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The NBA Questions That Will Never Get Answered

Every sports fan loves to play the “What If?” game: What if Michael Jordan hadn’t retired to play baseball? What if A-Rod had been traded to the Red Sox instead of the Yankees? What if Steve Bartman had stayed home from Wrigley Field in October 2003? What if Mo Lewis hadn’t hit Drew Bledsoe? What if the 1994 baseball season hadn’t ended prematurely? These questions fuel endless debate because we can never know their answers.

The list of sports “What Ifs” may have gotten a lot longer this year. Practically every major league is on pause, with its season in doubt, because of the coronavirus pandemic. We don’t know when — or if — each of the leagues will resume, but each of them is bound to leave unanswerable questions about their suspended seasons.

For right now, let’s focus on the NBA. Although the league has expressed its intention to finish the season, the range of ways the coronavirus crisis plays out remains incredibly wide, particularly when you consider the possibility of a second wave later in the year. If it isn’t safe for basketball to return for a long time, many of this season’s most interesting storylines will be relegated to history’s “What If?” bin.

Even if the playoffs are played in some version, here are just a few of the questions for which NBA fans might be left without an answer:

Could the Milwaukee Bucks have won 70 games?

Led once again by reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks were tearing through the league at a historic pace this regular season. At the time the season was suspended, Milwaukee had the 15th-best single-season winning percentage in NBA history — and although that put them on pace to win “only” 67 games in an 82-game schedule, they had been above a 70-win pace as recently as March 4 (until dropping three straight games before play stopped). In NBA history, only the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and 2015-16 Golden State Warriors had cracked the 70-win mark, and the Bucks could have gotten there, too — with a 17-game winning streak to end the season. It would have been a tall order; more likely, they would have taken it easy down the stretch with a 6½-game cushion over the No. 2-seeded Toronto Raptors in the East. But Milwaukee had already rattled off an 18-game win streak earlier in the season, so it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.

Would we have seen a legendary MVP battle down the stretch?

Antetokounmpo followed up his first MVP season with even better numbers this year. Given Milwaukee’s dominant record, Giannis was the favorite for this season’s award as well — but there was still room for LeBron James to potentially overtake Antetokounmpo with a strong stretch-run push. According to RAPTOR, LeBron was worth slightly more wins above replacement (WAR) than Giannis when play stopped, and his Lakers had won 11 of their last 13 games. Whatever happened, the outcome would have affected each player’s legacy: Antetokounmpo could have joined James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players to win multiple MVPs by age 25, while James would have joined Abdul-Jabbar, Jordan and Bill Russell as the only players ever to win five or more MVPs. But now, James will probably never get the chance to bolster his MVP case with a strong final month of the regular season.

Would Zion have chased down Ja for Rookie of the Year?

As we spoke about on Hot Takedown, FiveThirtyEight’s sports podcast, this year’s Rookie of the Year race was heating up right before the coronavirus turned everything upside down. An award that was presumed to be the property of Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant for most of the season was looking more up for grabs with Zion Williamson returning from injury and leading the New Orleans Pelicans on a late playoff push. Morant had produced slightly more RAPTOR WAR (1.8) than Williamson (1.5) when play stopped — and his Grizzlies held the West’s No. 8 playoff seed, 3½ games clear of New Orleans.

But Williamson had compiled his stats in a third as many minutes as Morant, and his Pelicans were going to face the NBA’s third-easiest remaining schedule (by average opponent Elo rating)1 while the Grizzlies were going to face the hardest remaining schedule. Whatever transpired down the stretch, it would have been a fascinating duel for the award, had it happened.

How would the most puzzling teams have finished?

The Houston Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers were probably the two most enigmatic teams of the 2019-20 NBA season. Houston pulled off an offseason blockbuster trade for Russell Westbrook, struggled to integrate him early and then started unleashing their potential with historic small-ball lineups (which led to them trading away Clint Capela). But they also looked vulnerable in early March, losing four of five going into the stoppage, and questions abounded over their ability to sustain the unconventional strategy in the playoffs.

On the other hand, the Sixers were one of the league’s tallest teams, but they were no less perplexing. Despite loads of on-paper talent, Philly spent most of the season drifting aimlessly — particularly as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons battled injuries and doubts surfaced about how the roster fit together. Neither team was looking like a strong contender when play ceased, but both had enough talent to play themselves into postseason form by the start of the playoffs. Now, who knows?

How would a normal playoff have differed from … whatever we end up with?

In a typical NBA season, the true “best” team tends to win the championship a little under 50 percent of the time, at least according to research I conducted a decade ago.2 The NBA playoffs are the toughest test among the major North American men’s leagues because they are so deterministic; by contrast, the best NFL team wins the Super Bowl only about 24 percent of the time, and the best MLB team wins something like 29 percent of the time. But that’s under normal circumstances — not if the playoffs take on the format being reported last week:

“The NBA could decide to cancel the remainder of its regular season and create a play-in tournament for lower-seeded teams to enter the postseason. The league could then set up a best-of-five series for the first round, before moving to a one-and-done tournament to determine the two teams that will play in the NBA Finals, which would also be a best-of-five, people familiar with the planning said.”

If that happens, it could tangibly change the outcome of what already looked like an unusually wide-open season with a lot of strong contenders. To measure by how much, I reran my study from 2010 using Elo ratings3 to simulate the rest of the season 5,000 times under each of two different scenarios: playing out the regular season and playoffs as originally scheduled, and doing it under a hypothetical system that features a four-team play-in tournament for the final postseason slot in each conference and shortened series after that (including best-of-five for round 1 and the finals, and a one-and-done format for rounds 2 and 3).

Unsurprisingly, the modified playoff system would make it less likely that the best team by season’s end would be the champion:

Would the best team win in an abridged NBA playoff?

Average simulated Elo strength of an NBA champion and probability of the highest-rated team winning the title, 2019-20 season

Playoff System Champ’s Avg. Elo Rating Chance Best Team Wins
Regular 1703.9 44.0%
Shortened, with play-ins 1691.7 37.1

Based on 5,000 simulations of the remaining 2019-20 regular-season schedule and playoffs.

Maybe that’s actually an endorsement of this format; more uncertainty might mean more excitement. But most importantly, in these pairs of simulations — which are driven by the same underlying sets of talent ratings — only 28 percent gave us the exact same champion under both formats. So the odds are good that a compressed playoff format would alter the course of NBA history, compared with what we would have had in a full season.

And that’s assuming we even have a playoff to provide some kind of resolution to the season. Economically, the NBA has every reason to ensure that the playoffs happen, and fans are desperate to see how one of the most fascinating NBA seasons ever will end. But the virus sets the timeline, and we don’t know how long it will be before it’s safe to play games again — with or without fans. For now, the What Ifs are largely confined to the regular season, but if the playoffs are canceled, the list will grow much, much longer.

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  1. Adjusted for home-court advantage.

  2. That number is larger than something like our playoff odds, which give the favorite a 27 percent chance, because we don’t actually know who the best team of 2019-20 is. The 50 percent number is conditional on actually knowing who the strongest team is.

  3. With built-in uncertainty about each team’s true strength.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.