The NBA and National Basketball Players Association appear headed for an agreement on resuming the 2019-20 season in late July, despite a faction of players who are reportedly skeptical about returning to action for a number of reasons, including the coronavirus pandemic and the current social justice movement.
For better or worse, there will be basketball again. So, where did we last leave the NBA? The following is a Cliff’s Notes version of the 2019-20 campaign so far, in context of how it impacts a resumption of play.
For much of the season, the Bucks were on pace to become the third 70-win team in NBA history, joining the 1996 Chicago Bulls and 2016 Golden State Warriors, until a string of four losses in five games just before the break. Giannis Antetokounmpo missed the last two of those games with a sprained knee, interrupting what was a dominant MVP defense on both ends. (More on that in a bit.) His injury is now well rested.
Milwaukee owns the league’s top defensive rating by a margin wider than the gap between the second- and third-best outfits, and the Bucks also rank as the NBA’s most effective shooting team, featuring long-distance threats throughout the rotation, including George Hill, who was hitting a league-best 48 percent of his 3-point attempts. The question is whether they can carry that momentum forward.
After dominating a relatively light early schedule and losing several tests to top contenders, the Lakers emerged as a serious threat with back-to-back wins against the Bucks and Boston Celtics in the week before the season was suspended. LeBron James was enjoying the greatest age-35 season in history, rejuvenated by the arrival of Anthony Davis, arguably James’ most talented teammate ever.
A patchwork roster around those stars has far exceeded expectations and developed real chemistry throughout a trying season that also included a controversial trip to China and the death of Kobe Bryant. The Lakers now must hope the chemistry has not changed and James has not developed some rust.
The 2019 free-agency bonanza that brought reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and fellow All-Star wing Paul George to an already talented playoff roster made the Clippers (of all teams) title favorites from the start. Indeed, they climbed to the Western Conference’s second seed despite a cautious approach with Leonard’s ailing leg and a delayed start from George, who required dual offseason shoulder surgeries.
The Clips are the Swiss Army knife of contenders, capable of surrounding their two stars with lineups both big or small and offense- or defense-first (largely dependent on how they employ Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley). They also won the trade deadline and buyout market, respectively adding Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson in the weeks before the hiatus. The process of determining who plays best together and in which situations was an ongoing one that now must be expedited entering the playoffs.
Doncic made the leap from wildly talented and skilled 2019 Rookie of the Year to bona fide 2020 MVP candidate. His averages of 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists in just 33.3 minutes per game are unprecedented for a 20-year-old, and he had the upstart Mavericks pushing for a home playoff seed before he turned an ankle in late January and Dallas lost unheralded big man Dwight Powell to a season-ending injury. Doncic alone makes the Mavs an upset threat, assuming he kept in shape over the break.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Already one of the league’s most underrated defenders, Tatum realized the full range of his offensive potential in February, averaging 30.7 points on 49/48/77 shooting splits in the last full month before the hiatus. He was making his case not only as arguably the most talented player on a team that also features Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown, but as potentially the second-best player in the Eastern Conference behind Antetokounmpo. That leap elevated the Celtics back into contention from what was seemingly a step back following the losses of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford over the summer.
Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
One of the players challenging Tatum for the title of second-best player in the East was Siakam, who after winning Most Improved Player honors last season threatened to become a repeat candidate. (We know, Philadelphia Sixers fans, Joel Embiid is also in the East. We’ll get to him.) A late-December groin injury interrupted Siakam’s sizzling start, but he had resumed replicating Leonard’s lost production in the month before the break, and the Raptors were putting together an impressive title defense as a result.
The Sixers were favorites to emerge from the East at season’s start, and even they dubbed themselves championship contenders after adding Horford, re-signing Tobias Harris and swapping Jimmy Butler for Josh Richardson to build one of the NBA’s best starting units around All-Stars Embiid and Ben Simmons.
Despite boasting an elite defense, the chemistry never mixed, leading to finger-pointing and questions about whether a center who shoots too often from distance and a point guard who cannot shoot at all are best paired together, and whether coach Brett Brown is the best man to figure it out. The result was still a .600 win percentage, but their current sixth seed makes them a long shot. They have an opportunity to climb into fifth or even fourth, but chemistry questions do not always solve themselves in quarantine.
The Rockets have long fancied themselves contenders in the West, but a soured relationship between James Harden and Chris Paul led general manager Daryl Morey to swap Paul for Russell Westbrook over the summer. Pairing two of the most ball-dominant guards in NBA history has been a roller coaster, but an eight-game win streak against a weak schedule salvaged an otherwise dreadful start to the season.
Westbrook’s midseason resurgence, once the Rockets committed to surrounding their superstar guards with only shooters, appeared to make Houston an unconventional challenger again. Fully embracing the strategy, Morey traded talented center Clint Capela for Robert Covington in a move that left his team without anyone capable of countering dominant bigs. After a brief jolt of success, Houston came back to Earth during a four-game losing skid that left them in sixth place at the break. The shortened season leaves open the possibilities that the Rockets either catch teams by surprise or the gimmick runs dry.
Portland Trail Blazers
After reaching their first Western Conference finals of Damian Lillard’s six straight playoff appearances last season, the Blazers dropped out of the playoff picture this year, largely through no fault of their own. Entering the season without starting center Jusuf Nurkic, who was still nursing the broken leg he suffered last year, they lost starting stretch forward Zach Collins to a shoulder injury three games into this campaign and starting wing Rodney Hood to a season-ending Achilles tear at the start of December.
The backcourt pairing of Lillard and C.J. McCollum was at least good enough to keep the Blazers in the playoff hunt. They are among the five challengers who will have eight more games to vie for the West’s final seed, currently within four games of the Memphis Grizzlies, which would force a play-in scenario. They also expect to have Nurkic and Collins healthy for the stretch run when the season resumes.
MVP: Giannis vs. LeBron
Antetokounmpo continues to be the overwhelming favorite to repeat as MVP, considering a case could be made he is the game’s most dominant player on either end of the floor. His statistical résumé this season, both traditionally (35-16-7 per 36 minutes) and advanced analytically (31.6 player efficiency rating, the highest since LeBron’s first MVP season), is more impressive than James’ across the board.
However, James’ near triple-doubles in the back-to-back wins over the Bucks and Clippers at the start of march led to a series of media segments along the lines of: “Is LeBron the real MVP?” Those were driven mostly by the absence of conversation around the subject in the months prior, but it did pick up steam with some of James’ peers, including Lillard, who made an age-based case for LeBron, who continues to do previously unfathomable things at 35 years old. Decide for yourself whether that makes him the MVP.
Rookie of the Year: Ja vs. Zion
With Zion Williamson out with a knee injury and nobody else from the 2019 NBA draft elevating to his level, Ja Morant was running away with the Rookie of the Year award. He plays with a tenacity reminiscent of Westbrook, only with a better outside shot, and he received some All-Star buzz for leading a Memphis team written off for the lottery into eighth place. But injuries to fellow rising stars Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke left the Grizzlies regressing toward the mean a bit before the break.
Meanwhile, Williamson’s late-January return transformed the New Orleans Pelicans. The No. 1 pick was as good as advertised, making a mind-bending two-way impact, and scheduling discrepancies for both teams made the Pelicans a serious threat to unseat the Grizzlies in the eighth seed. If that were to happen, there is a Rookie of the Year case to be made for Williamson as the best rookie to play this year.
Who is the second-best team in the East?
With respect to the Indiana Pacers, who we will talk about in a moment, there are four legit challengers to the Bucks in the East: Boston, Toronto, Miami and Philadelphia. None is clearly superior to the others.
Of that group, the Sixers probably have the most talent, and a well-conditioned Embiid could carry them to the Finals as a dominant two-way post presence, but they have failed to meet expectations all year.
The second-place Raptors are still riding the confidence of a champion, even without Leonard, and they have a group of highly skilled and knowledgeable players who execute a proven system to perfection.
With a blend of youth and veteran talent, combined with a loaded crop of versatile wings, the third-place Celtics might have the highest upside, depending on what level Tatum and Brown reach this season.
And the fourth-place Miami Heat are gritty as hell, pairing Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo with a host of hardworking underdogs ready to do battle and a few veteran reinforcements added at the trade deadline.
How the playoff seeding shakes out could determine which team emerges from the East. A potential 4-5 matchup between the Heat and Sixers could leave Milwaukee with a nightmarish second-round meeting. The possibility of a Toronto-Boston pairing in the other East semifinal is no less daunting. It will be fun.
Nikola Jokic entered this season out of shape, played his way into form as an MVP candidate and is apparently conditioned to maintain that momentum coming out of the break. Despite some choppiness, the deft center has steered Denver into contention for the No. 2 seed for a second straight season.
However, Jamal Murray has not found the consistency necessary to make the leap toward stardom, a leap many figured him for after last year’s playoff run. Gary Harris has fallen off a cliff as an offensive threat. Denver unloaded Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez at the trade deadline, sacrificing some depth for future savings. The Nuggets still have a talented crop, especially if rookie Michael Porter Jr. continues to ascend, but they look weaker than a year ago, when they lost a seven-game second-round series to Portland, and there is no mile-high home-court advantage to give them a leg up in Orlando.
Credit to Pacers coach Nate McMillan for rallying a competitive team after losing a handful of players from his playoff rotation to free agency, not to mention All-Star guard Victor Oladipo’s extended absence from his knee injury. How they have managed a fifth seed is a testament to the locker-room culture.
The arrival of Malcolm Brogdon, paired with the development of Domantas Sabonis, gives Indiana a deadly pick-and-roll combination to complement a tough defensive outfit, and Oladipo began to show signs of his former self in his 13-game stint before the season’s suspension. Yet, Indiana still feels like a team lacking the firepower to survive more than a single round, and their net rating would agree.
Oklahoma City Thunder
What Chris Paul has done at age 35 to lift this franchise in the wake of the Westbrook and George trades is among his greatest accomplishments. A mentor and facilitator for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder, Paul and his fellow guards form the foundation of some of the league’s most effective lineups this season, assisted by severely underrated playoff-tested veterans Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams.
But the Thunder still lack the depth to pose any real threat beyond a potential first-round upset. OKC has long been searching for wing and shooting help on the cheap, and general manager Sam Presti continues to come up empty in that regard. He has a cache of first-round picks to find them in the future.
Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
Irving’s first season in Brooklyn was not the homecoming he imagined even before he battled a shoulder impingement that required what was believed to be season-ending surgery. The All-Star point guard recently hinted at his return to the court for the first time since the surgery, but he reportedly ended any speculation on a conference call with the players’ association. Irving will join Kevin Durant on the shelf, preferring instead to focus on next season as their initial campaign to lift Brooklyn into title contention.
LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
On Monday, the Spurs quietly announced that Aldridge had undergone season-ending shoulder surgery on April 24. That likely spells the end of any notion San Antonio had of making the playoffs for a 22nd straight season, as Aldridge’s increased willingness to stretch the floor with his shooting was a catalyst for the team’s midseason improvement. However, the Spurs have actually been almost five points per 100 possessions better without Aldridge this season, so DeMar DeRozan and the team’s young talents have a chance to prove their mettle as one of four teams within four games of the West’s eighth seed.
Bojan Bogdanovic, Utah Jazz
Another under-the-radar injury is that of Bogdanovic, who underwent wrist surgery in May after the injury he toughed out for two months entering the break reportedly worsened during the shutdown. The Jazz signed Bogdanovic to a four-year, $73 million free-agent deal over the summer. He and Mike Conley, who underperformed after his trade from Memphis, were charged with elevating Utah as a contender. The Jazz were 7.3 points per 100 possessions better with Bogdanovic on the floor, and without him a team already allegedly battling chemistry issues could be on shakier ground from a talent standpoint.
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