How an NBA Season Cancellation Could Impact Record Books

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2020

How an NBA Season Cancellation Could Impact Record Books

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    As the NBA continues to assess how to deal with the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on the 2019-20 season, an outright cancellation doesn't seem impossible.

    "CDC recommendation of no events of 50-plus people for next two months comes as a number of NBA owners and executives increasingly believe a best case scenario is a mid-to-late June return to play—with no fans," ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported. "League's scouting for possible arena dates all the way thru August."

    As ESPN's Zach Lowe pointed out, "Add up players, coaches, training staff, referees, etc., and you get toward 50 people for an NBA game with 0 fans pretty fast."

    If the league isn't able to solve the logistical Rubik's Cube that would be necessary to complete the 2019-20 campaign, history would be affected in a number of ways. Record chases would be delayed or cut off. One streak would be preserved. And one that has been around as long as the league itself would end.

    Below are a number of ways basketball's record books would be impacted by a lost 2019-20.

James Harden's Missed Threes Record

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    James Harden is one of the greatest scorers in NBA history. There's little debate about that.

    Among players with at least 5,000 career minutes, his 27.1 points per 75 possessions rank fifth all-time, trailing only Michael Jordan (30.3), Joel Embiid (28.3), Kevin Durant (27.6) and LeBron James (27.5). He has three of the top 15 (including No. 1 overall) individual seasons for points per 75 possessions.

    But even when you understand what an integral part the three-pointer plays in Harden's attack, it's difficult not to gawk at the number of misses he piles up each season.

    Right now, the top five for most threes missed in a single season reads, per StatMuse:

    1. James Harden (650 in 2018-19)
    2. James Harden (498 in 2019-20)
    3. James Harden (494 in 2016-17)
    4. Stephen Curry (484 in 2015-16)
    5. Kemba Walker (471 in 2018-19)

    Had this season played out as expected with Harden appearing in each remaining game, he was on pace for around 645 misses.

    Of course, that's five off his record-setting pace from 2018-19. But you never know when Harden will get on one of those stretches during which he misses more threes than entire teams would take in years past. In January, he had a seven-game stretch in which he missed a whopping 10 triples per game.

    At this rate, there's almost no chance Harden doesn't finish his career as the all-time leader in missed threes.

    Of course, he'll also likely trail only Stephen Curry in makes at that point.

Milwaukee's Pursuit of 70

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    The Milwaukee Bucks' shot at 70 wins was likely doomed when they suddenly went from 52-8 to 53-12 in the span of five games.

    They did have an 18-game winning streak earlier in the season, but it's difficult to imagine them closing out with 17 straight victories, especially when the home stretch included a three-game road trip against the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers.

    Still, Milwaukee's current winning percentage ranks 15th all-time. At that pace, the Bucks would've finished an 82-game season with 67 wins. Only six teams in NBA history have topped that lofty mark.

    They still had an outside shot at 70, but even 68 or 69 wins would have been a historic mark.

    Milwaukee was also in hot pursuit of the all-time record for point differential. Losing four of five took it from first all-time to fifth, but another hot streak would've put it back in the hunt.

    If 2019-20 is over, the Bucks will go down as a great team. But their season will always be known more for the cancellation than whatever accomplishments they may have been headed toward.

Spurs Playoff Streak Remains Intact

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    The San Antonio Spurs are in the midst of one of the greatest runs any team has ever put together in professional sports. Allow Bleacher Report's Greg Swartz to explain:

    "The playoff streak is the longest current run in professional sports and is tied for the greatest in NBA history with the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers from 1950 to 1971. In those 22 years, the Nationals/Sixers won 58.9 percent of their games and two titles, while the Spurs have come away victorious 69.9 percent of the time, claiming five championships, per Land of Basketball. The Spurs have won 170 total playoff games in that time, an average of 7.7 playoff wins per year over the past 22 seasons."

    From 1950 to 1971, the NBA had an average of 10.2 teams per season. San Antonio has spent the entirety of its run in a 30-team league. And given the relatively recent influx of international players, the talent pool has never been deeper.

    This level of sustained success in this era should be nearly impossible.

    Had 2019-20 proceeded normally, the streak was almost certainly going to end. Basketball Reference's playoff probabilities report gave the 27-36 Spurs a 4.6 percent chance to get in. FiveThirtyEight's projection system pegged them at an even bleaker 2 percent.

    If the league ends up foregoing a postseason, the 22-year playoff streak will technically remain in place.

    Of course, 2020-21 could offer many of the same on-court challenges as this season. The DeMar DeRozan-LaMarcus Aldridge pairing doesn't work, the team doesn't make enough threes, Dejounte Murray and Derrick White haven't played together nearly enough, the defense is awful and so on. But at least they'd have a year to try figuring all that out.

LeBron's Push for MVP

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    Basketball Reference's MVP tracker, which "ranks candidates based on a model built using previous voting results," thinks this season's race is pretty much over:

    1. Giannis Antetokounmpo (50.7 percent)
    2. LeBron James (17.3 percent)
    3. James Harden (10.5 percent)
    4. Anthony Davis (9.8 percent)
    5. Luka Doncic (4.0 percent)
    6. Kawhi Leonard (2.1 percent)
    7. Nikola Jokic (1.8 percent)
    8. Khris Middleton (1.5 percent)
    9. Kyle Lowry (1.1 percent)
    10. Jimmy Butler (1.1 percent)

    If the season were hypothetically called off today, Giannis would win. Even if the full 82-game slate played out, he was likely to repeat.

    However, after a weekend in which LeBron James' Los Angeles Lakers beat both the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Clippers, you could feel the narrative starting to shift. Despite little statistical support for LeBron's case, several pundits started piping up, saying the King was going to get their vote.

    Mike Greenberg made the case on ESPN (h/t NBA Central). Stephen Jackson went there on First Things First. ESPN's Mike Wilbon tweeted, "He's atop my ballot after this weekend," following two regular-season games in early March.

    The narrative tide was turning, and that's important in MVP races.

    The Lakers had 19 games left. And after Milwaukee's recent slide, they were just two back in the loss column. If they had caught the Bucks, and LeBron continued to play the way he did during the weekend in question, his fifth MVP was very much in play.

    The only other players in NBA history with at least five MVPs? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Michael Jordan (five) and Bill Russell (five).

Zion's Push for ROY

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    Like LeBron James, Zion Williamson had a lot of ground to make up in his quest for an individual award.

    But if the New Orleans Pelicans had the rest of this season to successfully catch the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies, Zion would've had a legitimate argument to take Rookie of the Year over Ja Morant.

    That also would've given him the record (and comfortably so) for the fewest minutes logged by a Rookie of the Year.

    Zion's box plus/minus is significantly higher than Morant's. And he had an outside chance to catch him, despite the big deficit in minutes, in wins over replacement player. His scoring rate overwhelms Ja's. Ditto for his net rating swing.

    Even with all those advantages, Ja would've been the favorite. But leading the Pelicans to the playoffs would've added narrative points for Zion, and FiveThirtyEight's projection system had New Orleans trending toward that eighth and final spot.

Total Threes Made in a Single Season

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    This one is mostly an illustration of the NBA's ongoing three-point revolution.

    In 2019-20, the league was on pace for a whopping 29,845 threes made. That's nearly 2,000 more than the record 27,955 that were hit in 2018-19.

    Another way to look at the explosion of attempts from beyond the three-point arc is this list of 500-plus-minute seasons sorted by threes per game. Twenty-four of the top 100 and seven of the top 16 come from 2019-20.

    Sure, this campaign is still going to hold the record for threes made per game, but there's just something about that whopping total toward which the league was heading.

    If the trend continues—and there's little reason to believe it won't—30,000 could be in play within the next few years. Well, unless the league shortens future seasons.

No NBA Champion

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    If you include the NBA's predecessor, the BAA, the league has been around since the 1946-47 campaign. The Philadelphia Warriors, led by Joe Fulks (who averaged 23.2 points and shot 30.5 percent from the field), beat the Chicago Stags for the 1947 championship.

    Each and every year since then, an NBA (or BAA) champion has been crowned. If 2019-20 is canceled, it will mark the first time in nearly three-quarters of a century that the annual tradition won't take place.

    Harry S. Truman was the President of the United States the last time we didn't have an NBA (or BAA) champion. The Lost Weekend, starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman, won Best Picture that year.

    With no real precedent in place for this possibility, it's difficult to analyze exactly what it would mean. Would it add more weight to the 2021 title? Would fans of powerhouses like the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers or Milwaukee Bucks consider their team the theoretical champion?

    Hopefully, we'll never have to react to this possibility.

LeBron's Pursuit of the All-Time Scoring Title

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    At this point, it's getting pretty difficult to imagine LeBron James ever slowing down. In his age-35 season, he's somehow averaging a career high in assists per game. He's still scoring over 25 points per contest.

    Even with his seeming invincibility, though, catching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his 38,387 career points isn't a given. Every game will help. LeBron was healthy and scoring well in 2019-20. At his current rate, a cancellation of the season would cost him nearly 500 points.

    Of course, it also wouldn't doom LeBron's chase.

    Right now, he's 4,300 points shy of Abdul-Jabbar. At a 25-point average with 80 games played per campaign, LeBron would break the record in just over two seasons. At 20 points per game, it would take just over two-and-a-half seasons.

    Either way, he'll be in his age-38 season by then, and only three players in NBA history—Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and Karl Malone—have averaged at least 20 in an age-38-plus campaign. It wouldn't be surprising to see LeBron join those ranks, but (knocks on wood) you never know when the injury bug might strike.

    Again, every game and point matters in a quest like this. A 2019-20 cancellation would cost LeBron plenty of both.