First, in terms of NBA-related news, let’s establish what you probably already know…
The NBA is Coming Back! (Somewhat Soon)
Earlier this week, Shams Charania (of The Athletic) reported the news of the NBA’s much-anticipated return. While some details remain in the air, particularly with health and safety measures, the wheels are in motion. 22 teams will continue their season in a ‘bubble’-type environment at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
Details on the NBA's proposed play-in tournament, per @ShamsCharania:
▪️If the 9th seed is more than 4 games back, 8th seed earns a playoff spot
▪️If 9th seed is 4 or fewer games behind, play-in: single-elimination for 9th seed, double-elimination for 8thhttps://t.co/zHy8LbeVa8
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) June 3, 2020
Today, we had more concrete dates for the season and off-season reported by Shams!!!:
Sources: The NBA informed the Board of Governors of scheduled dates:
– Training camp: June 30, July 7 travel to Orlando
– 2019-20 season: July 31
– Free agency: Oct. 18
– 2020-21 targets: Nov. 10 training camp, Dec. 1 opening night (can remain fluid)
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) June 4, 2020
With these details out there, and the ball rolling on an NBA return, it’s time to get excited! I’m sure many of the 22 fanbases having their season resume has them feeling some type of way this week. As a Celtics fan, I get butterflies at the mere thought of Jayson Tatum looking to cap off his breakout season with a deep playoff run. That super-biased homer take aside, there are plenty of other storylines that are worthy of monitoring as the NBA season re-approaches. Here are some of those storylines, and some residual thoughts revolving around them:
LeBron’s Last Shot at Anchoring a Championship Team?
Following LeBron’s absence from last season’s playoffs, many opine he’s a well-rested as he’s ever been heading into the playoffs. Now, on top of coming off of the longest off-season in quite some time, he’ll return from a break of 5-months.
One may ask, isn’t every NBA player in the same boat though? Technically yes, but LeBron’s in a world of his own (for many reasons) but especially in terms of his total career minutes. He’s on a historic pace, and (injury-permitting) will be the NBA’s all-time leader in minutes played. At age 35, he’s led the Lakers to the best record in the West, while averaging 34.9 minutes per game. That makes for a pretty physically demanding ¾ of the NBA season. Based on what we know about LeBron, it’d be foolish to question whether or not he’s staying in shape and allowing his body to efficiently recover. For him, this ~140 day hiatus from games could give him the fresh legs his 35-year old body needs to anchor the Lakers for a title run.
I have no doubt that this season will NOT be the last we see of LeBron making deep playoff runs. But rather a small step toward the end of his career. Perhaps this could be the final hurrah where his perennial pre-playoffs ‘ZeroDark23’ Twitter/Instagram post invokes the same level of fear in his opponents across the league.
Zero Dark Thirty- 23 activated. #StriveForGreatness
— LeBron James (@KingJames) April 17, 2016
Moving forward, Anthony Davis could be leading the charge for the Lakers with LeBron more so in a 2nd-banana type role. After all, LeBron’s already made a concerted effort to be more of a playmaker this season. Could this ‘Facilitate-First’ version of LeBron be his role for the twilight years of his career? Perhaps the Lakers finagle a way to trade Kyle Kuzma and draft picks for a 3rd star to offset some of that workload for the back-9 of LeBron’s career.
LeBron’s Last Dance?
For now, it feels premature to think about, but he’s at the age where most superstars’ bodies start to break down. Obviously James had an injury-riddled 2018-19 season, but personally, I saw it as a trial run of sorts. By not making the playoffs, and limiting LeBron’s minutes in the 2nd half of the season, it allowed the front office to posture their talented young core to trade partners. Obviously it worked out in some ways, though they paid a premium to the Pelicans in order to acquire Anthony Davis.
Regardless, as he enters his late 30s, each season where LeBron is able to play over 75% of the season at a high level is an anomaly of epic proportions. For the sake of the game, I hope his unparalleled health lasts well into his 40s, allowing him to walk away on his terms. But putting romantic storybook sports endings aside, the pragmatist within me prepares for a much less poetic final chapter for LeBron.
JJ Redick’s Pelicans Making a Run at the 8 Seed
Okay maybe it’s exaggerating to consider them ‘JJ Redick’s Pelicans’, but at least hear me out. In the previous 14 years of his NBA career, JJ Redick has made the playoffs every single year. Not a league-record, but quite an impressive feat, all things considered. Take into account his role, and the fact that he hasn’t been part of a perennial powerhouse (like the Spurs). James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, are among those who have yet to miss the playoffs in the entirety of their careers. But, the glaring difference is both are bonafide superstars drafted into incredible situations. Redick’s been the sort of hard-working, quiet leader that teams covet as the glue guys to round out a locker room. Redick’s proclivity for shooting 3-pointers at an extremely effective clip helps too, one may suppose.
Full disclosure, I want Redick to make the playoffs so bad this year. He’s alluded to it on his podcast before, but now it feels much more real. Signing with the Pelicans was a bold move for him, on a few levels, but putting his playoff streak in jeopardy could be the boldest. He chose New Orleans over Philly and Brooklyn, both much easier places to succeed. His faith in the young core New Orleans has pieced together is admirable. Now, he and his youthful Pellies have a chance at making the playoffs as the 8-seed. Speaking of those young Pellies…
More Zion Content!!!
Nothing is better than a night where you feel like the majority of the sports world is tuned into a random regular-season game, and have Twitter fingers at the ready, preparing to react in real-time to the event at hand. That’s what Zion’s 2020 NBA debut against the Spurs was. A real moment where it felt like the start of something bigger.
Zion’s game is absolutely electric, and though Ja Morant is the heavy favorite to run away with the NBA Rookie of the Year honors… I wonder what if…? What if Zion leads New Orleans to supplant Morant’s Grizzlies as the 8 seed in the West? It’s not very likely, probably not much more than a non-zero chance of him getting 1st place votes. BUT, if there’s a player who could somehow outpace his peers in a 30-game sample enough to gain some momentum for the ROY, it’s Zion. Note, this is not some half-assed attempt at a hot take. It’s actually something my short-circuited brain conjured up back in February, much to the chagrin of a good friend who lives in Memphis (and proudly stans Ja Morant).
Either way, the NBA’s format feels in part designed to give fans more of Zion in the 2019-20 season. Even if a relatively underhanded move by the league, it’s something I have no issues with.
The Spurs Missing The Playoffs?!
It’s clear that the end times are nigh when the Spurs are on the ropes of missing the NBA playoffs. To give it some perspective Patty Mills is 31 years old and has never missed the playoffs in his NBA career. That streak for Mills includes 2 years in Portland followed by 9 years in San Antonio. For the Spurs organization and coach Greg Popovich, this would be their first season missing the playoffs since 1997.*
*Does 1996-97 ring a bell for any Celtics fans? That was the year David Robinson barely played, and the 20-win Spurs stumbled their way into winning the draft lottery. They ended up drafting a big man out of Wake Forest, you may have heard of him, Tim Duncan.
Cue the music to encapsulate to this day, how I (a Celtics fan) feel about the Spurs drafting Tim Duncan:
The Celtics, following a 15-win season, and the 2nd worst record in the league, ended up with the 3rd pick. They ended up selecting a point guard out of Colorado named Chauncey Billups. The C’s ended up trading Billups midway through his rookie season for Kenny Anderson. Not as terrible of a trade as you may be inclined to think here. To be fair, Billups bounced around the league before putting it together and earning his ‘Mr. Big Shot’ moniker.
To sum it up, the Spurs are the NBA’s closest comparison to the Patriots in the NFL. The possibility of each team missing the playoffs this year is absolutely baffling. But alas, 2020 is just halfway over, so I wouldn’t rule anything out. Maybe Alabama’s football team will fall out of the top 25? Perhaps for the first time since 2007, UCONN’s Women’s Basketball team won’t make the Final 4? JK, I went too far with that, the Huskies being in the Final 4 is an absolute certainty.
The Disharmony of the Utah Jazz
This might be a little juvenile of me to include this as a storyline to monitor, but it feels important. The impending offseason could have serious ripple effects depending on the aftermath of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell’s beef. Mitchell directed frustration at Gobert’s impetuous behavior concerning COVID-19 after Mitchell himself tested positive for contracting the coronavirus. Some reports back in April implied the pair’s relationship could be irreparable. But, as in many situations, cooler heads have seemed to prevail. Recently, both sides are saying the right things publicly. BUT despite all that, I fully expect the media to closely monitor their relationship when the Jazz reunite.
NBA Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline
This could end up as a non-story, but in my mind, it’s worthy of mentioning. There’s curiosity afoot as to how the NBA navigates these uncharted waters in a number of areas. With this new end-of-season format, the league finds itself resuming after a 5-month hiatus. As a result, one might expect the league to allow teams in contention to have some level of roster fluidity. Details on that remain unclear at this time.
The Playoff Eligibility Deadline occurred on 3/1/2020, 10 days before the season was suspended due to COVID-19. I’d expect some leniency to allow those 22 teams resuming their season to make roster moves for a playoff push. Conversely, the league could be looking at an open-season for teams to load up on unclaimed free agents from the previous deadline. Granted, we’re not talking major names here. Allen Crabbe, Tyler Johnson, Demarcus Cousins (health-permitting), Gerald Green, and Isaiah Thomas among those available. Again, no sexy names to totally turn around anyone’s season on a dime. But each could be a relevant addition for teams looking for some end-of-bench depth. Either way, how the league elects to address roster moves should be fairly interesting to follow.
Some Changes to Stick Moving Forward?
Generally, sports leagues seem genuinely interested in considering re-aligning conferences and freshening up playoff formats every so often. The issue, generally, is the fear of pushback from fans, and possibly lost revenue. What better time than now to check the temperature of some of any ideas that have been incubating? The play-in game for the 8th seed should the 9th place team be within 4 games is a fun wrinkle to add.
What’s next? Perhaps the ‘Elam Ending’ gets a trial run in the 2020 Summer League? Could a December start to the NBA season before the new norm? All entirely possible outcomes from this. The NBA could be 1st the league to rock the boat and challenge the comfortable norms fans have been accustomed too. That’s the beauty of the NBA. Under Adam Silver’s leadership, the league hasn’t been afraid of being a trend-setter in terms of advocating for social justice and player empowerment.
The MLB, NHL, and NFL could face similar opportunities to mix things up and try out some unconventional ideas. With gate revenue out the window for the foreseeable future, the time to take chances with sports is now! With so much still up in the air, we could be entering one of the most innovative eras of sports. That’s pretty exciting if you ask me.
-Mike Gilligan (@BigGilli, @VerbalCommitPod and @SmallStateTakes Podcast) – https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/small-state-big-takes/id1432138166
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Featured image courtesy of: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports