When the grand plan to finish the NBA season inside a bubble at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida was first announced, there was plenty to be apprehensive about. Beyond the health protocols in place to keep players and team personnel safe as they attempted to restart their season in the middle of a global pandemic, there were ethical concerns about the league taking up resources from the general public with their daily testing procedures.
Those concerns remain. As with all things sports in the year 2020, it is very much a day-to-day proposition (see: Major League Baseball). But so far—outside of an impromptu trip to Magic City, a few players forgetting to take their daily test, and several others openly not adhering to the protocol of wearing masks—the NBA bubble is working.
For now, the focus has turned towards the games.
The season officially resumed last Thursday, and a week into the seeding game stage of this whole experiment, it is hard to call it anything but a success. Basketball fans have been rewarded with a March Madness-like schedule of games from the early afternoon into the late evening every day. The games themselves have been extremely competitive, ranging from teams competing just to secure a spot in a potential tournament to playoff teams who are trying to use these eight seeding games to round into shape.
It feels like we can’t go a day without a 20-point comeback, an overtime game, a back-and-forth matchup between two contenders, or all of the above. From a game presentation standpoint, outside of the obvious fact that there are no fans in the arena (despite how much the league is trying to make us forget by having virtual fans and by piping in crowd noise), the television experience has not been altered to a point where it feels like the viewers needed to make any drastic adjustments.
Given what we know about the current state of the world, and specifically the United States, the home of every single NBA team except for the defending champion Toronto Raptors, and seeing how MLB is scrambling to control several outbreaks just two weeks into their abbreviated season, it seems reasonable to assume that next season will also have to operate in some form of bubble format at least to start, especially if the goal is to start the 2020-21 season in December.
Which begs the question: are there takeaways from the current bubble that can be applied to not just next season, but to when we finally return to some semblance of normal and go back to not just a regular NBA calendar, a full regular season and also fans at every arena?
First, the league should really consider a way to schedule games throughout the day. The one noticeable difference so far in the bubble is how each regular season game has felt like its own event. Certainly, removing the bottom eight teams in the league has increased the quality of the overall product, but the staggering of the games throughout the day has created more interest in each matchup as well.
Even if it was just choosing two days out of the week in a normal regular season schedule to have a slate of games throughout the day, I feel like it would help the league significantly highlight more teams and players and make the regular season more accessible. Think about it like the NFL, which owns the entire Sunday. There’s no reason why the NBA can’t turn, say, Tuesday and Thursday into their days.
Along the same lines, the NBA should introduce a more dynamic regular-season schedule. They already attempt to do this by featuring key games on national television, but I would love to see them take it a step further. How about we take playoff matchups from the previous season, and have those rematches happen over the course of say, a week, during the season. Or we can gather the top eight teams from each conference at a midpoint in the regular season, and have them play playoff preview games over a weekend. This would take some restructuring of the schedule during the season, but again, it would drum up significant interest over the course of an 82-game schedule.
A few more things: social messaging on jerseys should continue. Many players have openly expressed their disappointment at the league’s policing of their social messages at Disney World, which again highlights the limitations of corporate activism. The league should allow players to continue to display messages on their jerseys indefinitely moving forward. As well, continue to relax the dress code for not just coaches, but the players as well. Someone give me one good reason why Nick Nurse has to wear a suit on the sideline instead of his signature NN hat and a Raptors polo shirt.
Lastly, figure out how to remove any unnecessary clutter courtside and on the baselines. Photographers have to do their jobs by sitting on the baseline, but I feel like there has to be a way to give players a wider space when they’re driving to the basket, if only for injury concerns. The proximity of courtside fans have always felt uncomfortable for players, especially since we saw incidents like in last year’s NBA Finals when Kyle Lowry was shoved by a Warriors minority owner sitting courtside.
Like everything else that is happening during the global pandemic, we should reevaluate exactly what the new normal should look like when this is all over. Improving the regular season product and overall experience for NBA fans shouldn’t be excluded from this evaluation.
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