Ready or not, the NBA lockout has arrived. As players make a mad dash for international leagues, it’s unclear what the future holds. It’s possible that, like their NFL counterparts, the two sides hammer out a compromise before the start of the season. Perhaps, as happened in 1998-’99, the lockout will lead to a shortened season. The disaster scenario, of course, would be a full cancellation of the season, similar to the devastating NHL lockout of 2004-’05.
It’s too early to predict with confidence which of these outcomes will occur. The two sides, however, are far enough apart that anything is possible. With the profitability of the league in question, teams and fans shouldn’t be surprised to see Ron Artest actually lace up for the Cheshire Jets of northwest England come November.
As unlikely as it is, an entirely cancelled season would shake up the power dynamic in the NBA. While a number of teams would suffer, a number would benefit from pushing the clock forward an entire year. With that in mind, we take a look at the biggest losers and winners of a cancelled 2011-’12 season.
No. 1 — Orlando Magic
Losing the 2011-’12 season would crush the franchise. Next to stud center Dwight Howard, the roster is made up of misfit toys that suck up cap space in an effort to convince Howard of the ownership’s commitment to winning now. Without Howard, the franchise would become a cellar dweller.
Howard’s contract runs through the end of the upcoming season, meaning he would become a free agent without playing another game for the Magic should the season be lost. Howard has continually made it clear that he was less than pleased with Orlando’s first-round exit in the 2011 playoffs. Without one more shot for ownership to sell Howard on the Magic roster, it’s almost certain he would pack his bags.
More disturbing, though, is where that would leave Orlando. If the 2011-’12 season is played, the franchise will at least have an opportunity to trade Howard (and some of its ugly contracts) for prospects and draft picks to start the wheels of rebuilding. If the season is cancelled and Howard walks, Orlando will get nothing in return.
No. 2 — Boston Celtics
The aging Celtics are still a championship contender — they took the Lakers to Game 7 just over one year ago and embarrassed the Knicks in the first round of last year’s playoffs. Even the Celtics, however, realize that their window is closing. Paul Pierce is 33, Kevin Garnett is 35 and Ray Allen is 36. Most experts predict that the “Three Amigos” have at most one year left to bring home a second title.
The future is not all bleak for the Celtics. The team will open considerable cap space next summer just in time for the Dwight Howard-Chris Paul bonanza. They also have a reasonably deep bench to back up a solid core. That said, the 2011-’12 season is probably the last chance for these Celtics to win it all. Should the season be cancelled, that window will have all but closed.
No. 3 — Miami Heat
Despite an underwhelming performance in last year’s finals, the Miami Heat are probably favorites to take home the title in 2011-’12. Their Big Three superstars are all healthy and in their primes. As such, they would naturally be big losers should the season be cancelled.
That’s not to say that all would be lost. LeBron James is just 26, Chris Bosh 27 and Dwayne Wade 29. All three are under contract beyond next season. There is no reason to believe the Heat wouldn’t be contenders come 2012-’13.
Still, the Heat are crossing their fingers that basketball is played. Dwayne Wade, a proverbial injury risk, would emerge on the wrong side of 30. At the same time, the Big Three all have contracts that feature considerable salary escalation after 2011-’12, meaning Pat Riley will have even less cap space to build a respectable bench (particularly if the new CBA features a lower cap as predicted). Finally, the last thing LeBron and Co. need is a full year to reflect upon their dismal performance in the finals. The Heat are poised for another championship run and would prefer it not be in the Turkish league.
No. 1 — Minnesota Timberwolves
Look out for the T-Wolves. After a decade of mediocrity, the seeds of a star-studded roster are finally being sewn. Kevin Love has emerged. Ricky Rubio has finally agreed to come stateside. No. 2 overall draft pick Derrick Williams has scouts raving. The future is bright in Minnesota.
A missed season would only make things brighter. No one knows how the draft order would be determined in 2012, but it’s likely that Minnesota would once again be given the best odds at the No. 1 pick (having finished 2010-’11 with the worst record). Further, the 2012 draft class is stacked with promising prospects, meaning a missed season would give Minnesota a great shot at adding another franchise player. Should the season be played, the roster is too talented to expect a record meriting a lottery pick.
Adding another star is critical given Kevin Love’s contract situation. The forward’s contract is set to expire in 2012. As the roster is currently assembled, it may not have enough star power to entice Love to stay. The addition of another elite talent through the draft, however, would likely convince Love to stick around. Thus, missing the 2011-’12 season would likely allow the T-Wolves to draft another franchise talent AND hold on to Kevin Love. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
No. 2 — New York Knicks
Don’t let Mike D’Antoni’s praise of an aging Chauncey Billups fool you — the Knicks are after Chris Paul. He has long been the third piece of New York’s own Big Three.
As it stands, the Knicks don’t have much of a chance of snagging him. Without a realistic title shot in 2011-’12, the Hornets will likely trade Paul midseason for prospects and picks. After gutting their roster to acquire Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks possess neither. Should the season be played, Paul will likely find himself traded elsewhere.
Should the season be cancelled, New Orleans will lose its chance to trade its superstar. Instead, location, championship potential and cash will determine where Paul lands as a free agent. New York scores well in all three categories. Further, avoiding a trade for Paul would allow the Knicks to hang on to its remaining valuable pieces in Landry Fields, Toney Douglas and draft selection Iman Shumpert.
Many will correctly point out that, despite shedding Billups’ $14 million contract, the Knicks won’t have cap space under the new CBA to pick up Paul’s hefty tab. This may be correct. That said, given Paul’s stated desire to play in the Big Apple and the presence of Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire in the starting lineup, the dream of a Big Apple Three isn’t completely unrealistic — provided the upcoming season is cancelled.
No. 3 — Cleveland Cavaliers
Don’t look now, but the woeful Cavs are stockpiling assets. In the 2011 draft, the team snagged its point guard (Kyrie Irving) and power forward (Tristan Thompson) of the future with the first and fourth overall picks, respectively. Should the 2011-’12 season be lost, they will likely have the second-best shot (behind the T-Wolves) at the top pick in the stacked 2012 draft. Locking up three top-five draft picks before playing a single game would be an impressive haul.
This is made all the more pressing by owner Dan Gilbert’s outlandish promise to bring home a championship before the despised Miami Heat. Given the Heat’s status as title favorites, a missed season would be a valuable opportunity to push the clock forward, allowing the Cavs to continue to build a solid young core while keeping the dangerous Heat off the court.
John Ettinger is a senior in Saybrook College.e