Let’s try to make sense of what’s happened not even two weeks into the 2021 NBA season. The Nets looked Finals bound after two huge wins to start the season. Now they’re under .500 after losing four of their next five. The Heat, who actually did make the Finals last year, have the worst point differential in the East, thanks in large part to a huge loss to the Bucks. Those Bucks, meanwhile, started 24–3 last season but are only 3–3 to open this one. That’s somehow the same record as the Warriors, who started this season under such dire circumstances they invited questions about Stephen Curry’s future. The Suns are second in the West, the Nuggets are 2–4, and the top five teams in the East all either lost in the first round or missed the playoffs entirely in 2020. Phew.
Look, obviously much of this has to do with a natural, early season bunching that occurs every year. It’s normal. It happens to lots of teams. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Those oddities, however, are also reflective of what’s been an uncanny start to this strange NBA season. Ramping up a nearly full slate of games during a pandemic, with some teams having as many as nine months off and some teams as few as two, and adding in a compressed and never-before-seen schedule (home-and-home series!) was always going to have some unintended consequences. It’s entirely possible—and frankly even likely—any messes in the standings will sort themselves out. (Nobody, even after the year 2020 was, is ready for the third-place Cavaliers.) But more than ever before, it’s become incredibly hard to figure out through the early part of the season what’s real and what doesn’t matter.
A season-long bubble was never a realistic option for the NBA. That always seemed obvious to me, though some people have questioned why the league opted for this current route after having so much success in Orlando. Nobody involved wanted to go through the mental grind of that level of isolation again, especially for how much more time it would have required on this go around. The cost for the league was pretty high, too. While the mental toll of the bubble should not be understated, on a physical level, it actually provided the parameters for good basketball. There was no travel. Conditions were the same for every team. The venues were intimate and well produced. In a weird enough way, the bubble created an environment that, for better or worse, was entirely about basketball.
What’s happening now is completely different. Traveling schedules are out of whack. DNP rests are already a priority. The home-and-home series have resulted in many splits, which may help some of the weaker teams beat those they normally wouldn’t. (See: Blazers over Warriors, Pistons over Celtics, Hawks over Nets, Kings over Suns.) Meanwhile, most arenas are cavernous and empty, though you still may see a masked dance team performing for tarp. The Raptors have the benefit of playing in front of fans, except that’s happening in Tampa more than a thousand miles away from home. In a pretty stark departure from the bubble, the current season has introduced so many variables, from the varied layoffs to the travel to the list of approved restaurants for players, wherever you look around the league, it’s difficult to discern what’s an accurate reflection of basketball reality.
What does this mean? As a fan, what can you be genuinely excited about? Collin Sexton looks awesome for Cleveland, and it’s completely possible for him to have taken a genuine leap. But will you be tempted to nitpick his early success? If you love the Knicks and are able to set aside your personality being built around them losing, should you feel some level of promise about the future? Or does a win over the Bucks—who lost to a sub-.500 team only once before the bubble last season—mean anything this year?
There could be legitimate issues for teams as well. The Nuggets, for example, have high expectations after a conference finals berth in Orlando. The team has struggled defensively early on, but was that to be expected after having one of the shorter layoffs in the league? Is this season going to give Denver enough of an idea of how good Michael Porter Jr. is, especially if he could be the piece used to acquire a superstar in a trade? The Wizards have a couple of wins after an 0–5 start, but what if Bradley Beal starts to question his future if the team continues to struggle? Is he really going to get a proper read on his partnership with Russell Westbrook this year?
None of this is to even question the NBA’s decision to return. We’re somehow past that point in this pandemic, and the league built itself credibility after the bubble. In a big-picture sense, the rushed nature of this season is worth it to power brokers if it gets the financial train back on track beginning with the 2021–22 campaign. But the games still have to be played in the meantime, and it’s very hard to separate the surprising nature of the season’s early returns with all the new factors in play. Even if some of the more unexpected emergences endure, at what point will we know they’re real?