A return to the NBA season is shifting ever-so-slightly to becoming a reality, with Orlando’s Disney World appearing to be the venue of choice for the league to resume the 2019-2020 season.
And while there are some who will surely slap an asterisk over whichever team emerges as an NBA champion this year, that’s far from how the next NBA champion should be viewed in the pantheon of previous title winners.
When you look at the journey whichever team hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy (in August? September? October maybe?) will have had to go through, it will be the kind of postseason gauntlet that no team has ever had to endure.
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And that makes the next NBA champion, able to have overcome the stop-and-start season due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, worthy of being in the conversation for having one of the greatest seasons ever.
The whole notion of any NBA champion being less than worthy of the title is crazy.
In 2015, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors won their first of three NBA titles within a four-year window, and their opponent's starting point guard missed some or most games in each of their playoff series that year.
But that team and subsequent Warriors squads are still regarded — as they should be — as elite champions.
TEAM HEALTH NOT AS BIG AN ISSUE
The one thing that teams worry the most about going into the playoffs — health — won’t be anywhere close to being as big a factor as it has in past years.
The global pandemic put the brakes on the NBA season and sports in general, providing a number of NBA players with various bumps and bruises plenty of time to heal up and be as close to being fit as possible for a lengthy postseason.
Of course, there will be rust for all players to shake off, and some players won’t be in nearly as good a condition to start the reboot to the season as they would be if the season had gone on without interruption.
But the injuries that teams are often trying to manage and navigate around at the end of the season won’t be there because of the extended time without games and practices.
For the Celtics, the idea that you can essentially stay where you are in the standings, get Kemba Walker more than two months of rest with no games and practice while potentially playing a handful of games prior to the postseason, gives Boston a great shot at making a deep playoff run.
And unfortunately for the Celtics, the same can be said for just about every other team in the postseason picture.
So that means regardless of what your playoff seeding will be, regardless of how healthy your team as a whole will be, your opponent will also be close to being at their peak physically which means every series — more likely than not — will be harder to win than previous years.
And for those who point to how teams can still be impacted by players getting hurt during the ramp-up to the playoffs, the risk of that happening in games prior to this postseason becomes much smaller when you’re talking about a handful of potential regular season games leading up to this year’s playoffs versus the slate of 60-plus games they’ve already played.
Given the option of having kept playing while navigating rest in between games and practices, or having an extended lay-off where conditioning and rust are bigger concerns than the actual wear and tear on the body, the former is the preferred option for any team with legit visions of winning a championship.
NO HOME-COURT “ADVANTAGE”
The top teams spent all season working towards positioning themselves to host a Game 7 in front of their fans if a series came down to that.
But with all 16 teams likely playing games at one neutral site, the home-court edge no longer exists.
The playoffs become more like an expanded NCAA Tournament filled with “best-of” series instead of a one-game, winner-take-all format.
Not only does this eventually result in the better team winning the series, but it takes out of the equation one of the biggest X-factors when it comes to playoff success — fans.
Without them, it becomes a whole lot easier for a “road” team to pull off an upset or two in a series that they weren’t supposed to compete in, let alone win games.
THE RISE OF THE ROLE PLAYER
And maybe one of the biggest factors in games played without fans will be a team’s role players.
Often we see backups, particularly on the road, succumb to the incessant chants and boos and verbal barrage they get from fans.
Fans do it because they know as sure as the sun rises and LeBron James goes deep into the playoffs, those verbal taunts have a way of impacting role players in a negative way.
But if they’re playing in front of no fans as expected, role players and reserves can simply enter the game and focus on the task at hand without the usual distractions.
And the impact this will have on the playoffs is better play from the backups, which could mean the difference between advancing to the NBA Finals and becoming one of the greatest teams ever, or getting bounced in the first round.