With the seedings finalised for the Eastern conference, here are my predictions for the first round.
There has been a lot of chatter coming from fans, players and media personalities about the respect the winners of professional league championships around the world will receive due to COVID-19 disrupted seasons.
The conversations have been especially loud in relation to the NBA season, which is set to resume on 30 July in the ‘bubble’ at Disney World in Orlando. Loud and respected voices in the NBA community have offered widely differing perspectives, with both sides showing genuine validity.
Retired Lakers legend Shaquille O’Neal was clear in his opinion earlier this year when he said that “any team that wins this year, there’s an asterisk. They’re not going to get the respect”. Conversely, reigning league MVP Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has the complete opposite point of view, recently saying that the title would be very meaningful as it “is going to be the toughest championship you could ever win”.
So what factors could potentially have a hand in recognising the eventual champions as worthy of the title?
The first factor I considered is pressure. Many of the elite players are known to produce their best basketball during big games while under immense pressure to perform. Think LeBron James blocking Andre Iguodala in the final moments of Game 7 in the 2016 finals at Oracle Arena. If you take away the fans and atmosphere, do you still have the same exciting heightened levels of play?
Could reduced pressure be an equaliser instead? Players not accustomed to or who are new on the NBA scene may relish the opportunity to play in empty arenas and take more risks without fear of fan backlash. Dare I say it, we could see Ben Simmons letting the threes fly without hesitation. Wouldn’t that be great.
No home court advantage is also huge. It will definitely will have an impact – I was reading an article that calculated that between 2009 and 2018 teams with home-court advantage in the play-offs won the series 74 per cent of the time. No travel also means the mental and physical toll of having back-to-back matches in different states is one less thing to be troubled about.
Then there’s the element of player fatigue. Thanks to the shutdown of the NBA season in March, the players have all had an extended period of rest. Some argue that this will be counterproductive and cause rust, which could lead to sloppy play.
Although, for high-usage, high-minute players, a chance to rejuvenate the body or heal small but prolonged injuries surely has to have been positive. Will this allow players to be physically at there best? A fit and rested LeBron James can only be a good thing for the league. Love him or not, he’s pure box office talent and entertainment.
Perhaps the most important factor affecting the respect that will be shown to this year’s champions is motivation. If players turn up without a real drive and hunger to compete, it will make for very uninspired play and viewing for the fans at home. I’m reasonably confident that won’t be the case.
Having to leave behind families could serve as added motivation to do well, or it could have the opposite effect. Families are not permitted until after the first round of play-offs, and even then the ever-evolving nature of COVID-19 may further restrict this. This could most certainly affect the mental state of the players and as a result their performances on the court.
Monetary compensation aside, the NBA has given the players the opportunity to express their support of the Black Lives Matter movement during the remainder of this season. Most notably players are permitted to have slogans in support of the movement on the back of their jersey in place of their last names.
Some players, like Spurs guard Patty Mills, have taken it a big step further. Mills has announced he is donating all of his earnings from the resumption of the season to various causes aimed at ending racism. That will equate to an estimated $A1.458 million. If that isn’t enough motivation, I don’t know what is.
How factors like pressure, home court, fatigue and motivations help shape and define the season remains to be seen. We can probably all agree that there will be an unseen asterisk implanted next to this year’s champions. What will be debated for years to come is what that asterisk ultimately means.
This season may be the most challenging yet due to all of the difficult circumstances. Maybe the asterisk will define that the championship meant more, not less.
We’re all just speculating, really. I can’t wait for tip-off.