THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
It seems a lifetime ago since Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert’s test for the coronavirus came back positive mere minutes before tipoff of the team’s game against the Thunder in Oklahoma City on March 11th.
Gobert had mocked measures enacted to address concerns about the spread of the virus just two days earlier by purposely touching all of the microphones and recording devices at a post-game press conference. It was a move that proved the height of folly, as once his positive test results came out, it exploded like a bomb throughout the sporting world. The teams were called off the court that night in Oklahoma and the game was cancelled. Within days, the NBA, and all sport leagues, were on lockdown, as was the rest of the world. We haven’t seen a game since.
The world is a different place now, and everyone is trying to figure out how much of our lives we can reclaim. The NBA announced on Friday that they had come to an agreement with the Players Association to finish the season, but it is not NBA basketball as we know it. No. To finish the 2019-20 season, the NBA is going to Disney World.
The How and the When
So how is that going to work? Well, 22 of the 30 NBA teams are going to cordon themselves off in Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Florida. Rather than invite all 30 teams to finish out the season, the decision was made to bring in the 16 teams that were in the top 8 playoff positions in both conferences at the time of the lockdown, plus any other team within six games of 8th place, who might conceivably be able to make a charge at the final playoff spot.
That translates to an additional five teams in the Western Conference (Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio and Phoenix), and just one (Washington) in the East.
The 22 teams will play a final eight regular season games over a two-week stretch to determine the final seedings for the playoffs. But there is a wrinkle: if any team is within four games of the 8th playoff spot at the end of the regular season games, there will be a play-in. The lower ranked team must defeat the no. 8 seed twice to knock them out and take their spot in the playoffs. The team holding the 8th spot would only need to win one game to see off the challenge and advance to the playoffs proper. Simple, right?
Once the eight playoff teams in each conference and their final seedings are determined, the playoffs begin under the regular playoff format (seed 1 meets 8 and 2 plays 7 etc. in best-of-seven series to advance to the next round).
The first of the regular season games are tentatively scheduled for July 31, with Game 7 of the NBA Finals, if things get that far, being played on October 12.
So it looks like we have the how. The question now is the what. What it all means for the league, the teams, the players and the fans alike.
The Wide World of Sports complex is a sprawling 220-acre multi-sport facility which will soon become the center of the basketball universe. Three arenas can be configured into 20 basketball courts, allowing for multiple games to be played at the same time, while still leaving room for teams to practice.
Players, coaches, referees and staff will be housed in hotels within Disney World where they will be sealed off from the outside world and tested daily to create a protective bubble from the coronavirus. Anyone showing a positive test result will be isolated, but plans are for the games to go on, regardless.
Obviously, there are risks that the virus could still disrupt the best laid plans. What happens if there is a sustained outbreak of multiple cases? No one knows the answer to that now. But with the league, teams and media partners starved for the revenue which even games only available on television will generate, and fans starved for any sports action, Commissioner David Silver and co. have decided it’s worth a shot.
As for the games themselves, they will be held without fans in the seats. Atmosphere? Gone. Home-court advantage? Out the window. This most likely will impact the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks in particular, as they have worked hard all season to lock up the top seeds and benefit from home cooking throughout the playoffs. There has been talk of giving teams some recognition for their regular season success by giving them an extra foul or coaches challenge, but that is looking unlikely. What is certain is that the No. 1 seed has nowhere near the clout it did pre-Covid.
The eight games leading up to the playoffs now becomes not about chasing home-court advantage, but manoeuvring for first-round playoff matchups. Currently in the Western Conference, just two games separate seeds 3-6.
One team that could well benefit from the situation is the Los Angeles Clippers, who always play second fiddle to the Lakers at the Staples Center, and would doubtless in normal circumstances have faced Laker-leaning crowds even for ‘home’ games in any potential playoff matchup between the teams.
With reigning NBA Finals MVP Kwahi Leonard a proven playoff force of nature, able to put a team on his back, and a deep and versatile lineup that looks ready to handle multiple scenarios and matchups, the Clippers look like they could be a team ready to thrive in the Disney bubble.
Zion Play-in Mania
Of the play-in scenarios for the 8th playoff spot, fans will be zoning in particularly on rookie Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans as they set their sights on fellow rookie (and presumptive Rookie of the Year) Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies, who currently occupy the final playoff slot in the Western Conference.
The Pelicans only need to maintain their 3.5-game deficit to the Grizzlies to force a play-in. Williamson has been a force of nature since getting a dodgy knee sorted out over the latter parts of the season before the break, showing off a breath-taking array of spin moves, finger rolls, alley-oops and a feathery outside shot while putting up Jordanesque rookie numbers (23.6 PPG while making 58.9% of his shots). Fans are slathering to get more of Zion mania, and assuring his participation in Orlando most likely factored into the 22-team scenario, rather than, as some had pushed for, jumping straight into the playoffs based on the existing standings.
Should Zion find a way to surmount the obstacles and get the Pelicans into the playoffs, a first-round matchup with LeBron James and the Lakers would most likely await. Who wouldn’t want to see how that played out (other than Grizzlies fans)?
Rust and Healing
A competitive break of nearly five months in the middle of a season is an unprecedented situation for everyone involved. There were 109 days between the day the Raptors lifted the Larry O’Brien trophy in June 2019 and the start of the 2019-20 preseason. 142 days will have passed between March 11 and July 31, and some players (reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo included) didn’t even have a hoop to shoot at during much of the lockdown.
Even with roughly a month of training planned before the real games kick off, players will struggle to be in game shape. There will be zero time to develop rhythm, cohesion or form before games kick off in unfamiliar venues in front of empty stands. There is also a clear risk of injuries as players work themselves into game shape by playing actual games. Expect plenty of fouls, violations, missed shots and errant passes, at least for the first games.
That said, players who were battling injuries before the break have had months to heal. Teams like the Thunder, 76ers and Bucks will benefit greatly from getting key players healthy for a playoff run, but every player in the NBA picks up and deals with nagging injuries and fatigue as the season wears on. At least initially, everyone will be fresh to face the playoff grind.
The NBA currently plans to open training camp for the 2020-21 season roughly a month after the final playoff game in Orlando. Whichever team loses the NBA Finals this October will not only narrowly miss out on a ring, but will have little time to recuperate before gearing up for a new season.
No Asterisk Required
With so much of the season being lost, it has been suggested that the winner of this season’s title will gain possession of a tainted trophy. But somehow it feels like the hurdles that team overcomes might just come to embody the hurdles we’ve all had to face in order to come through the unprecedented challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis.
Teams will have to handle the stress of being away from home for months, isolated from friends and family, daily testing, strange conditions playing in front of empty seats, disruption to life and routine. A situation that literally no team or player has ever had to face before.
It is going to be crazy, it’s going to be unpredictable; there will be shocks and surprises, players and teams no one expected rising to the challenge, and those we least expected tripping up along the way. I’d hate to be setting the odds on what is going to happen because it feels like absolutely anything could happen.
But any team who can overcome everything that this year has thrown at it and still persevere will need no asterisk next to their names in the record book, unless it is to point out the mountains that had to be climbed to get there. Rather than being tainted, this year’s title could end up being the most valuable and coveted ever.
Here’s hoping everything goes off as planned, that sports can come back in a post-covid world and give every fan something to cheer for as we start to emerge from dark and trying days.