On Wednesday night, NBA commissioner Adam Silver outlined the rapidly evolving coronavirus situation as it pertains to the remainder of the 2019-20 season. For starters, Silver admitted there is no guarantee the season will resume. Every week the virus isn’t contained puts us closer to that unfortunate reality.
That said, the hope is that the season can — and will — continue in some capacity. Silver said anything and everything is on the table, from picking up where we left off and finishing the regular season to going straight to the playoffs, with or without fans. Silver didn’t even rule out the possibility of some sort of tournament format, either as a play-in mechanism or even as part of a grander playoff restructuring that could include trimming series from best-of-seven to best-of-five.
The league discussed various contingency plans during a phone meeting with its board of governors on Tuesday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports. Also on that call was former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who delivered a “grim forecast for the pandemic’s potential impact on the United States and further convinced owners that there could be no resumption before June — if that is even possible.”
In other words, if the NBA does resume its season, in whatever capacity, it likely won’t be any time soon: June at the earliest, with July potentially being more realistic. Do the math tracing back to March 11, when the season was officially suspended, and that is a 10-week hiatus at minimum, and potentially closer to 14 weeks. If NBA teams are looking for a silver lining in a bleak moment, happening upon that kind of rest just before the playoffs begin certainly fits the bill.
Here are five teams that, should the season eventually resume, stand to benefit the most from this unexpected and extended downtime.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
This is pretty simple: LeBron James is in his 17th season. He has just under 60,000 total NBA minutes on his 35-year-old legs, and that’s not including his 2008 and 2012 Olympic runs.
This season for the Lakers, James is averaging just under 35 minutes per game, and they haven’t been easy minutes. LeBron is carrying a massive load for a Lakers team that, despite the presence of fellow All-Star Anthony Davis, falls off precipitously when James goes to the bench. He orchestrates almost all the Lakers’ offense. He’s even dialed up his defense more often than he has in recent years.
To be fair, there is no evidence that any of this effort is diminishing LeBron’s productivity or even eye-test spryness. The man plays like an anti-aging athletic marvel. But don’t let that fool you. James has ice all over his body after games.
And it’s not just LeBron. Davis has played over 34 minutes per game this season. Markieff Morris is 30 years old. Danny Green and JaVale McGee are both 32. Rajon Rondo is 33. Dwight Howard is 34. This is an old team. The Lakers, in fact, were the second-oldest roster in the league to start the season. Wearing down is as great a threat to the Lakers as any potential playoff opponent.
In the end, beating LeBron James when he’s tired is hard enough. Beating LeBron James when he’s just had two months of rest might be impossible.
2. Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons hasn’t played since Feb. 22 due to a nerve impingement in his back. Last Wednesday, the same day the season wound up being suspended, the Sixers announced that Simmons would be re-evaluated in three weeks — some two weeks later than his original timeline.
Had the season not been suspended, and had Simmons actually returned at the earliest possible date after that three-week timeline, he would’ve had just seven regular-season games to get back in rhythm before the playoffs.
Now, assuming Simmons’ injury — which admittedly could be worse than we all first thought — isn’t season-ending, he will have had more than three months of recovery time if the playoffs were to start somewhere around June, and whatever rust he has from that layoff will be roughly commensurate with the rest of the league.
Beyond Simmons, Joel Embiid’s health and freshness is always a swing factor for the Sixers. He’s already missed 21 games this season. The Sixers could use every game they can get together to try to figure out some semblance of offensive cohesion in the half-court, but much of what ails them isn’t simply going to be “sorted out.” They lack shooting. They lack half-court playmaking. Al Horford’s fit next to Embiid and alongside Simmons is muddy. The Sixers’ road woes have been well-chronicled and their effort fluctuates.
The Sixers’ best shot is to ride Embiid, collectively put the clamps down defensively and grind out wins on sheer talent. For that to happen, all their talent has to be on the floor. Before this hiatus, that wasn’t going to be a guarantee. Now, should the season resume, Philly can plan on having everyone healthy and whole and ready to roll.
3. Houston Rockets
Having traded Clint Capela and committed to an extreme version of small ball, the Rockets are suddenly playing an exhausting brand of basketball. P.J. Tucker, who is effectively Houston’s defensive center at 6-foot-5, is having to fight his backside off every single possession to hold his ground against more traditional bigs who have anywhere from 5-7 inches on him.
In fact, every Houston defender ends up guarding on the interior and boxing out bigs at some point. They all switch. They all have to guard position to position and scrap like heck to secure rebounds, and that includes James Harden and Russell Westbrook. The idea of them taking a break on defense to preserve offensive energy is out the window with Houston playing this small. This takes all five guys on a string covering the whole court, and collectively the Rockets have the oldest roster in the league.
When you factor in the offensive burden Harden and Westbrook carry, that is a lot. Harden has worn down in past playoffs just with his offensive responsibility. This roughly two-month period of rest is going to do wonders for Houston’s long-term energy when and if the playoffs actually do begin.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
No secret here: Kawhi Leonard is the portrait of “load management” effectiveness. Last season the Raptors did everything they could to keep him fresh throughout the regular season, and it worked. Leonard was able to go all-out for four playoff rounds and led the Raptors to their first NBA championship in franchise history.
If anyone in the NBA is going to be more thrilled about a two-month break than LeBron, it’s Leonard. Also, like the Lakers, the Clippers are a relatively old roster. Paul George, who has been dinged up off and on all season, is in his 10th season. Marcus Morris is 30. Patrick Beverley is 31. Lou Williams is 33.
The Clippers were starting to play terrific basketball before this hiatus, but whatever rhythm they were gaining together I’m sure they would trade for the guarantee their main players would be fully rested and healthy for a potential playoff run. Certainly they would’ve liked for it to come under different circumstances, but in the game of championship chasing, rest is rest.
5. Memphis Grizzlies
If the playoffs were to resume the moment the NBA starts playing games again, the Grizzlies would be in as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. At present, they own a three-game lead in the loss column over the Pelicans, Kings and Spurs and a four-game lead over the Blazers.
Even if the NBA decides to play a few regular-season games before the playoffs begin, the truncated regular-season schedule would obviously give all those teams chasing the Grizzlies less time to make up ground. And a lot of those teams doing the chasing were counting on the Grizzlies, who have the second-toughest remaining schedule in the league, coming back to the pack.
If the NBA decides to finish the regular season in full, the Grizzlies won’t benefit from this time off any more than any other team. But being that there is a distinct possibility the playoffs will either begin immediately after the hiatus ends, or after a handful of games are played to conclude a shortened regular-season schedule, Memphis has a good shot to benefit significantly from this two-month break in action.