The Whiteboard is The Step Back’s daily basketball newsletter, covering the NBA, WNBA and more. Subscribe here to get it delivered to you via email each morning.
With each passing day, the fate of the 2019-20 NBA season feels more and more uncertain. While the idea of putting the league in a bubble like Las Vegas or Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando has recently gained steam to try and finish out the season, that won’t happen until the safety of everyone involved can be guaranteed.
That’s a hard target to reach in a world without a vaccine, where coronavirus testing is still scarce, for a league that is (rightfully) hesitant to use those tests on players who aren’t showing any symptoms.
Even if the NBA returns in some capacity to crown a champion, it’s unlikely we’ll get very many (if any) regular-season games. It’ll take a few weeks for players to get back in shape with a mini-training camp, and even with an abbreviated postseason, the league will run the risk of extending too close to the start of the 2020-21 campaign, even if that season’s start date is pushed back to November.
More than likely, each passing day spells doom for the NBA’s current lottery teams, whose seasons may already be over by virtue of this impending time crunch. The question then becomes: Which of those 14 teams gets the shortest end of the stick if they don’t get to play out what’s left of their schedule? We decided to rank them, from least screwed over to most screwed over:
Detroit Pistons — When we last left the Pistons, their best active player was Derrick Rose, their best inactive player was Blake Griffin on a contract they’d gladly dump tomorrow if they could, and their best young prospect was Christian Wood in a contract year that was raising his price tag with each passing game. Aside from simply missing basketball, good luck finding a Pistons fan who’s really torn up about their season being over.
Golden State Warriors — Letting Stephen Curry jive with Andrew Wiggins would’ve been nice, but Klay Thompson was still out, Draymond Green was in the midst of a forgettable year and head coach Steve Kerr has already said the Dubs are operating like their season is over. We can just sim to end here.
Washington Wizards — The secret of impending free agent Davis Bertans was already out, and aside from Bradley Beal carrying the Wiz and Rui Hachimura‘s surprising rookie year, this team wasn’t conjuring up much excitement and sat well out of the playoff race despite being ninth in the East.
Charlotte Hornets — The Hornets have a ton of young players to develop and evaluate, but aside from maybe Devonte’ Graham, none of them really has star upside. Spending more time with that Graham-Terry Rozier backcourt to figure out how viable it might be for the long-term would’ve been helpful though.
Chicago Bulls — We don’t know if Zach LaVine is a real star, if Lauri Markkanen is as good as he was last year, or what Wendell Carter Jr.’s place in the NBA looks like, but the real problem for the Bulls is not giving management — especially the reconstructed front office — five more weeks of evidence that Jim Boylen is the worst head coach in the league. Chicago needs to figure that out ASAP for the wheels on this rebuild to start turning.
Atlanta Hawks — Trae Young is obviously a proven commodity, but not getting to see how one of the team’s other young stars (John Collins) meshed with his new center (Clint Capela) is unfortunate. Extra time to evaluate Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter would’ve been useful for such a young group too.
Minnesota Timberwolves — How will Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell mesh together? Is Malik Beasley really as good as he looked? And what can Juan Hernangomez contribute? We got a taste of all of those questions for this new-look rsoter, but the sample size was far too small to satisfy our palettes.
Phoenix Suns — The Suns finally found a dependable starting lineup with Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker, Kelly Oubre Jr., Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton … and then the season got suspended. Oubre’s knee injury already impaired Phoenix’s attempt to build momentum over the final few weeks and hit that 30-win threshold again, but this team needed to make a small leap and looked poised to do so. If the rest of the season is canceled, this injury-battered team that was finally putting its youngsters in position to succeed will be more disappointed than most rebuilding squads.
New York Knicks — RJ Barrett looks nice and Mitchell Robinson can block shots, but nobody has a clue whether the Knicks actually have a franchise player yet, let alone an idea of what to make of projects like Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. Another new coach will be inbound soon, but this organization needs as much time as possible to figure out who on this roster deserves to stick around for the long haul.
San Antonio Spurs — The Spurs have made the playoffs for 22 consecutive seasons, tied for the longest record in any of the four major sports. They sat four games back of the 8-seed and were probably going to watch that record accomplishment fall short anyway, but it’s got to sting that San Antonio won’t be able to go down swinging at least.
Sacramento Kings — By virtue of their three-way tie with Portland and New Orleans for ninth in the West, as well as their 7-3 record over their last 10 games and league-worst 13-year playoff drought, the Kings should be pretty disappointed their momentum got cut short. They were unlikely to close that 3.5-game gap on the 8-seed out West anyway, but it’s unfortunate to see the drought extended another year in such fashion.
Portland Trail Blazers — The Blazers were about to get Jusuf Nurkic back, they were coming off a Western Conference Finals appearance in 2019 and they had Damian Lillard. It’d be pretty rough if Rip City didn’t get an opportunity to try and close that 3.5-game gap on the last playoff spot out West.
New Orleans Pelicans — The Pelicans came to life after getting Zion Williamson on the court, and he looked like the real deal as an immediate, star-caliber impact player. They had a very favorable remaining schedule compared to the Memphis Grizzlies, so if anyone was going to catch the Grizz for the 8-seed, it was this upstart team with plenty of young, exciting talent.
With The Last Dance inching closer to covering the Bulls’ biggest threat in 1998 — a seven-game series with the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals — this well-reported piece from ESPN’s Zach Lowe featuring accounts from both Bulls and Pacers players is worth your time.
Shortened NBA seasons often lead to ugly basketball. Our own Rich Kraetsch examined a few lessons to keep in mind from the lockout-shortened season in 1999.