The coronavirus has brought the NBA to a stop and there have been questions flying around that have not been fully answered. It is unknown when the NBA will restart and what will actually occur when the league starts again. Will the league finish out the regular season or will the league call an end to the regular season and move straight into play-off basketball? I aim to try and answer a few of these questions within this article. I do not have any special insider information so these answers will be my own thoughts on what the league could do in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
What’s the best playoff format the NBA could do in your opinion?
The coronavirus interrupting the season was always going to cause headaches in regard to the scheduling of the league. The schedule sent out by the league office before the season start is a balancing act for the NBA in terms of fitting in every game while also having a long summer break so that off-season business can be done. Adam Silver previously stated the league would review the hiatus towards the end of the April and make a firm decision regarding the restart of the league then. Given the international epidemic that is the coronavirus, I do not expect the season to restart for at least two months. It may be possible for teams to start playing games again sooner if every organisation’s game staff comes back negative but this is unlikely. There would also be little appetite from teams and players alike when it comes to playing games behind closed doors, LeBron James was vocal when the idea was brought to him.
LeBron James on possibility of NBA playing games behind closed doors because of coronavirus. LeBron: “I ain’t playing” if there are no fans pic.twitter.com/kpHg6bsFYO— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) March 7, 2020
While James does not represent every single player in the league, his star power and influence is undeniable, Adam Silver will likely account for the views of the game’s elite when he schedules a start date. In whatever scenario, it is probable the league will lose two months of time where games can be played. This loss of time will lead to adjustments to the play-offs and the regular season.
Adam Silver does not need to re-invent the wheel when it comes to the play-offs in order to save time, there are a few small tweaks the league office could make that would shorten the play-offs. One of the suggestions that I would make would be to shorten the first-round series to five games rather than seven games. This would save at least four days and could also improve the quality of the game itself. Teams will no longer be able to bank on their home-court form being enough to win the series, Game 5 becomes a crap-shoot if the series is 2-2, there is no distinct advantage for either team. There would be impetus for teams to try and steal a game on the road which could lead to games of higher intensity.
There are flaws in this plan, NBA owners would have to agree to sacrifice two extra games worth of revenue which is not insubstantial. Teams earn a lot of revenue from broadcast rights in the play-offs but the gate receipts also spike. For a franchise like Orlando who does not sell out their arena on a nightly basis during the regular season, the play-offs represent an opportunity to fill the stadium to full capacity and sell to a captive audience. It is entirely possible that a team like the Magic or Pacers will fight against this change strongly. I still believe that reducing the number of games in the first round is a good idea, each individual game will mean more and make sure that television fans do not have the feeling that they can skip games because the game lacks importance.
What is the % that the season gets canceled?
It is possible the league choose to cancel the rest of the season and allow teams to start preparations for the 20-21 season. This decision would mean a long off-season for basketball and time for players to get right physically. This would be a last resort for the league, the season would be cancelled if the threat that the coronavirus presents significantly worsens. At the time of writing, the coronavirus is highly infectious but there has been a relatively small mortality rate from COVID-19. If the virus became more lethal and a greater threat to public safety, I would expect the league to cancel the current season in favour of the public interest.
It is unlikely that the league will cancel the season as whole, public health organisations have started to get to grips with the virus and methods of containment. Providing that games are played in contained, disease-free environments, it is possible that the season can be played behind closed doors. There is significant financial cost to the league as a whole if the season is cancelled. The NBA earns a lot of revenue from Basketball Related Income, this is a term used to categorise all income related directly to the game. Example of BRI would be ticket revenue and more importantly, the TV broadcast rights. The broadcast rights are agreed with companies such as Turner, ESPN and international broadcasters.In the event that the league cancels the rest of the season. the television rights contract will not be satisfied and there is a legal case for broadcasters to sue.
It might seem like a remote possibility but it is definitely real unless the league can come to an agreement with the broadcasters. The same issue has affected the Premier League, there was recent news stating that clubs would have to pay back £762m to Sky and BT Sports if the season was cancelled. Moreover, a fall in BRI would affect the income available to calculate the salary cap, it would mean teams would have less money to play with in the summer. This is a possibility which all of the owners will want to avoid so I can see Silver coming to an agreement with the television companies.
I think the best solution available to Adam Silver will be to cancel the rest of the regular season and go straight into play-off basketball. This is a drastic measure, it is roughly eighteen games worth of revenue that teams choose to sacrifice in favour of shortening the schedule by seven or so weeks. The gate receipts from the home games during that period is not insignificant, it may be difficult to sell small-market teams especially those in the lottery on this idea. However, the TV deal brings in so much revenue that the majority of lost revenue will be covered.
The idea makes a lot of sense for the league and it is practical, it removes one of the dead spots in the schedule and brings forward more exciting basketball games. At this point in the year, the seedings are settled and the majority of contenders will choose to rest their players in favour of ensuring a fresh roster for the play-offs. Moreover, tanking teams will be actively trying to lose games and therefore the games played are meaningless. The quality of the games at this point of the season is pretty poor, the sole bright spot is the race for the final play-off berth in the Western Conference. That would be the only issue with this proposal, it is unfair to give the Grizzlies a play-off berth while Portland, Sacramento and New Orleans are still in touching distance of the play-offs.
The solution to this is an idea proposed by Adam Silver earlier in the season, the play-in tournament. We have seen the NCAA use the play-in tournament to great effect, the First Four is an appetiser to March Madness. Silver has looked at the idea of using a play-in tournament to create excitement towards the end of the regular season and a shortened season would be the perfect testing ground. I propose that you take all teams within four games of the eighth seed and place them in a single game knock-out tournament. In this example, Memphis, NOLA, Portland and Sactown would all feature in the competition for 8th. Teams would be seeded based on record with 8th v 11th and 9th vs 10th. This feels like a fair way of deciding what team deserves the final berth, the team has to earn the right to play in the play-offs by beating their closest competitors. There is still an incentive to play hard until the end of the season as a good regular season record could provide an easy opponent for a stronger team to play.
While cancelling the season is unlikely, I expect the regular season to be cancelled and for the first round of the play-offs to be shortened slightly. I believe Adam Silver will take the opportunity to implement some of his new ideas.
Who would win the awards if the season is done with?
This question is tricky to answer but I’ll try and do my best in terms of outlining why I believe that certain players deserve to be recognised for their performances. The hardest award to determine would be the Most Valuable Player award as it is a combination of factors and each factor has a different weighting to the journalist who has a vote. Factors like team success, impact on a team and statistical achievement are important when considering whether a player is worthy of being the MVP but there are other factors as well. Narrative can be important in terms of shifting the momentum from one player to another, in the case of Russell Westbrook, narrative was important. It was easy to vote for Russell in 2016-17 as he was a man on a mission dragging a terrible team to the play-offs. The narrative ignored that Westbrook had quality role players on his team.
In terms of the MVP race this season, it is only LeBron’s narrative which has been curtailed. There is a story of LeBron overcoming personal hardship, one that trivialises the death of Kobe Bryant, that is easily told and has been used by a few media members to put him above Giannis. At the point where the season had stopped, LeBron was rolling and attracting support every single day while Giannis was injured. Giannis did not have a narrative, he was the incumbent MVP playing on a small-market team that many people consider to be excellent but also boring due to the lack of drama. The only time Giannis’ brilliance is noted is when media members like Rachel Nichols, Stephen A Smith and others try to find a way to get Giannis to a big-market team where they could cover editorialise every aspect of his play.
In my mind, there are three players in the MVP race. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Chris Paul are those three players. Other players who are worthy of being in the MVP conversation but there are reasons why these players do not deserve to win MVP. Russell Westbrook has performed brilliantly, some of the best basketball he has ever played since the New Year but the first half of his season was abysmal, he cannot get an MVP for half a season of excellent play. Kawhi has missed too many games for my liking, for me an MVP candidate has to be consistent and reliable during the regular season. Harden has been too inconsistent with his play and Butler’s statistical numbers are not quite good enough, he has tailed off in recent weeks.
Paul is the outlier in the group by far, his raw numbers are last and he does not play on a title contender. However, he has built a credible case for MVP by being the leader on an over-achieving Thunder team. Nobody expected the Thunder to be this good, a team which was on track to win fifty games if the season finished as normal. It is Paul’s leadership and play down the stretch of tight games which has been valuable for the Thunder. Paul’s case for MVP is built off the value argument which is important when thinking about whether a player is worthy of being named MVP. Without Chris Paul, the Thunder are a lottery team that wins thirty wins, with Paul the Thunder were on a fifty-win pace. In my opinion, that is the definition of value. Paul adds wins to a team’s total by himself. While I feel that CP3 has played an exceptional season and is deserving of recognition, I struggle to see how he wins MVP. His raw statistical achievements just simply is not good enough to be recognised in the James/Giannis group.
LeBron’s case for MVP is pretty simple, he is the best player on the best team in the Western Conference which is tougher than the Eastern Conference. The Lakers have won less games than the Bucks but the Bucks play teams like the Bulls and the Pistons four times a year. The Western Conference has very few easy games and the higher level of competition makes it more difficult to win games on a nightly basis. James’ stats are more than good enough to get him into the conversation, he is averaging 26/8/10 on 58% TS which is outstanding production given his scoring efficiency. It is difficult to maintain efficient scoring when a player’s usage is high due to the responsibilities of running the offence constantly. LeBron’s numbers is not as strong as Giannis’ statistics and James has a better running mate that Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis is clearly a better player than Khris Middleton. However, LeBron’s candidacy has a strong narrative and he will always have support from various members of the media, LeBron’s play supports an entire cottage industry of writers, podcasters and television personalities.
In my opinion, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the MVP for the 2019-20 season. Giannis’ numbers are far and away the best of this group of players and he plays on the best team in the league. The Milwaukee Bucks have been an incredibly well-oiled machine this season that cranks out victories night in night out, the Bucks were on a seventy win pace before the season stopped. That winning percentage puts the Bucks in a historic category in which there are very few other teams. Giannis has been the leader of this group, he is the best player on the team by far and his nightly contributions mean that Milwaukee have a +11.2 point differential. This often means the Bucks win games by the third quarter and Antetokounmpo only has to play thirty minutes a night.
The Defensive Player of the Year is another race that has a few interesting candidates compared to previous years where there was just one outstanding candidate. Over the last two years, Rudy Gobert has been the clear winner of the award as there was no other player in the league who came to close to providing the same sort of interior defence that Gobert provided for the Jazz. Gobert’s defensive abilities are pretty special and his defence was one of the key reasons in why Utah were a top-five defence over the last two years. In terms of this season, Rudy does not feature in the DPOY conversation. Gobert’s weaknesses have been exploited more this season, teams are willing to drag Gobert away from his comfort zone and force him to defend in space. There are three players who could feasibly win Defensive Player of the Year, it is an open race.
Giannis features at the top of the list, Antetokounmpo anchors the best defence in the league and his ability to envelop opposing players has been an important reason in why the Bucks have been so successful. Giannis is smart in using his length to contest shots and to slow the opponent down, he is octopus-like in his ability to slide into defensive spots and make life much harder for the opposing player. The statistical side of the argument also makes sense for Antetokounmpo, his defensive rating and defensive win shares are league-leading. The sticking point in making a case for Giannis is that he plays on a team with exceptional defensive talent. Khris Middleton, Wes Matthews, Brook Lopez and Eric Bledsoe are all plus defenders who rank highly in the advanced defensive statistics. It could be argued Giannis’ impact is inflated due to having quality players around him.
Kyle Lowry deserves to be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, a statement which would have seemed ridiculous at the start of the season. Toronto is another team that has hugely over-achieved in comparison to the pre-season expectations. There was the belief that Toronto would fall back to Earth and eventually start their rebuild in earnest after Kawhi chose to join the Los Angeles Clippers. The opposite has occurred with veteran players stepping up a gear and making the Raptors one of the stingiest defences in the league. Toronto is laden with defensive talent but Lowry is the head of the snake. Kyle is a bulldog on defence, he harries his opponent incessantly and does not allow players to beat him off the dribble. He has been this player for years but he has taken another leap on the defensive end in terms of being a leader who co-ordinates the Raptors’ defence.
Toronto’s defensive success has stemmed from an inventive coach who is willing to try different coverages and a versatile, experienced roster who can play different styles. I urge you to watch a Raptors’ game closely and you will see different defensive schemes blending into one single, dominant coverage. The Raptors will start in a zone before switching into a man to man coverage before ending with a junk scheme all in the space of one possession. Lowry is the captain who gets players into their spots on defence while leading by example. It is one of the reasons why he has been one of the league leaders in defensive win shares and defensive rating at the point guard position. Lowry’s individual numbers are not particularly eye-catching but watching Toronto play, it is pretty clear that Kyle is the linchpin for an exceptional defence.
Kawhi Leonard is the final player in the DPOY grouping and is the only player to have previously won this award. Leonard was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2015 and 2016 as he led the Spurs deep into the post-season. Kawhi’s candidacy is pretty simple, he is arguably the best defender at the wing position in the NBA and can lock up the opposing team’s best player without breaking a sweat. Kawhi is excellent at using a combination of size, speed and defensive intelligence to bully opponent’s into inefficient shooting nights. Leonard has been impressive for the Clippers, a top-five defence in the league, in terms of providing sturdy defence at the wing position. Leonard is an exceptional defender but he misses too many games to be considered for this honour. A key part of being DPOY is playing every single night and making huge plays on a reliable basis, Leonard’s load management does not satisfy that aspect of the criteria.
My personal choice for Defensive Player of the Year would be Kyle Lowry. It is an unusual choice and a departure from the usual candidates who are discussed in the DPOY conversation. Moreover, point guards do not traditionally win the Defensive Player of the Year, the only point guard to win this award was Gary Payton for the Sonics during the 1990s. I just really like Lowry’s defensive contributions as an individual but also his effect on his team-mates. Lowry’s ability to lead has elevated the Raptors from being merely a play-off team into a title contender.
There is only one player who is capable of winning Sixth Man of the Year and that player is Dennis Schroder. Schroder has been an able facilitator, scorer and defender for a Thunder team which has needed his impact to win games consistently. Dennis has the highest scoring average among all reserve guards in the NBA and he is ranked very highly on the defensive end of the floor. Schroder’s defensive win shares are comparable to players like Kyle Lowry and Marcus Smart, two players who are noted to be very good defenders. If Schroder does not win this award, it would be a travesty.
Rookie of the Year will likely go to Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies. Morant came into the league with the reputation of being a dynamic, athletic point guard. That type of player can take time to acclimatise to playing at the NBA level where every player is a strong athlete. This has not been a concern for Morant as he has led the Memphis Grizzlies to a surprising play-off berth. The Grizzlies were not expected to do anything special this season, the nucleus of young guys was expected to take time to develop before eventually becoming a really good side. Instead, Memphis started winning games and Morant proved himself to be more than able at running an offence to a high-level. Morant’s seventeen points and seven rebounds for a rookie point guard is really impressive but the most exciting aspect of his game is his maturity as a player. He does not fall into the pitfalls that many rookie guards do, Ja does not try too much with the ball and picks his spots carefully. Zion Williamson is the better player and his numbers are outstanding but Williamson has barely played this season, I would argue that Morant’s full body of work is deserving of the honour.
The Most Improved Player is an easy decision for me, the award has to go to Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks. Doncic has elevated himself into being one of the ten best players in the league and a player who is in the MVP conversation. His sophomore year is better than what many players will average in their entire career, Doncic’s play needs to be respected. He has excelled with the responsibilities of being the offensive hub for the Mavericks, Luka has not been fazed with the pressure of having to deliver on a nightly basis. I understand that a case can be made for Bam Adebayo or Jayson Tatum but I do not think that their improvement has been as great as Luka’s.
Coach of the Year is another difficult honour to decide but I feel like Nick Nurse deserves this award for his ability to get the most of his roster. Nurse’s innovative coaching on the defensive end has constructed a rock solid defence that is difficult to play against on a nightly basis while suffering huge injuries throughout this season. Nurse has lost players like Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam and Norman Powell for long stretches of the season but the Raptors kept on winning games. There is a ‘next man up’ mentality for the Raptors which is why Toronto have been able to get strong contributions out of players like Terrence Davis and Chris Boucher when established players have been injured.
Billy Donovan deserves a honourable mention for the award as he has coached a huge over-achievement out of the Thunder. Donovan’s decision to go small was bold but it has been huge in building the Thunder into a play-off team, Billy deserves a lot of credit for doing really well without always having great players available to him. Donovan has found roles for fringe players like Abdel Nader that work and turn these players into positive contributors.
How will the Draft and FA be affected with this?
The coronavirus pandemic has obviously put the usual season schedule out of whack, basketball will probably be played in July for the first time in the league’s history. During the summer months of June and July, the NBA Draft is conducted and the free agency period opens. I do not expect there to be any huge changes for the league, I would expect free agency and the draft to pushed back until August. It would be a good idea for the league to hold the draft towards the end of July and then start free agency in the middle of August. This could be part of a wider plan by the league office to move the NBA away from competing with the NFL and other sports league.
Sports league such as the NFL, the Premier League, La Liga and other soccer leagues usually play on a winter schedule. This period of time is highly competitive and can lead to fairly low NBA audiences during the first quarter of the calendar, October to December. This is not desirable for the league on a local and international perspective, the NBA wants to grow the league’s viewership, it is difficult to do this while taking the NFL head on. The idea was proposed by Steve Koonin, Atlanta Hawks’ CEO, who believes that the best way for the league to grow would be to start the season in December and finish the league in August. Basketball would then compete with baseball, an easier proposition compared to competing with American Football. In a strange way, COVID-19 provides the NBA with a blank slate where they can experiment with aspects of the league without serious consequence.
What happens with expiring contracts?
The majority of player’s contracts expire on June 30 which is an issue for play-off teams as the league extends into the summer months. For the Thunder, this would affect Danilo Gallinari who is a free agent this summer and Luguentz Dort who is currently on a two-way contract. It is inconceivable to think that a team could lose key contributors while the season is ongoing but it is a real reality for many teams. Given the level of uncertainty, I would expect that the league comes to agreement with the NBPA in terms of extending the contracts until August so that players do not become free agents while basketball is still being played. There has been very little talk about this issue but I expect to see Adam Silver sit down with Michele Roberts and hammer out a deal.