Monday, November 30, 2020

NBA Playing With a Popped Bubble

By Jonathan Lowe

No matter where you go across this country, the sentiment is pretty universal that 2020 has been a hell of a year. From the pandemic to the protesting to the election, the structure associated with a "more normal" year has been scattered like a deck of cards thrown from a Lazy Susan. If there's one through line between this calendar's headlines, it's sports.

I know most people are sick of discussing COVID's effect on the athletic events we love to watch. I've already covered the subject twice over the ongoing college football season. However, there's no bigger storyline to any sports season than Now, it's the NBA's turn to deal with the virus ... again.

The Orlando bubble ended up being a success. The Association was able to rush through the eight-game restart and the postseason without any virus interruptions. This time, though, the plan will mirror those of the MLB, NFL, and referenced NCAA football. No bubble. No controlled environment. No confinement.

The league's management released its safety standards for the upcoming campaign. There's anticipation of issues heading forward. Question is, how will they handle inevitable issues? Will teams with concentrated outbreaks be segregated out to deal with those problems (i.e., the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals)? How much will the league plow through some of the hotspots (see the near disasters from the Tennessee Titans and, most recently, the Baltimore Ravens)?

There's certainty in the fact that the NBA schedule will be unique for the 2020-2021 season. How many steps, though, need to be added for the league to get from usual "Point A" (opening tip of the season) to usual "Point B" (the lifting of the Larry O'Brien trophy)?

Pro sports have been run very different from college athletics. I don't expect the mass run of postponements and cancellations that have run roughshod through the NCAA football season and the very beginning of its latest basketball effort. But I'm not sure that the NFL model is the way to go for the Association.

The initial step will be the release of the league's "first-half" schedule later this week. I'm intrigued to see the layout, including the back-to-backs, the scheduled off days, and the logistics of road trips.

On the court, this odd circumstance only builds on the pool of questions I'd be asking in a more standard season.

* With some upgrades to their bench, are the Lakers the clear favorites to win a repeat title?
* Will James Harden and/or Russell Westbrook leave Houston?
* Have the Celtics hit their ceiling? (And what's up with big-time players opting for other pastures?)
* Is the Eastern Conference as wide open as we believe it is?
* Will the Nets actually be better once Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving return to the court?
* Which new coach builds some early momentum with a hot start?

However, because of COVID-19's extended, unfettered stay, other questions have to grab our attention, as well.

* How much more widespread will load management be, especially early on?
* Will LeBron miss any time due to the shortened offseason (made so by the title run)?
* How much leeway will be created to allow for "pandemic pauses" prior to vaccine approval?
* What can we expect, production-wise, from this year's rookie crop?

This is the first time an NBA regular season won't reach 82 games since the strike-shortened campaign of 1998-1999. The reasoning for that was quite simplistic. This time, reasons are much more complex. I know that, starting December 22nd, the focus will be on hoops. Hopefully, that will be the main focus very soon.

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