It's been nearly 10 weeks since the NBA officially suspended its season on Mar. 11. During that time, few concrete details about the league's immediate future have emerged, but there remains a sense of optimism that the NBA will finish what it started in 2019-20.
What that may ultimately look like, however, is very much up in the air. It almost goes without saying at this point that welcoming fans to NBA games in 2020 is off the table. If the league were to skip directly to the postseason, hosting games at 15 different home arenas around the country would likely be too risky of an undertaking.
Quarantining players, essential staff and perhaps some family members – "The Bubble", as this idea is commonly known – is probably a more realistic approach, but the league has been hesitant to commit to a plan that would require stringent, expensive testing and limited outside access during a global pandemic.
The bottom line? The NBA is in no rush to chart a final course until it evaluates every scenario and can account for every potential pitfall.
But let's throw all of the guessing, hoping and uncertainty for a moment. For the sake of this exercise, let's say the league announces that it's returning to play the postseason only, beginning August 1.
To take it a step further, we'll assume the league goes forth with "The Bubble" plan in a city like Orlando or Las Vegas. Sixteen teams. Four rounds. Seven games per series. On paper, at least, your run-of-the-mill NBA Playoffs.
As of mid-May, this outcome seems as realistic as any for a league desperate to avoid hemorrhaging more cash than it already has. On May 15, the NBA began withholding a percentage of player salaries, and perhaps even more concerning is the long-term effect of the pandemic on the league's salary cap structure – especially if the 2020 Playoffs can't be salvaged. So even amid legitimate health and safety concerns, there's motivation on behalf of players, owners and league officials to find a solution.
But every scenario has its winners and its losers. If things were to play out this way, with the league playing out a full postseason in a makeshift Bubble City, who would stand to benefit most?
This is an obvious one. James is in his 17th NBA season, and while he'll likely finish as the MVP runner-up, the clock is ticking on a prime that's already defied conventional logic. James looked as spry as ever in 2019-20 and had his Lakers peaking just as the season was suspended on March 11.
At the time of the shutdown, the Lakers were 49-14 with a 5.5-game lead in the Western Conference. They'd just vanquished their two biggest challengers on national TV over a three-day span, in the process establishing themselves as the most dangerous team in the league. That's by no means a consensus opinion – I'd still pick the Clippers in a seven-game series, for what it's worth – but if you're the wagering type, the Lakers are the Vegas favorite to capture the title.
A canceled season would obviously wash away any chance of James earning his fourth ring, and it would render his 60 games and 2,000-plus regular season minutes mostly meaningless. Chances are, Anthony Davis will re-sign and the Lakers can run it back again next season, but at age 35, James is in no position to forfeit what was shaping up to be a great chance to return to the Finals for the ninth time in 10 seasons.
Milwaukee may have hit the skids before the season was suspended, dropping four of its last five games amid an injury to Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the Bucks remain the heavy favorites to come out of an Eastern Conference that goes six-deep with quality teams but lacks another kingpin on the level of the Lakers or Clippers.
LeBron James' personal legacy aside, the Bucks have more to gain from the season resuming than any other team or player. After blowing a golden opportunity a year ago, Milwaukee came back even stronger, starting 24-3 and entering the All-Star break with only eight losses. Teams like Boston, Toronto, Miami and even Philadelphia are plenty capable of giving the Bucks a run for their money in the playoffs, but Milwaukee will have the best player in any series it enters.
As Antetokounmpo's free agency looms, securing the title that could convince the soon-to-be-two-time-MVP to re-sign is now more urgent than ever. A lost season wouldn't spell death for the Bucks – Antetokounmpo is under contract through next season, and he hasn't exactly indicated that he'll be on the move any time soon – but getting that ring in 2020, asterisk be damned, would go a long way toward quelling the drama that would inevitably follow Antetokounmpo through the final year of his current deal.
The Lakers might be the betting favorites to win the title, but the Clippers would be quick to remind you that they won two of the three regular-season matchups. For Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the "need" to win a title may not be as urgent as it is for James, but that doesn't mean they'd be OK with forfeiting the opportunity.
George is still in search of his first ring – and his first trip beyond the Conference Finals – while Leonard is seeking what would be his third championship with a third different team. Legacy-wise, Leonard has begun a rapid ascent over the last few seasons, and adding another title with a third team would further cement his legacy as perhaps one of the 20 greatest players in NBA history.
There may be even more at stake for the Clippers franchise, which has spent the last, oh, 49 years as a league-wide laughing stock for reasons varying from Scrooge-like stinginess to straight-up bigotry.
Significant strides have been made since Steve Ballmer bought the team in 2014, but the organizational stability is yet to truly translate to on-court success. Since the inception of the franchise in 1970, the Clippers have never advanced past the conference semifinals. With Leonard and George on board, their window to break through is wide open, but losing out on a title opportunity in 2020 would suddenly apply pressure with both superstars able to opt out of their deals after next season.
No one is going to feel bad if the team with the 21-year-old putting up a 29-9-9 every night can't finish its season. But even if the Mavs are likely chum for Kawhi and Co. in Round 1, this postseason is important. For one, even in less-than-ideal circumstances, it would be Luka Doncic's – and Kristaps Porzingis', for that matter – first taste of playoff basketball. Rarely do young stars succeed in the postseason right away. The earlier in your career you can take those inevitable lumps, the better.
On the other hand, there's an argument to be made that the uncertain nature of this NBA season could be an agent of chaos in the postseason. Would I pick the Mavs to beat the Clippers? Absolutely not. But do I feel better about their chances to make things interesting if the series takes place in a glorified circus tent in the middle of the desert after three months of sitting around? Sure, I don't see why not.
Doncic and Porzingis are not Leonard and George, and the Clippers' depth will likely win out, but Dallas, which had the league's best offense during the regular season, is not the average seven-seed.
If we're talking about a 16-team playoff, Orlando should just be happy to get in. Before they won their final three regular season games, the Magic looked to be strongly considering just handing the eight seed over to the Wizards. This season has been a mild disappointment for a team that won 42 games a year ago, but a playoff berth – even if it means getting smacked around by Giannis for a week-and-a-half – is better than securing the 14th pick in the draft. As an added bonus, the Magic might not even have to leave home.
No one with the Rockets has explicitly stated that D'Antoni won't be back next season, but around this time last year, he was unable to come to terms with new owner Tilman Fertitta on an extension. As such, D'Antoni entered the season without any long-term stability, and in the months since, it's appeared increasingly likely that the two sides will part ways after the season. Fertitta isn't exactly Jerry Krause – and D'Antoni doesn't have Phil Jackson's credentials – but this postseason could very well be D'Antonio's last dance in Houston.
His deal is set to expire on July 1, and while that detail won't prevent him from coaching the Rockets in the playoffs, this could be the 69-year-old's last chance at an elusive Finals run. Likely having to beat one, if not both, of the Clippers and Lakers just to make The Finals means Houston's chances are slim, but the Rockets have two guards capable of being the best player on the floor on any given night. Neither has proven he can be that on a consistent basis, however.
Even so, this version of the Rockets, one that's gone all-in on small ball, carries a certain level of unpredictability. When you're tossing up over 46 threes per game, as Houston did after the All-Star break, you have a chance to beat – or lose to – just about anyone on the right night. There's little evidence to support that the boom-or-bust strategy can win out against a superior opponent over the course of a series, but D'Antoni and the Rockets would at least like an opportunity to give it a shot.
Philly makes the list for a couple of reasons. First, both of the Sixers' best players were banged up back in March when the season was suspended. Pushing the league calendar back several months means both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid should be fully healthy for the playoffs. While the Sixers never quite clicked for an extended stretch this season, they were dominant at home and were one of the few teams that proved semi-capable of at least slowing down Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Playing all games anywhere but downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania could prove to be a disadvantage, but the Sixers have to feel better about their overall chances now than they did in mid-March when Simmons could barely move.
If the NBA jumps straight to the postseason, the Sixers would also stand to benefit from a draft capital standpoint. While the Sixers will send their lottery-protected first-rounder to the Nets, Philly is in position to receive the Thunder's pick, which is top-20 protected. Given the amount of future draft capital the Thunder hold, this barely registers as a footnote, but OKC has been teetering on the edge of keeping or losing the pick for much of the season.
With 18 games remaining, the Thunder were tied with Houston (40-24) for the ninth-best record. If the league cancels the remainder of the regular season, that would mean the Thunder and Rockets would enter a coin flip to determine the 21st and 22nd picks. Either way, the pick falling outside the top-20 would mean it conveys to Philadelphia.