“You have to be ready to adapt”. A wise statement by Los Angeles Lakers center Marc Gasol before this NBA season kicked off. If that doesn't encapsulate 2020 in seven small words, I don't know what does. The NBA as a league has had to adapt at a level never seen before since its inception, and has done, at minimum, an admirable job. These changes were from the top down and gave NBA fans the most unique sports viewing experience of all time between the months of July and October. This ability to change had left the league with the ability to asses which, if any, of the changes during the bubble were along for an extended period of time. The adaptations made during the pandemic led to an elevated level of play and that alone is cause enough for evaluation. The league decided on a number of new rules, travel changes, and playoff additions to continue to evolve and create a better overall product for us fans, but the NBA will never be the same.
The Before Time
Now that we are officially in 2021, the natural nostalgia of the New Year brings about old memories and this year led to these thoughts even more. I can remember a time, long ago, in 2019 when Adam Silver had discussed radical changes to the NBA season. The new ideas being discussed were a 78 game season, a mid season tournament, re-seeding at start of the conference finals, and a play-in tournament for the playoffs. At the time these notions were intriguing, but fans had become so accustomed to how a season plays out that the ideas seemed years if not decades away from becoming a reality. Then 2020 reared its ugly head and everything changed....
One of the last memories of the "normal" NBA was the All-Star game of 2020. They had adopted some rule changes, that were actually hard to conceptualize, but were due to Kobe Bryant's untimely death and a lack of competitive energy during the game itself. What transpired was one of the best games of basketball I've ever seen. The most noticeable change, that really increased the intensity, was that the final score wasn't determined by a clock, but by who reached a decided score first. It had a pick up game feel and once Anthony Davis hit the game winning free throw, we were left with a feeling that we had witnessed the single greatest pick up game ever. This small change had such positive effects that it softened the traditionalists stance on other changes.
The Baseball Series
"Our guys feel better," postured a Western Conference GM to ESPN. "We don't know if it's anecdotal, but we've got these games and we don't have to jump on planes [afterward]." Whether it was TJ Warren averaging 34 points/game, the Nuggets coming back from series deficits of 3-1 twice, or Jimmy Butler playing like a top-5 player in the Finals, the level of play in the bubble was as high as ever during the playoffs and it was noticeable. Players, GM's, and coaches all held similar opinions in terms of no travel adding to recovery and more energy. The NBA recognized that mitigating travel could help with its product, but how will they apply that to a much larger pool of teams and multiple cities to travel to?
Instituting the "baseball series", as playfully described by Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, is the answer the NBA has come up with. This season the league has strategically scheduled teams to play back-to-back in the same city when possible, whether it's against the same team or not (Lakers and Clippers). While this does help, immensely, with total miles traveled during the season, it may have unintended consequences once fans returns. One Eastern Conference GM astutely opined to ESPN that "In baseball, it's all about who's pitching and it's totally different every night," continuing "Basketball could be the same game every night. How do you sell that from a ticket perspective? It's tough."
While this notion has merit, it has not proven to be the case as these series become completed. The Pacers and Celtics two game series was intense and game 2 had a bit of a playoff feel with real animosity being shown for opponents. When the Heat lost by 47 points to the Bucks a person might assume that the game the next night would be more of the same, but this was not the case. The Heat had a 58 point turnaround and defeated the Buck just two nights later. The games haven't been the same and the second game of the series is offering more in game adjustments and anxiety to not get swept. This idea should stick around for future seasons.
One aspect that can not be quantified yet is the lack of socialization that is happening in American cities right now. Will spending three nights in Miami during a series help with rest? The nightlife in some cities is incredibly alluring and could change how well these mini series work in the future. How players adapt once the Covid vaccine is distributed, which would allow nightclubs and restaurants to be open, is to be determined, but early returns on having teams play back to back are positive and should be viewed as such.
Survive and Advance
When the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies faced off to see who would get the pleasure of losing to the Lakers in the first round, no one expected much. Normally the race for a first round exit is local news, but this year all NBA fans were treated to the play-in tournament. A one and done, winner take all, NCAA tournament feel game that determined who would play in the playoffs and it felt like all of those circumstances. Stumbled into by necessity, the tournament had actual value and was enjoyed by fans of all teams.
While the play-in was based on the ability to make up ground during the end of the season, the rules for involvement are different for this and upcoming seasons. There is a noticeable advantage for the 7th and 8th teams. They have to only win one game to qualify for the playoffs. The 9th and 10th slated teams would, in turn, need to win two games.
The first game of this tournament will be the 7th and 8th finishing teams in the conference playing for the right to receive the 7th seed in the actual playoffs. Next, the teams that finished 9th and 10th in the conference play and the winner of that second game plays the loser of the first to decide who will be the 8th seed in the conference playoffs. The fact that every loss has major ramifications for the losing team means that the intensity is at an all-time high.
The play-in may also help with the issue of tanking. It will keep teams in the playoff hunt for longer, and the fact that commissioner Adam Silver adjusted the lottery odds, the need for more losses to attain a top pick is greatly negated. Teams that finish with the 7th worst record could get a top pick and compete for the playoffs. That will give the entire season more importance, as well as, creating more revenue for the playoffs themselves.
An under the radar change that the NBA made was to its drug testing rules. The league stopped testing for marijuana during the bubble. In a statement they said that they would suspend the program to avoid any unnecessary human contact. NBPA leader, Michele Roberts, said “We’re not going to expose our players to unnecessary risks,” and continued to say "it is not necessary to know whether our players are positive for marijuana.”. There has been some continuation of the policy in terms that the substance is still banned as well as the league will test previous offenders.
According to ESPN, because Indiana, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin are the only states left with no form of marijuana legalization, the NBA wants to align itself with the emerging public sentiment. The medicinal value that marijuana has to relieve joint and muscle pain reflects the need the current NBA player have and this move to discontinue testing was met with nearly universal player consensus. Senior NBA writer John Hollinger speculates that this will be the end of this policy and it will be discontinued indefinitely.
Could've Saved Rodman
The lack of humans in the arena during the bubble was obvious, but what may not have been obvious was the fact there were no photographers underneath the hoop and along the baseline. Players could freely attack the basket with no fear that they would land on a 50 year old photographer from the local newspaper. This has been noticeable so far during the season and it allows for more freedom by only worrying about maneuvering around the court and other players. We can only imagine who Dennis Rodman would've kicked instead of that photographer...
The "baseball series", play-in tournament, and the leagues decision to avert their eyes from marijuana use may change the NBA forever and in ways that haven't been speculated yet. Dealing with this for a league so proud of its history will be hard at first. Road trips may not yield as many blowouts, players may play need less "rest", and the week before the playoffs could be more entertaining than the 1st round, but this should not worry lifelong fans. These adaptations should increase the watchability of games not involving their favorite teams or players. The return of the home court advantage will make these playoffs the best ever and I suspect that next season, if there are fans, could be the greatest in the long storied history of the NBA.
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