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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The NBA has been slow to start this season

Shortest offseason in U.S. professional sports history provides lackluster games to start the NBA season

When the National Basketball Association (NBA) announced their Dec. 22, 2020 start date back in early November, fans across the globe celebrated as basketball would be back very soon. From a fan perspective, it is amazing because as the NFL season winds down, there will be something to keep everyone engaged post-February. But on the other hand, this quick turn around raised many questions on whether the league rushed their return and how certain players would react. 

The NBA bubble in Orlando held in July, 2020 featured some of the greatest basketball performances fans had seen in a long time. The fanless basketball played in the bubble was a once in a lifetime experience, and the quality of games only improved as the rounds continued. With so much to play for, teams gave their all every night, leading to the exciting games we saw. As the season began getting closer, the excitement and expectations were that we would see something similar, however, we have gotten quite the opposite. 

With only 71 days in this past offseason and the plan only being announced on Nov. 9, NBA teams had to squeeze in everything. That includes the players, who were accustomed to a near four month break between NBA Finals and Opening Night. Now, they had a 12 day training camp and only three weeks total to get to know their team and work together before the games counted. This, coupled with COVID-19-related absences and no fans in attendance has led to lopsided victories throughout the league and games that create no interest for the casual fan. 

Over the last decade, around 7% of the NBA minutes have seen a team lead by 20 points or more. In the small sample size to start the season, that number has nearly doubled, and is at 12.1% according to Seth Partnow of The Athletic. This includes a 51-point loss by the Clippers at the hands of the Mavericks and a 47-point loss by the Miami Heat thanks to the Milwaukee Bucks. None of the five Christmas Day games had a final margin of under 10 points, three of the margins were 23 points or more.

Teams knew before this unprecedented season began that there would be some struggles, as it is nearly impossible to cram all of the regular offseason duties into a month. 

“Obviously, it’s been a super quick turnaround for our team,” said defending champion Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel. “The shortest offseason in the history of the NBA. But this is a team that embraces challenges and this is just the next challenge in line for us.”

Both the Lakers and Miami Heat finished their season in mid-October and as the season begins, they will make sure to monitor their minutes and workload. 

“We’ll try to be as smart as possible and mindful as possible to keep—the guys that need to be fresh, we’ll keep them fresh,” the Heat head coach said to the media before the season. “It’s our first time going through this, even though this is a little bit different, obviously.”

Whether teams last played in October or hadn’t played since the March stoppage, getting back into the flow of an NBA season so suddenly has created these lopsided scores. Adjusting to the new reality and rules that come with playing in a pandemic has hit some teams harder than others. 

“I don’t think nobody has said it, but it probably has something to do with the environment we’re playing in,” said Portland Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard. “Now we’re in these big arenas with no fans, and there’s a quick turnaround from last season. Some people are still getting their mind into the season. Others are looking around like ‘Man, we need to create our own energy.’ There’s no true energy in the building.”

Although the NBA had no fans during their Orlando bubble, the difference was that the majority of those were playoff games, whereas these are games in the beginning of the season. Playing in an empty 20,000 seat arena where all you see are empty rows of nothing can affect the player psychologically, and not having the time to mentally prepare for a long season can lead to teams having off games. 

So far in this very young season, we have seen a slow start from many teams and their stars as well. For the rookies, we’ve seen some limited minutes and inconsistencies, but this at least was expected. 

In a normal NBA offseason, rookies have nearly three months to become familiar with their new teams and get accustomed to NBA life. This year, players had about 13 days until training camp started and a little over a month before their first NBA game. Of course, all players will develop at separate times, but the quick turnaround will take some adjustment. 

“Anytime you go from the high school level to the college level, the college level to the pro level, the pace of the game, the speed of the game changes,” said Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders. “We want to do our job as a staff not to overload these players, especially after a longer hiatus. But also do our jobs to push these guys.”

It is important to not be too hard, especially on the rookies, so early in the season. Having not played any organized basketball since at least March, getting back into playing shape as well as adjusting to the pace and physicality of NBA basketball, will take some time. For the veterans, especially those on the older side, there is a chance they will cruise through the first half of the regular season just to pace themselves. 

“The first half of the season, I’m cherry-picking the whole first half of the season,”  said Lakers superstar LeBron James.  

The early lopsided affairs are simply a result of the NBA’s decision to return quickly. These scores won’t be the same, come the end of the season, but the league must deal with the fact that the product is not as great as it could be. We can still look forward to seeing all the stars perform at a high level down the road, but for now, fans should come to expect some slow starts for the time being. 
Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org

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