The shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic has many fans desperate for any kind of sporting event, as the large number of viewers who stayed up to watch Monday night’s opening day in the Korean Baseball Organization attests.
With everyone starving for sports, it’s frustrating to look back over the history of major sports and see how many times leagues have willfully shut down because players and owners couldn’t get along.
So, in an ongoing series, we’ve gone back and reconstructed seasons that were shortened due to labor strife. So far, we’ve reconstructed the 1981 and 1994 MLB seasons, as well as the 1982 and 1987 NFL seasons and the 1998-99 NBA campaign.
We remain in the NBA this week, moving forward 13 years to the 2011-12 season.
The lockout wasn’t quite as impactful as in 1998-99. The 2011-12 season was reduced from 82 games to 66, which is 16 more than the shortened 1999 season, and it started on Christmas Day.
Short seasons seem to breed playoff upsets in the NBA. In 1999, the eighth-seeded Knicks stormed to the NBA Finals. In 2012, the 76ers, also a No. 8 seed, knocked off the top-seeded Bulls in the first round, and the fourth-seeded Celtics made it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
In the end, however, the NBA Finals matched up a pair of 2-seeds in the Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder. Miami prevailed, earning LeBron James his first NBA title.
Would LeBron’s string of Finals appearances have been interrupted had the NBA played the full slate in 2011-12?
Let’s start uncanceling games and find out.
As a reminder, we’re not using computer or video game simulations or statistical tricks. Instead, we’re using actual action that took place on the court. Basically, for each canceled game, we’ll use the next time those two teams played (at the same venue) as a “makeup game.” For example, we would use games from the 2020-21 NBA and NHL seasons to fill in any holes left by the coronavirus in this year’s schedule.
The Celtics held onto the Atlantic Division title, but a 9-7 record in the makeup games caused them to drop a spot in the playoff seedings, from fourth to fifth. The second-place Knicks closed the gap on Boston slightly and moved up a spot in the seedings to sixth.
In the Central, the Bulls went 7-9 in the makeup games to lose the top seed in the East, falling to No. 2. The second-place Pacers also went 7-9, however, allowing Chicago to hold onto the divisional title.
The Heat dominated their makeup games, going 14-2 to win the Southeast Division by nine games and take the top spot in the East from Chicago. Atlanta went 11-5 to move up from a No. 5 seed to a No. 3 seed.
Overall, the makeup games caused a mild shake-up in the East. The same eight teams made the playoffs, but each of them had a different seeding.
The West saw even less movement as a result of playing the remaining 16 games per team. The eight playoff teams all made it to the postseason after the makeups, and half of them held onto the same seeding, including both top seeds.
In the Northwest Division, Oklahoma City went 11-5 to hold onto first place in the division and its No 2 seed. In the Pacific, the Lakers went just 9-7, but that was enough to extend its lead in the division over the Clippers, who were sub-.500. The Spurs went 13-3 to hold onto home-court advantage through the playoffs and wrap up the Southwest.
With a different top seed in the East, the No. 8 Sixers couldn’t repeat their upset, getting swept by the Heat. The sixth-seeded Knicks had the only upset in the East’s first round, beating No. 3 Atlanta, only to get swept by the second-seeded Bulls in the second round. Chicago moved on and took the Heat — who beat Indiana in the second round — to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, but LeBron, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade survived to hold onto the Heat’s spot in the Finals.
Out West, the higher seeds all won in the first round, with top-seeded San Antonio and No. 2 Oklahoma City both sweeping. The Thunder couldn’t hold onto its spot in the Finals, however, losing to third-seeded Memphis in six games in a second-round upset. The Spurs had another sweep in round two before losing their first game in the Western Conference Finals. San Antonio still won the series, however, topping Memphis in six to meet Miami for the title.
And the Heat became the first champion to hold onto its title in the uncanceled season, beating the Spurs in six to once again give LeBron his first NBA title.
The makeup games had a fairly significant impact on the draft order. Assuming the lottery balls fell the same way, just with different teams in the various seeding spots, we would see a new home for Anthony Davis. Instead of going to New Orleans with the top spot, he would become a Detroit Piston. Third overall pick Bradley Beal would have been bound for Cleveland, instead of Washington, while sixth pick Damian Lillard would be available for Sacramento, instead of Portland.