After a tumultuous season off the floor, the final quarter of the NBA schedule was finally all about basketball as the playoffs began to round into view.
For much of the year it was news off the floor that took precedence; 2019–20 was already shaping up as one for the books.
Be it the NBA’s diplomatic and economic tussle with China during the pre-season to the passing of legendary former commissioner David Stern at New Years to the untimely, unspeakable, tragedy that claimed the lives of Los Angeles Lakers icon Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gigi and seven others on Jan. 26, basketball took a back seat, and for good reason.
But as the home stretch came into view, the promise offered by one of the deepest pool of contenders since the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers made four straight Finals appearances began to loom larger.
All season long the Los Angeles Lakers featuring a rejuvenated LeBron James and two-way terror Anthony Davis had positioned themselves as the likely Finals candidate from the Western Conference, James’ urgency at age 35 on display for all to see.
Across the hall at Staples Centre the Los Angeles Clippers, built on cornerstone off-season acquisitions Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and bolstered by one of the deepest rotations in the league, were rolling, winning seven of eight before the hiatus, smashing some other putative contenders along the way.
And while an all-L.A. conference finals seemed on tap – a ratings dream for the league – potentially intriguing matchups abounded throughout the playoff bracket.
The funky, small-ball Houston Rockets against the Clippers in the first round? Rookie sensation Zion Williamson making his playoff debut against James and the Lakers, with Davis facing the New Orleans Pelicans, the franchise he forced his way out of to join James in L.A.? How much noise will the Dallas Mavericks and their now healthy duo of Kristaps Porzingis and Luka Doncic make?
In the East the only drama at the top of the table was how much Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks would finish ahead of second place – they were 6.5 games up on the next-best Toronto Raptors with 17 to play, and this after their only slump of the season – a 1-4 slide precipitated by Antetokounmpo sitting out to rest a minor knee problem. He’s healthy now and the only question remaining is if he and the Bucks can convert their regular-season dominance into playoff success as they try to bring the NBA title back to Wisconsin for the first time since 1971.
Standing in Milwaukee’s way is a sturdy bundle of clubs with aspirations of their own. Depending on how the final eight seeding games play out, the Bucks will need to get past the likes of the Miami Heat, featuring potential Giannis-stopper Bam Adebayo; the Boston Celtics, who have their own budding superstar in Jayson Tatum, and/or the Toronto Raptors, who memorably dispatched the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals last year after spotting the Bucks a 2–0 lead. And while the Philadelphia 76ers have had a shaky regular season for a team many predicted to contend for the NBA title, they still have seven-foot-one, 300-pound Joel Embiid to guard the rim against Antetokounmpo while six-foot-10 Ben Simmons – his back healed up thanks to four months off – can match up with him on the perimeter.
League-wide, the storylines write themselves, but the circumstances are out of a science fiction movie come to life, the shape the plot finally takes subject to a deck full of wild cards. With 22 teams gathered under what the NBA desperately hopes will be an antiseptic “bubble” on the campus of the Walt Disney World Resort outside Orlando, how the final scenes play out is anyone’s guess.
As the coronavirus seemingly continues its advance, the story of the 2019–20 season could end predictably, triumphantly, prematurely or even tragically. Presuming the bubble remains virus free – no sure thing given the rising case counts in Florida and beyond – the NBA champion will have been in in the bubble for 10 weeks, playing every other day on neutral courts without fans. They’re conditions unlike anything the league has ever seen and hopefully won’t again.
The only guarantee is the restart of the 2019–20 NBA season will be memorable.
Except no one is sure exactly what kind of memory we’ll all be left with.
Can LeBron lead the Lakers?
The basketball event of the pandemic so far was The Last Dance, the riveting 10-part documentary capturing Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan grinding his way to his sixth NBA title in eight seasons and his second three-peat. It was a reminder or an introduction – depending on your age group – of Jordan’s unassailable greatness.
It’s a standard James has been chasing his entire career. He’s matched up with it better than could possibly have been expected when he broke into the NBA as an 18-year-old in 2003, but with the clock steadily ticking away will be he be able to surpass the other No. 23?
James has three championships and nine Finals appearances on his resumé, and the “GOAT” mantle is within his grasp.
Leading a third franchise to a championship and earning his fourth title would represent a breadth of accomplishment that Jordan — whose six career titles were earned with one team — can’t claim. James has put himself in position to strengthen his case as he enjoys in Davis arguably the best teammate he’s ever had. But as good as the Lakers have been, they enter the restart with question marks.
Avery Bradley, their starting wing, didn’t join the team in Orlando, citing family issues, and Rajon Rondo is out for six to eight weeks with a fractured thumb. But with James and Davis healthy and rested, everything else might prove secondary.
Will the seeding games matter?
The NBA couldn’t afford to dispense with the remainder of the regular season and head straight to the playoffs both from a financial point of view – they needed to fulfill broadcast obligations – and concerns that having players go from four months off to playoff intensity without some opportunity to ramp up gradually would produce some bad basketball and create significant injury risk.
But neither could the league bring all 30 teams back and play out the entirety of the regular season – it would take too much time and put even more pressure on the resources needed to keep the bubble virus-free.
The compromise was an eight-game schedule to finalize playoff seedings, with teams playing games against other bubble teams that would have otherwise been on their schedule as well as a few games to make up for ones against the eight teams not in the bubble. For teams like the Bucks and Lakers, the seeding games are mostly a formality, but elsewhere they should produce some significant basketball.
In the East, no team in the top half of the bracket likely wants to draw the Philadelphia 76ers – currently in sixth place – as a first-round opponent, as an example, which should make the Aug. 7 matchup between the second-place Raptors and third-place Celtics one of the most meaningful of the seeding games. Out West, the Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets are all within one game of each other in fourth, fifth and sixth place, respectively, creating all manner of matchup intrigue.
At the bottom of the conference, Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento and San Antonio are within a half-game of each other for ninth place. The significance? Providing the ninth-place team finishes within four games of the eighth-place team – currently Memphis – at the end of the seeding games, the eighth- and ninth-place teams will have a two-game play-in series for the final playoff spot, with the ninth-place team having to win both games.
Hi, I’m Kawhi – what’s your name again?
The Clippers won the NBA off-season, trumping the Lakers’ addition of Davis via trade by signing Leonard in free agency and then trading for George to give them the best two-way wing combination in the NBA.
The results have been impressive with the Clippers ranking third in both offensive and defensive rating, and clocking signature wins over the Lakers twice – although they lost to the Bucks twice as well.
But Leonard has played only 51 games with his new team as his “load management” program, perfected with the Raptors last season, remains in effect. Similarly, George has played just 42 games after starting the season recovering from shoulder surgery. The Clippers added a new starter, Marcus Morris, at the trade deadline and signed a potentially significant rotation piece in Reggie Jackson after the deadline. On a loaded, deep roster, chemistry problems can be an issue, and they surfaced at points during the regular season, with complaints that George and Leonard were getting preferential treatment.
More tangibly, what figure to be the Clippers’ top lineups simply haven’t logged a lot of minutes together. The configuration of Morris, Leonard, George, Patrick Beverly and Ivica Zubac has been dominant with a plus-18.8 net rating, but they’ve been on the court together for only 124 minutes.
The Clippers have the talent, but will they have the togetherness to preserve when times get hard? There’s no way to know.
If Giannis is Batman, who’s his Robin?
The Bucks superstar is an almost certain bet to win his second straight league Most Valuable Player award, which only makes sense given he put up an absurd per-36-minute slash line of 34.5 points, 16 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks with a true shooting percentage of 60.8 while anchoring the defence on the NBA’s best regular-season team. The only real question is if he’ll win MVP honours unanimously.
But for both the Bucks and their best player, the only thing that matters is the playoffs. With the multi-talented Antetokounmpo a candidate for free agency in 2021, this could be the small-market Bucks’ best chance to win a title before being forced to contemplate a future without the NBA’s most dominant overall player.
But Antetokounmpo will need some help. The Raptors laid out a blueprint for slowing him down in the conference finals last season – commit multiple defenders to keeping him out of the paint while challenging someone else to score. For Milwaukee to advance out of the East and win against the best of the West, they’ll need the likes of Khris Middleton or Eric Bledsoe to punish other teams for ganging up on their superstar. If they can’t, it might be Antetokounmpo’s cue to look for a better situation elsewhere.
Who is the East’s Plan B?
Milwaukee has been the headline story in the East and even across the NBA. Rarely have teams been as dominant. But the East – long the NBA’s weak sister – is deeper than one team.
Certainly the bottom half of the conference lacks the depth that exists in the West – among playoff teams, the No. 7 seed Brooklyn Nets are in Orlando in name only as they’re missing three rotation players and even had one of their replacements – Michael Beasley – bow out. The ninth-place Wizards are considered a long shot to even qualify for the ‘play-in’ tournament given they’re 5.5 games behind Orlando and are without Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans.
But after the Bucks, there are five teams in the East with realistic expectations of making the conference finals or beyond with Indiana the only question mark given the uncertain status of Victor Oladipo – after ruling himself out from the restart, he’s reconsidering.
With a healthy Oladipo, the Pacers becomes a significant threat, and any of the Celtics, Heat and Sixers will be very tough outs in any round. Meanwhile, the defending-champion Raptors carry a swagger that seems completely undiminished by the departure of starters Leonard and Danny Green from the Finals lineup last June.
The pandemic was the dominant issue clouding the NBA’s restart plans in March and April, but after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police on May 25 and the weeks of social unrest that followed, questions were raised about the appropriateness of a league featuring roughly 75 per cent Black American-born players leaving their communities and families behind at such a critical moment in history.
Both the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association pledged to keep social justice issues front and centre. What form that takes remains to be seen, but using a multi-billion-dollar business to promote economic and social reform inevitably comes with complications. Several players have voiced their disappointment with the league’s decision to provide players with a list of 29 approved social justice slogans to wear on the back of their jerseys when play begins, rather than choose their own statements.
More broadly, will the urgency of the cause get lost when the playoff hype kicks in? Will the league and its teams follow through on promises to become more diverse and inclusive at the executive level in what will be a fast-moving and compressed off-season full of financial uncertainty?
All are important issues above and beyond the typical concerns for any sports league around playoff time. But each is further evidence of how the conclusion of the 2019-20 season will play out unlike anything anyone has ever seen before.