Following the massive spread of COVID-19 throughout the United States, the number of infected players and teams continues to rise even as the hardwood remains quiet. Though NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made a leaguewide announcement back on March 3 regarding policies to minimize transmission of the virus between players and fans, the inevitable shutdown of play was imminent. The season was suspended on March 11 prior to the tip-off of a contest between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz after the Jazz’s starting center, Rudy Gobert, tested positive for the virus.
Although Gobert was not present at the arena for the contest, league officials determined the best move would be to suspend the game and further league operations for the sake of the health of players and staff across all franchises. The recent interaction of Gobert with other players on other teams, referees and many others gave way to a large network of potential infection across the league, spurring the move from the league’s front office.
Head referee Courtney Kirkland last refereed contests between the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings as well as the Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz, Gobert’s team. His presence at the Kings and Pelicans contest was enough to shut down the event prior to the league coming to a halt.
Currently, there are five players in the league that have tested positive for coronavirus. Gobert, Donovan Mitchell, Kevin Durant, Christian Wood and Marcus Smart have all publicly announced their infection with the virus. Gobert and Mitchell have both reported full recoveries.
With the season coming to an abrupt end and no clear date for league activities to resume in the near future, odds are that the play we’ve seen thus far will decide the league awards for the year. Currently, the leading candidates for the Most Value Player Award come down to LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers and Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks. Currently, Antetokounmpo averages 29.6 points per game, 13.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists, one steal and one block. James, though not keeping pacing with Antetokounmpo in points and rebounds, has been more valuable to his team in the passing game, averaging 10.7 assists per game, easily leading the league. James averaged 25.7 points per game with 7.1 rebounds, while getting a steal and block per game as well. Antetokounmpo leads the league in double-doubles with 52 double-double performances, while adding four triple-double performances and leading the league in player efficiency rating at 31.71. However, James has put up impressive numbers of his own, posting 42 double-doubles, 13 triple-doubles and a league-high 473 assists.
The biggest challenge will be the assembly of the league’s top offensive and defensive teams, though James and Antetokounmpo are guaranteed their spots on the offensive side. Antetokounmpo dominates both ends of the court, so the likelihood that he’ll make first-team defense once more for his skills is high. Pairing with the two MVP candidates on offense are two former MVPs, James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers manning the backcourt, while the league’s best passing center in Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets provides boards and scoring opportunities for his teammates.
Close behind this team will be the unlikely dynamic duo of guards Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks and Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers, two offensive powerhouses that barely miss the cut against Leonard and Harden. Doncic and Lillard will be joined by forwards Pascal Siakam of the Toronto Raptors and Jimmy Butler of the Miami Heat. The Brow, Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers, will man the paint for this squad after barely being beaten out by Jokic. Had the season continued and Davis’ three-point shooting continued to improve, he’d likely take that spot from Jokic.
Moving over to the defensive side of the ball, size matters and the big men in the league have a tendency to take home the honors on the first team. Joining Antetokounmpo, guard Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers just physically dominates his opponents when they attempt to get into the paint, as does fellow guard Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics. Gobert and Davis both have the flexibility to cover fellow centers as well as most forwards, securing them both spots on the list aside Antetokounmpo.
Looking to the younger members of the league, Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant popped off in his first year in the league, averaging 17.6 points per game, 3.5 rebounds and 6.9 assists. He played in every contest throughout the season up until the cancellation, showing his dedication to the franchise in his first year. Running up close behind Morant would be the latecomer to the party, power forward Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans. Willamson averaged 23.6 points per game, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists while shooting 58% from the field. However, due to his early-season injury, he has been limited to only 19 games of action, reducing his chances of winning the award.
Coaching a team is a rewarding profession within a player-centric league, requiring an ability to put together a consistent winning formula. Each winning formula is different depending on players, coaching staff and locker room management. In the Western Conference, the impressive job Frank Vogel has done with the Los Angeles Lakers speaks for itself. After witnessing the departure of the majority of his young roster, Vogel brought in multiple veterans as both players and coaches to help develop talent and chemistry between players. Taylor Jenkins at the helm of the Memphis Grizzles is close behind Vogel. Jenkin’s Grizzles have been led by a strong season from Morant, but the midseason acquisition of Andre Iguodala and improvement from players such as Jaren Jackson, Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke are all credited to the creative expertise of Jenkins.
Over on the Eastern Conference’s side, Mike Budenholzer’s Milwaukee Bucks continued to dominate their competition, losing just four games to opponents in their conference over the course of the season. With reigning MVP Antetokounmpo leading the squad to a pace for 70 wins, while leading the league in all defensive metrics, it’d be hard to not give Budenholzer credit where it’s due. Eric Spoletrsta of the Miami Heat is in a distant but respectable second place, having gotten a potential MVP season out of Butler while developing young talents such as Bam Adebayo and maintaining a strong record on their home court.