NBA basketball will be back on July 31, after 22 of the league's 30 teams return to their home markets, quarantine, hold training camps, travel to Orlando and quarantine again. There will be "seeding games" to approximate the rest of the regular season, there might be play-in games and there will be a traditional playoff format.
If you don't know the key dates by heart, we have you covered. And as we look ahead to the Disney World bubble becoming the center of the basketball universe, let's separate fact from fiction:
Fact or Fiction: The return-to-play plan indicates that the NBA is primarily concerned with player safety.
James Herbert: FICTION. Even if the health protocols look reasonable, the league has not adequately explained its rationale for bringing 22 teams to a part of the country that is currently a COVID-19 hotspot. At its core any discussion of continuing the season had to weigh revenue against safety, and while safety was clearly a concern, it wasn't the primary one. This is risky business, with an emphasis on business.
Jasmyn Wimbish: FICTION. Let's not get this confused: This is about money. If the NBA's primary concern were player safety, the 2019-20 season would've been canceled. The league has yet to clarify exactly what safety measures and COVID-19 testing procedures will be put in place in Orlando. Obviously the league will try to make the bubble site as safe as possible, but by restarting the season it has shown that player safety isn't its top priority.
Sam Quinn: FICTION. The NBA relishes its image as the only major professional sports league with a conscience, but whenever that conscience conflicts with commerce, the almighty dollar wins. Remember how quickly America's most socially outspoken league shut up when its Chinese revenue streams were threatened? Everyone involved would prefer the season to be finished safely, but if that's an either/or proposition, the millionaires and billionaires here were always going to choose "finished" over "safely."
Fact or Fiction: The format is sensible and fair.
Herbert: FICTION. In terms of fairness, the format is pretty good, although I'd be miffed if I were a member of the Pelicans -- not only is the soft part of their schedule gone, they no longer have the tiebreaker against the Blazers, a team they've beaten four times. I cannot, however, call the format sensible. Inviting only the 16 teams in playoff position on March 11 would have been the simplest solution, and including the Suns and Wizards feels superfluous. This is going to take a long time.
Wimbish: FACT. On the spectrum of formats that were considered, this is the most sensible and fair. It gives the bubble teams in the West a chance to make a push for the postseason, and it gives the contenders eight games to shake the rust off before the playoffs. For contenders like the Lakers and Bucks, it will certainly be a sacrifice to give up home-court advantage and potentially the luxury of resting players toward the end of the season, but the NBA was never going to be able to satisfy everyone.
Quinn: FACTION. The NBA came up with a reasonable compromise for the bottom of the bracket. Every team making the trip to Disney has at least a puncher's chance of reaching the playoffs, and including "seeding" games should help teams shake off the rust. It's the top of the bracket that concerns me. The Lakers and Bucks dominated their conferences all season long, and their reward for that is … neutral-court series throughout the postseason? At best, this format renders the entire portion of the 2019-20 season that we've already seen meaningless for contenders. At worst? It actively punishes them, depriving those at the top not only of a reward for their season-long efforts, but any mobility in the standings to try to set up better matchups.
Fact or Fiction: The 2020 champions will have an asterisk next to their name.
Herbert: FACTION. The short answer is that it depends who wins -- if the champs were seen as genuine contenders in March, then it's less likely that their title will be seen as a fluke. The most accurate answer is that it depends on how legitimate the entire operation feels. There is no precedent for this, so I'm not sure how to account for rust, rest, playing every other day, the absence of travel, the absence of home-court advantage, relative isolation and the risk of illness and injury.
Wimbish: FACT. Assuming the NBA can even make it to the Finals amid a pandemic, of course there's going to be an asterisk for whoever wins because of the nature of the situation. Games will resume after nearly five months off, and there's sure to be some sloppy basketball just as there is at the start of every NBA season. Inevitably, conversations about this season will come back to teams not being as cohesive as they were before the hiatus. Regardless of who wins, the 2020 champions will have an asterisk. We just have to accept that.
Quinn: FICTION. If anything, this will be the purest championship ever awarded. The playing field is entirely level. Every team is in one place, playing in the same less-than-ideal circumstances, and their ability to overcome those circumstances will tell us quite a bit about their merit as potential champions. If there's an asterisk to come out of this, it's not going to be in 2020. It's going to be in 2021, when the 2020 finalists could have less than a month off before reporting for training camp again. If the NBPA can't fight off the league's aggressive timeline for the 2020-21 campaign, the 2020 finalists will essentially be knocked out of the race before that season even begins. The deeper a team plays this season, the worse its prospects look next year.
Fact or Fiction: After this, the league will make changes to its 'normal' operation -- i.e. a later start date, permanent play-in games -- that it might not have otherwise pushed for.
Herbert: FICTION. If there are changes, they will likely be the ones the league will have pushed for anyway, like the midseason cup and the play-in tournament. I can imagine a later start date becoming permanent, but not without shortening the season, which would require a shift in thinking. The league isn't there yet.
Wimbish: FICTION. At some point I think we'll see the NBA calendar shift, but it won't be now and it won't be because of the current situation. Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk just said that the NBA wants to keep next season as close to its usual timeline as possible, indicating that the change we're seeing due to a pandemic might not be long-lasting. As far as play-in games go, what is the real benefit of them after a full regular season? After 82 games, do we really the No. 8 team in the West to prove it is indeed 3.5 games better than the No. 9 team?
Quinn: FACT. Inertia may prevent the NBA from ever adopting a December-August schedule, but excitement tends to fuel change in basketball. Consider the All-Star Game format. The Elam Ending produced a legendary ending, and now the league is expected to keep it for future All-Star Games. Multiply that by 10, and that will be the response to Ja Morant battling Zion Williamson or Damian Lillard for a playoff spot.
Fans are going to enjoy the play-in format. There is no meaningful bloc of owners opposed to its long-term adoption akin to the Eastern Conference standing against a 1-16 format, so voting it through should be fairly simple. While its exact form may be tweaked, play-ins aren't going anywhere.
Fact or Fiction: The Bucks, Clippers and Lakers should still be considered the only true title contenders.
Herbert: FACT. You can convince me that there is more variance now, but if any other team were to win it all, it would be considered an upset. I'm interested in teams like the Rockets, Raptors, Celtics and Sixers, but I'm even more bullish on the Clippers than I was when I picked them in the preseason, given that Kawhi Leonard has had some time to rest his knee.
Wimbish: FICTION. Playing at a neutral site, where essentially every contending team will have most or all of its key pieces healthy, will create an even playing field when the season resumes. It may be a while before teams are able to get back into rhythm and rebuild chemistry, so we could see teams with an array of shooters like the Rockets or Heat have more success than they otherwise would have. The Lakers, Clippers and Bucks may reassert themselves as the favorites, but it won't be a cakewalk to the Finals for anyone.
Quinn: FICTION. We have absolutely no idea what kind of basketball we're about to see at Disney, so ruling anyone out feels premature. There is likely to be quite a bit of variability in performance in Orlando, and that creates at least two new theoretical contenders. At the high end, the Rockets could easily just shoot their way past the competition if opponents aren't up to snuff physically. At the low end, if rust ruins everybody's shooting, the 76ers seem far better equipped to play "bully ball" than the rest of the field.
No team better embodies the chaos that is about to unfold than the Sixers. Just look at their home-road splits. They are 29-2 at home, but 10-24 on the road. Every game they play from this point will be on a neutral court. Will they wither without home games or thrive without road trips?