HOW THE NBA RETURNS … PROBABLY

Despite the corona virus pandemic and the quest for social change demanding our national and international attention, the NBA has set forth an idea to bring back its games in a magical place that will keep its residents safe and bring back something that has been essentially unessential during these trying times: NBA basketball returns today!

A guide to the NBA resuming its 2019/20 season by BSTN.
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Too long, didn’t read — The Bubble 101

Let’s get the basics out of the way, shall we?

  • The 2019/20 NBA season resumes on Thursday, July 30th
  • 22 teams are invited to the bubble in Orlando, though it should have been just 19
  • Each team will play eight ‘play-in’ games, based on the games left on their schedule before the NBA’s hiatus
  • If a nine-seed is within four games of an eight-seed, those two teams will play a series of play-in games (Aug. 15./16.)
  • To claim the final Playoff spot, the eight-seed will have to win once whereas the nine-seed faces an uphill battle, having to win two consecutive games
  • The Playoffs begin on August 17th
  • The NBA Finals are targeted to start September 30th, with a new champion to be crowned by October 13th

Who’s in?

First and foremost, Zion Williamson. With the rookie phenom limited to just 19 games during his rookie season so far, the eight seeding games will feature the NBA’s newest poster-child front an center. Thanks to a heavily front-loaded schedule, the Pelicans now face a relatively easy bubble schedule as they try to chase down the ninth spot in the West, forcing a showdown with the Grizzlies and fellow rookie sensation Ja Morant.

In addition, numerous players (including the duo of Blazers big men Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins) have used the NBA’s forced hiatus to heal injuries that would have sidelined them for the remainder of the originally scheduled season. While the vast majority of NBA player enters the bubble not only rested but free of injuries lingering from the first part of the season, it has to be noted that a (re-) start to a shortened campaign historically bears some additional risk for players going back to game speed on relatively short notice. Word to Derrick Rose.

Who’s out?

Some of the biggest names that will not participate in the NBA bubble at Disney World due to injuries/illnesses are the NBA’s second leading scorer in Bradley Beal, All Star big man Domantas Sabonis, and most of the Nets’ roster. The matchup between Brooklyn and an equally depleted Washington (professional basketball?) team might be tough sledding even for basketball fans deprived of live action for months.

In addition, several key rotation players including Trevor Ariza (Portland) and Avery Bradley (Lakers) have elected to skip the NBA’s bubble due to various personal reasons and/or health concerns. However, the vast majority of stars and NBA players as a whole are ready to take the field in Orlando, starting on July 30th.

A guide to the NBA resuming its 2019/20 season by BSTN.
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Who’ll make the Playoffs?

While we’re almost certain (91% chance) to see a play-in game in the Western Conference — with Dame Lillard and Portland as well as the aforementioned Pelicans being the strongest contenders — the scenario is far less likely to occur in the Eastern Conference (at only 11%). 15 out of 16 Playoff teams are virtually set.

Who’ll win the championship?

The 2020 NBA championship might be among the toughest titles to win in league history … but it’s still a three-horse-race. Yes, home-court advantage has been eliminated with every team sharing the same fan-less floor at Disney (sorry Phily). Yes, condensed and unconventional schedules may give lower seeds to make a deep post-season run (see the ’99 NY Knicks for example). But roughly 86% of championships were won by the top-2 seeds, an this year will be no different.

However, two factors might play a bigger role for the Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers, the trio that’s heavily favored going into the bubble. Firstly, young legs can play a role as the post-season drags on and the physical strain of playing games almost every other day starts taking its toll on older teams in the later rounds of the Playoffs. (The Lakers and Bucks are the second and third oldest teams respectively, with the Clippers not far behind at nine.) However, a fresh-faced contender like the Celtics is four years younger on average, but also ranks dead-last in NBA experience at only 2,73 seasons played per player.

Secondly, the 2020 will largely depend on the teams’ ability to adapt to the unique challenges that the bubble throws at them (separation from family, less personnel, etc.). Having a battle-tested coach (like Doc Rivers or LeBron James Frank Vogel) on the sideline and the necessary roster depth to counter various lineups from the Warriors-style small ball (not necessarily played by the Warriors this year) to the Nuggets’ all-new very tall ball formation is just as critical as staying mentally sharp despite the unprecedented and isolated environment.

What’s the worst-case scenario?

The NBA reportedly spends 170 million dollars on its Disney magic-filled bubble and has issued a 130-page protocol on corona guidelines. And while the handbook’s mesmerizing level of detail goes as far as recommending to throw out a deck of cards after every two hands played, it does not outline a plot in case numerous people inside the bubble — or, to exaggerate the hypothesis even more, several rotation players on a contender — contract the corona virus.

At this point, one of the NBA’s primary goals, maintaining competitive balance and ultimately crowning a worthy 2020 champion, would clash with its clear-cut primary goal: To recoup as much lost revenue (from ticket sales and most importantly broadcasting fees) as humanly possible. With their back against the financial wall, the NBA has no other choice than to hope that their testing rate stays as impressively low as it has been (zero positive tests until the beginning of the play-in games), because even postponing a Conference Finals or Finals match-up to allow a quarantining period for an affected team (let-alone cancelling the season altogether) would significantly impact the already tight-knit schedule for the 2020/21 season and pile on the losses.

However, reason for skepticism remains …

What could possibly go wrong?

Before the first game has even been played at Disney, we’ve seen players invite outsiders ranging from Uber Eats drivers to female acquaintances to the bubble. In addition, questionable dinner choices have been made leading to extended quarantine time. And while discussion about whether an order of chicken wings can be worth six figures are dominating social media platforms, the bottom line remains that the volatility of the bubble’s effectiveness is challenged constantly.

From J.R. Smith’s IG live stream to philanthropists like Dwight Howard and Michael Porter Jr., the NBA is trying everything it can to keep the bubble as safe as possible. But with family members being invited to join the players making it to the second round of the Playoffs, the challenges are certain to keep on coming.

The bottom line

Ultimately, the NBA is delivering impressive results and has successfully proven that their ambitious strategy of not only creating but maintaining a functioning bubble — so far — is superior to the plans of the other major American sports leagues. And whether their efforts are ultimately justified or not, the NBA might just be able to deliver what so many have been craving for so long: The distraction of live basketball action and the NBA Playoffs. It all starts today!

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