Four months after the NBA became the first North American professional sports league to close its doors as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Association is back. Despite the chaos of the times, the NBA and the players’ union agreed to reconvene at Walt Disney World for an eight-game addendum to the interrupted campaign, two potential play-in tournaments and a (relatively) traditional postseason.
A total of 22 teams saw their playoff aspirations renewed with the decision to return: the top 8 from each conference back when the League stood still and an additional half dozen that were within six games of sneaking in. The remaining eight teams will watch like the rest of us, from the comfortable confines of self-isolation.
The ambitious bubble plan, including a March Madness-esque carousel of games through the first two weeks of August, gives teams and players an opportunity to take care of their unfinished business. It gives the League a much-needed opportunity to recuperate lost television revenue, too, an essential component of the basketball-related income that benchmarks like the salary cap and luxury tax threshold are tied to.
The NBA’s return plan is experimental and unprecedented—we’re about to watch the biggest games of the season unfold without fans in attendance, across the backdrop of a global pandemic and a massive social justice movement—but basketball is back and that’s a small victory for everyone.
Questions About the Restart
How will playing in the bubble, with no fans or home court advantage, impact the games?
With no fans present in the bubble, home court advantage will be nonexistent in the 2020 NBA playoffs. The great equalizer—so to speak. If there is one team that probably benefits the most from this, it’s got to be the Los Angeles Clippers. If the brackets align the way they’re shaping up to, the Lakers and Clippers could meet in the Western Conference finals (ESPN’s BPI says there is a 31 percent chance of that happening). In a pre-COVID world, that’d mean all games would be held at STAPLES Center, where Lakers fans usually pack the house even when the NBA schedule officially has it down as a Clippers home game. After all, Southern California is predominantly Laker Nation. The Clippers would’ve never had a true home game in a series against the Lakers. The global pandemic may have tipped the scales.
How seriously will the bottom seeds take the Orlando format?
For the teams invited to the bubble without a realistic shot at making the playoffs, the goal will be to get experience for young players without risking injuries to their stars. Look for the Suns, Wizards and Spurs to treat the season resumption like an early Summer League. The Grizzlies, Pelicans, Blazers and Kings will be fighting for the 8-seed in the West, with Memphis having a 3.5-game head start. Portland is looking to salvage a disappointing season, while MEM, NOLA and SAC stand to gain valuable big-game experience.
What will be the effects of a four-month quarantine on the level of play?
There’s no denying that the layoff—a longer layoff than the typical offseason—will have a substantial impact on the basketball we see in Orlando. For the most part, however, the effects of the reduced training camp will be felt evenly across the board. Perhaps the energy level starts lower as teams play themselves into game shape in the seeding round. Some teams, nonetheless, will still come out ahead—like the Philadelphia 76ers now that Ben Simmons has returned to full health. Others, like the Washington Wizards, who lost Bradley Beal to lingering shoulder issues, will have to adapt to life without players that were otherwise available before the shutdown.
What is life in the bubble like for players off the court?
If you really want to know the answer to this question, follow guys like JaVale McGee and Matisse Thybulle, who have been vlogging their daily off-court experiences. We’ve also had multiple players take over SLAM’s Instagram account and give us a behind-the-scenes look at the Disney World campus. On social media, we’ve seen revamped hotel rooms, including elaborate video game set-ups and mini recording studios. Donovan Mitchell has already dubbed himself the “best ping pong player in the bubble.” Other available activities: swimming, golfing, fishing, bowling, tennis and bike riding. Keep your eyes peeled for more incredible content coming out of Orlando.
Should the championship have an asterisk next to it?
Whoever ends up raising the Larry O’Brien trophy in October should have an asterisk next to their team name. Not because this title will be cheap or unwarranted; but because this will be, perhaps, the most difficult and trying championship race we’ll ever see. The dudes that earn the jewelry will have fought through a pandemic, social upheaval and the passing of a multi-generational basketball hero. So absolutely, throw an asterisk next to ’20 in the record books. This one’s reserved for the strongest group of players out there.
How will players use the platform of the NBA restart to advocate for social justice?
Avenues for change are numerous. And as they’ve proven time and time again, NBA players are leading the way. Some are replacing the names on the backs of their jerseys. Some are going to write messages on their sneakers. Some will undoubtedly use national media interviews as a platform to educate the masses. One thing’s for certain; these players will continue to speak up for what’s right and speak against what’s wrong.
SLAM’s Bubble Awards
*These award predictions are just based on performances in Orlando*
CHAMPS: Los Angeles Lakers
Yes, the Clippers are now well-rested, while the Lakers will be without a couple of their most important pieces—Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo (’til the end of August, at least). Then you got the Bucks, who are also among the favorites to win it all, according to Vegas. At the end of the day, though, a very eager LeBron James is not one to bet against. Despite being down a couple of players, the team still has plenty of championship experience on its roster. And LeBron has certainly done more with a lot less in the past.
MVP: LeBron James
It’s hard to imagine an athlete better equipped to handle the League’s unconventional return to action than LeBron James. Virtually every hurdle that could negatively affect player performance in the bubble doesn’t apply. James’ unparalleled physical conditioning leaves him particularly well-suited for the return and his years of playoff experience afford him the invaluable discipline to remain focused under such unusual circumstances. Scariest of all? He’s got every reason to be as hungry for a title as he was in March.
BEST NEW KICKS: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nike Zoom Freak 2
White columns twinkled with sunlight on a blazingly hot day in Athens back in June of 2019. Nike had taken over the Zappeion, a landmark in Greece’s capital, for the launch of the Zoom Freak 1, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s debut signature sneaker. Antetokounmpo, through an unbreakable smile, showed the world his kicks under an unforgiving sun. He’ll show the world his second sneaker, the Freak 2, under the bubble this summer. A decoupled outsole built specifically for his Euro Step highlights his sophomore silhouette, along with a forefoot Air unit, an exaggerated Swoosh and multiple callouts to his family.
BEST FITS: Kyle Kuzma and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
It’s not too difficult to predict who the NBA bubble’s fashion kings will be—it’s going to be the same guys who were getting fits off on their own in quarantine without the help of arena photographers. Kyle Kuzma and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t let the pandemic falter their Instagram grid—both of them might’ve actually posted more during quarantine. If there are guys comfortable with getting a fit off at any time and in any place, it’s these two. Don’t count out Troy Daniels, though—he had two Instagram pictures up from the bubble (word to self-timer flicks) before any other player posted even once.
BIGGEST BREAKOUT: Bam Adebayo
Just this past season, Bam Adebayo became an All-Star and a SLAM cover star. Adebayo isn’t a breakout player candidate in the strictest sense—well-known among hoop fans since his days as a top-10 HS recruit—but Bam has a chance to boost his overall profile tremendously in Orlando. Since becoming a full-time starter, he’s taken on a larger role while remaining an efficient offensive player. He’s a good passer who fits perfectly in Miami’s dribble-handoff-heavy offense. He’s an excellent finisher and draws a ton of fouls but is still just scratching the surface of what he’s capable of offensively. Add the fact that Bam can legitimately lock down any position 1-5, and it’s easy to see why he’s become the fulcrum of Miami’s success.
UNSUNG HERO: Robert Covington
The Houston Rockets experimented with an unconventional small-ball lineup before the break and that hasn’t gone anywhere over the course of the hiatus. Foundational to Houston’s success using Mike D’Antoni’s latest concept roster is trade deadline acquisition Robert Covington. Covington’s defensive versatility allows Houston to get away with starting the 6-5 PJ Tucker at center, which opens the floor for James Harden and Russell Westbrook. The team’s superstar duo will dominate if the strategy works, but don’t sleep on the critical component that allows it all to happen.
SUBSTITUTE PLAYER MVP: JR Smith
Sharpshooter Jamal Crawford will definitely get his buckets for the Nets, but they aren’t likely to make any noise in the playoffs. The veteran Luc Mbah a Moute is a solid addition to Houston’s small-ball rotation. But we picked the Lakers to win it all, and we’re hoping for at least one JR Smith game on their journey to the top. With Avery Bradley opting out of the restart and Rajon Rondo sidelined due to injury, the road is paved for others to step up. JR hasn’t suited up this season but has experience playing alongside LeBron and can get hot in a hurry. Oh yeah, and he’s completely fearless. Let’s get it.
Cover by Tyson Beck.
Photos via Getty.