Changes We Could See When NBA Makes Its Return

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 22, 2020

Changes We Could See When NBA Makes Its Return

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    There's no better testament to the uncertainty surrounding the NBA's return than the fact that even commissioner Adam Silver isn't sure how, when or in what form the season may resume.

    But he told ESPN's Rachel Nichols on Wednesday, "I'm optimistic by nature, and I want to believe we can salvage at least some portion of this season."

    So let's stay positive and go with the idea that basketball will be back from its COVID-19-driven suspension before the rest of 2019-20 is lost.

    Will there be more regular-season games before the playoffs? How many?

    Could we jump right into the postseason? If so, might the early-round series be shorter to make up for lost time?

    Nobody knows.

    Based on the commissioner's comments and our speculation, the only sure thing is that the league landscape will be altered when players retake the floor.

A Few Goodbyes

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    Credit Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce for his quick thinking as news of an imminent season suspension made its way through the league (with games still being played) on the evening of March 11.

    Aided by chants from the home Hawks crowd, Pierce realized Vince Carter's career might only have a few precious moments left. He inserted the 22-year veteran, and Carter promptly buried what may be the final shot of his career—a straight-on three with 12.6 seconds remaining in overtime.

    Carter announced in June that 2019-20 would be his final season, and Atlanta won't make the playoffs. So if the regular season gets scrapped, we won't see Vinsanity in an NBA uniform again.

    If he's done, he finishes as one of only five players with at least 25,000 points, 6,500 rebounds, 4,700 assists, 800 blocks and 1,500 steals. The others: Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, LeBron James and Kevin Garnett.

    The staying power (only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish played more career games than Carter's 1,541) of a player who entered the league with otherworldly athleticism as his primary skill is astounding. Carter lasted 22 seasons by altering his game, embracing a role-player's identity and exhibiting the kind of veteran professionalism that made him attractive to championship-chasers and rebuilding teams alike.

    If anyone deserved to poetically punctuate his final NBA moment, it was him.

    Don't forget a couple of other longtime notables who might also have played their final games: Carmelo Anthony and Jamal Crawford.

    Anthony was out of the league until catching on with the Portland Trail Blazers on a minimum deal in November. He averaged 15.3 points per game on 51.7 percent true shooting—his most efficient scoring season since leaving the New York Knicks in 2017. With Portland unlikely to make the playoffs—even if there are a few regular-season games left—the 35-year-old 10-time All-Star might be done too.

    Earlier in March, The Athletic and Stadium's Shams Charania reported Crawford was in shape and still desirous of continuing his career. But the three-time Sixth Man of the Year hadn't found a team in 2019-20, and it's hard to imagine his odds of signing somewhere will increase with the suspension.

    Luminaries step away from the game at the end of every year, but it's jarring that a few may be forced to call it a career early.

Kevin Durant Makes Things Interesting

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    While we should all hope for as short a disruption to regular life (and the season) as possible, there's an intriguing upside to a longer layoff.

    ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported the possibility of a mid- to late-June return to play, and that teams were looking into arena availability as late as August. If the suspension lasts that long, it raises the possibility that Kevin Durant could take the floor for the Brooklyn Nets.

    Yes, Achilles tears are often career-enders. At the very least, they significantly diminish players' post-injury performance. But Durant would be a full year removed from a setback that typically keeps players off the floor for about that long. His positive (and thankfully asymptomatic) diagnosis for coronavirus adds another level of uncertainty, and business partner Rich Kleiman did his best to snuff out talk of a KD return this year under any circumstances.

    But still, can't we just enjoy this little sliver of exciting possibility? Can't we view Durant's willingness to consider playing in the Tokyo Olympics this summer as a sign he expects to be ready for action in a time frame that would allow him to suit up for Brooklyn this season?

    Who wouldn't want to see Durant lead the seventh-seeded Nets into battle against Pascal Siakam and the defending champion Toronto Raptors in a 2-7 first-round matchup? Or better yet, Durant taking on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the top-seeded Bucks?

    At the very least, a 2019-20 Durant comeback is likelier now than it was before the suspension. That's a dream worth holding on to.

A Dynastic Teaser

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    Hey, remember the Golden State Warriors?

    No, not these Warriors—the ones on pace to finish with the NBA's worst record. We're talking about those Warriors.

    You remember: The ones that reeled off five straight Finals trips, set a single-season wins record and won three rings.

    The ones with a healthy two-time MVP in Stephen Curry, the most versatile defensive weapon the league's ever seen in Draymond Green and a second option capable of scoring 37 points in a quarter in Klay Thompson.

    We might get to see those guys this year.

    If the league doesn't skip the remainder of the regular season (let's stipulate it comes back in late June for the sake of argument), there's a decent chance the Dubs use those final few contests as a dress rehearsal for 2020-21.

    By June, Thompson will be a full year removed from his torn ACL. Curry was already back from a broken hand before missing more time with illness (not the coronavirus, so far as we know). Green had only played twice since the All-Star break, but his absence may have had as much to do with a deserved break after a half-decade grind as knee soreness.

    It seems a safe bet that he'd be more interested in playing with Curry and Thompson in uniform.

    The Warriors should want to see their three key players alongside deadline acquisition Andrew Wiggins. It would also be an opportunity to see which role players fit best with stars on the floor.

    Golden State would have to be careful not to play Curry, Thompson and Green too much, lest it compromise its draft position. But with all three stars at least 30 years old and a relatively short window to resume contender status starting next year, every chance to see how new pieces fit around them is valuable.

    Not to mention that every chance to see Curry, Thompson and Green on the floor together is precious to fans who've missed them.

The End of the Run

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    For the first time since 1997, the San Antonio Spurs won't be in the playoffs.

    How's that for a change?

    As the team is four games back of the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies with 19 games to play, San Antonio's odds of reaching the postseason for a 23rd consecutive year aren't good. FiveThirtyEight gives the Spurs a 2 percent chance.

    With the potential for fewer regular-season games or none at all, 2 percent might even be generous.

    The conclusion of the NBA's longest playoff streak creates openings for several other changes. Gregg Popovich's contract runs through the 2021-22 season, but it was understood when he agreed to it in April 2019 that the head coach would approach his future on a year-to-year basis. A missed postseason might trigger some reflection, which could result in his walking away.

    Maybe it also prompts the more thorough teardown San Antonio avoided for two decades.

    Hopefully, it results in assistant Becky Hammon, overdue for a high-profile gig, becoming the first female head coach in league history.

    Even if Pop sticks around and the Spurs give it another go in 2020-21 with LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan mid-ranging the league to death, there'll be no denying the oddity of a Spurs-less postseason.

Let's Get Drastic

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    Suppose the NBA doesn't return for 2019-20 at all, resulting in a lost season before a 2020-21 tipoff in nine months.

    In that scenario, serious, league-altering transformation is on the table. Not only would the NBA fail to name a champion for the first time in its existence, but the process of doing so in the future could also change forever.

    That might start with meaningful alterations to the schedule.

    A Christmas 2020 opener could represent a new normal, and the regular season could slide later in the calendar on a permanent basis. The benefits of missing more of the NFL season with a December-to-August slate are obvious, which is why a Christmas start has been a point of discussion whenever the topic of schedule shuffling arises. Marc Stein of the New York Times reports a faction is pushing to make that new start date a reality.

    Punting on 2019-20 would also fast-track us toward a number of pivotal moments—without the clarity crowning a title-winner this season would have provided.

    • Anthony Davis' potential 2020 free agency, via a player option, would be upon us.
    • LeBron James' case for another MVP, which was gaining steam at the time of the suspension, would evaporate.
    • 2021 free agency, which could include Giannis Antetokounmpo, James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, would suddenly be on the horizon—and neither the Bucks nor Clippers could include the 2019-20 championship in their pitches to keep star free agents.
    • The Warriors would be set to rejoin the fray with nearly a year-and-a-half to recover from the injury-plagued disappointment of the 2019 Finals.

    The absence of the NBA is still a shock, but the way it might look once present again could be even more jarring.