Biggest NBA Questions as Season Hangs in the Balance

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    Thinking about basketball never stops.

    As the world copes with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA has suspended the 2019-20 season for a minimum of one month. That was always going to be the right call, and it became unavoidable once Rudy Gobert, followed by Utah Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell, tested positive for COVID-19.

    Resuming play at some point, in some form, remains the goal. But basketball operations will invariably take a backseat to more pressing concerns, most of all the safety and well-being of people around the globe, not just players, coaches, league employees and anyone tangentially linked to the Association.

    Still, sports matter. They are, if nothing else, a temporary escape from harsh realities for many. That much is clear during times of crisis, including now.

    Bigger things are at stake, but the prospect of losing what remains of this season is both real and a shame. It doesn’t matter that more than three-quarters of the schedule is in the books, or that so much about this year, and how it will end, is already known.

    Plenty about this season has yet to be written—questions that remain unanswered, storylines and races left unfinished. The hope should be that the league is already navigating the worst-case scenario and that life outside the margins sniffs the sense of normalcy required to redeem what can still be salvaged from the 2019-20 campaign.

    But if this is it, if the NBA has played its last game until the 2020-21 season tips off, we’ll be left wondering what could have been. That sense of incompleteness would begin here, with the biggest, most important matters still awaiting resolution.

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    Would the Philadelphia 76ers Be Scarier in the Playoffs?

    Philly’s 10-24 record on the road and 8-18 showing against teams above .500 implies “no.” Ben Simmons’ timetable for recovery from a pinched nerve in his lower back wouldn’t help matters—though the season’s suspension could.

    Even then, the Sixers would have to navigate a clumpy offense and Al Horford’s (potentially injury-related) decline. They don’t have the look or feel of a team that can get through the first round, let alone beat the Milwaukee Bucks four times in seven tries.

    And yet!

    This group has the bandwidth to turn a series (or four) into a painful slog. Opponents are mustering just 97.5 points per 100 possessions (99th percentile) when the Sixers’ five best players are on the court. The ceiling on their defense alone is enough to elevate their collective peak. No team in the league would have a higher variance of possible postseason outcomes.

               

    Who’d Get the Eastern Conference No. 8 Seed?

    The Washington Wizards have almost no time to make up the 5.5-game chasm separating them from the East’s final playoff spot. They’ll have even less if the NBA plays out a partial version of the remaining schedule.

    But Bradley Beal is terrifying. And both the Brooklyn Nets (injuries, no more Kenny Atkinson) and Orlando Magic (is their recent offensive uptick for real?) are weird. Anything is possible.

                  

    Would There Be Any Tanking Shenanigans?

    Bottoming out for a better draft spot isn’t as interesting anymore. The three worst teams have the same odds of landing the No. 1 pick, and the squads that come after them have a better chance at slingshotting up the draft order.

    Perhaps the Cleveland Cavaliers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Atlanta Hawks, Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks would get into a tank-off for two of those top three lottery slots. (The Golden State Warriors have one of them on lock.) Big whoop.

    Tanking—or angling—for postseason matchups is more interesting. At least one team is bound to pull some shenanigans to get a better head-to-head in the first round. And that squad is most definitely coming from the Western Conference.

    The race for sixth and seventh place figures to invite some funny business. Facing the Los Angeles Clippers is a lot different than sparring with the Denver Nuggets, who are very good but don’t have postseason slayer Kawhi Leonard.

    If some combination of the Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks decide they’re better off going up against the Nuggets than the Clippers, there could be a mad dash for sixth or seventh place, depending on how the race for No. 2 unfolds.

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    There won’t be a lot of awards and All-NBA talk in this space. Enough of the regular season was played to hand out all the necessary distinctions (this take is subject to self-destruct if the league decides to suspend year-end awards and All-NBA selections).

    Rookie of the Year is different. It has turned into a head-to-head race. Everything else either includes a wider field or is already decided. (Giannis Antetokounmpo is the MVP. Let’s move on.)

    Ja Morant vs. Zion Williamson has turned into a debate. This is not to be confused with an easy one. It is hard enough working Zion’s name into the conversation when he’s on course to play no more than 37 games. It becomes near impossible to argue in his favor if the rest of the season gets kiboshed and he finishes with fewer than 20 appearances and doesn’t have the added boost of potentially spearheading a New Orleans Pelicans playoff surge.

    Make no mistake, this is more about Morant. People have conflated Williamson’s rise with his surrender. Morant hasn’t waived the white flag. He has slumped neither hard nor long enough to forfeit any ground.

    Voting for Williamson would be tough in the first place. Rookie of the Year isn’t supposed to be a reflection of the best career arc. It is, as its name in