As the NBA’s coronavirus hiatus approaches the two-month mark, hope remains that the season can still, in some capacity, be finished. Practice facilities, with certain restrictions, are set to re-open in states that have eased stay-at-home guidelines. Enes Kanter of the Boston Celtics told CBS Sports HQ on Friday that commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts will host a call for all players on Friday, and we’ll see what comes of that.
Any optimism that the season can indeed resume is cautious at best, and testing remains the core issue. Mark Cuban has already said the Mavericks will not open their facility due to an inability to test asymptomatic people, who of course can be facilitators of the virus. As Cuban said on The Athletic’s ’77 Minutes in Heaven’ podcast: “The risk is [not] worth the reward.”
Reward remains an operative term in all this. What does the NBA have to gain by resuming? The answer is money. To be able to get something, anything, on television represents an opportunity to at least partially stem the league’s financial bleeding. Like all professional sports, the NBA is a business disguised as competition. The business can, to some degree, still be salvaged. The competition, for all intents and purposes, cannot.
That doesn’t mean the players, given the opportunity, can’t, or won’t, compete. Of course they will. They will descend upon an isolated venue, file into an empty gym and engage in glorified scrimmages. But whatever comes of those scrimmages will not ultimately matter.
“There’s no getting around the asterisk that will go next to this season,” a former league exec and longtime assistant coach told CBS Sports. “It’s just unfortunate.”
This is the reason the closure LeBron James says he’s hoping to get, as it pertains to this season, does not exist. When LeBron says that, what he’s saying is the Lakers were in a position to compete for a championship, and if games don’t resume, he’ll never know, nobody will ever know, whether they could’ve finished the job.
What I’m saying is we’ll never know that, just as we’ll never know whether Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks could’ve won it all, or whether the Clippers could’ve rounded into the playoff juggernaut they were designed to be and taken home the first Larry O’Brien trophy in franchise history. The conditions under which this season’s “champion” would be crowned will be too altered to be taken seriously.
“Playing without fans, in my experience, that just changes so much about the game,” a league scout told CBS Sports. “I played in Europe. I’ve played in some pretty empty gyms, and it’s tough. I wouldn’t say it’s the most accurate representation of all players. Some will be less affected, but there are a lot of guys who thrive on that energy of the crowd.”
“You hear the word ‘gamer,’ as in, ‘that guy’s a gamer,’ and we know that’s a guy who kind of rises to the occasion,” a Western Conference exec said. “There’s lots of guys like that in the league, where maybe they’re not the same kind of player in practice, but when the lights go on and the crowd gets loud, they become almost a different player.”
Indeed, different players make for different teams, and different teams under different conditions completely negate whatever we think the real teams could, or could not, have accomplished. It’s like comparing LeBron to Michael Jordan. The conditions under which they played were too different to ever be able to answer the question of who was the best to ever do it. You have to look at them separately. And that’s how we’ll have to look at this season. Separately.
Let’s say a group of teams settle into Las Vegas or Walt Disney World and run through some shortened playoff format, perhaps three- or five-game series, perhaps even some kind of one-and-done format, with their sneakers squeaking in empty gyms and half the players out of shape and any kind of team-wide rhythm completely out of whack, and at the end of it all the Lakers win.
Will that banner look the same as the 16 others hanging in the rafters of the Staples Center? Will we honestly be able to say that LeBron has won four titles with a straight face? Without qualification? No chance. The closure doesn’t exist except in the sense that we can all, at some point, officially close the book on the season. But inside that book, the story of this season will forever remain unfinished.