The immediate future of the NBA is here, and it is this:
There will be plenty of time in 2021 to specifically make fun of our dear friends, the Knicks and the Wizards, but what I am saying to you is that this here NBA season will be a banner year for bad basketball. By my own grim standards, those of a Kings-tempered hoops masochist, this is no problem, but for fans of functional teams or those who just want to watch some entertaining hoops, the 2020-21 season is going to feature a higher dosage of bricked jumpers, horrid sequences, and hilariously blown coverages than you are probably used to. Kelly Oubre briefly set a high-water mark for early-season shooting futility, the Heat and Clippers have lost games by 47 and 51 points, respectively, and also a dude dunked on his own basket. Wonky outcomes and birdbrained plays are not exactly rare in a normal NBA season, but the preconditions of this season have us set up for a uniquely corroded standard of play.
As to those preconditions: There’s a pandemic currently reaching terrifying new heights in the United States, and its effects upon televised basketball are predictably strong. In an attempt to shoehorn as legitimate a season as possible in between last year’s never-ending season and the 2021-22 campaign that will almost certainly have fans and the expectations of full revenue returns, the NBA trimmed the schedule by 10 games and condensed the remaining 72. Teams will have more back-to-backs, as well as “baseball style” two-game series against teams. The Heat may have given up an NBA record 29 threes to the Bucks on Tuesday night, but they will have a chance for revenge (not that they’ll need it…) tonight. Visiting a city sporting multiple NBA-approved restaurants with hermetically sealed private rooms? Try them all!
A condensed schedule, like the one that was rolled out in the post-lockout 2011 season with back-to-back-to-backs, would present enough challenges on its own, but the crunch is also taking place after a drastically warped NBA offseason. Teams that went deep in the NBA bubble had nine weeks off, while sewer teams had nine months. Meanwhile, the NBA Draft took place a month before the season, and training camp was shorter than Coachella. There will be plenty of high-level plays amid rough circumstances, but there will also be turnover orgies.
Two straight games in one arena might usually be a ticket sales depressant, a competitive disadvantage for the road team, or both, but not this year, since you can only catch a game in Memphis or Utah and you can only catch a game safely from your couch. Shooting was up in the NBA bubble because sight lines were uniform, but now, players are shooting with nothing but caverns of empty space behind the backboard. Also, playing in an empty gym only for an audience of unblinking TV cameras seems like an extremely odd and off-putting competitive environment. “We thrive so much on the energy of our crowd. I’m not looking forward to it, actually,” Steve Kerr said. “It’ll never be something that’s comfortable, something I can be accustomed to or something that will feel regular,” LeBron James said. “There will be giant arenas with just us in there,” Josh Richardson said. “It’ll probably be a little weird shooting.”
Another effect of a raging plague is that, well, players will get sick. Playing through it relies on COVID-19-infected players escaping the disease’s serious or permanent consequences. That aspect of the problem is still theoretical, but here in the present, the Rockets have already had games postponed. Given the NBA’s smaller roster sizes and the emergence of this extremely alarming more infectious strain of the virus, a schedule-altering event seems likely. The NBA probably knows this, and knows that the only thing that really matters is putting on a full playoffs and crowning a champion before the ’21-’22 campaign, so from a cold business perspective, the projected widespread availability of a COVID-19 vaccine by playoff time is something approximating a season-saving development. What happens before then will be a bit uglier than fans are used to, and the road to the 2021 playoffs will be paved with swing passes to the open official in the corner.