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Like its time in bubble, NBA embarks on more uncharted waters in 2020-21

The unique start to the 2020-21 season has been hectic for coaches and players around the league.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Coaches like Doc Rivers will have limited time to get their teams prepared for the season.

Any season branded with “2020” into its name is bound to be different.

Challenging. Unpredictable. Filled with surprises, frustrations and disappointments.

And we’re not even talking about the basketball yet.

Embarking on the 2020-21 NBA season feels a little like what Magellan, Da Gama and Columbus must have faced back in the 15th and 16th centuries’ Age of Discovery. You take crude maps and faulty telescopes into a sea of unknowns, round up the bravest crews you can find and load up 30 ships, knowing all the while only one will return to port when the adventure is over.

In the NBA, if that attrition is the result of familiar competition crowning a championship team next summer, hey, mission accomplished. If it’s more the result of viral contagion, then maybe not so much.

“We talked about it [Monday],” Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said in a Zoom session this week, “embracing the unusual circumstances to get a chance to play the game we love is certainly totally worth it and something we look forward to, no matter when the season starts and how much time we’ve had off.”

Most teams had more time off in the midst of last season than they’ve had now between seasons. For the Lakers and the Heat, it’s been about seven weeks – which would be like starting in early August after a traditional Finals.

Denver coach Michael Malone called this “the shortest offseason in the history of pro sports.” And his Nuggets don’t have the same continuity as in recent seasons, adding seven players to their roster.

“Today is the first day of training camp,” Malone said Tuesday. “All individual workouts. We have ‘Track 1, Track 2.’ We have ‘Tier 1, 2 and 3.’ We have so many groups and tracks and tiers, I don’t even know what the hell’s going on half the time. I can tell you this: Our first team practice on Dec. 6 will be the first day that most of our new teammates will meet their current teammates. That’s crazy. And then we have our first preseason games six days after that.

“Everybody’s going through it. Instead of wasting energy complaining about it, we just have to embrace it.”

From start to finish, 2020-21 is going to be different. The one thing players, coaches, front office staffs and the folks at league headquarters know is that they don’t a whole lot right now.

“What I do know is everybody involved is working daily to try to figure things out,” said Phoenix’s new veteran point guard Chris Paul, who serves as president of the National Basketball Players Association. “Once again, this is uncharted territory. When we played in the bubble, it was something nobody had ever seen. Everyone worked as hard as they could to make that work.

“What we’re doing with all these protocols, the different tests and stuff, never seen it before. I’ll have more answers for you [day by] day.”

The eight teams that weren’t invited into the Orlando bubble restart for seeding games in July, the so-called “Delete Eight,” are on the other end of Malone’s calendar. For them, this has been the longest layoff since the 1998 labor lockout.

New Bulls boss Arturas Karnisovas, eager to get to work since being hired by Chicago last spring, said: “We must acknowledge they have not had NBA competition for close to nine months. The shortened preseason must be factored in, as they throttle up to NBA pace and demand.”

The Bulls and the other seven were permitted in autumn to hold team workouts for a couple of weeks in their “practice bubbles.” But that was camp, not competition.

“It’s hard to tell you positives,” said Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff, “to be honest with you, besides the fact that maybe we’re fresh and well-rested. And maybe we’re hungry because we haven’t played in such a long period of time.”

Bickerstaff is starting his first full season running the Cavs. He got 11 games in, taking over for fired John Beilein, before the league shut down on March 11.

“The drawbacks are what they are,” he said. “We missed that level of competition in the bubble. There are other teams that got to experience something we didn’t get to experience. There are young players who got valuable minutes in that bubble that our guys didn’t get.

“You look at some of the leaps that some teams made – Phoenix, San Antonio, Memphis. They got a lot of valuable experience that we weren’t afforded because we weren’t in the bubble.”

Bickerstaff spoke to reporters on what got transformed from Media Day in a normal year to Media Week. Everything has been presented remotely, replacing the station-by-station mingling for interviews, photo shoots, goofy antics staged for scoreboard videos and more that typically goes on in a crowded practice gym.

And that old joke about overhauled teams needing to pass out name tags never has been more in play.

“Taking a job during this year of COVID is brutal,” said Doc Rivers, who went from fired Clippers coach to hired Sixers coach in about a week. “And then making the changes. We haven’t had a chance to be in a gym with our guys. We can’t even put in our stuff. Nothing. And then you have like a week and a half, and then you’re in action.”

Rivers’ plan for this start-up: keep it simple, staff. “We’re going to simplify things as much as possible,” he said. “It clearly wouldn’t be what I would do if it was normal circumstances. But it is what it is. Teams like Boston and Milwaukee and Miami already have said they had an advantage [with continuity]. We’re fine with that, we just have to make up the deficit and we probably have to do it through work.”

Said Bickerstaff: “It’s the preparation leading up to today – it’s been so different. We normally try to get our guys into town a month prior to training camp. We start our conditioning program, our weightlifting program. Now we’re kind of thrust into things more quickly.”

In this most unusual season, training camps began limited to individual workouts. Group workouts are beginning today in some markets, depending on quarantine timelines. Preseason games will be staged between Dec. 11 and Dec. 19, with each team playing as few as two or a maximum of four.

So this steep ramp and hurried pace to Opening Night on Dec. 22 will be pushing players and coaches mentally as well as physically. As Stevens said about Celtics point guard Kemba Walker’s aching left knee, “I think this has as much to do with the turnaround as anything.”

“If we were starting games in the middle of January,” Stevens said, “he’d probably be starting right along with us and I don’t even know if we’d be talking about it. … The expedited timeline of starting Dec. 1 impacted him quite a bit.”

This is more hectic than the bubble restart, which at least prepared participants for some protocols. “Our guys have great experience coming through, getting tested every day, knowing all the protocols, knowing to always be on the alert to hit curveballs,” Stevens said.

That’s great for battling infectious disease, less so for chasing a high playoff seed.

“If it was a normal training camp, you would already have your checklist and some of them would be checked,” Rivers said. “Like, normal training camp, I’d come in on Day 1 and know who’s in shape and who’s not. COVID training camp, you really don’t know. Right now, all we can do is 1-on-1 stuff. That’s not real basketball conditioning. Someone can look like they’re in shape and not be.

The first thing is, what’s our conditioning level at?” Rivers said. “The reason that’s important is because of injury. You don’t want to be working on something that the guys, literally, physically, can’t maintain.”

Don’t forget chemistry, of the sort the immunologists largely ignore. Insta-camps and insta-seasons can’t necessarily fast-track what comes best from slow home cooking.

The Milwaukee Bucks thrived on their togetherness last season, posting the NBA’s best record (56-17) and managing not to fray when they got bumped out of the playoffs by Miami. Coach Mike Budenholzer has used a variety of team functions in his two Milwaukee seasons, from dinners out to whiffle ball games.

“It will probably test our creativity to figure out ways where we can create those opportunities,” Budenholzer said, “where they get to know each other better, they learn with each other, they appreciate each other, they laugh with each other. And still follow league protocols and everything to stay safe and healthy.

“I do think, on the flip side, there will be more time together. There’s opportunities on the road where we stay closer, we stay tighter on a regular basis. … We’ll find ways.”

Said Bucks All-Star wing Khris Middleton: “That’s one thing we’ve been trying to brainstorm, with the restrictions and staying safe. Last year we used to go out and eat all the time at restaurants and go to movies. This year, I don’t think we can do any of that stuff.”

The season will begin with only three shopping days left before Christmas. Scaling down to 72 games means less in-conference competition. The schedule also might feel a little like baseball, with two consecutive games against the same opponent in the same building. There will be off nights in cities between games, like in the postseason, only with newly limited options for where to eat or what to do.

Remember, this all will be played out against a regimen of virus protocols that are top priority for the NBA. What worked so well in the bubble is over, as evidenced by NBA’s zero positive tests that were the envy of the sports world. In testing last week as players reported to their home markets, 48 tested positive out of the 546 sampled.

So yeah, they’re not in Orlando anymore. With an asterisk for the Toronto Raptors.

“They The North” are down in Gulf-coast Florida. Blocked from operating in their home market by Canada-U.S. quarantine restrictions for parties crossing the border, the Raptors will be based in Tampa for their home games and practices. At least for the foreseeable future.

“There’s a lot of unsettling feelings about having to leave,” coach Nick Nurse said. “It’s not easy to pick up and leave [home] behind. It feels strange.”

That included a temperature of 39 degrees – Fahrenheit – in Tampa Wednesday.

“I know I’d rather be in Toronto but I’m not. Now I’m going to make the best of it here and I’m not going to make any excuses and I’m going to get to work and we’re going to expect to play at a super-high level.”

This is a coach who, when working in England early in his traveled career, coped with a team in Darby that could only afford to book a practice hall two nights a week. And then had to wait for a badminton league to exit the court, his players moving the nets to the side.

That’s not far from the level of improvising and overcoming NBA players will be asked to do this season.

“The conversations that we’ve had with our guys and our staff is, we have to be extremely disciplined but we have to be extremely flexible at the same time,” Bickerstaff said. “We don’t know what tomorrow will look like. We don’t know what two weeks from now will look like. We have to do our part to protect one another and we have to do our part to protect something that’s bigger than ourselves – and that’s this team, this organization and this league.”

Said Rivers, who has been part of the NBA as a player, coach or broadcaster since 1983: “I’m very concerned if we can pull this off. Just watching football – college, Ohio State missing games. Pittsburgh and Baltimore, they can’t even get to a game [the Ravens-Steelers NFL game was delayed six days from Thanksgiving to Wednesday by positive tests]. The difference in football is, they play once a week and they have 1,000 players. So if you miss three or four players, you can still get away with it. If we miss three or four players, we’re in trouble.”

Losing a couple of stars to positive tests and the time required for either quarantine or two straight negative tests could impact playoff chances, Rivers said.

“So that’s a concern,” he said. “Our guys’ health is a concern. As a coach, you want to go [into a season] with your concerns being more basketball. I think every coach’s concerns right now are probably non-basketball.”

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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