Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
The Bucks won the NBA Finals, and their victory over the Suns brought about the usual questions that pop up after a championship. Is Giannis Antetokounmpo the best player in the world? Can the Suns make another title run? What does the loss mean for Chris Paul’s legacy? Not every one of those questions may be the most exciting contribution to the discourse. Still, they are better than the questions being asked at the start of the 2020–21 season, like, Will the NBA be able to finish the playoffs without a bubble? Are the coronavirus protocols working? Was this season a good idea? It was certainly a bumpy ride to the finish, but now that the season is over, it feels as if the NBA is finally headed back to normalcy.
It almost feels as if the basketball from last December happened a lifetime ago. We’re only a few months removed from the days of COVID-19 outbreaks canceling wide swaths of games, ILLEGAL postgame handshakes, empty arenas, and the especially dystopian image of masked-up dancers performing for no one with loud music still blaring through the speakers. Contrast that with the Finals: hugs and celebrations, fans packing the stands, only one player (and no stars) missed time due to COVID-19 protocols, and an overall typical feel and look of a championship sporting event.
That’s a pretty significant accomplishment for the NBA, and the league is not only indebted to the experts who devised the plan and the players who endured numerous inconveniences to pull this season off, but also to the arena workers, team staffers, and basically everyone behind the scenes who rarely get mentioned that allowed basketball to take place. The thrilling conclusion of the Finals, which featured two great teams putting on a hard-fought series, as well as the legendary performance from Giannis, also sets the stage for an intriguing offseason. Can the Lakers be players in free agency? Will the Warriors move their draft picks for another star? How will the Nets continue to fill out their rotation around their Big Three?
Of course, the return of everyday NBA talk doesn’t hand-wave over the pandemic that’s still very much ongoing. The Delta variant is clearly causing a resurgence in cases around the country, particularly among the unvaccinated. Mask mandates are coming back in places that had previously done away with them. And starting an NBA season in October once again after a shortened break will almost certainly have more mental and physical consequences for everyone involved, from the coaches to the players to the parking lot attendants and everyone in between.
Still, it’s a massive win and sigh of relief for the NBA to be in this place after a harrowing 16-month stretch beginning with the suspension of the 2020 season in March of last year. Since then, the league pulled off the bubble experiment, crowned two champions, recovered hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue, and went from playing in front of video boards filled with virtual fans to 65,000 people watching a Finals game together outside a sold-out arena. Even with fears of the coronavirus still very much prevalent, on some level it was incredibly refreshing to watch a Finals game that wasn’t an in-your-face reminder of the dim reality surrounding it.
None of this provides a guarantee the next NBA season feels completely removed from the pandemic. Once again, this country (and the rest of the world) is in no way out of the woods. New hurdles can pop at any second. And there’s absolutely zero consensus on the short- or long-term effects of cramming so much basketball into such a short period of time beginning with the start of the bubble last summer.
But with the draft in less than a week, and the draftees actually being allowed to attend, as well as free agency under two weeks away, for the first time in a very long time, it feels as if the focus within the NBA will only be on basketball. There aren’t any questions right now about protocols, multiple-city bubbles, a shortened schedule or how many “guests” players are allowed to see on the road. Maybe all those topics will have to be broached again on some level before the start of the season. But after a Finals that was entirely about what was happening on the court, the NBA appears to be on track to prioritize the most important part of its product: the actual basketball being played.
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