Utah center Rudy Gobert testing positive for COVID-19 was the first signal that sports would have to shut down. That was less than three months ago, believe it or not. Now the NBA has approved a definitive plan to resume play. That feels like a victory, even if the Hawks won’t be part of it.
Only 22 of the league’s 30 teams will be in a “bubble” at Orlando’s Walt Disney World for the resumption of the season. The tentative start date is July 31. There will be no spectators, and players will be confined to Disney (though “confined” may not be quite the right word for that sprawling campus).
The NBA’s restart plan is as fair as possible to its teams under the circumstances (it passed on a 29-1 vote). It includes the 16 teams in playoff position when play was suspended. The other six teams are within six games of the final seed in each conference. Those buried in the standings, like the Hawks, are out.
From these unusual conditions, the NBA can crown a credible champion. I’ve never been one to totally dismiss the NBA’s regular season, but it probably would be better with less than 82 games. This season will end up being about 72 games. That’s plenty enough to determine which teams belong in the playoffs.
The Hawks (20-47) weren’t close. They’ll be in the draft lottery for the third consecutive year. The NBA said the records on March 11 will determine the odds for the Aug. 25 lottery. That means the Hawks will have a 12.5 percent chance of winning the No. 1 pick, which could be Atlanta native and ex-Georgia star Anthony Edwards.
The circumstances mean this won’t be a real season restart for the NBA. It didn’t take long to realize it wouldn’t be feasible for all teams to play out the full schedule. But the restart’s format should create an intriguing finish for this extraordinary season.
Eight additional regular-season games will create a sprint to the playoffs for the five Western Conference teams chasing Memphis for the final spot. That will be followed by a possible play-in tournament for the final seed in each conference. The postseason will be as normal: four best-of-seven rounds in each conference. The finals will conclude as late as mid-October.
Finishing the season is good for the NBA’s business even if the timing isn’t ideal. The playoffs usually face only regular-season baseball games as real competition for interest. People are thirsty for live sports, but late summer usually is when they start thinking about college football. Now the NBA Finals will compete with college and NFL games that matter (assuming those start on time).
It will be weird to see meaningful basketball in late summer and fall. That usually only happens during the Olympics, but the stakes are lower there (at least for us Americans). Many of the world’s top stars sit out. Now we’ll see the world’s best (healthy) players in important games during late summer.
LeBron James can win his fourth title with his third franchise, the Lakers. After winning a championship for the Raptors last season, Kawhi Leonard will try to do the same for the Clippers. The Raptors have flourished without Leonard. The Rockets will try to make the James Harden-Russell Westbrook duo work without a real center.
Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks folded against Leonard’s Raptors in the 2019 East finals, but look ready to make another run. The Celtics have been surprisingly good. The 76ers have floundered, calling into question whether The Process of tanking over multiple season will ever pay off.
The restart also means more Zion Williamson. The former Duke star’s rookie season with the Pelicans didn’t start until Jan. 22 because of an injury. When Williamson returned, he immediately showed he’ll also be a problem for pro opponents. Now Williamson will chase a playoff spot with the Pelicans, who are 3-1/2 games behind Memphis.
The interruption of the season could be fortuitous for one contending team. The Nets were on their way to a low playoff seed and early exit without stars Kevin Durant (Achilles) and Kyrie Irving (knee). The possibility that those two will return to play dropped Brooklyn’s championship odds from 750-1 to 50-1 at Caesars Sportsbook, according to ESPN.
The betting market didn’t change much for the top championship contenders. The Lakers, Bucks and Clippers remain big favorites to win it all now as before. There’s an odds gap to the Rockets, then another one to the rest of the hopefuls.
The NBA restart should be fun, even if it will be strange. As mentioned in this space before, playing all games at a central location with no spectators upends the whole idea of home advantage. It also creates an eerie atmosphere for TV viewers.
ESPN reported that some top teams lobbied for ways to replicate the home advantage for higher-seeded playoff teams. Among the proposals for home teams: extra possessions and designating one player to be allowed seven personal fouls before disqualification instead of six.
Thankfully those silly ideas don’t appear to be part of the restart plan. Better to accept that the home team won’t have its usual advantage. It’s one thing that just won’t be the same, so don’t make it worse with gimmicky rules.
Just playing games during a pandemic will be a massive effort for the NBA and other leagues. I’m worried about unpaid college athletes being pressured to play with no real, independent oversight. I don’t have the same concerns for professionals, who can negotiate their terms.
The NBA and players’ union say they are working on a “rigorous” plan to mitigate health risks. It will include a regular testing protocol and other safety standards for participants and support staff. ESPN reported that a player who tests positive will be quarantined as play continues with testing for other players.
I still remember my shock when Gobert tested positive and the NBA quickly shut down the season. Soon, all other domestic leagues followed the NBA’s lead. Now MLS and NBA have plans to restart, while MLB and its players are still negotiating.
If baseball comes back, there could be an overstuffed sports calendar in late summer and fall. That would be ideal. For now, I’ll take the NBA’s restart plan as a victory.
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