The Experience that was the NBA Bubble - My Personal Takeaways
At the beginning of the 2019-2020 NBA season not a single person would have expected an outcome like this one. I am not referring to the Los Angeles Lakers winning it all this year - I was expecting that. I am talking about rounding up the season in a closed bubble setting in Orlando, Florida.
At the end of last year or even in January of 2020, with all the unexpected occurrences this year had already thrown our way at that point in time, we didn't dare to imagine that the Coronavirus would become such a huge deal. Many ridiculed the disease at first - not to mention a certain Utah Jazz Center - but out of nowhere the virus spread and it turned into a massive crisis. Everything suddenly stopped, including sports. It appeared we had entered some kind of vacuum. Frustration among sports fans rose, in particular among fans of the NBA since competition stopped right around the time where things usually start to get exciting.
But at some point, speculations about the continuation of the NBA season appeared out of nowhere. Key details like "Disneyworld" and "bubble", however, confused people and turned them skeptical. Nevertheless, here we are. About a month removed from Game 6 of the NBA Finals and the Lakers' title celebrations, positively looking back on three months of competitive NBA Basketball. But what exactly made the bubble in Orlando such a success, despite the initial skepticism?
To the surprise of many, the concept of the 'bubble
setting' held up for months without a single case of a COVID-19-infection among
players or team's staff members. The league put forward an incredible effort
and invested an enormous $180 Million in order to provide frequent, regular
testing, the enforcement of social-distancing rules and the obligation to wear
masks around the campus and a secluded and safe environment for all
participants. It might not have been as successful, however, if the inhabitants,
especially the players, had not shown the discipline and commitment or had not
bought in to the concept as they did throughout their stay.
All "What ifs" aside, we can see that, with the necessary precautions taken, the idea of a 'bubble-campus' is doable and possibly an option for the future (not the preferred alternative, however). Compared to leagues like for example the NFL, which has to deal with complications regarding COVID-19 infections on a weekly basis, the NBA's continuation-concept might have even been the only possible way to conduct a season while effectively avoiding positive testing results. Also for professional leagues like the WNBA or the NHL making use of the bubble-format has proven to be invaluable.
For spectators behind the screen not much changed during the NBA's restart since they probably have tried anything within their power to cater to audiences around the globe and hoped to present an experience as close to normal as possible. Broadcasters were willing to experiment and, therefore, even introduced new (technological) concepts making use of the unusual situation. Audiences have now been able to watch NBA action from new and improved angles or listen in on the officials calls and discussions, for example.
Player's, however, would not necessarily describe the given circumstances as optimal. From practicing in modified ballrooms to fishing trips in between gamedays, living inside the NBA bubble was not what many of the athletes would have considered normal up to that point. Also, there is no denying that players must have been battling with the consequences of being isolated and not having family and friends around. Anyways, players were hardly missing anything else since the bubble was constructed in a way that would satisfy most of an athlete's personal needs. Barbershops and other activities provided made the bubble undeniably resemble NBA2K's 'The Neighborhood' from 'MyCareer'.
Some even tried to document their bubble-specific daily routines in a VLOG- format and uploaded their footage to YouTube. Players like Sixers' Rookie Matisse Thybulle, Lakers' center JaVale McGee or Nuggets' guard Troy Daniels were able to accumulate a gigantic online following with the help of their entertaining content providing fans with intimate insights from inside of the campus.
Coaching staffs also had to adjust their approach in terms of practicing with limited access to improvised training and practice facilities, fewer staff members present, players' varying physical and mental conditions, health guidelines and restrictions within the bubble area and the overall environment in Orlando. Moreover, teams that entered the campus without a decimated roster or only few key players missing as well as better conditioned teams were at an advantage. But every one of the 22 teams invited were able to gain essential intel and playing experience and will inevitably be in a superior position once the new season starts, compared to the eight teams left out which are now suffering from an eight-month-offseason.
Surprises (on the Court)
The given circumstances and the unusual environment given inside the NBA campus in Orlando might have also been responsible for various impressive, yet unexpected, performances. Certain individual players have been able to use the league's restart as a platform to showcase their talents, whereas others accomplished quite the opposite.
For example, Indiana Pacers Forward TJ Warren hit the ground running and could not stop overachieving until meeting Jimmy Butler in the playoffs. He averaged almost 40 points through the first three games of the restart, which caused headlining comparisons and declarations as the "Michael Jordan of the bubble" - as used by SBNation - to arise.
Furthermore, the University of Kentucky was able to gain an edge when it comes to recruiting because of its alumni's astonishing efforts on the floor. Finals MVP runner-up Anthony Davis was leading the group of former Wildcats by winning the title with the Lakers and, therefore, becoming the first player in history to win the NCAA tournament, a FIBA World Cup, an Olympic Gold Medal and to lift the Larry-O'Brien Trophy. Moreover, he was able to demonstrate his incredible defensive skillset, while carrying an immense load on the offensive end. Also, Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray showed potential to become a future franchise player by averaging 31 points in Disneyland and coming back from a 3-1 deficit twice (!) during this year's playoffs. Among the remaining bubble-standouts out of Lexington, KY are names of rising stars like Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Young guys like Portland's Gary Trent Jr and OKC's Lu Dort made good us of the chances they received and utilized their minutes to establish and possibly even improve their roles for the upcoming season. Former Blue Devil Trent Jr has proven to be an ideal 3-and-D player as he shot above 60% from three and Canadian import Dort impressed defensively, especially by containing scoring-machine James Harden and forcing the Rockets offense to rely heavily on the Pick'n'Roll throughout their playoff series, instead of Harden's usual isolation scoring.
But one of the biggest surprises the NBA restart had to offer were the Phoenix Suns. The squad of head-coach Monty Williams entered the bubble hoping to use the opportunity to improve their young core, gain invaluable experience and have fun. They quickly exceeded the initially low expectations, however, and rolled to an 8-0 run and finished their bubble-campaign undefeated. In addition to strong performances as usual by Devin Booker, rising stars like Cam Johnson also made a name for themselves.
On the other end of the spectrum, the New Orleans Pelicans returned home with a record of 2-6, which not only diminished their hopes of earning a playoff spot, but also resulted in the firing of head-coach Alvin Gentry. Rookie phenom Zion Williamson only appeared in five of their eight seeding games and could not live up to the hype he had produced before the NBA's hiatus.
The Los Angeles Clippers underperformed as well since the potential Finals contender's season ended prematurely after blowing a 3-1 lead in the second round of the playoffs to the aforementioned Denver Nuggets and Jamal Murray. Big Time offseason acquisition Paul George even earned himself a new nickname: "Pandemic P".
Although they won it all, not all the Lakers' key players went flawless throughout their bubble run. In particular, former Raptor Danny Green left spectators frustrated at times and had fans wondering what had happened to his shooting ability, especially after not closing Game 5 with an open 3-pointer.
The biggest disappointment in the Eastern Conference must have been the Washington Wizards, who managed to come away with just a single victory. Arriving in the bubble basically missing all their core players, the incredibly decimated roster was destined to have a frustrating restart with little success.
Of course, we cannot forget to mention how important it was to give players the opportunity to put an emphasis about social justice. The league in unison with its athletes was able to use their worldwide platform to address the topic of inequality in many ways which without a question had an impact that was felt and probably even influenced the result of this year's presidential election. Players let their voices be heard and did not shy back from protesting within the bubble, boycotting games if necessary and even taking action. Henceforth, the bubble served a greater purpose and showed once again that there are bigger things than basketball.
In Conclusion, ...
...the bubble defied initial skepticism and proved that the Lakers' title this year does not carry any less meaning than former championships prior to the pandemic. It was without a doubt an unusual event full of surprises but showed that the league can adjust to any circumstances. The bubble demonstrated what is possible for the future - hopefully not necessary, however. There's no denying that finding a way to finish the season successfully and doing so without any major problems is an incredible feat, especially after everything that has happened since the beginning of 2020.