Ira Winderman: Will NBA, Heat fizzle without a bubble? Pat Riley offers thoughts.

Ira Winderman, Sun Sentinel
·4 min read

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Miami Heat caught lightning in a bubble this summer. Soon, a reality check will follow.

For all the NBA has successfully accomplished in recent months in completing last season in its quarantine setting at Disney World, holding a draft with limited player interaction, and then pushing through free agency mere days after setting payroll figures, what is about to follow stands as arguably the most difficult challenge.

Because, to this stage, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the NFL and college football have shown that sports contested amid a pandemic outside of quarantine can be, at best, a tenuous proposition.

To his credit, Heat President Pat Riley acknowledged as much in his comments after Wednesday’s virtual NBA draft, putting into perspective what the Heat accomplished in making it to the NBA Finals during their three-month stay at the Disney bubble.

“The challenge for everybody is that it’s not going to be like the bubble,” Riley said. “The bubble was not a cakewalk for anybody, but by the end of the bubble there was a real rhythm and routine of playing every 48 hours. And that is a perfect schedule for players to play, to recover and to play and to recover and not have three or four days off and get bored.

“It’s not going to be like that now.”

Instead, the NBA, like the NFL and Major League Baseball, is moving forward with a schedule that will include frequent travel, less rigorous coronavirus testing than at Disney, and no quarantine requirements for players away from the court.

“We’re going to go back on the road, you’re going to be on a plane, you’re going to go to hotels, you have to deal with the possibility of COVID being a problem,” Riley said. “We’re just going through all of the protocols at the stadium here to make sure that we can get through this thing in a manner where we don’t lose players.”

And, yet, that almost seems inevitable, just as it was for the Miami Marlins, and just as it has been for the Miami Dolphins, University of Miami and Inter Miami CF. In those cases, including coaches, as well.

“So we’re now heading into different territory,” Riley said.

And heading there quickly, with camp in session less than two months after the Heat fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Oct. 11.

Already, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka is talking about a maintenance plan for LeBron James, something the Heat assuredly will have to consider for Jimmy Butler and other high-usage veterans from last season.

“That’ll just be a balancing act throughout the season,” Pelinka said during his post-draft comments, “recognizing that there was an extremely short layoff between championship and the start of the season and kind of figuring out what’s best for LeBron, what’s best for his health, the team’s health, what’s best for the league and kind of walking that carefully and thoughtfully throughout the year.”

If nothing else, Riley said the success in the bubble allowed Erik Spoelstra and the Heat to forge a sense of identity that will already be in place for the start of camp, even, with the league’s anticipated protocols making it a camp like no other.

“I think that’s one of the things about Spo and his playbook, it doesn’t change too much,” Riley said. “He’s developed a style on both ends of the court, as you see, that he wants to play. It’s a little bit complicated at times, but when you have guys that have basketball IQs that are real high and are very skilled, that you get them back in sync.

“Other than getting their legs going, getting them in shape, but getting them in rhythm to play 5-on-5, I think that’s one of the advantages of trying to run the team back instead of bringing in a whole group of new players.”

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