The NBA Storylines I Miss Most

I’m having NBA withdrawal.  We haven’t played any games since March 11th and there are serious doubts now among league executives if this season will even be finished at all, according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.

With all the uncertainty notwithstanding, I thought it would be fun (and maybe even cathartic) to look back at some of the storylines that made the rest of this season, particularly the playoffs, so compelling.  In no particular order, here they are below:

The Milwaukee Bucks

If the 2019-2020 NBA season is truly over, then the team that should be most remembered from it is the one that bludgeoned the others, the Milwaukee Bucks.  They not only had the best record, three games ahead of the Lakers, but they achieved that record by posting an awesome +10.7 net rating.  How good is +10.7?  In the data I have handy from basketball-reference, going back to 2005, just four squads have been +10.7 or better in the regular season: the 2016 and 2017 Warriors, the 2016 Spurs, and the 2008 Celtics.  Remember those Warriors that won 73 games?  They also posted a +10.7 net rating.  So this Bucks squad wasn’t just the best regular season team of the year; they measure up with other regular season juggernauts.

I am noticing myself preface their greatness with regular season a lot, and that is why I was so looking forward to this season’s playoffs.  Would the Bucks prove themselves against the best in the league?  Were they really more of a paper tiger, as their critics alleged, or would they run through the East and then beat the Lakers, Clippers or whoever waited for them on the other side?

I do think there is more nuance to this than the black and white narratives we construct in sports.   That is, the Bucks could have lost a tough 6 game series to the Lakers in the Finals and still have been a really great team that just lost to another great team.  Or they could even have been outshot by the Raptors or Celtics and get ousted early, but been a stellar team that had one bad series.  The playoffs are what they are, a few data points.  But still, I wanted to see just how Milwaukee measured up.

Also, this was our chance to see Giannis on the big stage again, squaring up against the best defenses that the league has to offer.  Though there was some debate late in the year over his and LeBron’s MVP candidacies, I think the impact metrics unequivocally pointed to the Bucks’ star.  This would have been a chance for Giannis to raise his game in the playoffs and build on last year’s postseason, where he struggled offensively against the Raptors and posted only a 51.7% true shooting percentage, well below his regular season levels.

My gut feeling was that Giannis would have shined and Milwaukee would have been crowned 2020 NBA champs.

An All-LA Playoff Series?

I am not a Lakers or Clippers fan, but I was really rooting for this one.  LeBron vs. Kawhi.  Anthony Davis and Paul George in the bright lights.  NBA royalty vs., well, the Clippers.

Just the thought of having one playoff series between two top title contenders be played entirely in one building was really interesting.  I was so intrigued by what home court advantage would look like in a potential LA vs. LA duel that I researched it and wrote a post on my findings.  Hopefully, if this season is truly cancelled or the playoffs are played at a neutral sight, we get to see a Lakers vs. Clippers in the playoff series in a future season.

Luka’s First Playoff Rodeo

I posted on Twitter before this season started that the player stat I was most interested in witnessing in 2019-2020 was Luka Doncic’s year two true shooting percentage.  He was already almost at league average efficiency in his rookie season on a high volume of shots.  What would he do for an encore?  Post a solidly above average 58.7% true shooting percentage on an even more mammoth usage load.

Interestingly, Luka was even more spectacular early in the season, so much so that he was even mentioned in the early MVP conversations.  Despite playing a little worse as the season went on, he lead the Mavericks to the best offensive rating in the league by a comfortable margin and a +6.1 net rating, good for 5th in the league and not too far away from the Clippers’ +6.4 net rating.  The standings currently have the Clippers as the 2 seed and the Mavericks as the 7 seed.  That would have been a very entertaining series, although the Clippers would have been solid favorites (and reasonably so).

Everyone wanted to see what Luka would do in his first playoffs, but that may have to wait for another year.

Small Ball in Houston

After the Rockets acquired Robert Covington at the deadline and sent away Clint Capella, they engaged in a fascinating NBA experiment.  They went with small ball, or at least experimented with playing no typically sized center player for portions of the game.  The Rockets were playing ok, although not great, in the post-Convington trade period, going 8-6 with a +1.7 point differential.  Still, it was fun to watch them lean in to this style of play.  Moreover, Russell Westbrook has been coming on lately in terms of offensive efficiency, something that we wondered about before the season after the blockbuster Westbrook for Paul trade.

The playoffs would have been another chance for the Rockets, and their star James Harden, to exorcize playoff demons of the past and make a run.

The Race for 8th in the West

The New Orleans Pelicans were picking up steam at just the right time.  Though they were 3.5 games back in the standings to the 8th seeded Grizzlies, they actually had one of the easiest remaining schedules and the Grizzlies had one of the hardest.  The race for 8th in the West was interesting enough as a modeling problem that I wrote about it on February 29th, although that now feels like 10 years ago.

If the Pelicans had secured the 8th seed, they would have played the Lakers in round 1, and that would have been awesome.  Zion in the playoffs. AD against his former team.  Ingram and Ball against their former team. Oh well, there is always next year.

Parting Thoughts

In the meantime, while we wait in NBA hibernation, the NBA generously opened up all games of the past season to free viewing.  I put together a list of the best games using what I called game score, a combination of the strength of the teams playing and how close the final score was.  If you want to watch an exciting game from this season, all the links are in this google sheet.  And the scores are hidden, so you won’t be spoiled as long as you turn on ‘Hide Scores’ on NBA.com.

If you really need to know who won the 2019-2020 NBA championship, you can use this simulator I built.  But it doesn’t compare to the real thing.  Stay safe out there everyone!

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