The 22 NBA teams playing out the 2019-20 season began arriving at the Disney bubble two weeks ago. Spreading out coaches and players over three resorts isolated from the rest of coronavirus-infested Florida, the league is hoping its meticulous preparations will pay off in getting through an eight-game resumption to the regular season prior to a full playoff schedule.
Even though there’s a solid plan in place, we’ve all grown accustomed to the reality that living through a pandemic requires hour-to-hour adjustments and an ability to handle nasty surprises. Life for the world’s most popular basketball league is no different.
Rockets star Russell Westbrook caught COVID-19 and had to stay back before joining the bubble. Teammate and former MVP James Harden denied that he was afflicted, but was also delayed in getting to Orlando. Eric Bledsoe, point guard for the Eastern Conference’s favorite Milwaukee Bucks, was asymptomatic but also had to hang back. Nuggets All-Star center Nikola Jokic was kicking it with tennis star Novak Djokovic in their native Serbia and was diagnosed with the virus prior to returning to the U.S. Although the other “Joker” was stricken too, the 7-foot version practiced for the first time last week for a Denver team that closed down its training facility due to an outbreak in Phase 1 of the NBA’s reopening.
Rookie phenom Zion Williamson, the main reason why 22 teams are participating in the restart instead of just the 16 that would have qualified had the league opted to cut straight to the postseason, made news as well. Williamson left the bubble setting on July 16 due to a family emergency. His exit casts doubt on his availability for the early games the Pelicans need to win in order to beat teams like the Trail Blazers, Kings and Spurs out for ninth place. Upon return, he’ll have to quarantine and get some practices in, although it should help that he’s gotten into fantastic shape during the hiatus after struggling with weight issues that contributed to knee trouble during the preseason.
Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell also departed Orlando to tend to an issue with his grandmother, adding to the list of teams that haven’t enjoyed an ideal start to this experiment.
The good news? The league announced Monday there were zero positive tests last week from the bubble.
Teams will play four 10-minute quarters against one another in a preseason that begins Wednesday. Expect heavy experimentation from coaches exploring new lineup combinations and helping guys get back into shape.
Preparing for games you’ll be able to bet require keeping tabs on who looks great coming off the layoff and who still has work to do. Because of the chaos COVID-19 continues to cause, teams are all over the place in their preparation.
The Pacers got good news since All-Star guard Victor Oladipo is leaning towards playing after originally backing out. His surgically-repaired knee has felt good in practices. If you’re betting futures, be aware that Boston’s Gordon Hayward, Oklahoma City’s Dennis Schroder and Utah’s Mike Conley will all be leaving the bubble to be present for the birth of new children. They’ll have to deal with a quarantine period upon return.
Ben Simmons is playing primarily at power forward for the 76ers, giving us a new look to place under the microscope. Al Horford will come off the bench, captaining the second unit. Joel Embiid will head up the starters. Harden, Jokic and Raptors center Marc Gasol all look significantly slimmer. We’ll get to see what affect that has in addition to who ate their feelings during lockdown.
The Spurs won’t have bigs LaMarcus Aldridge or Trey Lyles available, so we’ll get a preview of their small-ball look. Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox aims to return from the bubble’s most significant injury to date, a moderate ankle sprain. Brooklyn and Washington, missing standouts Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans, will put their Plan B’s on display.
The other key variable worth monitoring as teams take the court will be the arenas themselves. Most shipped their gym floors down to the Disney bubble, but we’ll now get to see whether teams feel comfortable with sight lines. Will the three different settings have any characteristics that must consistently be taken into account?
How will largely empty gyms affect play? Can the typical feel of an NBA game be replicated? The league’s temporary new reality is upon us. If all goes well, we’re in for an unprecedented adventure.