The NBA’s “Whole New Game” signs in the arena have been replaced by “Vote” billboards in the run-up to the presidential election, and the Disney Store on campus has shifted from July Fourth decorations to a Halloween theme. Familiar faces on the 1½-mile exercise loop have disappeared one by one, and the butterflies that fluttered all summer have moved on.
After a four-month hiatus caused by the novel coronavirus and a two-month rush of games, the 22 teams that were invited to Florida in July have been whittled down to two: the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat. By Oct. 13, the NBA expects to crown a champion — which seemed unlikely at times during the early months of the pandemic.
When the 2019 NBA Finals opened in Toronto, Commissioner Adam Silver struck a joyous tone and painted a global vision. This year, Silver and deputy commissioner Mark Tatum are speaking cautiously and keeping their focus hyperlocal.
The bubble’s stringent health and safety protocols have worked perfectly, without a single player who cleared quarantine testing positive and without a single game affected by the virus. The NBA has rigorously enforced its protocols, even sidelining a Houston Rockets player during the playoffs for inviting an unauthorized guest to his hotel room.
Yet Silver, who will clear a mandatory quarantine period before attending Game 1 of the Finals on Wednesday in person, told CNN last week that he hangs on the daily test results and that his “favorite emoji has become the fingers crossed one.” Tatum, who welcomed all 22 teams to Disney World with orientation sessions in July and has lived in the bubble for the past two weeks, similarly had no interest in a victory lap.
“We’ve been able to demonstrate a model for how you could operate a business successfully in the pandemic,” Tatum said in a telephone interview Monday. “We’re very proud of that. We’re excited to get where we are, but we still have work to do. The virus is so unpredictable that we can’t have anybody let their guards down. That’s important for us to collectively reinforce. We’re trying to crown an NBA champion, and we have one more series to go. We owe it to the teams, the players, the staff and the employees who have sacrificed so much. We’ve continued to be vigilant.”
That messaging is shared by both the Lakers and Heat, who held only perfunctory trophy presentations in near-empty AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex after they clinched conference championships this weekend. Lakers star LeBron James was all business after reaching the 10th Finals of his career, declaring “job not done” as he returned to the locker room to join his teammates after eliminating the Denver Nuggets on Saturday. Heat star Jimmy Butler was glad to reach his first Finals but said his team was “not satisfied” and focused on “[winning] four more” after knocking out the Boston Celtics on Sunday.
Their war of attrition continues as the bubble around them shrinks. According to league figures, the campus at full capacity received 700 incoming packages per day at its distribution warehouse and needed at least 115 charter buses and vans to transport players, media members and staffers. In total, bubble attendees accounted for approximately 106,000 hotel room nights and went on at least 525 guided lake fishing trips, while players and coaches participated in more than 3,600 virtual media interviews.
But the party is winding down. The Lakers’ elimination of the Nuggets ended TNT’s coverage of the playoffs and prompted a boisterous poolside shindig that lasted past 4 a.m. With fewer games to officiate, the deep referee corps has dwindled. The on-site barbers report that business remains brisk: They have far fewer clients, but the remaining players stop by more frequently because they want to look their best for the larger television audiences watching the biggest games.
“When the players first got here, there was a healthy level of skepticism and curiosity,” Tatum said. “How is this thing going to work and feel? Then there was a settling in and everyone got into routines. Fast-forward and there’s obviously a very different feel on campus now that there are only two teams, but [the Lakers and Heat] are zoned in and energized. They can see the finish line, and they recognize that all that sacrifice over these last few months is for the chance to win an NBA championship.”
In an unexpected twist, the biggest threat to the bubble experience came not from the coronavirus but from player frustration over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. The Milwaukee Bucks’ decision not to take the court prompted a three-day shutdown and tense discussions in which multiple teams expressed a desire to leave the bubble.
Tatum said the players’ feelings on whether to participate in the bubble at all were “very tenuous” in the months before July, and he credited negotiations with the National Basketball Players Association that determined the league’s approach to social justice advocacy with making the bubble possible. Tatum called the three-day shutdown, which featured meetings between NBPA representatives and the league’s Board of Governors, a “well-needed break for everyone to take a breath and refocus” caused by “a combination of frustration, a lack of progress and being here in this campus environment for that amount of time.”
“The key [to resuming play] was the continued engagement, the continued commitment of the players, the league and the NBPA to keep doing what we could to combat systemic racism and deal with the social and racial inequities in this country,” Tatum added. “That ongoing dialogue allowed us to move forward.”
Salvaging the bubble meant big business for both the owners and players, too, given that roughly 40 percent of the NBA’s $8 billion in annual revenue comes from arena-related sources that were not available during the pandemic. The bubble was constructed as a means of pumping out as much content as possible for the league’s television partners — ABC, ESPN, TNT, NBA TV and regional sports networks — and the NBA has aired more than 1,000 hours of game play and 145 nationally televised games during its restart.
While the average television ratings for playoff games dropped this year, there were extenuating circumstances: Many games aired in the early afternoon, the entire restart was at an unfamiliar time on the calendar, and the latter-stage playoff games were competing with the NFL, MLB, NHL, MLS and college football, among other sports that have restarted. The NBA drew more than 5 million viewers each for two Western Conference playoff games, and it added 3.3 million new followers and generated 5.3 billion video views combined across five online platforms — Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube.
Without the bubble’s ability to recoup television revenue and satisfy television agreements, the NBA and its players could have been headed for a labor impasse. The sides must still agree on financial terms that will govern the 2020-21 season, but NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts recently expressed optimism on that front.
“The [financial] impact of the pandemic on our business has been significant,” Tatum said. “Doing this together with the NBPA has been so critical. We had to be partners. [Finishing the season allowed us to] satisfy our television partners. We were able to deliver to them games that won 24 of 33 nights in the adults 18 to 49 [age demographic] and 28 out of 32 nights in the adult male 18 to 49 [demographic]. Those are critical audiences [and] critical programming for our television partners.”
The Lakers and Heat should make a compelling matchup for television networks and fans alike. James is the sport’s most popular player, and the Lakers are the league’s highest-profile team. The underdog Heat makes a natural, if unexpected, foil after knocking off three higher seeds in the East, including the top-seeded Bucks, to reach the Finals. To add a layer of intrigue, the matchup pits James against one of his former teams, which he left in 2014 to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
There were dreamier possible endings, including the long-anticipated Western Conference finals showdown between the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers that never materialized or a hypothetical Finals headlined by James and Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, the back-to-back MVP. More importantly, there were far worse nightmare scenarios that never materialized: deaths, an outbreak that sent teams homes or canceled games, or failing to crown a champion for the first time in league history.
Avoiding those eventualities is cause for champagne, even if it must remain on ice for another two weeks.