Learning to Love the NBA Bubble

After a 140-day break, the NBA is back. And while the circumstances still feel quite bizarre after four and a half months of a pandemic, I'm extremely glad it is.

I have to admit that there have been various times since March 11 that I was ambivalent at best about the league coming back this season. But by the time Friday's superb (and crucial) Blazers/Grizzlies game got to the fourth quarter, I was locked back in. By Saturday, I was watching several games and checking the NBA app as much as I would on a "normal" weekend with two weeks remaining in the regular season.

You'd be a fool to count chickens at this point and assume that nothing can stop the season from concluding. But after two weeks of no positive COVID-19 tests in the NBA bubble, things are promising. Comparing the NBA (and hockey) to MLB, it's clear that controlled bubbles with lots of tests and restrictions on player activities are the only rational, relatively safe ways to conduct professional sports in North America right now.

In my heart, I knew that I would inevitably care about NBA basketball when it restarted. But I also expected to miss the fans being there.

Maybe it's because of a few months of watching soccer, Korean baseball, and Australian rules football without fans or with limited fans present, but I don't miss the fans being there one bit. More than that, I'm wondering if will be several years before big indoor sporting events happen again, and if bubbles will be with us for longer than we expect in basketball.

Since about the second week of March, the only indoor places I've been with more than 10 people present have been grocery stores or drug stores. Even as the pandemic reaches its sixth month of widespread effects in this country, you'd have to pay me a lot of money to get on a flight that's 70% full, much less 70% of a 20,000-seat NBA arena.

After all, a crowded indoor space with people cheering, talking, eating and drinking is essentially a petri dish for COVID-19's spread. A college basketball game in Vermont in March was shown to be a spreading event, mere days after the virus first appeared in the region and in an area much less populated than any NBA market.

The absolute best-case scenario from an immunology perspective is that a vaccine would be available for distribution at the end of the year — around the same period the 2020-21 NBA season is supposed to start. Of course, 100% NBA arena capacity won't just happen immediately after the first few million vaccine doses are administered. It will take months to get half or more of the country vaccinated.

I know you didn't click on this article for epidemiology, so let me just make the last few paragraphs abundantly clear: it's a relative certainty that you won't be attending a truly sold-out NBA (or NHL) game any time before fall 2021. I don't know how it would work with all 30 teams, but we could have an "NBA campus"-type arrangement into next season.

And if the first few days of the bubble are any indication, that will be fine for the NBA fan experience. In fact, it could be just what the league needed.

Through the first few days of the bubble, I've been incredibly impressed with how each and every game looks. The screens and use of space around the court make me forget about the seats altogether. This is in stark contrast to the baseball I've watched over the past 10 days, where the noises of the game and blocks of seats almost give an eerie vibe.

The camera angles are fantastic and the use of non-traditional views supplement the game without feeling gimmicky. Even the superimposed logos on the court, which gave me some pause during scrimmage games, don't seem that odd.

But above all else: this is the best basketball in the world, and the quality of play so far has been tremendous for a 4.5-month layoff. Plus, this is for games that, for all but a handful of teams, will mostly determine playoff seedings/matchups and don't matter all that much in the context of no one having travel or a home court advantage once the real postseason begins. In other words, the intensity is going to ratchet up several notches and defenses will get better in a couple weeks once the playoffs arrive.

To put things mildly, it hasn't been the best year for the NBA. The preseason started with the league bungling the Daryl Morey/Hong Kong situation. TV ratings were consistently down throughout the scheduled regular season, and the death of Kobe Bryant took one of the 15 best players of all-time away too soon.

Of course, one solid week back to play won't replace the mountains of revenue the NBA will lose from not having fans and the resulting salary cap consequences that will fall upon the players' shoulders. But by putting such a TV-friendly product forward in the midst of a terrible pandemic, the league may have found the very best of a bad situation.

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