ORLANDO, Fla. -- With over 350 players on 22 teams gathered in one city and at one theme park that’s been magically transformed into one basketball ecosystem, everyone’s asking one question today:
How did we get here?
The orange basketball has taken its share of strange bounces throughout the 74-season history of the NBA, none loopier than the series of ricochets that began last fall and will continue into this fall. The crowning of the next NBA champion, therefore, will elicit a pair of celebrations -- one of joy for the victors, one of relief for the league’s improbable journey.
The restart of the 2019-20 season, which endured a four-month pause caused by coronavirus, will officially launch Thursday evening inside a pair of small gyms at Walt Disney’s Wide World of Sports. Normally occupied by youth sports teams that flock to Disney in summertime, they’ve been tricked out to specifically meet the new requirements for a new world and what the NBA is marketing as a Whole New Game.
And so, sometime in early October, the Larry O’Brien Trophy will be hoisted in a place without fans, little fanfare and by players who’ll be excused for violating the social distance rule in order to give each other much-needed hugs.
“I’m excited about giving the world something to be excited about,” Rockets star James Harden said. “Just some joy and something to look forward to.”
If the end-game seems complicated, the starting line was rather mundane back in late September, shortly after training camps started.
'A difficult year'
Amazingly, what passed for “news” then was a short-lived rap feud between Blazers star Damian Lillard and retired Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal. Imagine if the only wreckage in the 2019-20 season was confined to lyrics and a diss track.
Instead, drama and headlines only intensified from there. The league found itself in a social bind when Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for Hong Kong while his team and others toured China for exhibition games. Because the NBA and a handful of stars have business ties with China, commissioner Adam Silver had to stomp brush fires while also toeing the line for free speech, which is encouraged within the NBA. Silver later admitted the entire episode cost the NBA hundreds of millions in revenue and placed future China trips and business dealings in jeopardy.
And that was only the start of a big money drip.
When the season began, it did so without a precocious and much-celebrated No. 1 draft pick. Zion Williamson had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and skipped the first three months, denying the NBA and its TV partners a rookie whose sizzle didn’t arrive until he made his debut in mid-January, better late than never.
Other injuries combined to thwart a fully functional league: Stephen Curry, Paul George, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving, Blake Griffin and also Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, both done for the season following surgery last summer.
Then, former commissioner David Stern passed in winter. Stern was the basketball lord who oversaw great change in the NBA as the league experienced a massive popularity leap and an influx of foreign-born players under his watch.
That was followed shortly after by the death of Kobe Bryant from a helicopter crash. The tragedy, which also claimed the lives of all passengers onboard including his young daughter Gigi, hit the NBA family hard.
Downtown Los Angeles and especially outside Staples Center became a group therapy site, attracting thousands.
“In that sense, it was a difficult year,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “It was all very sad, but everybody just buckled down to do their job even though there was a lot of sadness, angst, just part of what we all go through in our lives. All along and every step of the way, the NBA showed great fortitude in dealing with whatever came up.”
All of that would be enough to fill an entire season or maybe two. Instead, the 2019-20 season literally split in two, when a positive COVID-19 test by Jazz center Rudy Gobert on March 11 prompted Silver to postpone the season, with no guarantees of a continuation.
“All I know is we’re in Sacramento getting ready to go out and play a game that night and all of a sudden the season shuts down,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry. “We get on a plane at midnight and fly back home and next thing I know, not just the country, but the world was closed down. Life changed.”
An unlikely restart becomes reality
While science threw the world for a loop, Silver and his NBA elves mapped plans for a restart -- only if all the participants could do so safely. With input from the Center for Disease Control and the TV partners, Silver devised a way to bring 22 teams together under one umbrella at Walt Disney World to decide the 16 playoff teams and then recognize a champion. It was a daunting effort that also required cooperation from the player’s union and state officials in Florida, where the virus raged, and took months to complete. It also took guts. But with billions of dollars at stake and also history -- the league has never not completed a season -- the motivation was heavy.
“We want to get back to work, and by that I mean everyone,” Popovich said. “We all want to do what we’re all used to doing. We want to do as much as we can safely do to energize the country, play the game we all love, and as long as we can do it safely, it’s a big win for everybody.”
The Disney compound includes hotel ballrooms used as practice facilities, with playing courts trucked in from Miami and Indiana and the Orlando Magic headquarters just up the highway. Testing is conducted daily, not only among players and coaches, but referees, PA announcers, TV technicians, statisticians, media, ballboys and ballgirls and anyone else associated with the operation. Teams are housed in Disney hotels, on separate floors. Nobody unauthorized is allowed on property. Nobody has permission to leave unless for family emergencies.
With the Pelicans vs. Jazz (6:30 p.m. ET, TNT) and Clippers vs. Lakers (9 ET, TNT) set to begin the seeding game portion of the restart, the NBA creeps forward, fingers crossed, hoping to pull off a feat that was steep back in spring.
“I had no doubts we’d be back playing basketball this season,” Gentry said. “I know the NBA. I know Adam and his guys and the people who work in that office and I knew they’d find a way to get it done. Not only would they find a way to get it done, but it would be under the healthiest atmosphere you could possibly be under.
“You think about it, we’ve been down here for almost three weeks and they’ve had no positive tests. So obviously the way they arranged this thing couldn’t have been better.”
There’s nothing major at stake during the eight-game seeding-game portion of the restart schedule except for the final playoff spot in each conference, mainly the West, where the Blazers, Pelicans and Kings have the most realistic shot at stealing eighth place from the Grizzlies. Once that’s decided, the championship chase will commence with intrigue lurking all over.
Last we left, the Lakers and Bucks reigned, led by dueling Kia MVP candidates LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. A handful of other contenders, though, used the hiatus to pounce on regaining full health and will bring revamped lineups to toss at the conference-leading favorites.
Pre-hiatus, Jayson Tatum went next level for the Celtics, Ben Simmons shifted to point-forward (with success) for Philly, Kristaps Porzingis was developing a firmer bond with Luka Doncic in Dallas and, of course, Williamson instantly put his stamp on the Pelicans by scoring 20 or more points in 16 of his 19 games since returning from injury.
... We’ve been down here for almost three weeks and they’ve had no positive tests. So obviously the way they arranged this thing couldn’t have been better.”
Given all that, and the unpredictability of how the layoff affected each team, the NBA pecking order might shift from where it was pre-hiatus.
“Everyone came here to win, and yet we’re so blessed to be in this situation, to be with each other and go out there and do what we do,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said.
The idea to house 22 teams together is creating fringe benefits. There’s a spirit of cooperation, not only among teammates, but teams. With regular routines shattered and home lives disrupted at least temporarily, players and coaches only have each other.
“During the season,” said Sixers center Joel Embiid, “it’s kinda hard to get together. People have families and stuff to do. Being inside the bubble is different. We don’t have anything to do. I don’t like to be outside, it’s too hot for me. So I stay inside with my teammates. We’ve done a lot together and I think It’s helped us a lot and we’ve gotten closer.”
Lopez agreed and added: “You create relationships and bonds that you haven’t created before.”
The league is trying to recreate the presentation of the game on the fly. There’s no blueprint for this, for playing without fans, so the game will be made-for-TV, with unique camera angles and electronic boards surrounding the court to simulate energy and enthusiasm and place “fans” in the seats virtually. Almost video-game-like.
Being inside the bubble is different. We don’t have anything to do. I don’t like to be outside, it’s too hot for me. So I stay inside with my teammates. We’ve done a lot together and I think It’s helped us a lot and we’ve gotten closer.”
It’ll make for a new experience, especially for players and coaches who’ll hear the game like they’ve never heard it in the NBA before, with squeaking sneakers and shouted instructions ... and no jeering while preparing to shoot free throws.
“All the ideas from the league are ridiculously creative,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, “and I couldn’t say enough good things about the way they’ve set up those courts. We’re all blown away by the setup.”
Players admitted to feeling awkward at least initially during the scrimmages but being jolted back to normalcy not long after the opening jump.
“Doesn’t matter what happens outside the lines,” said Antetokounmpo, “you lose yourself in the game. As we play more, we’ll get used to it.”
Do the players have a choice? Does anyone? Steered off-course by a virus, the NBA was confronted with a challenge in a season of several. This is the path the league took, to rally instead of surrender, to turn creative and be proactive, to save the season and by extension, the game.
There are no guarantees the league will reach the finish line, but all signs are encouraging, to the extent that if the NBA doesn’t crown a champion and finish what it started, it will be a surprise.
“The league’s done a great job of preparing us here in Orlando,” Popovich. “It’s probably the safest place in the world. Everybody’s brought in, being very diligent regarding the rules, trying to take care of each other so we can pull this off.
“None of us have the answer as to why we’re at this point. Things happen in our lives all the time, that are unexpected, things that we have to deal with. Obviously this is very disruptive but there’s only one choice, to deal with it, be wise about it, make the best of it and move on.”
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