Next month, the NBA is set to descend upon Walt Disney World to attempt to finish out the 2019-20 season. And while winning a championship will be the goal for all 22 teams, plenty of what transpires could have enormous implications and reshape the league.
Because of the unusual circumstances driving the restart amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, teams are not only preparing for life inside a bubble, but also planning for what’s next in the 2020 NBA draft, free agency and the 2020-21 season.
In February, we looked at nine moments and questions that could shake up what was then a rare time of NBA stability. Now the league is facing immense uncertainty. The stakes have changed, and new questions have emerged.
Here’s our look at how the games in Orlando could alter the future of the NBA, plus what 12 coaches, scouts and front-office executives expect to happen.
1. What if this bubble plan doesn’t work?
What’s at stake: Navigating a return amid concerns over COVID-19 while players embrace protests of systemic racism and police brutality has left the NBA in uncharted waters. In the past week, players have spoken up about concerns over life in the bubble and the ability to support the Black Lives Matter movement during an isolated playoff run.
Completing this postseason while keeping everyone involved safe could ease the likely financial pain ahead. Cutting things short — or being unable to restart at all — puts future paychecks, the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) and the relationship between players and owners in jeopardy.
What league insiders expect: If the league is unable to complete the season because of the virus, several NBA executives said that the economics would be painful — including a projected $1.2 billion in lost player salary — but not impossible to salvage.
“Well, you gave it a shot and it didn’t work,” one Western Conference executive said. “I guess that [scenario] is maybe not as bad.”
There was more concern over not finalizing a return plan at all. While all the league insiders polled for this survey agreed that the final details eventually will be worked out, they also said a canceled season has massive implications.
“I think there’s going to be a renegotiation of the CBA, there will be a lockout [in 2020-21] and you’re going to see something similar to what’s happening right now in baseball,” a Western Conference coach said. “You’ll see a very different NBA going forward if, in fact, we don’t play.”
2. Will the 2020 title come with an asterisk?
What’s at stake: Questions about the legitimacy of this year’s title winner have already popped up inside and outside the league. Will a champion crowned in a non-traditional setting with the possibility of key players sitting out — either voluntarily or because of injury — carry the same historical weight as past winners?
What league insiders expect: The usual 16-team playoff structure is enough to remove any real asterisk considerations based on structure for most people we spoke to.
“I think if a team wins — given the circumstances are pretty much equal across the board — they’re the champion, and that’s all there is to it,” a Western Conference scout said. “If you want to get into asterisks for what people deem not legit championships, you can talk about Golden State losing [Kevin Durant last year] or Draymond [Green] in 2016, or the Cavaliers losing [Kevin] Love and Kyrie [Irving in 2015], or the lockout seasons.”
Multiple key contributors being unable to play was the only factor cited that could diminish an eventual champion.
“If 25% of the guys get coronavirus and several guys are missing key parts of the playoffs, yes, [there will be an asterisk,]” an Eastern Conference executive said. “Otherwise, no. People try to do that, but in time that fades and people just remember who won.”
3. Are the Bucks more or less likely to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo?
What’s at stake: In February, the Milwaukee Bucks looked like overwhelming favorites to make the Finals, leading league insiders to predict they would be able to re-sign their MVP to a supermax before he explored other options as an unrestricted free agent in 2021. Now, the Bucks’ path out of the East might be more complicated in Orlando, and the salary cap is in flux, meaning Milwaukee and Antetokounmpo can’t even be sure what that supermax offer would look like.
If teams see an opening to chase Antetokounmpo in trade talks or free agency, they will do everything possible to make a real pitch.
What league insiders expect: Milwaukee is still considered likely to keep Antetokounmpo long term, but insiders cited the potential of the salary cap dropping both this offseason and in future years as a reason Giannis might take a wait-and-see approach. Still, the overriding belief is that whatever happens on the court will play the biggest role in his decision.
“I always have said: Ask me once he has to make a decision,” one Eastern Conference scout said. “It all comes down to timing. So many things can change.
“If they win it all, if they come through this and do that? There’s no way he’s leaving.”
What’s at stake: Throughout the season, these two contenders were the most popular picks to make some kind of significant change in the offseason.
Given the unusual circumstances, are they more likely to run things back now? Or will it still take deep playoff runs for both teams to keep their rosters and leadership intact?
What league insiders expect: Barring a deep playoff run — perhaps as far as the Finals — the insiders we spoke to expect the Rockets to move on from head coach Mike D’Antoni, whose contract expires at the end of this season.
The situation in Philadelphia is more complicated. Head coach Brett Brown has money left on his deal, and it’s unclear how teams will treat the upcoming financial crunch given a revenue decline. The general expectation: Brown will need to have success in the playoffs to keep his job, and it’s more likely the team changes coaches than tries to move either Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid.
“It depends on the playoffs,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “[Losing in the] first round, Brett is gone for sure. Conference finals? He may get to stay. I think ownership/management is most likely to fire Brett and keep the core together than do anything significant with the roster.”
Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant plays in a pickup basketball game as he gets ready for the 2019-20 season to resume.
5. Which young player will have a major breakout?
What’s at stake: The playoffs always provide a platform for some of the league’s rising young stars to elevate their profile. This year, that spotlight might be even brighter.
Who will take advantage of the opportunity?
What league insiders expect: Ja Morant got the most votes here. While the Memphis Grizzlies‘ guard is the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, he hasn’t had quite the same platform to showcase his game as players such as Zion Williamson and Luka Doncic. Having a chance to star in a playoff play-in series and then potentially take on LeBron James and the Lakers in the first round would change that.
“He’s gonna get introduced to the nation,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “The casual fan has no idea who he is. This could be his coming-out party.”
Some other players who received votes: Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo, Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox, Grizzlies bigs Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke, Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown, Oklahoma City Thunder wing Luguentz Dort and Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo.
6. How much would another championship help LeBron James in the GOAT debate?
What’s at stake: In May, Michael Jordan finished No. 1 in ESPN’s all-time NBA player rankings, with “The Last Dance” helping to further cement MJ’s case as the league’s greatest of all time. But James finished No. 2 on that list, and he enters these playoffs with a team favored to at least make it to the conference finals.
If everything goes right, this is a legitimate chance for the 35-year-old James to strengthen his case by capturing his fourth title with a third franchise.
What league insiders expect: For most, another title would close the gap between the two legends, but it wouldn’t be enough for James to overtake Jordan just yet.
“He definitely makes up ground, but is anyone going to say he’s better? No, not yet,” a Western Conference executive said. “He’s going to have to get to five at least.”
However, one executive said he already would put James ahead of Jordan. Another said winning it all this year would put James over the top.
“LeBron is going to make sure those games [in Orlando] are played, because he knows they could have a huge impact on his legacy,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “He knows picking up one or two more titles is the potential tipping point, and he’s determined to go for it.”
7. How will the playoffs impact free agency?
What’s at stake: This was already expected to be a down year for free agency, and that was before the pandemic led to the possibility of even fewer teams having cap space to spend.
With many of the top players in this year’s class — including Fred VanVleet, Montrezl Harrell, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari — all likely to fall short of receiving max contract offers, their performances inside the bubble could alter their future contract offers in the fall.
What league insiders expect: Several executives likened the Orlando games to what typically happens every season in the draft process during both the NCAA tournament and draft workouts, when players see their stock shoot up — sometimes justifiably so, sometimes not.
Two different executives pointed to 2016, when then-Indiana Pacers forward Solomon Hill parlayed playing well in a seven-game series against the Toronto Raptors into a four-year, $52 million payday with the New Orleans Pelicans in free agency.
“Solomon Hill got paid off one f—ing playoff series,” one Western Conference executive said with a laugh. “Yeah, that could happen. It shouldn’t. If you have a process, the answer is it shouldn’t.”
Others brought up the possibility of high-end free agents only hurting their value, either due to injury or poor performance with so many eyes on them.
“Everybody has done their work,” an Eastern Conference executive said of front-offices evaluating talent. “So you can only go down. Harrell could go from [being] an $18 million guy to a $12 million guy. They can only get worse.
“Maybe some third-tier guy plays well and moves up a tier, but the top-tier guys can only get worse. That work is already done.”
8. How much will what transpires within the bubble impact Victor Oladipo?
What’s at stake: The Pacers’ All-Star guard is perhaps the most interesting player to monitor entering the bubble. After missing an entire calendar year because of a torn quad tendon in his right leg, Oladipo played in 13 uneven games before the shutdown.
With more than four months between his last game in March and the Orlando restart, what will Oladipo look like? And will it either help him secure a big long-term extension with Indiana or potentially increase the chances of a trade?
What league insiders expect: Although Oladipo made the All-Star team in 2018 and 2019, the combination of him having only one truly great season, the injury and having just one year left on his contract has many scouts and executives skeptical about committing to him on a big deal.
“The tricky thing for me with Oladipo is this guy has had a relatively long career and he had one year at an All-NBA level and that’s really the only All-Star-level [year he’s had],” an Eastern Conference executive said. “Last year, he wasn’t as good before he got hurt. Previous [to Indiana], he wasn’t playing unbelievably, either.”
But Oladipo also has believers, and they say he has the chance to go to Orlando and reestablish himself as a franchise player. With Indiana facing a big financial decision going forward with Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner all locked into hefty contracts for at least the next three seasons, the Pacers could be forced to decide if this partnership will last — assuming Oladipo wants it to.
“I think there’s a lot riding on him coming back,” a Western Conference coach said. “There’s major concerns with these injuries. If Vic comes back and plays well — and he works his ass off, so he could — I think he’s gonna give a reminder to everyone how good he can be.
“If he proves he looks the part, you’re gonna see teams like the Knicks, and other teams trying to build something, try to go get him.”
Jazz head coach Quin Snyder joins First Take to discuss the relationship between Rudy Gobert and Donavan Mitchell after both tested positive for COVID-19.
What’s at stake: Gobert and Mitchell did not speak to each other for a month after Gobert’s positive test on March 11 triggered the suspension of the NBA season. Mitchell, who tested positive the next day, has acknowledged that he was upset with Gobert, who publicly apologized for his careless behavior before he was aware that he was infected with the coronavirus. Last month, Jazz vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey said Gobert and Mitchell are ready to put their rift behind them.
But with both Gobert and Mitchell heading into the final year of their respective contracts — Gobert is eligible for a supermax contract extension, while Mitchell is likely to get a max extension off his rookie deal — the relationship between the two, and the crossroads the Jazz face as a team, is one of the big stories opposing teams are focused on heading into Orlando.
What league insiders expect: No one surveyed said that potential frostiness between the two will be the driving factor in any major roster decisions for the Jazz.
“I think it’s fine,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “The Jazz have no interest in trading either guy, and I don’t think it’s leading to the breakup of their team.”
But people did point to the potential uncertainty surrounding Gobert’s contract moving forward. Unlike Mitchell — who will be a restricted free agent in 2021 and is all but certain to get a full max offer from the Jazz — Gobert can become an unrestricted free agent next summer.
If Gobert and the Jazz are unable to agree to an extension, several people said they could see Gobert becoming available in trade talks.
“They’re not Stockton and Malone,” a Western Conference executive said. “It’s a different time. There’s not a lot of guys like that anymore.”