Biggest NBA Questions as Season Hangs in the Balance

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 14, 2020

Biggest NBA Questions as Season Hangs in the Balance

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    Thinking about basketball never stops.

    As the world copes with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA has suspended the 2019-20 season for a minimum of one month. That was always going to be the right call, and it became unavoidable once Rudy Gobert, followed by Utah Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell, tested positive for COVID-19.

    Resuming play at some point, in some form, remains the goal. But basketball operations will invariably take a backseat to more pressing concerns, most of all the safety and well-being of people around the globe, not just players, coaches, league employees and anyone tangentially linked to the Association.

    Still, sports matter. They are, if nothing else, a temporary escape from harsh realities for many. That much is clear during times of crisis, including now.

    Bigger things are at stake, but the prospect of losing what remains of this season is both real and a shame. It doesn't matter that more than three-quarters of the schedule is in the books, or that so much about this year, and how it will end, is already known.

    Plenty about this season has yet to be written—questions that remain unanswered, storylines and races left unfinished. The hope should be that the league is already navigating the worst-case scenario and that life outside the margins sniffs the sense of normalcy required to redeem what can still be salvaged from the 2019-20 campaign.

    But if this is it, if the NBA has played its last game until the 2020-21 season tips off, we'll be left wondering what could have been. That sense of incompleteness would begin here, with the biggest, most important matters still awaiting resolution.

Quick Questions

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    Would the Philadelphia 76ers Be Scarier in the Playoffs?

    Philly's 10-24 record on the road and 8-18 showing against teams above .500 implies "no." Ben Simmons' timetable for recovery from a pinched nerve in his lower back wouldn't help matters—though the season's suspension could.

    Even then, the Sixers would have to navigate a clumpy offense and Al Horford's (potentially injury-related) decline. They don't have the look or feel of a team that can get through the first round, let alone beat the Milwaukee Bucks four times in seven tries.

    And yet!

    This group has the bandwidth to turn a series (or four) into a painful slog. Opponents are mustering just 97.5 points per 100 possessions (99th percentile) when the Sixers' five best players are on the court. The ceiling on their defense alone is enough to elevate their collective peak. No team in the league would have a higher variance of possible postseason outcomes.

               

    Who'd Get the Eastern Conference No. 8 Seed?

    The Washington Wizards have almost no time to make up the 5.5-game chasm separating them from the East's final playoff spot. They'll have even less if the NBA plays out a partial version of the remaining schedule.

    But Bradley Beal is terrifying. And both the Brooklyn Nets (injuries, no more Kenny Atkinson) and Orlando Magic (is their recent offensive uptick for real?) are weird. Anything is possible.

                  

    Would There Be Any Tanking Shenanigans?

    Bottoming out for a better draft spot isn't as interesting anymore. The three worst teams have the same odds of landing the No. 1 pick, and the squads that come after them have a better chance at slingshotting up the draft order.

    Perhaps the Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks would get into a tank-off for two of those top three lottery slots. (The Golden State Warriors have one of them on lock.) Big whoop.

    Tanking—or angling—for postseason matchups is more interesting. At least one team is bound to pull some shenanigans to get a better head-to-head in the first round. And that squad is most definitely coming from the Western Conference.

    The race for sixth and seventh place figures to invite some funny business. Facing the Los Angeles Clippers is a lot different than sparring with the Denver Nuggets, who are very good but don't have postseason slayer Kawhi Leonard.

    If some combination of the Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks decide they're better off going up against the Nuggets than the Clippers, there could be a mad dash for sixth or seventh place, depending on how the race for No. 2 unfolds.

Can Zion Catch Ja for Rookie of the Year?

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    There won't be a lot of awards and All-NBA talk in this space. Enough of the regular season was played to hand out all the necessary distinctions (this take is subject to self-destruct if the league decides to suspend year-end awards and All-NBA selections).

    Rookie of the Year is different. It has turned into a head-to-head race. Everything else either includes a wider field or is already decided. (Giannis Antetokounmpo is the MVP. Let's move on.)

    Ja Morant vs. Zion Williamson has turned into a debate. This is not to be confused with an easy one. It is hard enough working Zion's name into the conversation when he's on course to play no more than 37 games. It becomes near impossible to argue in his favor if the rest of the season gets kiboshed and he finishes with fewer than 20 appearances and doesn't have the added boost of potentially spearheading a New Orleans Pelicans playoff surge.

    Make no mistake, this is more about Morant. People have conflated Williamson's rise with his surrender. Morant hasn't waived the white flag. He has slumped neither hard nor long enough to forfeit any ground.

    Voting for Williamson would be tough in the first place. Rookie of the Year isn't supposed to be a reflection of the best career arc. It is, as its name indicates, about this season. Defaulting to the newbie who is putting up historic numbers, on above-average efficiency, across a much larger sample is the easier call whether the NBA reopens for business or shuts down until next season.

    If the regular season does resume, though, Williamson will at least have the opportunity to make the Rookie of the Year ballot that much tighter. It isn't much of a thought exercise as things stand now.

Does the East Have a Challenger for the Bucks?

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    This year's Bucks squad may be the most disrespected powerhouse of all time. They have the eighth-highest net rating over the past 37 years and, until recently, were on pace to become just the third team in league history to win 70 or more games. (They could still join the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and 2015-16 Warriors but would need to go undefeated in 17 games after dropping four of their last five.)

    Milwaukee's dominance has not translated into a foregone conclusion. This team is still seen as vulnerable—as beatable. Eric Bledsoe will fart away another postseason, or Giannis Antetokounmpo's jumper will be a problem, or Khris Middleton isn't a viable No. 2, or the offense will break down when forced to operate inside the half court. Or something else.

    Whether this perception of Milwaukee is fair doesn't actually matter. (It isn't.) The Bucks have obliterated the competition for long enough to earn the benefit of the doubt. But skeptics exist, and last year's doubts persist. The postseason is their chance to invalidate it—or for another team to actualize it.

    Do the Toronto Raptors and their second-ranked, matchup-proof defense have the capacity to overthrow the Bucks? Have Jayson Tatum's ascent into All-NBA territory, along with the league's second-most positionless roster, turned the Boston Celtics into a bona fide contender?

    Did the midseason acquisitions of Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder push the Miami Heat defense into a title window? Are the 76ers built to stumble through the regular season but muck up the playoff picture?

    Who knows. Not us. Not yet. Not until—or rather, unless—the league makes it to the postseason.

Will Microball Pay Off in Houston?

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    By turning P.J. Tucker into a full-time center and playing without a traditional rim-roller or floor-spacing big man, the Rockets have underwritten the most ambitious small-ball project in NBA history.

    Neither they nor we know if it will pan out.

    The preliminary returns are encouraging. Even when factoring in their recent four-game skid, the Rockets are 11-6 with a top-five offense and top-12 defense since Clint Capela was last in the rotation. Lineups with Tucker at center are pumping in 116.7 points per 100 possessions (93rd percentile) and have achieved juggernaut status at both ends when he counts Robert Covington as his frontcourt partner.

    Leaning in to microball has also coincided with Russell Westbrook's detonation. His paths to the basket are more unobstructed than ever, and he no longer feels he has to brick a bunch of threes. He is averaging 31.0 points and 5.8 assists with a 57.5 true shooting percentage since Capela left the lineup, during which time 55.7 percent of his looks have come from inside five feet, up from 46.3 percent beforehand. (He's also shooting 35.5 percent from deep over this span, on 2.4 attempts per game.)

    This is all nothing if not proof the Rockets made the right call. This experiment is worth seeing through.

    To what extent they've succeeded isn't yet known. Can they get to the conference finals by playing this way? Will they force teams to conform to their style? Beat them while playing an entirely different way? Struggle against bigger frontcourts, such as those of the Jazz or Los Angeles Lakers?

    Beyond that, are the Rockets impressed enough with their post-Capela play to stay the course? Will they bring back head coach Mike D'Antoni, a free agent after this season? Is general manager Daryl Morey's job on the line?

    Forecasting the Rockets' future is going to be difficult no matter what. The top of the West is a brawl. Their margin for error is nonexistent. A loss in the first round would be just as likely as a trip to the conference finals. But making sense of what comes next will be a helluva lot harder if they have no postseason sample to judge.

The Western Conference Race for No. 8

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    Five teams entered the NBA's sabbatical with realistic shots of landing the West's final playoff spot: The Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs.

    With a 3.5-game lead over the field—and a four-game lead over the Spurs—the Grizzlies are in good shape. They also have the conference's hardest schedule the rest of the way, according to PlayoffStatus.com.

    Memphis was playing with never-say-die spunk over the previous two weeks. Taking this reprieve from basketball may also help the team return to whole. Brandon Clarke (quad), Jaren Jackson Jr. (knee) and Justise Winslow (back) have all been on the sideline, and Dillon Brooks was laboring through a groin injury.

    The Grizzlies rely on a lot of kids, and inserting Winslow into the rotation could come with a cost. He is both new to the team and hasn't played since Jan. 8.

    FiveThirtyEight continues to give the Pelicans a majority share of the eighth seed. Their playoff odds stand at 60 percent, compared to 15 percent for the Grizzlies, 14 percent for the Blazers, 9 percent for the Kings and 2 percent for the Spurs.

    Writing off any of the other challengers would be a mistake. New Orleans has the easiest schedule the rest of the way, but Sacramento (10th), San Antonio (eighth) and Portland (seventh) each have one of the 10 most favorable dockets.

    Timing will also be everything. If and when the regular season resumes, the league could try to squeeze in every remaining game or play a truncated schedule. The latter scenario would favor the Grizzlies. Erasing three- and four-game deficits is difficult enough with fewer than 20 contests on tap. Slashing that number in half would be a gut punch to the rest of the field.

    Granted, a partial schedule would still be better than the alternative: not knowing who snags the West's eighth seed at all.

Who Wins the Chip?

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    Ending the season without a champion wouldn't feel right—not even for the Raptors, who would still be defending their title in 2020-21. "Reigning champs" has a nice ring to it, but they don't need artificial cover. They're a contender again.

    For the better part of a decade, the NBA Finals have been subject to a sense of inevitability. First it was whatever East team LeBron James played for versus a West challenger. Then, in 2015, it turned into whatever East team LeBron James played for versus the Warriors.

    Sure, there were some curveballs along way. Cleveland erased a 3-1 Finals deficit in 2016. And LeBron's relocation last year to the West opened the door for other teams in the East. Toronto capitalized on the new hierarchy after trading for Kawhi Leonard, and Golden State's onrush of injuries in the playoffs helped contribute to an ending few, if any, predicted at the start of the season.

    This season is different. It is the first time since at least 2010 that both Finals spots are up for grabs. And even that probably undersells how long it has been since the championship field wasthis wide-open. The Lakers, Celtics and Spurs all held significant sway from 1999 to 2010, and the Michael Jordan-era Bulls preceded them.

    Whatever the case, at least seven teams can easily talk themselves into making the Finals this year: the Celtics, Raptors, Bucks, Rockets, Nuggets, Clippers and Lakers. That number mushrooms as high as 11 if you include the Heat, 76ers, Mavericks and Jazz. And if you're going that far, feel free to bump it to 12 and recognize that the Thunder are doing things.

    Skipping right to the playoffs would be a bitter-tasting scenario if the league resumes its season. It would leave us without the West's race for eighth place and other seeding battles while forcing teams to transition from not playing at all to participating in high-stakes tilts. Forfeiting what's left of the regular season could culminate in some #lockoutugly basketball when it matters most.

    That would still, unequivocally, be better than finishing the 2019-20 campaign without a champion. Any conclusion to the most compelling championship free-for-all the Association has hosted in recent memory beats not having one—asterisk be damned.

                      

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.