The NBA season is suspended indefinitely due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and while the league hopes it will eventually be able to resume and conclude the 2019-20 campaign, that's far from a foregone conclusion. This week, we're looking at the teams that stand to lose the most in the event of a canceled season.
It goes without saying that the teams who have the most to lose in a potential season cancelation are the teams who held the most promise. The Milwaukee Bucks aren't the only franchise that harbored realistic hopes of winning the championship, but they're in a category all their own when it comes to the amount of skin they have invested in the current campaign.
Last year's six-game conference finals loss to the Toronto Raptors established the stakes for 2019-20: The Bucks had won a league-best 60 games in the regular season, ran roughshod over their first two playoff opponents, took a 2-0 series lead on Toronto, and built double-digit second-half leads in Game 5 and 6. In case washing out the sour taste of that defeat wasn't motivation enough, there was the report that dropped moments after the Bucks were eliminated indicating that reaching the Finals would incentivize Giannis Antetokounmpo - reigning MVP and potential unrestricted free agent in 2021 - to sign a supermax contract extension in the summer of 2020.
No team had as much to prove this season. No team was under more pressure to win big. And the Bucks rose to the occasion in a way few could've imagined. Despite letting Malcolm Brogdon leave in free agency, they were in the midst of a historically dominant regular season, with the fifth-best scoring margin of all time and the fifth-best defense relative to league average, per Basketball-Reference. With their ball-hawking guards, ridiculous frontcourt size, and interior-oriented scheme, the Bucks walled off the paint like few teams before them. They allowed 3.3 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league's next-best defensive team.
Antetokounmpo returned from his MVP season an even better two-way player and was having a historic season in his own right. On a per-possession basis, no player in the 3-point era has come close to accumulating the kind of numbers he has this year. He was on track to both repeat as MVP and quite possibly become the third player in history (after Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon) also to be named Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.
His supporting cast was more than holding up its end of the bargain, too. Khris Middleton blossomed into a full-fledged star - a reliable playmaker and one of the best shooters and multi-level scorers in the league. At the time of the season suspension, he sat one percentage point shy of joining Larry Bird, Steph Curry, and Kevin Durant as the only players to ever average more than 20 points a game with 50/40/90 shooting splits. Brook Lopez became an even more fearsome rim-protector; Eric Bledsoe continued to put the clamps on opposing ball-handlers; Donte DiVincenzo emerged as an invaluable depth piece with tremendous defensive instincts and a nose for loose balls; George Hill led the league in 3-point shooting (48.0%) by 27 percentage points over second place.
But the Bucks were the league's best regular-season team last year, too, and they still wound up going into the offseason on a four-game losing streak. Even though they've been significantly better this year, the flameout brought doubts and questions that hovered over their entire 2019-20 season - questions that were only going to be answered in the playoffs. Now they may not get the chance.
Are these Bucks destined to be remembered as basketball's version of the 1994 Expos? Is their dream season doomed to be left unfinished, relegated to the realm of what-ifs?
On one hand, the Bucks can take comfort in knowing the bones of their roster will remain intact next season. Their most important contributors - Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Lopez, Bledsoe, Hill, DiVincenzo - are all under contract through at least 2021. Even if Antetokounmpo turns down the extension, they'll have another year to chase a title and try to convince him to commit his prime years to Milwaukee.
On the other hand, things change at warp speed in the NBA, and windows can close in a blink. The East doesn't figure to get any easier next season, when a Nets team with a healthy Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving should join the Raptors, Celtics, 76ers, Heat, and Pacers as giant, pain-in-the-ass roadblocks standing between Milwaukee and the conference crown.
If the rest of the season is wiped out, those questions we've been asking about the Bucks all year will be left dangling: Is Antetokounmpo good enough to overcome the one glaring weakness in his game when he comes up against the league's most sophisticated defenses? Is Middleton a sturdy enough second banana to carry them through the most daunting playoff moments when opponents are swarming Antetokounmpo? Will Bledsoe ever show up when it matters most? Can their deep and dominant bench be a swing factor when rotations tighten? Can Mike Budenholzer make on-the-fly adjustments and be more than a regular-season coach?
More than any other team, the Bucks are desperate for a shot at another title run.
Joe Wolfond writes about basketball and tennis for theScore.