The Winners and Losers of the NBA’s Return Plan
Here's how the league's shortened, travel-free format will affect those involved, from LeBron to Mike D'Antoni
Although it feels like the world has finally settled into its sports-less New Normal, a Newer Normal tips-off on July 31, when the NBA will become the first major American sports league to play games during the coronavirus pandemic. After halting the season on March 11, the NBA will bring its 21 finest teams and the Washington Wizards to Disney World to crown a champion — hence complying with their $24-billion dollar TV deal.
While basketball will always be basketball on a fundamental level, the extended hiatus and modified format — all teams will play eight regular-season games to determine seeding, followed by (possible) play-in games and then a normal four-round playoffs — will affect every element of the games and those who play them. Here, the winners and losers of the NBA’s plan to navigate These Trying Times.
Winner: the Houston Rockets
For years, the Rockets have tried to solve basketball, to distill the chaos of the sport’s infinite micro-decisions into something simple and calculable. They mostly have: they’ve either had the best or second best offensive rating in each of the last four seasons. Houston has converted basketball into an essentially turn-based contest, a game of Monopoly in which the Rockets own a few more hotels than their opponent and slowly bleed them dry. Their identity is rooted more in fact than philosophy: James Harden’s solo stylings and Russell Westbrook’s unceasing rim pressure are almost certainly more lucrative offensive options than whatever their opponent can put together; PJ Tucker and Robert Covington are more efficient three-point shooters than any opposing big man is at post-up scoring; they stack marginal advantages until those advantages compile into insurmountable leads.
But with their agnostic approach to passing or player movement, the Rockets demand that Harden and Westbrook maintain ginormous usage rates. As a result, Harden has been visibly fatigued in the playoffs the last few seasons, slightly rejiggering the efficiency of his endless isolations. The difference between an exhausted James Harden losing in the playoffs and his historically dominant regular season averages is essentially one missed shot and one fewer foul drawn. It’s indicative of the drawbacks of the Rockets’ style, which demands a degree of stress and strain that’s unsustainable over a full season. Their 40-24 record and current sixth-seed is a testament to both their talent and their inconsistency. After trading away their only real big man at the deadline, the Rockets won a road game against the Lakers before losing by 36 points to the Suns the next night. As long as coach Mike D’Antoni isn’t at risk of dying, Disney World offers the Rockets a closed-circuit environment, one free from distractions or pesky unforeseen variables. There’s no travel, no fatigue, no home-court advantage — there’s only basketball. Now is Houston’s chance to show that glory is simply arithmetic.
Debating who is the greatest basketball player of all time is like smoking cigarettes: off-putting when you see other people are doing it, but divine when you’re drunk. In the wake of The Last Dance, these tiresome debates became a pandemic unto themselves as millions of people sought a quarantine activity beyond spending time with their loving families. The Last Dance provided plenty of pro-MJ ammo for the hot-take-industrial-complex; this summer, Lebron James will offer his rebuttal. The eternal Lebron-versus-Jordan question is already unanswerable and this truncated, unprecedented season will make it truly indecipherable. The games in Disney World over the next few months will feel wholly unlike any that preceded them, does that matter? If Lebron wins the title, this is either proof that not even a pandemic can stop him, or it’s another asterisk-stained title to go along with the one from the lockout-shortened 2012 season. If Lebron loses, it’s easily explained away by the fact that the Lakers were a juggernaut who were derailed by a fluke event — or it’s a sign that Lebron can’t win against healthy, rested opponents. There is no right choice between Lebron and Jordan, and the sheer weirdness of this year might ensure there never will be. If a basketball game is played near Space Mountain with nobody around to see it, do we still count the rings? I’m exhausted already.
The NBA’s defining quality is its constancy. Since its inception, the league has been dominated by mononymic legends: Wilt, Magic, Bird, Jordan, Shaq, Kobe. Over the last 13 years, Lebron James has been this organizing force, outlasting all of his peers and presumed successors; Kevin Durant is the most talented scorer ever, but he risks forever being seen as the Clyde Drexler to Lebron’s MJ. Eventually, Lebron will relinquish his NBA throne — or, more likely, he’ll be yeeted off of it by a new generation.
By arbitrarily setting the new field at 22 teams with imbalanced conference representation, the NBA guaranteed that their new crop of stars would have hearty representation. Namely, the NBA included the New Orleans Pelicans, giving the world at least eight more games of Zion Williamson and a potential play-in game against Ja Morant, the presumed rookie of the year. Further out on the playoff fringe, the Phoenix Suns are led by Deandre Ayton and Devin Booker, an Alibaba Express version of Shaq and Kobe. Amongst actual playoff teams, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has blossomed into the leading scorer of the fifth-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, sliding to the rim with an arachnid grace that helps him glide by and stretch beyond defenders; the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum fulfilled his immense potential and boomed the whole NBA; Bam Adebayo and Pascal Siakam reestablished the primacy of the power forward. Luka Doncic moves around the court like his shoes are the wrong size, yet was still better at basketball than any 20-year-old pretty much ever.
Beyond the on-court results, this offseason’s salary-cap decrease looms large. Since the league’s massively lucrative TV deal began in 2016, the salary cap has ballooned from $70 million during the 2015-2016 season to $109 million this year. Accordingly, the promise of an ever-expanding salary cap emboldened players and franchises alike. Players embraced their newfound mobility, hopping from short-term deal to short-term deal, secure that their worth would rise in accordance to the cap. Teams, in turn, aggressively pursued multiple all-stars, confident that they would still have ample room to fill out their roster. The specifics of the cap’s decline are unknown, but it could spell the end of this era of player-driven superteams if teams need to adopt austerity measures and shed excess salary. The playoffs are traditionally exercises in immediacy as teams hurriedly try to maximize their window of contention; this year, a crop of rising stars could disrupt the superteam hegemony, accelerating the league’s future, whatever that may be, into the present.
Baseball is a great and silly sport that lets players wear belts and daydream mid-game — and now it’s going to die. To be sure, Major League Baseball has a raft of its own issues (e.g., owners who are so craven and greedy that they’d rather cancel an entire season than honor their players’ contracts), but a full summertime slate of NBA games could toll MLB’s death knell. For years, the NBA offseason has overshadowed the MLB’s regular season, signaling that the Association had enough cultural clout that its legal paperwork and job interviews could eclipse actual baseball. Though the NBA’s future schedule beyond this season is still undetermined, the league could permanently adopt a December-August schedule after the coronavirus threat subsides. In doing so, the NBA would dodge overlapping with the bulk of the NFL and college football seasons; instead, they would become the dominant sports story during the fallow summer months. Accordingly, baseball would have to vie for attention against the NBA playoffs in June, July and August, before being relegated further to the periphery during football season. Paired with a rapidly aging fan base and a dearth of marketable stars, baseball’s future outlook seems awfully grim. As sad as it is to say, the popularity of America’s Pastime might one day be a relic of past times.
Winner: Knicks fans
New York City is in disarray. Between the aftermath of the George Floyd protests and the devastation wrought by coronavirus, it feels like the city has failed its citizens. Still, there is one unlikely source that has managed to give people what they want, through months of doomscrolling and now also into the foreseeable future: nobody will be subjected to watching a Knicks game until next December.