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NBA First to shut down; first to reopen?

NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s swift suspension of the regular season to close out what was an unforgettable March 11 ushered in our national pause button as the coronavirus quickly put a stranglehold on the nation. It was whacked emphatically like your alarm’s ‘snooze,’ quickly and decisively. Relaunching as we collectively rise back up will be far more deliberate.

While the NHL was the first of North America’s top sports leagues to announce its return after COVID-19 shut everything down, the NBA was first to set a date. If all goes well over the next month-plus, the first regular-season pro basketball games will be held on July 31 at the Disney Wide World of Sports down in the Orlando area.

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Players who aren’t already in their markets will undergo a quarantine period and will ultimately report to the campus setting at Disney the weekend of July 10. Only the top 22 of the NBA’s 30 teams were included. The Wizards and Suns are the only ones headed down to Central Florida with winning percentages of .400 or less, leaving them virtually no room for error if they’re to make a run since only eight games remain on the regular-season schedule.

Winning percentages will determine tie-breakers since teams won’t end with the same number of games played. Sportsbooks refunded all action on win totals, divisional futures and make-the-playoffs props since they were predicated on an 82-game schedule.

Three months ago, the possibility of restarting without fans at a bubble city like Orlando or Las Vegas was mentioned in this space. That always seemed like the best-case scenario for the NBA to avoid canceling the season. Daily testing and temperature checks in a bubble setting down at Disney will hopefully keep the league from shutting down again.

The playoffs will be a best-of-seven throughout all rounds. Despite discussions, league officials didn’t scrap its conference-specific format in favor of seeding teams 1-to-16. The No. 9 seed in the East and West will be given an opportunity to reach the postseason if they can finish within four games of the No. 8 seed and then manage to beat them twice in a row in a play-in series.

We have nearly two months to handicap this NBA restart effectively. Homecourt advantage won’t be a factor. The Lakers remain the betting favorite, owning a slight edge on the Bucks and Clippers. I’m sticking with Bucks-Clips Finals pick but since the equivalent of an entire offseason will elapse until balls are bouncing again, I may change my mind.

Great betting angles should emerge over the coming weeks. We’ll soon get an official schedule to pore over and start setting lines on.

“I think there will be a big learning curve for all; teams, the bookies and the bettors,” said Jay Rood, a giant in the line-making business and Chief Risk Officer at Bet.Works. “The team that is able to embrace the situation the best, which might be the younger teams with players that don’t have kids and wives and such (will succeed). But maybe the vets will be jumping at the chance to get out of the house.”

This situation is unprecedented, so we’ll have to adjust as events unfold. The closest parallel from an NBA standpoint would be the 1998-99 strike-shortened season that didn’t begin until February. They got 50 games in prior to the playoffs. We’ll get eight. We’ve never seen the postseason not feature fans or travel.

“I think totals will be the biggest adjustment, especially seeing the MJ documentary and how they played in the scrimmages and they may really run it up or clamp it down,” Rood said. “It’s kind of anyone’s guess and we will have to react quickly. The bookmaking community is slow to react to an obvious miscalculation in power ratings or in this situation where totals could go wild in either direction.”

Depth figures to be a major factor, but the NBA has always been driven by its stars. Teams led by LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard are expected to be among the last standing. Then again, 2020 has loudly conveyed the message that anything can happen.

The 76ers and Rockets have seen their odds improve. They benefited most from the hiatus since their star tag-teams are now healthy and come into this fresh, Coaches and players will face a new set of obstacles alien from anything they’ve seen before. Will we get a different outcome than we expected when March began? If we get to see how it all unfolds without any hitches, we’ll all be winners.