis Grizzlies in the coming weeks. New Orleans Pelicans guard J.J. Redick has been sidelined by a hamstring injury. But no West team has been more decimated by injuries than the Portland Trail Blazers, who are expecting starting center Jusuf Nurkic back from a yearlong injury absence and awaiting the healthy recovery of Zach Collins from November shoulder surgery.
How does the hiatus impact team chemistry building?
The Clippers, Heat and Rockets were all in the midst of integrating key trade deadline acquisitions. The league has barred players from working out in groups, so the hiatus may stall what chemistry they have already built, and a shortened season could hinder their integration prior to the playoffs.
The Clippers were testing how Marcus Morris best fits into their rotation in a number of small- and bully-ball lineups. The Heat were incorporating both Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala as they attempted to balance offense- and defense-first lineups. And the Rockets added Robert Covington, DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Green into a center-less experiment that was still getting off the ground.
Houston may be the most impacted, as coaches will have additional time to concoct counters to their gimmicky offensive game plan. An awful lot of film will be watched over the next month.
Will the Raptors ever get their title defense?
It has been a remarkable season for Toronto in the wake of losing Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to free agency. The Raptors are on pace to win one more game than they did last regular season and capture the second seed for the second straight year. They are a wonderful blend of smart and fiery competitors who know how to play together, and posed a serious threat in the East because of it.
Should this season end in a wash, integral contributors Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol will all be unrestricted free agents in the offseason. The possibility remains that all three re-sign with Toronto, considering their positive experiences there, but even then the Raptors will be two years removed from their championship season. This season felt like their best shot at a true title defense.
Of course, the Raptors might also be among the teams who benefit from a break before play resumes. VanVleet has been sidelined several weeks with a shoulder injury. Gasol could use a break after back-to-back NBA and FIBA title-winning campaigns spun into this season. And 33-year-old All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry can always use a respite from all those dives and drawn charges.
Is there new life in San Antonio’s playoff streak?
Four games behind the Grizzlies for the eighth seed, with three more teams between them and 19 games to play, the Spurs were almost certainly headed for their first lottery since before Gregg Popovich coached a full season in 1997-98. But you can’t miss the playoffs if there are no playoffs.
The marked improvement from San Antonio’s young core that never came this season may well come in 2020-21, when Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Bryn Forbes and Lonnie Walker will all be a year older. Earlier this week, Yahoo Sports senior NBA writer Chris Haynes reported that DeMar DeRozan intended to decline his player option for next season if they could not reach an agreement on a contract extension. There is always the possibility that a lower cap could change his decision.
Of a greatest concern in San Antonio is Popovich’s future. It is no secret that the 71-year-old coaching legend is nearing the end of his career, despite the three-year contract extension he signed last April. There was much speculation that Popovich could call it quits as he wraps his tenure at the helm of USA Basketball in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Considering that too may not go on as planned, it would be hard to see him walk without finishing either of his final tasks.
Should we start the bidding for Bradley Beal now?
The NBA reportedly plans to put a moratorium on official business through April 10, but the trade deadline has already passed and Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal’s contract precluded him from requesting one this season anyway. Presumably, inquiries can still be made about his potential availability in the offseason, and we may be closer to that than we ever imagined two weeks ago.
The Wizards are five games in the loss column behind the Orlando Magic for the East’s eighth seed with 18 to play. That is a mountain to climb, especially since Beal’s recent back-to-back 50-point performances were not enough to earn them a victory. The future in Washington is not especially bright, despite the looming return of former All-Star point guard John Wall from an Achilles injury. (He, too, could potentially be healthy enough to play by the end of a hiatus, but do not count on it.)
Beal would have been the most sought-after star in the league this season had his recent contract extension not prevented him from being traded. You can bet almost every general manager in the league is preparing to inquire for his services next season. Let the trade rumors begin in earnest.
Is there still time left for lottery teams to tank?
If the season is over, the Warriors (15-50), Cavaliers (19-46) and Timberwolves (19-45) have secured the league’s best lottery odds — a 52.1 percent chance apiece at a top-four pick and 14 percent at the No. 1 overall selection — barring any changes to the system in the wake of an annulled season.
That is unfortunate news for the Hawks and Pistons, who both are sitting at 20 wins and could have entered a tank-off down the stretch with those others for the top odds. The Knicks, Bulls, Hornets and Wizards all have between 21 and 24 wins before the next-worst West team — the Suns at 26.
That list makes up the top-10 lottery odds as currently constituted. No other teams would have a better than 10 percent chance at a top-four pick or 3 percent shot at the No. 1 selection.
How would a canceled season impact future player movement?
The hard times Brooklyn has faced since the free-agent signing splash of Durant and Irving moves them one year closer to the possibility that both could walk in 2022. This was in essence a throwaway season from the start, but it most certainly was not supposed to be for the Clippers.
A canceled season would cut one year off a championship window that is only guaranteed at two. Both Leonard and Paul George are signed through next season with player options in 2021. That either or both could walk would place an inordinate amount of pressure on next season, to say nothing of the fact that Montrezl Harrell is among a group of unrestricted free agents this year.
Would a lost season make it more or less likely that a player leaves after a shortened window? It would seem more likely that Leonard and George would stay beyond a single full season in L.A., but at the pace things have changed for the NBA in recent years, likelihood does guarantees nothing.
The list of player options in 2021 also includes one LeBron James.
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