If the NBA season resumes, the games probably will not be attended by fans at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Yardbarker's Pat Heery and Sean Keane weigh in on this weird scenario.
Heery: Given what's going on in the United States, it's hard to even picture what America will look like on July 31, when the NBA wants to restart its season. Assuming that happens, the two most fascinating aspects of the restart will be 1) figuring out which players got way out of shape during the layoff; and 2) seeing how different the game looks and sounds without fans in the stands. Since I already whiffed on my guess for the "Most Out of Shape" award (James Harden), I'm more interested in the latter of those two aspects: The Sights and Sounds of a Fanless NBA Game.
Home-court advantage is normally a huge part of playoff basketball, leading to a mantra that usually gets tossed around in the postseason: Superstars always show up to play, but role players only show up at home. This sentiment combined with a rabid fan base usually give the home team a major advantage in playoff games. I guess this summer will really put that theory to the test, as there will be no such thing as home-court advantage. Instead, teams will have to create their own energy and figure ways to manufacture momentum at times when a crowd would usually get them hyped.
Heery: How do you see this impacting the top teams this summer? Does this suddenly make robot Kawhi and the Clippers the favorite? And what is the first thing that jumps out at you with the fanless games?
Keane: The Clippers have to be loving the idea of fanless playoff games. Nothing against the many passionate L.A. Clippers fans out there, or the intimidating courtside presence of Billy Crystal, but they are just wildly outnumbered by Lakers fans in Los Angeles. There’s no way for the Clippers to have any kind of home-court advantage against the Lake Show when they’re playing home games in the same building, so they’ve got to be thrilled to be playing in front of media, families and whichever of Lou Williams’ girlfriends goes to the bubble in Orlando.
This really hurts the Philadelphia 76ers, who were 29-2 at home this season and 10-24 on the road. They might still be a dangerous playoff dark horse, but their path to the conference finals was based on exploiting that home-court dominance and stealing a road game. It’s not clear why they were so good in Philly — maybe Tobias Harris needs a pregame hoagie from Wawa to play his best; maybe it’s the implicit threat of batteries raining down from the stands that psychs out other teams — but the Sixers seem way less of a threat in neutral territory.
I’m also curious about what fanless games are going to sound like. There's been talk about mic-ing up players, but we all saw "The Last Dance." How is NBA-level trash talk going to be at all acceptable for broadcast television? ESPN might have to put the games on a delay for bleeping purposes if every argument with the referees sounds like “Hit ‘Em Up." As far as crowd noise goes, it’s going to sound eerily quiet, not just because of the lack of cheering but also because there’s no reason to pump in chants of “DEFENSE” and most of the artificial sounds during games. Plus, no one wants to see Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy on the Kiss Cam.
Keane: What other teams do you think are best suited to a fanless season in the bubble? Is there a good solution to the sound issues? And should the NBA allow a limited number of halftime performers to come to the bubble? Frisbee dogs can’t spread the virus, after all.
Heery: Can the Red Panda spread the virus? If not, we need her to perform at Disney World.
I've got my eyes on the Rockets and Raptors as the teams best suited for the bubble. The Rockets, whose home crowd is often drowned out by loud hip-hop instrumentals, seem to be an obvious sleeper for a lot of people because their super small-ball lineup is so extreme that teams have a difficult time preparing for it in short order. Spreading the court with no traditional big man gives Harden and Russell Westbrook so much space to operate that even the most finely tuned defenses can have difficulty slowing them — and that was before said defenses had to pause their seasons for three-plus months. Finally, Houston's best defensive players — PJ Tucker, Robert Covington — won't be as fatigued as they were starting to look when the Rockets lost four of their last five games, including to the lowly Knicks and Hornets.
While the Raptors certainly have an advantage in the Scotiabank Arena against anyone not named LeBron James, they should have a couple of advantages that most other teams won't after the long layoff. For one, they have some of the best chemistry in the league after winning the 2019 NBA title and carrying the championship swagger into the 2019-20 season despite losing Kawhi Leonard. On-court chemistry leads to efficiency and consistency, which is why it's so important to early-season success, and I don't see how chemistry wouldn't be as crucial when the players return in July. And while Toronto won't have the same star power as the three obvious contenders (Bucks, Clippers, Lakers), they have Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry and a whole slew of above-average role players, whose postseason play is much better at home than on the road. Without crowds, I would expect more consistency from role players, and having a roster full of above-average players supporting Siakam and Lowry might be enough to win the East.
With regard to the sound problem, I think we'll see some families of the players from both teams in the stands, so there will at least be a little energy in the gym. Perhaps the "home" team gets to control the PA system and cuts up samples of crowd noise and chants ... or just plays instrumentals while Harden cooks. The "mic-ed up" version would be the most optimal way to resolve the sound issue — it would be awesome to hear how players interact with one another and with coaches and opponents. I think we'd learn a lot more about the players as people (much more than we do from their interviews, at least), and it could help viewers better understand the vast amount of on-court strategy that goes into an NBA game, especially on defense and in late-game offensive possessions.
Heery: Are you thinking this postseason has some sleepers, like the Rockets or Raptors, making deep playoff runs, or is it more likely that we get a mostly chalk playoffs with the Bucks squaring off against the Clippers/Lakers in the Finals? And do you see this championship as a badge of honor or an asterisk? I'm leaning toward the former — some will say the latter — and Twitter will most definitely side with whichever one allows it to take more digs at LeBron.
Keane: I love your Raptors pick, but I’m not sure I can believe in Harden in the playoffs yet. Maybe playing in August will keep the team from experiencing PTSD from all its May collapses? Still, they’re already winners, because the playoff changes will let the front office put out a spreadsheet claiming they WOULD have won in a normal postseason.
Speaking of normal postseasons, I’m convinced that in our asterisk-heavy sports culture, this title will come with a big fat one. People try to attach an asterisk to the Warriors’ titles because of injuries and free agent signings — the Orlando carnival playoffs will be no different. LeBron haters will discredit a Laker title, LeBron "stans" will discredit any team who beats him. But it's exciting that he has a chance to make history this year — one more Finals defeat will tie LeBron with Elgin Baylor (0-7) for second place in most Finals losses. Watch out, Jerry West (1-8)!
I'm making two assumptions about this playoff format: It'll include Zion and the Pelicans as much as possible; there's going to be a compressed schedule.
The second one helps New Orleans, a deep and young team, though it will have to climb past the Grizzlies, avoid Dame Lillard's clutch heroics and fight off the Sacramento Kings, who were red-hot when the season was suspended. But it's too much of an uphill battle for them, especially if Zion has been supporting local New Orleans restaurants with takeout orders during the break.
The Celtics have a cleaner shot, with their two young stars and a deep bench plus a strong defensive identity. This is purely anecdotal, but I think defense snaps back into place faster than offense after a long layoff. Plus, neither Brad Stevens nor Gordon Hayward leaves the house much under normal circumstances, so they'll have an easy adjustment to quarantine.
Out west, or maybe just the west side of the resort, I think the Dallas Mavericks are a possible spoiler. They also have an inventive coach in Rick Carlisle, a lot of supporting depth at the wings, and some of the matchup problems that can swing a playoff game by dominating in five-minute bursts: Seth Curry, Boban Marjanovic and J.J. Barea. Of course, they also have Luka Doncic, who's leading the NBA's most efficient offense in his second year and who's incredibly clutch at the end of games. They may not be able to get stops, but it also might not matter if Luka is cooking.
Keane: On the other side, who's going to struggle in this format? Do Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert hate each other too much to co-exist now? And will the Heat be able to deal with Jimmy Butler's sociopathic intensity when they have to live with him?
Heery: Now that you mention it, I could see the Jazz going home early without much of a peep, as they'll be without their second-leading scorer, Bojan Bogdanović (20.2 ppg.), who had wrist surgery recently and is out for the season. It'll also be difficult for Mitchell-Gobert pick and rolls to be impactful if Mitchell decides to practice social distancing from the NBA's patient zero. As for the Heat, they rely so much on so many young players that I could easily see them losing in the first round. (Right now, they'd face the Pacers in the 4-5 matchup.) Or I could see those young players, led by Bam Adebayo, playing unconscious basketball for a couple of weeks and helping Butler lay waste to everyone's playoff predictions.
Either way, I fully expect to hear stories of Butler doing semi-insane things while inside the bubble. After losing a seven-game series of dominoes to Rajon Rondo, Butler swam up Splash Mountain in uniform at 3 a.m. before direct messaging the entire Heat team to join him for a five-hour workout before the team's practice that morning. Pat Riley loved it!!
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