Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, NBA, Toronto Raptors

LeBron James, the Bucks and the biggest unresolved storylines of the NBA season

LeBron James and the Bucks are just two of the biggest unresolved storylines left by the suspension of the 2019-20 NBA season.

The NBA season is suspended indefinitely, and with it, every hope, question, and expectation we might have had for it. It’s a cruel twist that one of the more compelling seasons of the last decade would be cut short by a global pandemic, but so it goes as the nation shuts down and awaits a resolution to the COVID-19 crisis.

We may never get closure on our most pressing questions and some of the season’s most intriguing, twisting narrative arcs, and the lack of live basketball to leaves so much empty space in our lives. At best, closure will come under vastly different conditions; at worst, we’ll only be left to wonder what would have come from a lost season.

There were so many fascinating threads woven through the 2019-20 season, all of which will be worth mourning if the NBA doesn’t return. Here are five of basketball’s many pressing unresolved storylines:

The Bucks’ dream season

Rarely is a juggernaut so unassuming in its dominance or flippantly glossed over than this year’s Bucks. Milwaukee was the best team in the NBA by a significant margin; nowhere in its statistical résumé is there evidence to the contrary. Its plus-11.2 net rating was more than four points per 100 possessions better than the second-ranked Lakers (equal to the margin between L.A. and 10th-ranked Nuggets), and better than any team since 2017.

The Bucks trailed only the Mavs, Clippers, and Rockets in offensive efficiency and had the stingiest defense in the league by over three points per 100 possessions. Giannis Antetokounmpo was well on his way to a second consecutive MVP award while Khris Middleton quietly posted one of the most efficient shooting seasons this millennium. Nearly every shred of empirical evidence suggests that the Bucks should have been heavy favorites to win the NBA title.

And yet, Milwaukee had enough flaws that, if properly exploited, could render them vulnerable in a playoff series. Dominant though he is, Antetokounmpo isn’t quite the surgical tactician or the immutable isolation scorer that typically carries teams through arduous playoff series; the most meticulous defenses have managed to load up, show multiple defenders, and clog his driving lanes to a degree most regular-season opponents can’t. Milwaukee’s own defense, while historically dominant, can be vulnerable to hot 3-point shooting spells and adept pull-up shooters. Brook Lopez is an integral piece of the Bucks’ defense but saw his shooting regress significantly after a career season in 2019. Eric Bledsoe’s postseason struggles are well-documented, and Mike Budenholzer’s stylistic rigidity — while often overstated — has held his teams back before. How would the Bucks respond when opponents could focus in on these weaker points and spend an entire series finding counters?

The answer could have real bearing on the future of the Bucks and of the NBA. Antetokounmpo will be eligible for a Designated Veteran Extension this summer, and while an early playoff exit wouldn’t preclude him from signing it, adding an NBA title to his ever-expanding list of accomplishments would hardly discourage him from remaining in Milwaukee. In the absence of a juggernaut like recent iterations of the Warriors or a supremely well-rounded and adaptable team like last year’s Raptors, every championship contender this season had its warts. There was no sense of inevitability surrounding one team, only varying degrees of likelihood for each contender. Through 65 games, it was clear the odds favored the Bucks, though we may never find out just how heavy a favorite they were.

The return of Playoff LeBron James

This season was arguably the first since 2016 that James had an honest shot at an NBA title. Last season was the first since 2005 that he didn’t appear in the playoffs, and even his last two years in Cleveland felt like they were in pursuit of runner-up status. James entered this campaign rejuvenated, with a star teammate at his side and something to play for, and responded with his most engaged and complete regular season in years. That renewed energy manifested in nearly every game this season, carrying James and the Lakers to a 49-14 record and the second-best net rating in the NBA before the league shut down. That drama and malaise that once plagued LeBron’s Cavaliers, never surfaced. Instead, L.A. played with a level of enthusiasm and cohesiveness that suggested an understanding of the season’s stakes and, perhaps, another gear to be unlocked in the playoffs.

James has a history of raising his game in the postseason, and it will be a shame if we never know what this version of LeBron, surrounded by this cast of teammates, looks like in a playoff setting — let alone a Conference Finals or NBA Finals. At age 35, he has been faster and more explosive in the past, but this year exerted a degree of command and mastery of the game that he never had previously. His post-up game was more refined, his pick-and-roll passing more precise, his reads sharper than ever. His ability to manage every last detail ensured that, against any given opponent, the Lakers could feel confident that the game would be played on their terms. That lends itself to postseason success, and while they were hardly prohibitive favorites in the West, the Lakers knew they had a weapon no one else did.

LeBron has defied the NBA’s aging curve for so long that it feels like his peak may never end. But every superstar’s days are numbered, even if James has stretched his prime longer than any star before him. How many more chances will he have to win another NBA title as his team’s best player? James is at the stage of his career at which he can fully appreciate how difficult it is to contend for a title, let alone win one. He likely understands fully the opportunity he and the Lakers have now been denied.

The Raptors’ title defense

Was there a more pleasant story in the NBA than Toronto, after losing the reigning Finals MVP and a second key starter, rolling to 46 wins without missing a beat? These Raptors were a joy to watch as they defended their title with the assurance and expertise that only comes with winning a championship. Despite losing the high-end offensive superstar who drives winning at the absolute highest levels, the general theory of the team — a smart, adaptable group with few discernible weaknesses — remained the same. They shared the ball, moved with pace and urgency, and seemed to execute coverages and actions on the fly.

Toronto demonstrated the value of connectivity and shared intelligence, with a coach who understood how to put those principles to work and possessed the creativity to unlock them to the fullest. Whether by Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol spotting extra passes before the ball even touched their hands or Pascal Siakam improvising his way to the basket, the Raptors operated off of instinct and feel. They forced the second-most turnovers and held opponents to the third-lowest shooting percentage in the league — a product of their ability to blend frantic energy with unwavering discipline. Toronto’s shared DNA and institutional knowledge created exactly the right setting for every player to flourish; it’s why Chris Boucher could hold down a rotation spot when Gasol was injured, Terence Davis could play his way onto an All-Rookie team after going undrafted, and Norman Powell could nearly double his scoring average while also becoming significantly more efficient.

The Raptors undoubtedly would have met challenges in the postseason, and the absence of an elite individual shot-creator would have been a more substantial flaw in the slower, more methodical playoff style. Lingering injuries could have prevented this team from being at its best in April. But it would have been fascinating to watch the NBA’s most adaptable team respond to the challenges of a playoff gauntlet, and the Raptors deserved that opportunity.

The Clippers, coming together

Even as the Bucks marched along at a 67-win pace, the Clippers made a strong case that, at full strength, they could be as dangerous as any championship contender. L.A. mostly flew under the radar this season by design. They gave Paul George as much time as he needed to recover from offseason shoulder surgeries and accommodated Kawhi Leonard’s injury (read: load) management needs down to the last detail. Only Leonard topped 32 minutes per game in a balanced rotation. L.A.’s relative indifference to the regular season resulted not in a dominant tear through the rest of the league, but consistent, undramatic success.

When the season paused, L.A. had just shifted into high gear. Over the last three weeks of the regular season, the Clippers played their most dominant and engaged basketball of the season, storming to a 7-2 record in their final nine games while posting the best net rating in the league — by far — since the All-Star break. The Clippers were 24-8 when both Leonard and George played, outscoring teams by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions when the two shared the floor. If the season is over, they’ll finish with the second-best offense in the NBA, with a top-five defense to boot, and Leonard will find his name on most MVP ballots.

This team was diligently engineered to navigate the comprehensive challenges of the playoffs. Leonard is the sort of diligent isolation scorer whose game shines even when the rest of the action bogs down while George is a two-way dynamo with virtually no exploitable weaknesses. With Marcus Morris and Lou Williams playing ancillary roles, this team could never want for shot creation. The Clippers have multiple options to defend ball-dominant forwards like LeBron James or Luka Dončić, with the depth and versatility to counter conventionally-sized teams like the Lakers or smaller opponents like the Rockets. If they appeared to coast through the regular season, it was only because they knew what could be waiting for them in May and June.

The Rockets’ micro-ball experiment

The Rockets’ three principal figures — Daryl Morey, Mike D’Antoni, and James Harden — have long pushed the limits of convention, and this season helped push Houston in a more radical direction than ever by eschewing the position that has long defined the NBA. Even Clint Capela, who blossomed into one of the NBA’s most devastating roll men, became something of a hindrance and was eventually traded as a four-team trade that sent Robert Covington to Houston.

Whether the Rockets are revolutionary or iconoclastic feels ancillary to a more important element of their stylistic shift: already facing slim odds of winning a title, Houston increased its variance, effectively raising its ceiling without meaningfully affecting its floor. Playing without a center on the floor was particularly liberating for Russell Westbrook, who, with more space around him and fewer bodies between him and the basket, played arguably the best basketball of his career in the two months before the league shut down. The Rockets decided they couldn’t play multiple non-shooters in their most-used lineups, and Westbrook, clearly, was a less disposable cog than Capela. Covington afforded Houston space to fully unlock its best players while papering over some of the defensive shortcomings that typically plague small units.

The shift worked to varying degrees of success. Houston was 7-2 in their first nine games with Covington in the lineup, then dropped four of its next five before the season was suspended. In all, the Rockets posted a respectable plus-2.1 net rating after the trade deadline, but never got the chance to coalesce in the weeks leading into the postseason. We may never gain clarity on the true viability of their experiment — what problems the Lakers’ size might create, or whether the Clippers could counter Houston with deadly small-ball units of their own — or what implications it could have for a league constantly seeking to imitate whatever trend happens to work best at a given moment.

All stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise indicated.

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