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Breaking down the challenges and possible solutions to fan-less NBA games

Breaking down the challenges and possible solutions to fan-less NBA games

The NBA still has a long list of considerations to parse through before attempting to relaunch its season — so many, in fact, that a final resolution plan may not emerge from a highly-anticipated Board of Governors call reportedly scheduled for Friday.

This should register as a relatively low priority for now, as the league navigates an unprecedented global health and economic crisis, but the question of game presentation is one that will eventually need addressing. Without fans in arenas, silent games are a prospect that would pose unique challenges to both athletes and broadcasters — even setting aside the financial ramifications of losing gate proceeds (which, according to a recent estimate, account for 40% of the league’s revenue) through the end of this season. 

“I think it would take a little bit of competitiveness out, because obviously I think the fans and atmosphere make a big thing about the game," Zach LaVine said of the possibility of empty-arena games back on March 7.

"What is the word 'sport' without 'fan'?" LeBron James said on an episode of the Road Trippin’ podcast in March. "There's no excitement. There's no crying. There's no joy. There's no back-and-forth… That's what also brings out the competitive side of the players to know that you're going on the road in a hostile environment…”

Those grievances shouldn’t be quickly dismissed by the NBA or observers. A more engaged player population makes for a better product, and in a time of great financial strife for the league, setting a compelling scene (see: the litany of inventive playoff formats being floated) and attracting as many eyeballs as possible will be all-important.

From the broadcast side, the absence of a sonic wall separating those at home from those on the court also has the potential to soil an already precarious endeavor. For some, listening in to on-court verbal sparring could add a layer of entertainment. Sports fans, after all, are voyeuristic creatures — look to the atomic interest in “The Last Dance,” mic’d up videos and miscellaneous behind-the-scenes content as evidence of that. But to players, coaches, league officials, broadcast partners and many others, there’s potential for downside. The unfiltered sounds of NBA action aren’t exactly tailored to family viewing.

“I don’t know who I’d be more worried for, the players or referees at this point,” NBA referee Scott Foster said on NBA TV (via Tim Reynolds) when asked what challenges officiating without fans could pose. “I know I don’t want everything we normally say to each other going out. 

“I think we’re going to need to really talk about and analyze what is OK for the public to hear and how we’re going to go about our business.”

For potential solutions to the latter, the NBA could turn to leagues that have already resumed play. FOX, for example, has experimented with piping artificial crowd noise into its broadcasts of the recently-returned Bundesliga, to mixed reaction. 

At a glance, it works! There are blind spots, of course. Even with a controller toggling crowd reactions to coincide with the tenor of the match (i.e. a groundswell of sound upon a scored goal), glitches in timing could come off disingenuous, as could robotic roars for a visiting team. Pans of the stands still reveal droves of empty seats. But it restores some semblance of normalcy for those watching while mitigating against rogue vulgarities leaking into television feeds.

What it doesn’t solve is the athlete gripe. As Raphael Honigstein of The Athletic reported on Twitter, Bundesliga has not attempted funnelling that artificial noise into actual stadiums. Some teams have experimented with cardboard fans in seats in an attempt to cultivate a less apocalyptic game-night atmosphere and recoup some funds (for one match, Borussia Mönchengladbach reportedly charged 19 euro for fans to have a cutout of themselves attendance). But it feels unlikely this would satiate James’ concerns.

 

As with all matters surrounding a return bid, the NBA will need to get creative in appeasing all parties. Perhaps that means flying blind with in-arena sound experimentation. But as Sam Quinn of CBS Sports recently noted, the acoustic capacity of Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex’s courts (which contain approximately 20,000 seats) are likely ill-equipped to handle even simulated noise equivalent to an NBA arena.

Still, don’t expect the league to settle for totally silent games on television, of which the novelty could prove fleeting and the profanity jarring. Where they ultimately turn remains to be seen, as does both the format and safety of a hypothetical resumption.

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How Bulls' Zach LaVine surged to stardom in breakout 2019-20 season

How Bulls' Zach LaVine surged to stardom in breakout 2019-20 season

Every weekday for the next three weeks, NBC Sports Chicago will be breaking down the 15 full-time players on the Bulls' roster, with each week featuring a different position groups. First up is the guards, and to kick it off, Zach LaVine, who took another seismic step in his sixth season.

2019-20 Stats

25.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.2 APG | 45% FG, 38% 3P, 80.2% FT | 31.2% USG

Contract Breakdown

July 2018: Signed 4-year, $78 million contract (two years, $39 million remaining)

2020-21: $19,500,000 | 2021-22: $19,500,000 | 2022-23: UFA

Strengths

LaVine is a prolific and multi-faceted scorer, and he does it in every way you’d want from a modern offensive star. His career-high 25.5-point-per-game scoring average (12th in the NBA) in 2019-20 came on a steady diet of 3s (38% on 8.1 attempts per game; 36.4% on a high volume of pull-ups) and layups (8.1 restricted area attempts per game, third among guards), many of which were high-difficulty in the Bulls’ cramped offense. He carried a top-10 load, but his production wasn’t all volume and empty calories. Among 13 qualified players with usage rates north of 30%, LaVine currently slots fifth in effective field goal percentage (52.6%), and the Bulls’ offense was 3.9 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor — an 80th percentile mark, per Cleaning the Glass.

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With his head down, he’s near impossible to stay in front of, he can jump out of the gym and fire from the logo. When all of that works in concert — as it did in his 49-point, 13 3-pointer outing in Charlotte, among other explosive performances — he’s virtually unguardable, and the show marched on with remarkable consistency this season. LaVine started 60 of the Bulls’ 65 games in 2019-20, and scored 20+ points in 45; he logged more 30-point outings (18) than any other Bull had 20-pointers, and his six 40-point nights ranked fifth in the NBA. And talents come with an edge — consider that the Charlotte outburst came one night after being pulled from a game for "three egregious defensive mistakes."

Add strides as a defender, playmaker and locker-room leader to all of the above, and we’re talking about a burgeoning star in the league. At 25, his prime lies ahead, and he's gotten better in each of his two full seasons since tearing his ACL in 2017.

Areas to Improve

We have to start on the defensive end, a favorite of LaVine detractors and generally a mixed bag. The good: In 2019-20, LaVine displayed both willingness to consistently engage on that end of the floor, and the athleticism to hound passing lanes and hang with certain wings on-ball — all of which resulted in him posting career-high steal (2%) and block (1.3%) rates. Undeniable improvements, albeit in an aggressive, turnover-happy system. But the bad: Occasional lapses off-ball and on help rotations persisted, and the Bulls’ defense was 10 points per 100 possessions worse with LaVine on the floor this season. There’s noise in there — the Bulls’ most-used lineup featured LaVine and had a 97.1 defensive rating, he’s not destructive — but ominous nonetheless.

On the offensive end, there are two holes to poke. The big one lies in his playmaking. Of that same 13-player 30-plus-percent usage sample, LaVine ranks 12th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.23), ahead of only Joel Embiid, and 11th in assist rate (21.8%). Inextricable from those numbers is how battered down and ineffective most of the offensive options around him were all season, which allowed opponents to hurl double-teams at LaVine on a nightly basis. Still, as the centerpiece of the offense, there’s room to grow in the halfcourt consistently executing pick-and-roll reads and not succumbing to one-track mindedness on drives. Despite memorable flashes, LaVine's overall numbers in the clutch (33% FG, four total assists) lagged this season, in part due to the above factors. 

And a knit-pick: his foul-drawing. Given how frequently LaVine gets to the cup, and how much the ball is in his hands, you might want to see him average more than 5.6 free throw attempts per game — not a paltry figure, but just outside the most notorious offensive boons in the league. Some of that relies on getting whistles, but attracting contact on drives is an acquired skill. It’s the easiest way for him to bump his scoring into the high 20s or low 30s per game.

Ceiling Projection

Right now, LaVine’s production makes his contract inordinately team-friendly; he’s the only non-rookie-contract player in the league averaging more than 25 points per game and making less than $25 million, annually. There’s two years remaining on that deal, and LaVine will want big money at the end of it, possibly even a max. Does his ceiling match what that type of commitment connotes? That’s a decision the Bulls will need to make soon. 

Given what he's shown, there's no reason LaVine shouldn’t continue to blossom into a perennial top-5-to-10 scorer, and All-Star, as he moves through his prime. Whether he can drive winning basketball in Chicago probably depends most on the deck-shuffling the Bulls’ new front office regime enacts. At least individually, he appears ready for it.

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Bulls’ Top 10 Point Guards in franchise history

Bulls’ Top 10 Point Guards in franchise history

Every Monday for the next five weeks, NBC Sports Chicago will be counting the best 10 Bulls players at each position in franchise history.

First up, the point guards.

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Here, there are a wide array of specialties. The rugged defense of Ricky Sobers and Norm Van Lier. The sharp shooting of John Paxson and B.J. Armstrong. The unmatched athleticism of Derrick Rose. And so much more.

All of which is to say, none of these rankings are sure to be easy — especially for a franchise as storied as the Bulls. But here goes nothing.

Bulls’ Top 10 Point Guards in franchise history

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