The darkest timeline: NBA devoid of All-Star talent for the remainder of the season
BREAKING: In a saddening turn of events at the 67th All-Star Game, the NBA as we know it has completely fallen to pieces. With 2:47 left in the third quarter, Team LeBron teammates Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant engaged in a scuffle after Westbrook repeatedly ignored Durant’s calls for a pass early in the shot clock.
LeBron James, the captain of the team, immediately stepped up to resolve the altercation, but out of the blue came Kyrie Irving, who sneaked up on James’ back shoving him hard to the floor.
All hell instantly broke loose, with all of the gathered All-Stars joining the medieval melee fight throwing fists and flopping left and right; virtually no player left the all-out brawl unscathed.
After a solid 10 minutes of the UFC-like showdown, the fight eventually settled to the tune of Stacy Ferguson singing Kumbaya over the loudspeakers and police forces escorting the players out of the arena one by one.
In a futile attempt to salvage the remaining bits of renown the NBA organization once had, Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner, promptly announced that all of the participants of the grim event, already dubbed as the Beatdown in Tinseltown, will receive suspensions for the remainder of the season. Silver, however, plans to see out the ongoing season, and then take the whole summer off to contemplate the tough decision on the fate of the NBA.
IN OTHER NEWS: Taking advantage of the commotion at an All-Star Game watch party in Washington D.C., Marcin Gortat, a.k.a. the Polish Hammer, clocked John Wall in the head, sending him straight into coma and effectively ending their season-long fallout.
Kevin Love has reportedly fallen ill with an undisclosed disease and will miss the rest of the season as well. Sources say Isaiah Thomas and Dwyane Wade, who connected with Love on a personal level during their brief stints with the Cavaliers, have already made inquiries about Love’s health status.
Let’s take a look at what consequences this totally realistic scenario, in which no All-Stars would be allowed to play in the remaining games, might have on the outcome of the 2017-18 NBA season from a purely competitive standpoint.
In a league driven by starpower, the top-dwelling teams are bound to suffer in a timeline in which All-Star players are completely taken out of the equation. The Warriors’ extraordinary achievement of having four representatives at two consecutive All-Star games would completely backfire under those circumstances.
While their Big Four created a solid head start, it’s tough to imagine a lineup of Shaun Livingston, Patrick McCaw, Andre Iguodala, David West and Zaza Pachulia making any noise down the stretch. Sure, the Warriors still make the playoffs due to a low number of remaining games, but expecting them to be anything more than cannon fodder in the postseason would be completely delusional.
Two other contending franchises with two All-Stars apiece would also suffer greatly under the new set of rules. Timberwolves suddenly losing Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns would cause a huge blow on both ends of the floor, and with Gorgui Dieng and Jamal Crawford entering the starting lineup, their bench would be absolutely decimated. However, in a starless West, Jeff Teague and Andrew Wiggins might just be enough for the Wolves to at least hover around their current position.
The same could not be said for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who would most likely be thoroughly shell-shocked by the sudden unavailability of Westbrook and Paul George. Unless Carmelo Anthony managed to take a sip from the fountain of youth and Steven Adams found a way to stop being so painstakingly dependent on playing off of Westbrook, the Thunder would be headed towards a downright catastrophe.
Considering they are currently just a game and a half above the ninth seed, betting on their truncated roster making the playoffs would be a foolish investment.
On the other hand, two currently well-standing teams would remain properly equipped to hold their ground thanks to the set of circumstances under which they entered the All-Star break.
While the Rockets’ structure would completely change after losing an MVP frontrunner in James Harden, they would still retain the services of Chris Paul, who was kept out of All-Star discussions due to the injury he dealt with for the large part of the season. The Paul – Capela connection surrounded by a plethora of capable shooters might be an apt remedy for Harden’s absence, and could ultimately propel the Rockets to the status of title favorites.
Spurs losing their anchor in LaMarcus Aldridge might seem like an irrecoverable blow, but with the imminent return of Kawhi Leonard and Gregg Popovich being Gregg Popovich, the Spurs wouldn’t have to worry much about getting deep in the playoffs. On the contrary, the odds of them winning the championship might actually increase, since they would now have nominally the best player in the league on their roster. The complementary crew Popovich has at his disposal right now might not seem up to the task of winning a ring, but with Leonard firmly in the driving seat after a fresh start to season, the Spurs could reasonably hope for a repeat of their 2013-14 campaign.
The main benefactor of the new league-wide development would, however, be the Denver Nuggets. With a roster led by a young trident of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Gary Harris staying intact, the Nuggets would have all the prerequisites for a rapid surge up the standings.
Since their depth chart would remain completely untouched, their sheer versatility and the number of options would provide an excellent opportunity at reaching one of the top conference spots by the end of the regular season. If you factor in the return of Paul Millsap, which is scheduled for early-mid March, the Nuggets would definitely welcome the new “No All-Stars” policy with open hands.
The Nuggets are the only current playoff team in the Western Conference that would remain unaffected. However, they could swiftly be joined by two other teams currently outside the playoff picture, especially with seventh seed Blazers losing Damian Lillard, and the eighth seed Pelicans having to continue their season without both Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins.
Utah Jazz, who are the hottest team in the league right now with 11 straight wins, would be given an even easier path to continue their amazing streak on the back of Rudy Gobert and the top ROY candidate Donovan Mitchell.
Given their momentum and the fact that they wouldn’t have to adjust to the new situation at all, they could easily make a dash at securing the home advantage in the opening round(s) of playoffs (they are just four games behind the fourth seed), and eventually take a shot at reaching the Finals for the first time since 1998. One things is for sure, with Gobert, Mitchell and solid depth, they would definitely become one of the most feared matchups out West.
Same goes for the Clippers, who eventually didn’t opt for a full-on rebuild despite the rumors at the trade deadline. With their core of Lou Williams, Austin Rivers, DeAndre Jordan and Danilo Gallinari staying together, and with the addition of Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley, the Clippers might actually become the deepest team in this scenario.
Even though they might not reach the top playoff spots by the end of the season, they would have an excellent chance to achieve a goal that evaded them even when both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were on the roster – finally reach the conference finals.
Darkest Timeline Contenders – West: Rockets, Spurs, Nuggets, Clippers, Jazz
Looking at the Eastern front, the situation doesn’t get any less complicated. Just like the Thunder and the Warriors, there are several teams that would be poised for a steep decline with their rosters barren of any true starpower.
The unlikely first seed Raptors would be the first in line to object to Silver’s devastating ruling. Despite their depth playing a major role in reaching that first seed heading into the All-Star break, taking out the backbone of the team in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan makes them a mediocre team at best, even in a league practically devoid of any other stars.
Raptors’ protests would gain immediate support of the Washington Wizards, another team with two All-Star selections this season. Even though they actually bounced back pretty well from John Wall’s decision to miss extended time (12-8 this season without Wall), that was mostly a function of Bradley Beal’s ability to take on and justify an increased role with the team. Taking both of them out of the equation could, however, prove to be simply too much for Scott Brooks. Realistically, a team relying on Otto Porter as their number one option would have no real reason to be overly optimistic about their title chances, even in this imaginary scenario.
Miami Heat eventually managed to slide in an All-Star of their own in Goran Dragic. Had Dragic not been selected to replace Kevin Love, the Heat could legitimately get their title hopes up in a butchered Eastern Conference.
With Dragic out of the picture, the new team led by Hassan Whiteside and several average/overpaid players doesn’t exactly emit NBA championship vibes. Sure, having Eric Spoelstra in charge of making the adjustments would definitely help alleviate the blow of losing their star playmaker, but it’s difficult to envision the Heat rising much above the eighth seed they currently hold. They even have Dwyane Wade again for their potential playoff ride.
Elite coaching could, however, become the key factor that tips the scale for one of the Eastern Conference powerhouses. While the handicap of losing a leading scorer in Kyrie Irving and the leading rebounder and facilitator in Al Horford might seem downright devastating, a simple look at the Celtics’ depth chart shows they have proper tools to compete even in the face of this fictional hardship.
Given their recent performances, a lineup of Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Greg Monroe doesn’t look shabby at all. Besides that, unlike most of the teams, the Celtics would actually have a decent second unit led by Marcus Smart. Factor in the potential return of Gordon Hayward, and the Celtics might easily become the Vegas favorites for winning it all in this asterisk-marked season. Lack of true playoff experience and a clear number one option would present the largest obstacles the Celtics would have to face, but if anyone can make a starless roster work, it surely is Brad Stevens.
What the Celtics immediate rivals may comparably lack in the coaching department, they make up for with their capable front office. With LeBron James’ approval, Koby Altman completely refurbished the Cavaliers roster, acquiring pieces that make more sense for what the Cavs are trying to do right now.
Losing LeBron (and Love) as a centerpiece would obviously be a huge blow to any team, but with the way the Cavs are currently set up, it wouldn’t necessarily be an end-of-the-world scenario.
A starting lineup of George Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr. and Tristan Thompson isn’t exactly mind-blowing, but under the premise that immediate competition also loses its star players, they look like a decently balanced contender – especially if you factor in the insane depth they would have with J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Jeff Green and Cedi Osman coming off the bench. Tyronn Lue would definitely have his hands full without James’ help on (and off) the court, but with the remaining talent at his disposal, he likely wouldn’t have much trouble getting deep into the postseason.
The two remaining plausible contenders, the Sixers and the Bucks, would end up in nearly identical situations. Both would see the main engines of their success gone, but would not become utterly shattered like several other teams, since they have exciting young cores that could ease the burden of straight up losing a superstar.
Claiming that the Bucks wouldn’t suffer greatly from losing Giannis Antetokounmpo, their tireless motor that leads the team in all major statistical categories, might sound straight up absurd. However, the Bucks would still be able to field at least four competent players in Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon and reconvalescent Jabari Parker, and that gives them a clear advantage over the majority of the depleted teams in the East. However, the Bucks are not alone with this advantage.
The same applies to the Philadelphia 76ers. Besides hurting their social media presence, losing Joel Embiid would be incredibly damaging in all basketball facets, especially now that he managed to establish himself as a consistent number one option. In this context, however, Embiid’s absence wouldn’t instantly push the Sixers into a state of despair. With Ben Simmons, Dario Saric, J.J. Redick and an untouched set of role players, the Sixers would have appropriate assets not only to remain in the playoff picture, but also to hop over certain teams in the process.
Darkest Timeline Contenders – East: Cavaliers, Celtics, Bucks, Sixers
After giving the Jazz the edge over the Clippers in a fourth/fifth seed matchup, this is what the playoff bracket in a fictional NBA universe deprived of All-Stars might end up looking like. A quick glance at the proposed eight-team postseason shows that getting rid of the top class of talent might actually be beneficial to restoring the parity of the league.
It seems that every possible matchup, even across conferences, has the potential to end up in a thrilling seven-game series. No clear-cut winners as early as conference semi-finals truly is a refreshing sight, especially considering the bleak prognosis for the actual 2018 playoffs.
Whether it comes down to the new-look Celtics and Cavs battling it out in a rerun of last year’s conference finals; a clash of the slightly handicapped, but still highly efficient young cores in Sixers and Bucks; a showdown between two unscathed high-altitude teams in Nuggets and Jazz; a duel between the two best remaining players in Leonard and Paul, or any other viable permutation on each side of the bracket, it is crystal clear that this make-believe playoffs would be far from a dull affair, and that each of the seven series would have a strong appeal of its own.
Since neither team has the clear upper-hand, the predictions on how this alternate bracket would eventually pan out shall be left to one’s imagination (or a drawn-out 2K simulation).
Neither of the four major leagues depends so much on its star players as the NBA, so losing even that five percent of the finest talent would be utterly disastrous for the popularity, the ratings and the product quality of the NBA. While having less elite, and more slightly above average players would be an interesting step towards achieving that longed for equality, as became evident in this exercise, it is clear that the worldwide interest in the NBA would instantly suffer a downturn.
The sport of basketball has many meaningful intricacies that spur personal devotion and even fanaticism, but, in the end, it is LeBron, Steph, Giannis and 20+ other deserving All-Stars who consistently make us come back for more, and that’s why even the fans of teams that would benefit greatly in this doomsday scenario hope it never actually comes into existence.
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