Basketball this year isn’t going to be the same. Around ten games have been sliced off the end of the regular season calendar for the top 22 teams in the league, while the bottom 8 squads have been dismissed for golf season and won’t play an NBA game until December.
There have been major alterations to the playoff and seeding format, but unprecedented circumstances call for extraordinary solutions, and once again Adam Silver has risen to the occasion. While some are excited that the NBA’s play-in tournament could maneuver a first-round matchup between Zion Williamson and LeBron James, others have expressed their frustrations regarding the style’s unfairness to teams seeded within the 7-10 range.
The diplomatic response is that given the effects of COVID-19, there’s no way that the league could have pleased everyone. The realistic response is that regardless of who qualifies for the 7 and 8 seed in either conference, and no matter how they go about finding themselves in that position, they will almost certainly be defeated in the first round of The Playoffs.
The mental toughness requirement that players entering the bubble will need, which the media has been harping on over the past few weeks doesn’t pertain to being able to accept the new format though. Players, coaches, trainers, and essentially anybody living within the NBA’s bubble will need to be mentally prepared for what’s to unfold between July 8th – when the first batch of teams is scheduled to arrive at Disney World, and October 12th – the official date for a potential Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
When Rudy Gobert’s positive test for COVID-19 shut down the NBA on March 11th, the basketball world was in dismay. A few days ago when ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski announced that 16 of 302 NBA players who tested for COVID-19 had positive results, few people looked at it as anything more than a stat.
Among these 16 players are some of the league’s top stars, including Nikola Jokic, Buddy Hield, Spencer Dinwiddie, and DeAndre Jordan, and certainly, the positive tests won’t end there.
With the resumption of the regular season pending, there is already concern that some of these players may bow out of Orlando completely. DeAndre Jordan has already announced that he won’t be entering the bubble due to his illness.
While the Brooklyn Nets are a man down, it’s easier for them to cope with the situation knowing that they won’t have Jordan’s services form the get-go. It’s a different battle for a team, when after a couple of regular season games, players begin to test positive, and will be forced to quarantine in their hotel room for a minimum of 14 days.
Enter, the necessity to be mental tough.
Not does this concern the teammates and coaches of the person who tested positive for their own health, but now they have to deal with the temporary loss of their teammate – who literally can not come face to face with anyone for two weeks. A typical injury allows players to travel with and socialize with their teammates, but not COVID-19.
To add to the scenario, anyone in the bubble is already confined to interacting with a very limited group of people. There are no family visits allowed for the first month, there’s no leaving the bubble for social or recreational activities, and even with the 36 other people from your organization whom you’re allowed to interact with, you must maintain six feet of distance at all times, unless in a game situation.
The COVID era has been hard on everyone. It’s meant lost jobs, lost freedom, lost time spent with friends and family, but for these NBA personnel about to embark on what could possible be a four-month long isolation, all of these effects will be amplified.
This is all only compounded by the surrounding matters of the real world, that have converged on basketball’s sanctuary. The Black Lives Matter movement is at the forefront of many NBA players’ minds as the restart to the season looms. With a resounding call from all races, religions, and professions for an end to police brutality, social and racial injustice, and systemic racism, and an attempt to usher in a new era of equality, many players have spoken out and said that this is not the right time to be playing basketball.
When asked about playing amidst the protests, Fred VanVleet shared the following:
“We all know the right thing to do is to not play, to take a stand. Morally, yes, that makes sense. But life goes on. We’re all young, Black guys. None of us want to give any money back. I don’t think that we should. I think that money can be used in a number of different ways. This is not going to end this summer regardless, or over the next couple of months. This issue, racial injustice, social injustice, police brutality, all these things are not ending anytime soon. Our fight was long term. That was part of my decision. But if the league, or more of my guys had come together and said we didn’t want to play, I would have sat out as well. I wouldn’t have fought it. I think most of us decided to play. It’s something we’ll have to live with. I trust that my heart’s in the right place and I’m doing enough to make change.”
Some players, on the other hand, disagree with VanVleet, including Dwight Howard and Kyrie Irving who were outspoken a couple of weeks ago regarding the issues at hand. The two mega-celebrities explained that by restarting the NBA season, so much of the media attention would shift from the Black Lives Matter movement, to relatively irrelevant basketball games, and it would take the foot off the gas pedal in the nation’s movement to achieve social justice.
On the flipside, players like LeBron James, or Fred VanVleet – as he alluded to in his quote – believe that they can magnify their platform by playing in the spotlight in Orlando, and use their extended voice to continue spreading the word about Black Lives Matter, in addition to using the extra millions of dollars that they’ll earn by playing in Orlando to donate to worthy causes.
Regardless of where players stand on the issue of attending Orlando and playing basketball, or staying back to do everything that they can from home to try and add fuel to the protests, it’s something that will be weighing heavily on everybody’s minds when the ball tips off on July 30th.
For the players who do decide to lace up, it’s going to take a special level of determination to keep playing, to keep winning, and to make it all the way to the end.
Some fans have brought up the possibility that a star player – who is otherwise perfectly healthy and able to play – could test positive for COVID-19 and be held out of a game, thus allowing a cakewalk to the finish line for their opponent.
All things considered however, the plethora of uncontrollable factors and multitude of uncertainty are a perfect concoction to spark anxiety in just about anybody, and the hurdles that any team will have to overcome to last four months and still win basketball games against the best players in the world will take more mental toughness than an average person could even fathom.
That’s why, rather than having an asterisk on the season as many are trying to label it, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Doc Rivers, and many others are calling for it to be the opposite of that.
“The 2020 title is going to be the toughest you could ever win,” said the reigning MVP, Antetokounmpo.
“I think whoever wins should have an asterisk next to it, but only for it being one of the toughest championships ever won. You’re asking guys to take 3-4 months off, then come back and find chemistry, then play during a pandemic while players are fighting for Black Lives Matter. I think it will be one of the tougher championships ever won. Only season ever like this,” added Doc Rivers.
Ultimately, this requirement to be so tough to win this year could play into the favour of the Toronto Raptors. Toronto has a culture of priding themselves on toughness, and they demonstrate that on and off the court.
Not only do the Raptors own the third best record in the league right now, despite having lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in a summer where some experts had them slated to not even make The Playoffs this year, but they’re getting it all done on the defensive end – where all that’s needed is some heart and hustle.
The Raptors are led by the constantly criticized Pascal Siakam, the left-in-the-dust Kyle Lowry, the Undrafted, Mr. Make ‘Em Believe, Terence Davis Jr., and his counterpart, Mr. Bet On Yourself, Fred VanVleet. That’s not to mention Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who has won over the hearts of all Raptors fans simply because of how hard he plays, or Chris Boucher – another undrafted gem who scratched and clawed his way onto an NBA roster for several years, and is finally proving how much he belongs.
Beyond their personalities and stories, the mere fact that they’ve battled through the most injuries of any winning team in the league this season, and continue to steamroll through teams like a whale in a pond speaks for itself. Marc Gasol has missed 28 games, Norman Powell has missed 20, Fred VanVleet has missed 17, Serge Ibaka has missed 14, Kyle Lowry has missed 12, and Pascal Siakam has missed 12. Still, they just keep on winning.
Above all of these guys may be the man steering their ship, Nick Nurse. On December 11th, 2018, Nurse’s mother passed away in Carroll, Iowa. Still, he managed to rejoin the team in Los Angeles for their game against the Clippers that night, and lead them to victory, because it’s what his mother would have wanted him to do. There simply aren’t a lot of coaches – nevertheless people – who would be able to do what he did on that night.
If there was an award for being mentally tough, surely the Raptors would win it. This year, that award may just be named the Larry O’Brien.