It was already the strangest NBA season before the coronavirus hit
This just feels weird.
To be sitting on the couch in late March and streaming “The Peanut Butter Falcon” or “Don’t f*** with cats” because there isn’t any basketball to watch feels wrong. No NBA battles for the eighth seed, no late pushes for Defensive Player of the Year or even MVP. No NCAA March Madness. Nothing. And no idea when the NBA is coming back.
It’s been the strangest of NBA seasons. One that feels like a scene out of Space Jam.
The thing is, this was already the strangest of NBA seasons before the novel coronavirus forced the league to suspend games back on March 11.
Just think about all the stuff we saw before the coronavirus changed our lives.
One Daryl Morey Tweet upends NBA’s relationship with China
The NBA season hadn’t even started when things got weird. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey sent out a Tweet showing support for the protestors in Hong Kong, a Tweet that barely registered a ripple of recognition stateside. NBA players or people from teams getting political barely generates a shrug here because we’re both used to it and had the concepts of free speech baked into us at a young age.
In China, Morey’s Tweet touched the third rail of politics and things blew up. Soon sponsors were pulling out of deals and NBA games were off Chinese television. When the NBA released a statement that read as wanting to appease the league’s business partners in China, plenty of people stateside — Senators and presidential candidates, even the creators of South Park — pounced to make a political point, saying the NBA was putting the almighty dollar over the freedom of speech it says it champions. The league had to come out and set the record straight with a second statement, backing Morey, and then hoping it would all blow over.
It has not, at least not completely. NBA games are still not broadcast on state-run television in China (although they can be streamed on Tencent) and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said this cost the NBA “hundreds of millions of dollars,” ultimately suggesting it could be about $400 million. It’s unclear if the NBA will be back in China for the preseason next year (or, when preseason will be). The coronavirus seemed to hit pause on everything with the NBA and China.
The shocking and untimely death of Kobe Bryant.
Before the coronavirus literally stopped it, the entire NBA world seemed to grind to a halt on Jan. 26, when a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others crashed into a foggy hillside in Calabasas, California. There were no survivors.
Tributes poured in — not just at Staples Center but from around the NBA and around the world. Kobe’s impact and inspiration were global. His “Mamba Mentality” had influenced a generation of players (and people not in basketball), and he came to be a guru of sorts that countless current players leaned on for advice — Devin Booker even got a Kobe-related tattoo based on Kobe’s words to him.
Nothing, however, was as moving as the Kobe Celebration of Life that came at Staples Center. Kobe’s wife, Vanessa, gave a powerful speech that brought an arena to tears.
Michael Jordan — the man that helped fuel Kobe and became his friend — spoke from his heart. He also had the funniest line of the day.
Kobe was also the focus of a tribute — and an intense fourth quarter — at a re-imagined All-Star Game.
At Staples Center (even for Clippers games), the numbers and names of the other legendary Lakers’ players have been covered up, and just Kobe’s 8 and 24 were visible in the rafters. It seemed a fitting tribute this season.
The Houston Rockets go all-in on small ball
Morey, before he pissed off a nation, made a bold move last summer to try and push the Rockets into contention — he traded for Russell Westbrook.
That alone was strange because Westbrook was the guy who stayed and embraced Oklahoma City when Kevin Durant bolted for Golden State a few years prior, then Westbrook went on a historic run of triple-doubles. However, when Paul George forced his way to the Clippers via trade, Westbrook relented and went to join another former Thunder star in James Harden in Houston.
It never really worked, not on a contender level, anyway. Harden and Westbrook played next to, not really with, each other and Houston didn’t look any better than they did the season before (the Rockets were 34-20 at the All-Star break, they won 33 games before the break the season before).
But before the break lame-duck coach Mike D’Antoni found something that worked: real small-ball. Start P.J. Tucker — a 6'5" corner-three shooting forward — at center, have nobody taller than 6'7" on the floor. Make sure everybody can shoot the rock, and make other teams adapt to them. It may have been a lineup tried first out of injury desperation, but it worked. The Rockets went so all-in they traded center Clint Capela to Atlanta at the deadline.
For a while, it all came together and the Rockets went on a streak winning 10-of-12 and shot back up the standings. Eventually teams seemed to adapt (there was a four-game losing streak just before the suspension) and there were legitimate questions about how it all would hold up in the playoffs, but in the regular season the Rockets were must-watch television again.
And Harden is going to win another scoring title, averaging 34.4 points per game.
The resurgence of a 35-year-old LeBron James as serious MVP candidate
Nobody questioned that LeBron James could still dominate basketball games, we had seen it in the playoffs for years. When focused, he was still as good as anyone on the planet, a dominant force of nature unlike anyone else the NBA had seen (or, at least seen since MJ or Wilt).
However, for years, LeBron had largely coasted through the regular season, particularly on the defensive end. He was saving energy, not dialing it up every night, and placing a priority on the postseason over the regular season. This had gone back to his second stint in Cleveland — where he won another title — and continued into his first injury-riddled season in Los Angeles.
Not this season. At age 35, LeBron held nothing back. He came out of the gate playing hard on both ends of the floor every night, becoming a disrupting defensive force while scoring 25.7 points per game and leading the league with 10.6 assists a game every night. He was attacking again like we hadn’t seen in years.
It feld weird bcause it was unexpected at this age. We’d need to go back to Karl Malone, or maybe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to find a player at this age having this kind of impact.
LeBron, driven by the arrival of Anthony Davis and the realization he does not have that many years left in the game to win another title, had played at an MVP level all season. The award may well go to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had another spectacular season as well and pushed his Bucks squad close to 70 wins, but the impact of LeBron was unquestionable. When he sat, the Lakers’ offense struggled, which is a big part of the “valuable” portion of his MVP case. The season being cut short hurt LeBon’s chances to make that case over the final 20 games.
There was a real rivalry in Los Angeles for once
For many years, the Clippers had been — at best — the cute little brother in Los Angeles. They were not the heart of Los Angeles basketball or a bigger draw, even when the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin “Lob City” Clippers were clearly the better team and a potential contender. The Los Angeles market always has been about the Lakers. There also was no feeling of a rivalry because even the years the Clippers had been better the Lakers were not in the mix for a title. The little brother was not in the way.
This season the LeBron/Davis Lakers were legit title contenders — and the Clippers may be their biggest foe.
The Clippers are no longer the backward-run franchise of the Donald Sterling years, this is one of the best-run franchises in the league now and that word had gotten around to players. The Clippers were a team guys wanted to play for, Steve Ballmer was an owner guys wanted to play for.
That helped the Clippers win the off-season, landing Kawhi Leonard as a free agent and trading for Paul George. Combine those two elite talents with a playoff-level core already — Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, and the list goes on — and the Clippers were the deepest team on paper in the NBA. The Clippers were legitimate title threat, once they got healthy and put everyone on the court.
To make their point, the Clippers won the first two meetings in the battle of L.A., the Lakers the most recent one (and one that felt like a playoff game), but the real test of seven games was ahead in the playoffs.
Lakers’ fans will try to deny this is a rivalry yet — “what have they won, look at the ringzzzzzz” — but in the last meeting of these teams in the regular season everyone could sense it. Lakers fans realized the Clippers were their biggest threat (with the Bucks in that mix). Around Los Angeles, Lakers fans don’t look at the Clippers as their little brothers, they look at a rival and legitimate threat. Which, for anyone who grew up in Los Angeles, or as an NBA fan, is just strange.
The crash of Golden State from five-straight NBA Finals to worst team in the NBA
Everyone understood this would be a down season — a “gap year” — for the Warriors. Kevin Durant had left for Brooklyn, and after tearing his ACL in last year’s Finals nobody expected Klay Thompson to suit up this season (except maybe Thompson himself).
Then four games into the season, Stephen Curry fractured his hand, followed by four months of missed action.
At that point, the wheels came off, and the Golden State Warriors went from the team that went to five straight NBA Finals to the worst team in the NBA. The Warriors were 15-50 when play was suspended, leaving them with the worst record in the league by 4.5 games. Even with Curry back, and now a healthy Andrew Wiggins on the wing (the book is still out on that trade), the Warriors were going to finish near the bottom of the pack.
It has always been all about next season for the Warriors: A healthy Curry, Thompson, and Draymond Green, with Wiggins, a high draft pick (or whomever they can trade that for), and a solid bench, should put the Warriors back near the top of the NBA. This season, however, was a strange and ugly one for the Warriors.
The midseason resurgence of Carmelo Anthony
Carmelo Anthony was outside the NBA looking in. After being waived by the Rockets 10 games into the 2018-19 NBA season, the future Hall of Famer could not find a new home. No team picked him up last season, no team wanted to sign him this summer. The concerns from teams were mainly about Anthony’s defense — never good it had been a disaster in Houston — and whether the production was worth the attention he would bring.
Enter Portland. Already without Jusuf Nurkic for much of the season, and early rash of injuries — including to Zach Collins, sidelining him most of the season — left Portland desperate for frontcourt help. They turned to Anthony in a marriage of desperation.
It worked. Anthony averaged 15.3 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, and he provided a solid forward presence to the team — even getting named Western Conference Player of the Week one week.
At age 35, Carmelo Anthony proved he was not washed. He’s going to get to walk away from the NBA on his own terms (probably). Which is amazing and a little weird considering where we were a year ago.
Luka Doncic having Dallas on pace for the greatest offense in NBA history. Statistically.
Last season, the Golden State Warriors put together the greatest team offensive season in NBA history, with an offensive net rating of 115.9 (that’s points scored per 100 possessions). That just bested the 1987 Showtime Lakers and the 2017 version of the Warriors, who had net ratings of 115.6. Then came the 1992 Jordan Bulls and last season’s James Harden/Chris Paul Rockets at 115.5.
This season’s Dallas Mavericks, led by second-year player Luka Doncic, blew them all out of the water.
Dallas had an offensive rating of 116.7 when play was suspended. Through 67 games, Dallas had been the best of them all, with Doncic’s masterful pick-and-roll decision making setting up Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Seth Curry, and others in a game of marksmanship. Dallas has been entertaining, and Doncic has pushed his way into getting MVP votes (down-ballot, but still top five) with his play.
The high offensive rating may be a product of the times and three-point shooting, but it’s still weird to say this Dallas offense may have been better than any other. Ever.
There was so much more
The strangeness of this NBA season went beyond all that. There was:
• The likely end of San Antonio’s 22-season playoff streak.
• Ja Morant mania.
• Zion Williamson mania surpassing Morant-mania.
• John Beilein’s weird, short tenure as Cavaliers coach.
• Kenny Atkinson getting fired late in a playoff season for his injury-riddled Brooklyn team.
And that list goes on; it was all weird.
Then the coronavirus came and made it all that much stranger.