Ira Winderman: NBA's bubble basketball lessons should endure beyond Finals

·7 min read

There came a point where there no longer could be questions about the legitimacy of the NBA’s bubble setting at Disney World and the value of the results produced to this stage.

That point came when Nate McMillan, Brett Brown and Doc Rivers were fired.

Because you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that the neutral courts, the absence of fans, the quarantine hotel life for weeks on end make it less than valid — and then dismiss respected coaches based on the results.

Basketball in a bubble has proven to be very real, highly competitive, a made-for-television production that has managed to make the game the centerpiece. Look no further than Friday night’s Game 5 between the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers.

It was early in the process when one of the network announcers, during a private moment, confided that seeing the bubble through to its completion would go up there on Adam Silver’s resume with the commissioner running disgraced former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald T. Sterling out of the game.

It started in a perfect storm, COVID-19 on one side, the growing alarm of systemic racism on the other. Both have been addressed with concern for both players and product.

The messaging has been ever present. But on game days, the game has remained the main thing, players rising from their knees to produce a game familiar and comforting, and, as Friday showed, compelling.

It has been these games wrapped in the bubble that introduced us to Michael Porter Jr. and Luguentz Dort, reintroduced us to Jusuf Nurkic and T.J. Warren, reinforced the trust in the passion of Fred VanVleet, Marcus Smart, Luka Doncic, Devin Booker and, yes, very much, Jimmy Butler.

There also have been innovations, byproducts of the fresh thinking, that, if feasible, deserve to endure.

— The play-in round created meaning until the final day of the regular season for practically the entire Western Conference, making the Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings feel alive at a time when they otherwise could have contemplated hoarding of Ping-Pong balls.

— The layout of the courts, with plenty of runoff areas behind the baselines have had players, driving harder, diving harder and dashing back faster, without the fear and reality of crashing into spectators or cameramen who long had seemed too close for comfort.

— The wider buffers along sidelines, have allowed officials to officiate, without concern of block/charge with courtside servers.

— Audio of referee conversations with the scoring table, so at least you knew why those infernal replays were deemed necessary, with the bonus of real-time clarification.

Granted, the NBA is not going to displace front-row patrons — “Sorry, Jack, you can’t handle the truth” — but at least there is the recognition of greater safety potential.

There also has been another unspoken truth in the way the resumption was handled: The crappy teams weren’t invited. There was no need to have to witness the incompetence of the New York Knicks, mediocrity of the Charlotte Hornets, indifference to a gap season by the Golden State Warriors. Think about it, three months without a meaningless matchup.

Most of all, there have been the lessons from the very reason that the bubble was established, of social distancing, mask safety, rapid testing and the type of basic hygiene that should not require a pandemic to be put in place. (Why was licking one’s hands before handling the ball ever considered a reasonable practice?)

A new champion, in the end, will be the byproduct, be it the Lakers or Heat.

A league able to find a safe, compelling completion stands as the ultimate testament of perseverance.

And soon the next challenge will immediately be put into place:

Find a way to do it again.

IN THE LANE

TIMING ISSUE: NBA Executive of the Year tends to be viewed as a secondary award, one that comes without tangible metrics, the lone official NBA award voted upon by the candidates themselves. Until 2009, the balloting wasn’t even handled by the league, instead administered by The Sporting News. This past week, the 2020 version went to Los Angeles Clippers President Lawrence Frank, with the league noting, “the voting was conducted based on regular-season games played through March 11,” so as not to deny opportunity for teams not invited to the restart. In fact, if any award should include the postseason, this is it. Because for all the Clippers did in adding Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, all it got them was a second-round ouster and renewed questions about chemistry. Runner-up Sam Presti, of the Oklahoma City Thunder, by contrast flipped a declining Russell Westbrook and George into a renewed future for his franchise. The Heat’s Pat Riley, who placed third, led a front office that drafted Tyler Herro, signed Jimmy Butler, traded for Meyers Leonard, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala, and developed Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn. And the Brooklyn Nets’ Sean Marks finishing in a tie for 15th after landing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving? Yes, there were injuries there, but the Nets’ long-term outlook actually might be brighter than the Clippers’. Isn’t that what executive touch is all about? Or perhaps it’s all about winning, which hardly accounts for the Los Angeles Lakers’ Rob Pelinka placing seventh.

LESSON LEARNED: In writing about his move into music, Chris Bosh used his latest blog entry to discuss the process of reinvention. He paralleled it to the adjustment required when he signed with the Heat in 2010 to play alongside LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. “People sometimes think that having to shift your style to mesh with your team means sacrificing your best game,” Bosh wrote. “I think it’s the opposite: When you’re forced to evolve, you pick up skills you’d never even thought of having before. I was no slouch as a defender in Toronto, but offensive domination had always been top of mind. Here, defense was king. And even when we were driving toward the basket, I was a facilitator above all else.”

LESSON LEARNED 2.0: Then there is the take of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on the LeBron in this year’s NBA Finals compared to the LeBron he witnessed struggle in defeat in the 2011 Finals with the Heat against the Mavericks. “It’s night and day,” Cuban told Basketball News. “He has the basketball-IQ level now; he’s just a basketball savant. The way he sees and reads what’s happening on the court in real time and stays three steps ahead is incredible. And that’s what makes him special — in addition to his athleticism. He didn’t have that (back in 2011). We would run a zone against him and he would hesitate and not know what to do. He’s not going to hesitate now. He knows exactly what’s coming and what to do and anticipates it.”

FINALS VIEW: Count Hornets coach James Borrego among the fans of the cohesion that helped Erik Spoelstra take the Heat back to the NBA Finals. “What they have had is continuity and consistency. I think that is my hope and desire,” he told the Charlotte Observer. “You have to stay disciplined as an organization when the noise around you is saying, ‘It needs to be X, Y or Z.’ You have to have discipline.”

NUMBER

74.% of bets MGM handled on the side of the Lakers, according to Yahoo Sports, in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, the game when the Heat’s Tyler Herro converted a 3-pointer with 1.1 seconds left to close the scoring in the Heat’s 102-96 loss. The line on the game, according to USA Today, varied from 6 1/2 to 7 to 7 1/2. In other words, the ultimate bad beat.

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(Ira Winderman is a sports writer and columnist for the South Florida Sun Sentinal.)

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