In the words of Crowded House : don’t dream it’s over.
If only this was as easy as that.
Since the NBA Season suspension – a global pandemic has lured over mother earth, proving to be as unpredictable as Marcus Smart’s jump shot.
But here we are – over two weeks removed from the cancellation. Wanting, hoping, waiting.
What we can do, however, is play the “what if?” game. If the season will end now, let’s take a look at the outlying “what if’s” from the 2019/2020 season:
1. What if LeBron James won MVP over Giannis Antetokounmpo?
If everyone was asked to submit their MVP ballot right now, barring any further games, you’d have to imagine Giannis would be in the clear. However, let’s not forget the roll the Lakers were on when the season was suspended. LeBron and the Lakers were fresh off the bat of two of their most impressive wins – winning the battle of L.A, and dethroning the best-record Milwaukee Bucks.
The narrative was starting to brew around LeBron’s MVP chances – for a number of reasons. The Lakers were riding high on an 8-2 record in their last 10. LeBron was playing some of the best basketball of his career in that stretch. Let’s not forget also that Giannis was out with an injury that could have sidelined him for a few weeks. In his absence, there’s no doubt LeBron could have used that to his advantage in the MVP race.
2. What if the Pelicans made the playoffs?
Crazier things have happened. The battle for the 8th seed in the West was one of the more interesting storylines brewing in early March. With the Dallas Mavericks 8 games in the clear at #7, any of the Grizzlies, Trailblazers, Pelicans, Spurs, Kings or Suns were within a shout. The Grizzlies would be favourites with a 3 game cushion, but 3 games was not safe in the grand scheme of things.
What about the Pelicans? Their schedule in the last third of the season seemed quite light – with a number of visits against a slew of Eastern Conference degenerates. Zion had found his footing and was impacting their season to great effect. Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday were stepping up to the plate. It would have made for an interesting matchup in the first round of the West, Zion vs LeBron 3, but we do know how the first two ended..
3. What if the Warriors got the #1 pick?
In the battle of the NBA tank, one of the greater sporting contests, the Warriors were in pole position. A returning Steph Curry in limited minutes didn’t seem to be impacting their win total to great effect. With that in mind, the Warriors were hot favourites to scoop the NBA tankathon and the coveted #1 pick in the process. But who do they go with given their win-now talent next year?
It’s a weird situation. What separates the Warriors from other tanking teams is they will be within championship reach next year with all their healthy pieces. Sure, the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks will have a much stronger hold on winning the title, among other teams. But Steph, Klay and Draymond have won championships before. Do they go with a player that fits their system the best? Do they pick a player that would lead them into the next Warriors era? Regardless, they’re going to have a high pick if it goes ahead.
4. What if we saw the end of the Pop playoff era?
A remarkable statistic – Gregg Popovich has led the Spurs to the playoffs in every full season he has coached. Pop took over the reigns in San Antonio in 96-97, but it was midway through the season – when the Spurs were tanking for Timmy D. Since then, he has gone on to coach the Spurs to 5 championships and bring them to one of the best overall records in the NBA in the last 25 years.
However, this year was a different story. Having traded away Kawhi Leonard and focusing in on their two stars – LeMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, the Spurs were failing to recreate their success of the last decade or two. With a lot of young pieces on the team (Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker, Jakob Poeltl etc) they find themselves in a weird mid-tier territory of rebuilding but not rebuilding. Nonetheless, they found themselves off a playoff spot in the West and likely without qualifying for the first time since 1997.
5. What if the Trailblazers missed the playoffs and blew up the team?
Another interesting story line in the West involved the Portland Trailblazers. A team that appeared in the Western Conference Finals last year, Portland had a shaky start to the year that saw them claw their way back towards the playoff 8 in the latter half. A big talking point over the past few seasons was whether they should part ways with the max contract duo of Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum, and maybe this was the regular season that could have led to that.
What was the reason for their downfall this year? A number of factors. Jusuf Nurkic battling back from an injury didn’t help. Hassan Whiteside taking his place – a prominent rebound and block specialist but limited elsewhere – didn’t help. Trading away key defensive rotation players didn’t help. Ultimately, we might never remember this Portland team for anything other than being a successful team for the reintroduction of Carmelo Anthony. But questions need to be raised going into next year.
6. What if these players never lace up for an NBA team again?
With the end of regular seasons – unfortunately comes the end of some playing careers. Whether age becomes a factor, bodies break down or they simply don’t have a fit in the NBA – this year will be no different. We are likely to have seen Vince Carter (43) play his last NBA game, a dunk contest icon and a future NBA Hall of Fame candidate. Miami Heat stalwart Udonis Haslem (39) is likely to move on too – having played in under 20 games in the past few seasons.
But who else will join the list? NBA Champion Pau Gasol (39) has hinted at retirement since the suspension was implemented – and could well hang up his shoes parting ways with Portland earlier this year. Tyson Chandler (37) is seeing limited minutes in Houston’s new small-ball approach and might not find a fit next year. Have we seen the last of Kyle Korver (39) too or will his game allow him to play into his 40s? Who knows, but a lot of these retirements remain “what ifs” for now.
7. What if the Raptors eclipsed their record from last year?
If the NBA season had continued, and the Raptors had gone 13-5 in their last stretch of games – they would have eclipsed their record from last year. That’s right – the team that many had written off in last year’s off season – they could have had a better overall record this year. Many writers had Toronto missing out on playoff contention this year. But how did they keep up their success despite losing Kawhi Leonard?
Well, Pascal Siakam elevated himself to All-Star level, Nick Nurse helped on the coaching end of things, and countless role players stepped up to the mark when needed. This included Toronto losing many of their key players (Lowry, Siakam, Gasol) to injury throughout the season, so it would have been an impressive feat. They may not have been favourites to win out the East this year, before or after the season, but no doubt they were set to give any team a hard run in the playoffs.
8. What if the Thunder were a top 4 playoff team?
From one underdog story to the next – the OKC Thunder defied the odds of many a beat writer over the course of the season. Trading away Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul for Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinarri, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a plethora of draft picks didn’t spark much joy in many people’s predictions for OKC. But, under the crafty leadership of Paul, the team managed to gel well and were coming into their own as the season progressed.
What would they have had to do to be a Top 4 Playoff team? When the season was suspended, they were just one win off the Utah Jazz in 4th place. Having gone 8-2 in their last 10 games, they were tied with the Lakers as having the best form over the past 10 games. All stats were trending upwards to suggest they were climbing the rankings. It would have been a good story line for the OKC underdogs, but sadly we’ve had to move our attention elsewhere.
9. What if the NCAA tournament went ahead?
You’re probably wondering – why does the NCAA tournament make it into an NBA “what ifs” column? If the tournament had went ahead as scheduled, we’d likely have seen some changes in the draft order. Every year – the NCAA’s impact the draft rankings to great effect – whether it’s players climbing spots after putting in big performances under the bright lights – or players crumbling under the TV pressure in big games.
In this year’s draft – LaMelo Ball is a polarizing prospect that could go at #1. But what if Anthony Edwards balled out in the NCAA tournament and proved his worth to go first? The same could be said for other overseas projects – all who have probably benefited from the suspension of the tournament. It has taken away a big portion of watch time for college prospects in America – let’s hope they have shown enough beforehand to get drafted.
10. And finally… what if Rudy Gobert never touched those mics?
Poor Rudy. Unfortunately for the Utah Jazz centre – he’ll forever be associated with the spread of the dreaded disease and the season suspension. In an alternative world – it was likely the NBA was a day or two away from suspending operations away – it’s just Gobert made the case so high profile. His actions days prior of touching mics, being relaxed about the whole thing – didn’t age well. But you have to feel for him in the aftermath.
Regardless of mic touching, Gobert handled the situation with professionalism afterwards, donating to charitable causes and offering support and advice from his home. With NBA players being so exposed to media members, fans and staff alike – it was only a matter of time before someone contracted the virus. It’s just unfortunate it had to be one player in particular.
Anyways, hope you enjoyed this article, there’s more to come from our talented ASP crew over the weeks ahead so stay tuned to atlanticsports.ie for more content!