By: Jordan Hom, Jonathan Fernandez, SSW
As the NBA season was cut short and suspended indefinitely due to COVID-19, many of the main season storylines were unable to see a definite ending. While this NBA season may resume in the distant future, the ultimate reality is that we might not be able to crown a champion this season and the competitions between the players will go down as ‘what-ifs’ left for spectators and fans alike to decide how the various outcomes would have unraveled. Below are some of the biggest what-ifs and unanswerable questions left by the suspended season.
Would the Milwaukee Bucks have stormed their way into the finals and the championship? Or would they be defeated by an LA team or any other formidable foe in their path?
Led by the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks would have won their second championship in franchise history, having won their last one in 1971. With a formidable group surrounding Giannis, Bucks management built the near-perfect roster to compliment the constant attacking force that the Greek Freak has imposed throughout the season. Each of the five positions in the Bucks starting lineup feature a potent outside threat to adequately space the floor for Giannis and if Giannis himself is knocking down his jump shots, there isn’t much that an opposing defense can do to stop the Bucks. As the only team to reach 50 wins this season, all of the regular season momentum was gearing toward an even stronger playoff run.
In the Eastern Conference, the Sixers and Raptors were the teams most likely to give the Bucks a run for their money. However, with the Sixers lack of cohesion on the court and the Raptors without their 2019 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, no Eastern Conference team would have posed a formidable threat to the Bucks. With the Bucks cruising to the Finals, the Lakers were the likely opponent that they would have battled. Despite not having a second superstar on the roster, as constructed, the Bucks would be able to answer the fearsome duo of LeBron and Anthony Davis with their overall defensive scheme. Bucks center Brook Lopez would be the anchor inside and along with All-Defensive team member Eric Bledsoe, the trio would provide a strong defensive rotation at all five positions on the court to slow down the Lakers potent offensive game plan.
The Rookie of the year race: Would Zion Williamson have surpassed Ja Morant in claiming the honor of being the top rookie?
While Zion certainly lived up to the hype in the limited amount of games that he played in, he simply didn’t play enough to deserve the Rookie of the Year honors over Ja Morant. Despite his high-flying power dunks and spectacular playstyle, Zion simply didn’t appear in enough games to truly contend with Morant over the award. A similar scenario happened in 2017 with Joel Embiid in which he was among the top candidates for the honor alongside Dario Saric and Malcolm Brogdon. Despite Embiid’s strong statistical season, he only played in 31 out of the 82 available games and lost the award to Brogdon, a candidate who had a solid but unspectacular season.
This time around, the award would have been given to Morant. With averages of 17.6 points per game and around 7 assists per game, Morant proved to be a franchise cornerstone for the rebuilding Memphis Grizzlies after parting ways with longtime franchise legends Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. Although Zion might certainly have the better career when it’s all said and done, Morant will get the head start in terms of adding hardware to his resume.
How would the Warriors have finished off the season with Steph Curry’s return?
Despite their dominance in the second half of the decade, this was a down season for the Warriors in which they were already eliminated in the playoffs before the season was suspended. Two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant departed to the Brooklyn Nets to join Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson was already out for the 2019-20 season with a torn ACL that he suffered during the 2019 NBA Finals against the Raptors. To start the season, the Warriors still had stars Steph Curry and Draymond Green alongside newcomer D’Angelo Russell, whom they got in the Durant trade to Brooklyn. The rest of the roster was a mixed bag of spare parts and unproven players.
Four games into the season, Steph injured his hand, setting him back for three months. The rest of the roster was led by the defensive-minded Green and the newly-acquired Russell and the experiment failed miserably.
The Warriors kept losing and eventually, the team traded the young All-Star Russell to the Timberwolves for former No.1 pick Andrew Wiggins, a once hyped-up prospect now looking to revitalize his career. On March 5, Steph made his return to the court and scored 23 points. With Curry back, the Warriors could evaluate his play on the court with his new teammates but that chance did not happen as the NBA would announce the indefinite suspension of the league just six days later on March 11.
While the Warriors were already out of the playoff hunt, they would have been able to evaluate the pieces they deemed to fit best with Curry and Green and thus, make the necessary adjustments in the offseason to get the team back in contention. Even though they would have lost many more games, the Warriors would have been much more exciting to watch with Curry back on the court.
Would Zion Williamson and the Pelicans have forced their way into the eighth spot?
The most obvious implications and questions surrounding the suspension of the NBA season are the ones about on-court play, the ones we can see. In that same vein, the Pelicans were only three and a half games back of the eighth spot, with only 18 games left to play in the regular season. Since Zion Willamson’s return to the lineup, New Orleans had been playing up and down, finishing with an 11-9 record since his debut.
With that being said, the Pelicans had the easiest strength of schedule for their final 18 games while the Grizzlies had the most difficult schedule of all 30 teams.
Regardless of if New Orleans would have been able to overtake Memphis for the final playoff spot or not, the race down the stretch would have been very fun to watch. The Pelicans still had two games against the Grizzlies remaining, both of which would’ve been wildly entertaining and vitaly important to both teams’ playoff hopes. New Orleans also still had games against the Spurs, who they are currently tied with for the ninth seed, and the Kings, who trail the Pelicans by half a game. While currently in self-isolation, it’s difficult not to think about how the race for the eighth spot in the Western Conference this year could have been one of the more exciting finishes to a regular season in recent memory.
A lost LeBron James season, both competing for a championship and for his fifth MVP. What’s next for James and how will this affect his legacy?
Championships and MVPs are both very important to LeBron, especially now, in his twilight years. He will be 36 next year and this may be his best opportunity to win another ring and bring his championship total to four, only two shy of Michael Jordan.
When the season was officially suspended the Lakers and LeBron were shifting into “playoff mode.” They had taken care of reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and overcome the Los Angeles Clippers; both victories were key milestones of the season as the Lakers had yet to beat either Finals favorite.
The victories were impressive from a glance but watching the games it was clear LeBron had been hearing the skepticism from the media. What was even more impressive was how LeBron took it upon himself to guard the opposing teams’ best players and succeeded in styming them, something we had not seen in previous matchups.
The impressive showing against elite competition had also started to shift the MVP narrative, which up until that point was favoring Antetokounmpo. If the season ended today, Antetokounmpo would likely win the MVP, and rightfully so, but after those key victories, it felt as though LeBron had flipped a switch and the media, who votes on the award, had noticed. If LeBron had continued playing at this level and won his fifth MVP, it would place him in elite company alongside Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Michael Jordan, the only players to have won the award five times. If the season ends up being canceled, it will be interesting to see how history remembers this historic LeBron season and how it affects his legacy.
What does the suspension do to the salary cap and by extension Giannis’ super-max contract extension offer?
The suspension of the NBA season will have an economic impact on the league for years to come. The most immediate example of that impact will come in free agency, whenever that period is set to start.
The two biggest question marks of the off-season were already going to be centered around Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks and Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Davis is set to enter free agency and all signs point toward him resigning with the Lakers, but now that the salary cap for each team has taken a hit, it doesn’t make sense for him to resign on a long-term deal. It would make more sense for Davis to resign on a one-year max contract and wait for the league to get a full year or two of revenue under its belt before signing a longer-term contract.
This same thought process applies to Milwaukee and their star. The Bucks will have the opportunity to offer Giannis a five-year $247.3 million super-max contract extension this summer. Before the suspension of the season, Giannis’ decision to either accept or decline the supermax would have been a clear indicator of whether he wishes to be in Milwaukee for the long haul or not, but now it doesn’t make financial sense to sign when the numbers will likely drop across the board due to lost revenue.
This was going to be a crucial season and summer for the Bucks, especially since shortly after their loss in the playoffs to the Raptors last season, a report surfaced that Giannis’ desire to make the Finals would be essential to him resigning in Milwaukee long-term.
Antetokounmpo later denied the report, but it would have been interesting to see what choice he would have made had the Bucks not reached the NBA Finals.