The NBA season is suspended indefinitely due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and while the league hopes it will eventually be able to resume and conclude the 2019-20 campaign, that's far from a foregone conclusion. This week, we're asking some big questions that would be left unanswered if play doesn't resume.
This NBA season was as stratified as any in recent memory. There was a clear division of haves and have-nots, with little in the way of a middle class. Thirteen teams owned winning records, and none were fewer than 13 games above .500. At the time the season was suspended, fifteen of the league's 16 playoff spots were virtually locked up.
The race for that final unclaimed postseason slot figured to be of the biggest sources of excitement and suspense over the final 15-18 games of the regular season. There were five teams in the mix for the 8-seed in the Western Conference: The Memphis Grizzlies led the pack with a 3 1/2-game cushion, while the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, and San Antonio Spurs sat bunched up behind them, all separated by just a half-game.
On the surface, that may have looked like a comfortable lead for the Grizzlies, but they were staring down a murderous closing schedule - the most difficult in the whole league - that likely would've opened the door for the teams chasing them. The opportunity looked particularly ripe for the hard-charging Pelicans, whose remaining slate was by far the softest in the NBA.
Here's a look at where all five teams stood in the standings, and where their remaining schedules ranked league-wide in terms of difficulty, per Basketball Reference:
In the public consciousness, the battle was primarily pitched between the Grizzlies and Pelicans, for a couple of reasons. One, because those were the two teams the projection systems pegged as most likely to capture the 8-seed (the 538 model was particularly bullish on the Pelicans, giving them a 60% chance to make the playoffs). And two, because that particular race was overlaid by the glow of a pair of radiant rookies - the No. 1 and 2 picks in the 2019 draft - who looked poised to carry their teams to far greater heights in the future.
It's not a stretch to say Ja Morant is among the most polished first-year point guards ever to enter the league; he's a passing and ball-handling genius with an almost unhealthy appetite for above-the-rim pyrotechnics. Zion Williamson, a physical specimen unlike any the NBA has seen, made his long-awaited debut in January and proceeded to lay waste to everything in his path with his ungodly combination of speed, strength, and bounce. Debate had begun to burble about whether Williamson could make Rookie of the Year a legitimate race even with just 30-some games on his ledger.
Helping the Pelicans usurp the Grizzlies' playoff spot would've been a huge point in his favor. And that scenario was easy to envision considering that New Orleans went 11-8 with Williamson in the lineup, was outscoring opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, owned a 19-9 record against sub-.500 teams, and was slated to play just one opponent with a winning record for the remainder of the season. The Pelicans led the season series against the Grizzlies 2-0, but they only had Williamson in the lineup for one of those games (he dropped 24 points in 29 minutes to lead a 28-point romp). They had two head-to-heads remaining on the schedule. Those would've been fun.
While that race held the most intrigue, you couldn't discount the other teams in the mix. Portland, in particular, would've had something to say about it. Damian Lillard was in the midst of a sublime individual season, and he'd just returned from a groin injury. CJ McCollum played his best ball of the year in Lillard's absence. Given that the Blazers were set to play a similarly light closing schedule, and that Jusuf Nurkic - their soft-handed cinder block of a center - was nearing a return from the leg fracture that's kept him out for a year, they had as good a shot as anyone to snag the 8-seed.
The Spurs were a mess for most of the season, but they managed to hang around the fringes of the race and keep hopes of extending their 22-year playoff streak alive. A 3-point shooting surge from LaMarcus Aldridge had opened up their offense. DeMar DeRozan was having the most efficient offensive season of his career. Dejounte Murray was starting to put it all together as his workload slowly ramped up. A postseason berth this year would've meant a new NBA record. What happens to that streak now?
The Kings kind of just lurked all season. They fell off everyone's radar after a dismal start but had recently reappeared, quietly going 13-7 in their last 20 games. De'Aaron Fox had just begun to rediscover his mojo, finding the elusive balance between pace and control. Buddy Hield adapted beautifully to his bench role, to the point that his true shooting was over 100 percentage points higher as a reserve (.641) than it was as a starter (.538). And big man Richaun Holmes, whose surprisingly sturdy play literally rescued the Kings' season early in the year, had finally returned from a 25-game injury absence.
None of these teams would've stood much of a chance in a first-round matchup against the top-seeded Lakers, but that doesn't mean a series wouldn't have produced phenomenal drama. The prospect of an upstart team like the Grizzlies, well ahead of schedule in their growth, getting a baptism by fire against LeBron James and Co. was tantalizing. So was the possibility of Anthony Davis going up against the team he fled (and the transcendent star who immediately replaced him as its face) in New Orleans.
There would've been less excitement about the Blazers due to the lack of novelty, but among this bunch, they might've been the team best equipped to actually give Los Angeles a series thanks to their collective experience and confidence. Playoff Lillard doing his damnedest to dent the Lakers' armor would've been a must-watch. The Spurs, clinging to the last vestiges of their fading esteem, would've at least played with smarts and diligence and pride. And can you imagine if the Kings had managed to sneak in and end the eons-long playoff drought that stretches back to the Bonzi Wells era? Even if they were summarily swept, making a postseason appearance at all would have provided an enormous cathartic lift to that fan base.
Those hypotheticals are now effectively dead. Even if the NBA does find a way to resume its season, the schedule as it existed is gone. The league will either have to freeze the standings and immediately start the playoffs or play a significantly condensed slate of regular-season games that won't provide any teams outside the bubble the chance to close the gap on Memphis. The NBA might even go a step further and shrink the playoff field, excluding even the Grizzlies. And that's assuming, again, that the playoffs even happen, which is starting to feel like an optimistic assumption.
The outcome of this playoff pursuit ultimately wouldn't have changed anything. We'll be hearing plenty from the Pelicans and Grizzlies in the future, regardless. Lillard and the Blazers aren't going anywhere just yet. The Kings will probably stay the Kings. The Spurs were going to be in a tough spot regardless of how they finished the season. But every season needs fun subplots that register as insignificant in the big picture, and few subplots this season were as fun as the race for the 8-seed out West. It's a shame we won't get to see it through to the finish line.