Yesterday, we ran down a list of teams of that might actually be a little bit happy that the 2019-20 NBA season is potentially over. These were the teams that had nothing left to play for, whose brighter days wouldn’t come until a new season begins.
Today, we flip the script. Some teams are bound to be a little more bummed than the rest — the teams that still had hope for a playoff run or a true title shot, or teams with free agents or veterans who may not get another shot.
I’m going to exclude the 2019-20 Raptors here. Why? Because I don’t think I can objectively rank them against the other teams. I’m so unbearably sad that the season might be over for them, that they deserve their own entire post, which will be coming soon.
Which NBA teams are the most sad the season is on hold?
Honorable mentions: Houston Rockets (what could small ball do in the postseason?); Boston Celtics (legitimately good, Gordon Hayward free agency looms); Memphis Grizzlies (exceeding expectations, J and JJJ in the playoffs!)
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
After their offseason moves, it was mostly expected that the Thunder would look to trade Chris Paul and Steven Adams, sink to the bottom and rebuild through the draft. Instead, they turned out to be really good, Chris Paul reminded us all why he’s the Point God and that he’s got a little bit left in the tank, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is turning into an absolute stud. Those Paul and Adams trades may come, but this team and its fans were looking to make some noise before they do, and they had the potential to do some damage in the playoffs.
Comparable Raptors season: 2006-2007
No one expected much of the Raptors in Bryan Colangelo’s first season as GM, especially after he drafted project Andrea Bargnani #1 overall in a weak draft. But after a 2-8 start, the team was 33-29 and looking good with 20 games to go. (33-29, you say? Yep. That’s how bad the preceding four years were, that four games over .500 was reason to be excited.) They were fun to watch, they shared the ball well in an offense centred around Chris Bosh, who was blossoming. An early finish to the best season in some time would have sucked.
4. New Orleans Pelicans
The new look Pelicans had a sour start to the season. Rookie Zion Williamson was on the shelf and the team got off to a 7-23 start. But then the pieces started coming together, and Zion made his (electrifying) debut, and all of a sudden... the playoffs were in sight! When things went on hold, the Pellies were still 3.5 games back of the Grizzlies, which is a lot to make up with less than 20 games to go. But, there was hope and excitement and it stinks to have that taken away — and my goodness, wouldn’t a first-round Lakers vs. Pelicans series have been a delight?
Comparable Raptors season: 1999-2000
Second year phenom Vince Carter was coming off his Dunk Contest coming out party and was leading the Raptors into the postseason for the very first time. Being robbed of any young Vince games would have been bad enough, but a playoff opportunity? This was huge for the franchise; two years earlier they were 16-66! Now they were gonna make the playoffs? Even if they got killed (and they did) it would be a huge step in the right direction. Just like, coming off the Anthony Davis debacle and the Zion injury, a playoff push for the Pelicans would be huge.
3. Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James was having a truly incredible age 35 season, posting 26 points, eight rebounds and a career-high 11 assists a night. He’d be the MVP if Giannis Antetokounmpo weren’t around (sorry ESPN, this isn’t even a debate) and he’s led the Lakers to the league’s second-best record. They have a legit title shot, which, despite the Lakers’ history of winning, never gets old. Losing that opportunity is tough, because you never know if it’ll come again, especially with James’ age; he can’t keep doing this forever, right? (...right?) I suppose there’s also some worry about Anthony Davis’ upcoming free agency, making this a dour ending for the Lakers and their fans. At least, they, they have their “Lakers exceptionalism” and will likely be back here again at some point in the future — unlike our next two contenders.
Comparable Raptors season: 2016-2017
The Raptors were coming off their best year ever to that point, and had re-made the roster at the trade deadline to compete with LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Kyle Lowry was entering free agency, and was expected to have several suitors. True, the Raptors were only 37-25, thanks to a Lowry wrist injury; not in the same territory that LeBron and the Lakers are this year. But still — having that season taken away would have felt like we were losing something significant after the moves that Masai Ujiri made, and a feeling that a return to insignificance might be in the future if we lost this chance.
2. Los Angeles Clippers
It was bad enough that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George only signed contracts with two-year opt-outs last summer. Now the Clippers might lose one of those seasons, one of those opportunities to win a title? Let’s not forget this team has never even been to the Conference Finals, let alone Finals. This year was surely their best chance! Not only that, Leonard and George were both healthy and the team had won seven of its past eight games. Sure, they still have next year — but nothing is certain and with the injury histories of their two best players, the Clips and their fans will be lamenting this lost opportunity. (It’s hard for me to feel too bad — they stole Kawhi from us, after all — but I’m trying to be objective here!)
Comparable Raptors season: 2017-2018
The best Raptors team to never win a title had all kinds of hope heading into the final part of the schedule. LeBron and the Cavs weren’t the same, the “culture reset” had opened up the offense, DeRozan and Lowry were playing brilliantly, the Bench Mob was in full force and the Raptors (45-17) were on pace for the most wins in franchise history and a top seed in the playoffs. We know now that the immediate future brought more LeBron misery, but with 20 games to go, the future looked damn bright.
1. Milwaukee Bucks
Best team in the league with the best player in the league, now with some extended playoff experience. This was their year! The Raptors lost Kawhi, the Warriors were no more, the Lakers and Clippers were fighting it out in the West... the Bucks were the presumptive favourite, for the first time since the 1970s. That’s rough enough to lose out on, but then you have to factor in Giannis’ future. A Finals run, or championship, would probably have impacted his likelihood to sign a super-max extension this summer and secure his future with the franchise. Now? Now, he may decide to wait... and who knows what next year will bring? Windows of championship contention are rare and fleeting. The Bucks are straight up missing one right now, and that chance may never come again.
Comparable Raptors season: 2018-2019
I can’t even imagine what it would have felt like if last season had ended prematurely. A punch in the gut, at the very least: having traded DeMar DeRozan away; our (probable) lone season with Kawhi; Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry getting older; trading Jonas Valanciunas for Marc Gasol... it all would have felt so utterly worthless if the season ended without a playoff run. I honestly don’t know if I could have recovered from it, as a fan... I mean, after years of playoff disappointments, players who didn’t want to come here and conspiracies that the NBA didn’t want Toronto to win, it would have felt like the entire universe was conspiring against us, you know? So I feel for Bucks fans right now, I truly do.
I think we’re all learning a lot about our society in these times. I hope one of those (very small) lessons that we can take from sports is about the fragility of things like championship contention. These opportunities truly are rare, at least for most fanbases; it requires a huge amount of good fortune to win a championship. If something unexpected like this happens and takes it away, it’s devastating. Hopefully it’s a reminder to cherish those moments.