Health protocols, risk tolerance, media ethics and social justice will shape the viewing public’s reintroduction to professional basketball. But that’s only the beginning of a long list of unprecedented factors and extenuating circumstances that will complicate life for pundits and prognosticators trying to wrap their minds around the 22-team experiment in Florida.
Start with the timeline. If regular season games begin July 31 as expected, the NBA would have endured a 142-day stoppage since Silver suspended play March 11. That’s longer than a typical offseason: Only 131 days passed between the last game of the 2019 NBA Finals and the start of the 2019-20 season.
During a normal summer, players are free to travel for pleasure, rest, work with trainers, play five-on-five, participate in group activities with their teammates and gradually ramp up for training camp. The coronavirus has made those activities difficult, if not impossible; players have been held in limbo, kept indoors and barred from team facilities for months.
The sharp break from the traditional calendar should raise concerns about choppy play, conditioning, fitness and increased risk of injury. Some teams and players are likely to have accrued advantages based on access to home gyms or weight rooms. Houston’s James Harden and Denver’s Nikola Jokic look noticeably slimmer in social media posts, but there are bound to be others on the opposite side of the scale. Ditto for major health issues, too: Portland is expected to welcome back Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins from long-term injuries, while Utah will be without Bojan Bogdanovic after May wrist surgery.
The format presents challenges of its own. Each team will play eight additional games before a possible play-in round for the eighth seed in each conference. Plenty of attention has been paid to the possibility of a projected lottery team, such as Portland or New Orleans, sneaking into the playoffs, but the extra regular season games will play an even greater role in determining the playoff matchups by sorting out standings battles.
If the NBA had skipped straight to the playoffs, teams could have used June and July to prepare for specific opponents. Instead, there’s only uncertainty. In the Eastern Conference, Indiana and Philadelphia are tied for the fifth seed, while Brooklyn and Orlando are separated by a half-game for seventh. Out West, Utah, Oklahoma City and Houston are separated by just one game for fourth, while three other teams seeking a play-in opportunity are virtually tied for ninth. Given all of those undecided races, no team headed to suburban Orlando can feel confident knowing its first-round matchup, much less its path to the title.
Although staging the playoffs at a single-site campus without fans was a no-brainer from a health standpoint, using an empty, neutral venue will fundamentally alter the dynamics of a seven-game series. The higher seed won’t have home-court advantage to stake an early 2-0 lead or to close things out in Game 7. The lower seed can’t look forward to the typical Game 3 energy boost. Teams with rabid fan bases can’t count on their crowds to influence referees, boo opponents or egg on runs by celebrating big plays.
The officials are another can of worms entirely. Will referees call more fouls because they can hear every slap of the wrist? Or will they call fewer because players will be less likely to hunt calls and play to the crowd? Will there be more technical fouls because every complaint and confrontation will be impossible to avoid? Or will there be fewer because there’s no crowd to increase the tension?
Unresolved Lincoln-Douglas debates like those abound. Will more experienced teams be better prepared to adapt to these new surroundings, or will younger teams be able to get up to speed more quickly? Will pure talent win out in a pick-up-like atmosphere, or will chemistry prove decisive as teams shake off rust?
Will shooting specialists who are more proficient at home than on the road perform better or worse at a neutral site? Will the bubblelike environment help teams focus on basketball, or will it lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation? Will the public apply an asterisk to the champion because of the unprecedented circumstances, or will it award extra credit for overcoming so many fresh obstacles?
There is a level of discomfort to mulling these questions, knowing that a positive coronavirus test could shake the entire playoff landscape, that a string of positive tests could cease play and that the country is enduring one of its most fraught moments in decades as protests continue.
But for some, there is a genuine thrill that accompanies the competitive unknowns that are baked into the experience. With so many aspects of game play affected, virtually every piece of conventional wisdom from October through March must be reconsidered.
If sports were easy to forecast, there wouldn’t be much point to watching. In that vein, the most compelling reason to watch these playoffs is that they will be the least predictable in NBA history.
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