The NBA that is scheduled to resume play at the end of July will look a lot different than it did when it was shut down, starting with the bubble environment the teams will be operating within at Disney World’s sports compound in Orlando, Fla., but certainly not ending there.
When the league stopped playing, 75% of the regular-season games were complete — a substantial sample size to make projections and predictions. The hierarchy was easy to sort out.
The Lakers, led by an MVP-type season from LeBron James and his dynamic partnership with Anthony Davis, were cruising in the Western Conference, where a collision with the Clippers loomed. To prepare for that battle, the Clippers had fortified their roster, trading for a starter in Marcus Morris and signing bench additions in Reggie Jackson and Joakim Noah. In the East, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks were better than everyone else. They had the reigning most valuable player, plenty of depth and the experience from the disappointment in the conference finals the previous year.
But since then, much has changed. Some players have had medical procedures that will prohibit them from coming back next month. What might happen when the games start is now anyone’s guess. However, in conversations with coaches, scouts and executives, a couple of likelihoods have become clear.
One, for a team to be successful in Orlando it will have to manage the challenges of the isolation, the sterile arenas and the consistent grind of games.
The format “favors the team that can overcome the mental anguish that a quarantine has to produce,” said one NBA team executive. “It’s totally unnatural in every way for those guys. Mental toughness is more important than almost anything else heading there.”
The Lakers and the Clippers check that box — no team has been challenged as the Lakers have this season, starting the season in the middle of an international drama in China and having to process Kobe Bryant’s tragic death midway through the year.
Mental skills coach Graham Betchart, who has worked with the Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs and players such as Orlando’s Aaron Gordon, said any team just now thinking about how to handle the mental challenges of the Orlando bubble is too late.
“It’s like trying to lift weights an hour before a weight-lifting competition,” he said. “… This would be the moment when you’d need it. This will be the moment when you’ll see what you’ve done. It’s all mental right now. Those who have been doing mental training have a huge advantage.
“… If you haven’t been practicing those skills, it’s going to be very hard.”
Betchart said his teachings center on a willingness to be completely present in a moment no matter what — something he called the “single hardest thing to do in the world.” And the isolation of playing in Orlando without family for at least a month will affect players' focus and performances.
“We don’t want to be like Tom Hanks in 'Cast Away,' living by ourselves on an island. It’s horrendous. My guess is this will be the hardest thing ever. Being away from your family, being away from your friends, that’s torture.
“… I think this will shift how people look at mental training. It’s something where you have to do it proactively — not reactively.”
While the mental toll on players is a major factor, how they will react to the season shutdown and reboot physically are big concerns.
Scouts don’t believe the slowdown will work against the Lakers, who had won 11 of their last 13 games before suspension of play. James’ dedication to his physical condition is legendary in NBA circles, and expectations are that he’ll be in incredible shape once games resume.
The Clippers too have had their toughness tested, albeit in more subtle ways, having their culture adjusted thanks to the influx of two superstar players. But the team had worked through some hiccups and seemed to be playing its best basketball as the season stopped.
While the Bucks had to respond to blowing a 2-0 lead in the conference finals last year, and they’ve done it by being the best team in the NBA this season essentially from the start, the team that beat them in the playoffs a year ago has considerable buzz as it heads to Orlando.
The Toronto Raptors are a favorite of scouts, coaches and executives because of their adaptability. A year ago, the roster perfectly handled Kawhi Leonard’s load management plans, and this season they didn’t flinch after Leonard and starting guard Danny Green left for the Clippers and Lakers, respectively.
One Eastern Conference coach said the Raptors’ length gives them a chance to defend the Bucks’ superior size. Another executive said he thought coach Nick Nurse’s ability to motivate — and, if necessary, manufacture slights — would be meaningful inside the Orlando bubble.
“I mean, we’re right in the same position we were a year ago going into it,” Nurse said during a recent conference call. “Nobody was talking about us. You know, [it was], ‘Hey, they've got a decent team up there,’ but they weren’t really talking about us as a serious threat, and long may it continue. We’re looking forward to it.”
Health and whether players are in shape are important factors too.
One Eastern Conference assistant coach said he’s more skeptical of Philadelphia because of how the long layoff could affect center Joel Embiid and his body. A Western Conference scout has severely downgraded Utah after it was announced that Bojan Bogdanovic would miss the resumption of the season after having wrist surgery. Same goes for the San Antonio Spurs’ chances as a frisky No. 8 seed now that LaMarcus Aldridge is done for the year too.
Other factors will come into play. One scout pointed to a potential Lakers-Clippers playoff series. When those teams have played, Lakers fans have traditionally been as loud — if not louder — than Clippers fans, even at Clippers home games. But in an empty arena? That energy balance wouldn’t matter.