Ninety seconds into Monday’s game against the Boston Celtics, Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry readied himself at the free-throw line to boos from his transient “home” crowd in Tampa Bay. The 90% shooter missed. By the third quarter, when the Celtics had flipped a 13-point first-half deficit into a 23-point lead, calls for Boston’s seldom-used 7-foot-5 center Tacko Fall came from the 3,740 allowed in attendance.
“We’re going to be here in Tampa. It’s not our home,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said on a conference call after his 2019 NBA champions dropped to second from the bottom in the standings. “The fans are going to cheer for the other team, and that’s the reality of our situation. ... I do worry about guys’ mental health, just as a brother and a teammate and a friend, because it’s not an easy situation, obviously. I don’t want to discard that, but at the same time, it’s the situation we’re in. The season’s not going to stop.”
If not for my own morbid curiosity about the league’s litany of early-season blowouts, I would have turned League Pass to one of the two games from Monday’s nine-game slate that were decided by single digits. A rematch of a seven-game Eastern Conference semifinals was a foregone conclusion six minutes into the second half, and it was not even among the one in four games decided by 20 points or more this season.
As VanVleet said, “There’s a long list of excuses we could use,” but this is a problem. The NBA rushed the start of the 2020-21 campaign, opening training camps just 51 days after crowning a champion, all in an attempt to recoup roughly $1 billion in potential losses, and it has come at a cost to the on-court product.
The 25% of games that have resulted in 20-point blowouts is nearly twice the opening two-week average from each season last decade, which includes the ugly start to a lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign that began on Christmas Day. Overtime games are almost half as frequent to begin this year, and the average margin of victory is 12.8 points per game, higher than any start to a season from 2010-20.
This is before any team has experienced a significant COVID-19 outbreak, before the annual midseason malaise, before the grind really takes its toll. Again, VanVleet said it best: “The season’s not going to stop.”
You can quickly rattle off the simplest reasons why this season has started so poorly. A quarter of the league’s teams had not played since March. The other three quarters are not far removed from the mental and physical challenges of playing a monthslong condensed end-of-season slate in the Orlando bubble. Everyone is now working and traveling and just plain living under the restrictions of a global pandemic.
It is a lot. Enough to forgive your favorite team for throwing in the towel once a game starts to slip away. Add those up, though, and a league already experiencing a ratings decline may see worse numbers. It does not take a genius to see the correlation between the NBA’s lowest average Christmas Day viewership in more than a decade (4.33 million) and the slate of games that was decided by an average of 23 points.
An increase in home-and-home series — introduced to decrease travel and increase intensity over this season’s shortened 72-game schedule — has done little to stem the tide. Look no further than a recent split between the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers, headlined by the game’s two most enjoyable players to watch. Damian Lillard and company led by as many as 31 points in a blowout of Stephen Curry’s charges in the opener, and Curry’s career-high 62 points saved an otherwise uneventful blowout rematch.
It was indicative of the wild swings we can expect in a fan-less atmosphere. Whereas the NBA created an intimate courtside setting in the bubble — walling in league employees, team personnel, media, family and friends with mammoth screens of virtual fans — games are now largely played to empty arenas. Five teams are hosting home crowds, and only the Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic are exceeding 10% capacity.
As Lillard recently detailed, a player’s experience can often feel more like a practice than a game.
“Being in these big arenas, no fans, quick turnaround from last season, you’re going to have some people who are still getting their mind into the season,” he said of lopsided scores. “You’re going to have some people who are looking around like, ‘Man, we’ve got to create our own energy.’ There’s really no true energy in the building, aside from your pride and competitive nature. The passion and that fan energy is missing.”
Increased pace and 3-point attempts had already yielded increased scoring volatility. As Curry’s Warriors spawned copycats around the league in recent years, the frequency of 20-point comebacks has more than doubled. With more possessions and more points per possession comes greater variance. That variance still exists, perhaps even more so, only without a 20-point comeback 100 games into this season.
“If you get down by 17 or 18 in some of these games, you can see it,” Lillard added last week. “In the past, you hit a couple of shots, the crowd goes wild, the other team calls a timeout, a chant gets going. There’s energy in the building. Now, you get down 18 to 20, the only thing you can hear is the other team ... so that charge of teams getting back into games isn’t the same. That’s why, once a team is down, they pretty much seem like they’re done so far this year. And I think that’s also why you’re seeing more teams getting down, because it’s a battle. It’s not just a battle of physically playing, it’s a battle of getting into the game.”
The result has been some of the sloppiest basketball we have seen. Teams are averaging 15.4 turnovers a game, more than any season since 1999-2000 — the year after the league crammed 50 games and the entire playoffs into a four-month span following a lockout. Go figure. Almost half the league’s teams are allowing 110 points per 100 possessions, more than all but one season in the NBA’s statistical database.
On the bright side, games are less predictable. Teams have traditionally won 60 percent of their regular-season home games on average. That number has dipped below 50 percent this year for obvious reasons.
Maybe it was a malaise from a Warriors dynasty rolling to consecutive titles, but for whatever reason, the 2018-19 campaign was an anomaly with respect to porous defense and compounding blowouts. It is the only season this century in which half of all teams allowed 110 points per 100 possessions and the only year that approached the current number of 20-point victories in the opening two weeks. That season also featured no dominant regular-season team (Milwaukee’s 60-22 record led the NBA) and a first-time champ.
Game to game, the scores might be ugly, but the unpredictably in aggregate over a shortened season could mean a team like the New York Knicks finds a pathway to the playoffs or the Phoenix Suns join the short list of favorites to make a deep postseason run. In that sense, more fan bases should find enjoyment this year.
Optimism in this unconventional season is important, because reasons for cynicism are many. On top of the aforementioned evidence of a watered-down product, there are reports that management of ever-changing healthy and safety protocols has taxed team personnel to the point of exhaustion. This has reportedly diminished their ability to properly prepare players for a strenuous season. Physical and mental well-being has taken a backseat to survival, and you can see how that might negatively manifest itself on the court.
Take the Brooklyn Nets, for example. The returns of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, which transformed a middling team into a bona fide contender in the biggest media market overnight, should be a boon for the NBA. Blowouts of Golden State and Boston to begin the year were met with awe, not skepticism about the entertainment value of the regular season from game to game. They are a shiny new toy for the league.
Yet, hours after Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie’s season-ending knee surgery on Monday, Durant became the first superstar to be sidelined for multiple games following exposure to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus. Neither made a difference in Brooklyn’s 34-point destruction of a Utah team embarking on a seven-game road trip, but these are signs this will get worse before (hopefully) improving by season’s end.
On one hand, much of this is beyond the NBA’s control. On the other, well, billionaires are leveraging the salaries of millionaires to force an inferior product on an audience in their own despair. None of it feels great, and we are surely in for more losses before the summer, when vaccines are increasingly available and the playoffs are scheduled to begin. We are all in this together, the NBA included, and it is hard to watch.
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