With no fans, this championship may prove to be the hardest ever to win
The NBA playoffs have been a treat for fans worldwide amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The NBA league office put a tremendous amount of time and effort into the bubble concept which has proved to be successful, as there have been no positive tests inside the NBA Disney campus, even after the arrival of players’ families. Not to mention, the basketball being played in the bubble has given everyone an opportunity to witness something different—NBA basketball with no fans.
When the initial games tipped off in late July, there was an adjustment period for fans, as the lack of crowd noise was a bit awkward. Over time, and especially when the playoffs kicked off, crowdless basketball became a new normal for those watching at home and those playing in the bubble. The league has tried to give the would-be home teams an advantage by pumping in crowd noise, playing the music they would usually play in the stadium, changing the courts to match the team and letting their home PA person conduct business as usual. But at the end of the day, it makes little difference for the teams, as the bubble is simply a neutral site with no beneficiary.
“It’s nice to have the backgrounds and all that other stuff but, to be honest with you, I can’t even hear any of it or really pay much attention to it after maybe the starting lineups are announced, which are odd anyways because there’s nobody clapping,” Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens told CBC. “It is unique.”
The circumstances surrounding the resumption of the NBA season, in short, threw away the home-court advantage that teams were fighting for all season. This year’s playoffs were simply determined by whoever was the better team without the interference of outside factors. The amount that the absence of fans affects the pressure on certain players and teams remains to be seen, but the lack of traveling and having games every other day will truly test the NBA’s best. This begs the question: will this year’s championship be the hardest ever to win, or will it be an exception?
For starters, the season was paused in March with teams having roughly 20 games remaining. With a little over a month left before the playoffs began in April, the sudden stop froze everyone. Although some had the luxury of lavish home gyms and the ability to stay in shape, many did not. With only a three-week training camp, three scrimmage games and eight regular-season games, the fight for teams to return to form after a four-month pause was a tough one.
Physical factors aside, athletes are usually accustomed to a particular routine that has gotten them to the position they are today, and being in the bubble without the ability to leave has weighed heavily on a number of players.
“It’s the toughest championship run for me personally. From the circumstances of just being in here,” said Los Angeles Lakers superstar forward Lebron James. “Not with my family, not in my own bed, I’m not in our own practice facility. I’m not preparing to be at Staples [Center] tomorrow with our fans. I’m not with a lot of things that’s essential to my everyday regimen. So that’s what’s different.”
For the first two months, players were not allowed to bring anyone into the bubble because the NBA tried to limit the amount of people on the campus. With the beginning of the second round that changed, but the time spent in the bubble on their own proved to be a mental struggle for many players.
“I underestimated mental health, honestly. I had anxiety, a little bit of depression,” Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George told the media after his Game 5 matchup against the Dallas Mavericks. “This is really hard being in here. It’s not easy. All day it’s just basketball. It’s hard to get away from it.”
“I know exactly what Paul is going through,” Los Angeles Lakers guard Danny Green added later. “You have nothing to do but look at your phone and social media all day. All they are doing is bullying you.”
Being locked away from the outside world and separated from loved ones is a factor that was not considered enough when the plan of the bubble came to fruition. That coupled with the expectations and pressure to perform can be a lot to carry. Throughout the pandemic, mental health has been a battle for a lot of people—athletes included. People often forget that athletes are humans and are not just there for entertainment. The bubble concept overall has been successful, but all these issues contribute to a difficult time for players.
Looking at it as a whole, it seems like whoever hoists up the Larry O’Brien trophy in October will be touted as the greatest championship team ever given the circumstances. But, not all agree with that sentiment.
“Any team that wins this year, there’s an asterisk. They’re not going to get the respect,” NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal said back in May. “What if a team that’s not really in the mix of things all of a sudden wins with a new playoff format? Nobody is going to respect that.”
The comment by O’Neal sparked debates on whether this year’s championship will be accepted like those in the past. But, the players seem to be opposed to the Hall of Famer’s opinion.
“It’s going to be the toughest championship you could ever win,” said reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. “The circumstances are really, really tough right now. So whoever wants it more is going to be able to go out there and take it.”
“I think this might be certainly the most worthy of all world championships in the NBA because of all the things that every team is going to have to navigate and overcome to be able to be crowned a champion,” said Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra.
The successful run of the NBA in its Orlando campus and its ability to make the best of an unpredictable time in the world is something that has been applauded. This is the new reality of sports in the year 2020 and for the near future. The difficulties that this specific NBA champion will go through will be one that may never be seen again. From routine, inactivity, lack of motivation, mental health and much more, the winner of this championship will almost certainly have to overcome more than those in previous years and will be tested in more ways than just physical. Only time will tell how this championship will be viewed in the future, but for now it’s important to realize that life and basketball in the bubble is not as easy as it sounds and this year’s winner will have conquered a new kind of challenge.
Written by: Omar Navarro — firstname.lastname@example.org