8 Factors in the N.B.A.’s Return That May Upend Expectations
8 Factors in the N.B.A.’s Return That May Upend Expectations
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The N.B.A. was rooting hard for Major League Baseball.
Any league that hopes to return to something resembling standard operations next season was pulling for baseball to flourish in its attempt to stage a 60-game season in which teams allowed players to go home during homestands and travel as they normally do for road trips. M.L.B.’s concept lasted only a few days before a coronavirus outbreak ripped through the Miami Marlins.
The instant crisis left the unmistakable impression throughout the N.B.A. campus at Walt Disney World that a “bubble” approach is the only kind that can work for team sports in the Covid-19 era — at least for the foreseeable future. The N.B.A. hasn’t announced positive tests for anyone on campus who had been released from quarantine, but concern about what baseball’s woes mean for next season is mounting, even amid the relative prosperity of the league’s three-week run in its Florida bubble.
We will be coming back often to the topic of the N.B.A.’s future, but the league’s present, at last, is poised to deliver meaningful basketball that demands our focus. The full force of the N.B.A. restart hits Thursday — 141 days after the Dallas Mavericks secured a 110-97 victory over the Denver Nuggets on March 11 in the last game completed before the season was suspended.
“We don’t know if this is going to work or not, but I think the league has given us every chance for this to work,” Los Angeles Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “If we do it right, we have a shot at it.”
The Clippers will play the Lakers after New Orleans faces Utah on Thursday night, in a doubleheader with games in separate arenas so TNT can televise them back to back without waiting for its main facility at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex to be sanitized.
Anxiety about the coronavirus clearly persists, but there was tangible excitement on campus on Tuesday that games that counted were just two sleeps away. Here are eight big things, among many, that I am eager to see:
I want to see how long it takes before this restart feels like a part of the season that was suspended.
The slogan is #WholeNewGame, seen on countless signs at game venues as a nod to the 22 N.B.A. teams being dumped, as Rivers calls it, into the same, first-of-its-kind “village.” But the signs nag at me because the message could so easily read #WholeNewSeason.
The layoff was long enough that numerous players, coaches and league executives have said it feels like a new season in a lot of ways. That is not a positive, but maybe the camaraderie that teams have established can ultimately help connect the two pieces of the most jagged season in league history.
I want to see a slew of players whose return circumstances are fascinating.
Ben Simmons at power forward for the Philadelphia 76ers, relegating Al Horford to a bench role. New Orleans’s Zion Williamson getting his vengeance for the knee surgery that stopped him from playing on opening night the first time. Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert reuniting after coronavirus-related tensions. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas’s European duo, making their playoff debuts — together. Nikola Jokic, Marc Gasol and Carmelo Anthony all looking so skinny, and making me so envious, compared with how they looked when we last saw them.
Yes, please. I’m ready for all of it.
I want to see (and hear) how much activity and noise come from both benches.
Monitoring bench dynamics has always been a sport within the sport for me. Watching teammates react in concert to special plays is one of the true joys of the down-low seats for reporters that are a rarity in arenas now but were commonplace when I was getting started as an N.B.A. beat writer.
With no fans allowed in bubble arenas, apart from the lucky few who will be invited to log in virtually, bench noise has never been more important in the N.B.A.
I want to see which players and teams have the ability and concentration to thrive without a crowd to fuel them.
My Manchester City fandom is a well-chronicled affliction by now. City may have stumbled recently in the F.A. Cup semifinals against Arsenal, but I have marveled at the team’s ability, with four or more goals in six of 12 games starting June 17, to find its top gear and sustain it without a crowd’s roar.
Generating the energy required to hit those heights in mostly empty buildings will pose a new challenge to N.B.A. teams. We’ve gotten a glimpse of what games without fans look and feel like over a week’s worth of scrimmages, but a better gauge will come when both teams are playing to win rather than experimenting with lineup combinations and managing minutes.
I want to see if the crazy circumstances of the restart legitimately increase the chances for playoff upsets.
I spoke to representatives from two teams, from would-be sleepers in each conference, and received completely different forecasts about the impact of having just three weeks of full-speed practices before stuffing eight games into a 16-day window before the playoffs.
One said that the compact comeback could be a true equalizer. Example: Some league insiders see Portland as a threat to upset the Lakers in a first-round series after welcoming back its previously ailing frontcourt pair of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. The other executive, by contrast, described the eight seeding games all teams must play before the postseason as a lengthy runway that will afford the Lakers, the Bucks and the Clippers time to regain their March form.
I want to see what happens in the playoffs with no travel and no home-court advantage.
Referees, like the players, should be fresher than usual with travel excluded from the postseason equation. Harder to predict is how differently games will be called with no hostile home crowds to heap pressure on the officials.
Another great source of curiosity: How hard will teams scrap in the playoffs after falling behind by 2-0 or 3-1 in a series? It is fair to wonder what sort of momentum swings are even possible when a playoff series, at most, can be played in three different venues but without a true change of scenery.
It is also fair to question whether certain teams’ resolve to try to rally out of a series deficit will erode because of bubble fatigue after being stuck here for weeks.
I want to see all the fretting I’ve been doing about injury risk in the bubble prove to be unfounded.
But here’s the problem: My concerns were largely inspired by fretting from teams about the prospect of injuries caused by the combination of a long layoff and a short ramp-up period. Don’t forget that the league decreed, after players were asked to be back in their home markets June 23, that no five-on-five basketball could take place until teams arrived at Disney World.
Some prominent players are dealing with various ailments, including Portland’s Damian Lillard (foot), Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox (ankle) and Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis (foot). Denver Coach Mike Malone deployed the slimmed-down Jokic as a point guard in a supersize lineup for two scrimmages because the Nuggets have been short-handed all month and were thus fearful of rushing Jamal Murray back from a hamstring injury.
“The biggest concern we have as an organization is guys sustaining some of those soft-tissue injuries, which are most prevalent when you take four months off and you get back to playing at a high level,” Malone said.
See? It’s not just me.
I want to see if we get what so many want: the Lakers against the Clippers in a Western Conference finals derby.
I also want to see if LeBron James can win an N.B.A. title in September. Not even Michael Jordan has done that.
Inside the Bubble
A few highlights and reflections from my second full week inside the N.B.A. bubble:
My favorite scene of the week: The All-Star forward Anthony Davis and his former coach in New Orleans, Monty Williams, unexpectedly crossed paths in the hallway of the Coronado Springs Resort convention center after Davis’ Lakers and Williams’s Suns finished practices at roughly the same time.
They walked, talked and parted with a warm hug after Williams told Davis that some of his children still root for him. It was total luck that I was in the right spot to see their reunion, which also was fortuitously captured by a nearby photographer. The picture ran with our Monday progress report on bubble life.
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at email@example.com. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Q: Richaun Holmes got quarantined for 10 days just for stepping outside to pick up food and you’re telling me that Lou Williams, who went to a strip club, gets the same amount of days? That’s messed up. — @mileee345 from Twitter
Stein: I agree. Williams’s transgression was far worse than what Holmes did, and I don’t think the quarantine is long enough.
But the N.B.A. apparently didn’t have much leeway here. Based on the league’s collectively bargained terms with the players’ union, 10 days is the span for a player to be sent back to quarantine after doing something they’re not supposed to beyond bubble borders.
The league’s exit and re-entry guidelines do contain a provision that allows the quarantine to be extended from 10 days to 14 if a consulting infectious disease specialist assigned to the case recommends it, but it is believed that would only apply if Williams had confirmed exposure to someone who was known to have the coronavirus while he was off campus.
We don’t know that and can’t assume it.
What we do know is Williams displayed terrible judgment here — and not because of where he ended up. Going anywhere in public except for the funeral he had permission to attend, after he had already been in the N.B.A. bubble, would be classified as a needless risk.
It’s a legitimate relief that Williams was photographed. Without the damning evidence of Williams being snapped in an N.B.A.-issued mask that could only be obtained on the league’s Walt Disney World campus, his quarantine upon rejoining the Clippers likely would have been just four days.
Who knows how dangerous that might have been? Williams is a beloved teammate who has won N.B.A. Sixth Man of the Year Award three times, but this was a selfish move in the extreme. Flawed as the approach may be, there is an honor-system expectation that a player who receives permission to leave the bubble will avoid high-risk public places. The league is counting on players in these situations to avoid as much human contact as feasible and get back to the bubble as quickly as possible.
Q: Why did the reporters have to quarantine for a week while the players were only restricted for 36 hours? — Glenn Hutchins
Stein: I thought this distinction had been made clear by now, but I keep getting the question so I will try to clarify it.
Members of the news media traveled to Florida commercially and were not getting regularly tested for the coronavirus in team practice facilities during the two weeks before they arrived. Players, coaches and team staff members began getting tested regularly on June 23 and arrived at Disney World earlier this month either by private plane or team bus.
Q: Watching the first day of scrimmages, I was pleasantly surprised by the generous amount of empty space around the sidelines and baselines. I’ve often thought that players could make good use of that extra space if they were free from the worry of injury incurred from collisions with fans, cameramen and chairs. Do the players like this change? Paul George must be thrilled — Noah Breuer (Little Compton, R.I.)
Stein: Getting accustomed to the extra space on the sidelines is bound to be a challenge for some players, considering the lack of fans or typical benches. The new bench alignment features three rows of socially distanced chairs farther away from the sideline than normal.
But it’s clear that many players are enjoying the empty baselines. That was evident Saturday when the Lakers’ LeBron James dove after a loose ball against Orlando that was already out of reach. He was laughing the whole way back down the floor.
Even funnier was Dennis Schroder’s reaction Sunday when Oklahoma City’s injury-plagued Andre Roberson hit his second of two late 3-pointers in the Thunder’s comeback win over Philadelphia. Schroeder leapt out of the bench area and ran along the baseline to the other side of the court in celebration.
I have missed watching dunks — badly. As a refresher, Utah’s Rudy Gobert was leading the league in dunks this season, with 206, when the season was paused on March 11. Gobert’s nearest pursuer is Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo with 174 dunks, because the Knicks — whose Mitchell Robinson has 185 — are one of the eight teams not participating in the restart.
N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver must register three negative coronavirus tests to gain entry to the league’s reopening doubleheader on Thursday. Silver is required to register two consecutive negative tests before he leaves New York and a negative test upon arrival in Florida before observing the two games (New Orleans vs. Utah and Lakers vs. Clippers) from high above court level at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.
The San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich appears headed for just the second sub-.500 season of his head coaching career. The only way San Antonio can avoid that scenario is by winning all eight of its seeding games and then winning one or two play-in games to qualify for the postseason. The Spurs were 27-36 before the season was suspended and appear likely to miss the playoffs for the first time since 1996-97, when Popovich went 17-47 after firing Bob Hill and taking over.
Don’t forget that since the season was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic the Spurs have lost two starters: LaMarcus Aldridge (shoulder surgery) and Trey Lyles (appendectomy). Popovich seemed to acknowledge the depths of San Antonio’s predicament when he reacted to Lyles’s condition by telling reporters: “For us, in our specific situation, development is more important than anything right now.”
Aaron Stein, my youngest of two sons and my favorite goalkeeper in the world — sorry, Ederson — celebrated his 14th birthday on Monday. And, yes, missing it was a crusher. It’s the hardest part of bubble life, with birthdays also looming for my wife, Rachel, and my oldest son, Alex, while I am away.