NBA: Primed to overcome Covid in 2020-21

With Covid-19 continuing to batter the US, the NBA is unsure when or how the next season will begin, and it remains to be seen how it will weather the challenge that has upended sport and life the world over.

The Los Angeles Lakers led by LeBron James (left) played outstanding defence in the playoffs, while forward Anthony Davis provided versatile play.   -  AFP

The Los Angeles Lakers’ winning their 17th NBA title – a joint record held with the Boston Celtics – was a fitting tribute to their talisman, the late Kobe Bryant, and a remarkable end to a weird NBA season. With Covid-19 wreaking havoc, the NBA had to suspend its regular season in March after many players tested positive to the virus.

Faced with the possibility of an abandoned year and severe loss of revenues, the NBA decided to hold a short lead-up to the playoffs with teams still in contention in an isolation environment, the Bubble in Disneyland, Florida. From late July to mid-August, 22 teams vied for the 16 slots with some having already booked their place in the post-season. The NBA also introduced a “play-in” tournament that allowed the ninth seed to compete for a place if they were within striking distance from qualification – the Portland Trail Blazers weathered the Memphis Grizzlies’ challenge to hold on to the eighth spot.

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The Bubble brought out high-quality competition and games – the lack of spectators and a plain court with the spotlight on it amid darkness lent the players better depth perception that allowed them to shoot more accurately. Rookies played with less pressure as they didn’t have to simultaneously block out noise from opposing crowds. A collegiate atmosphere with players hunkered down in a campus-like resort brought more cohesion to teams both off and on the court. The games were a spectacle of good, high-quality basketball. The sport and the league also showed spine and unanimity in taking on racial prejudice by promoting the Black Lives Matter message throughout the Bubble.

The Lakers show

The Lakers led by the indomitable LeBron James, who was playing his 10th NBA final in his 17th year in the league, played outstanding defence in the playoffs. Coach Frank Vogel’s calling card has always been his organisation of teams to play good defence. By pushing James to play well consistently on the defensive end, something that he did only during pivotal games and plays in the recent past, Vogel set the tone for a much-improved Lakers squad this season.

Forward Anthony Davis provided versatile play – his 7’6’’ wingspan allowed him to maraud at both the rim and in the perimeter as a shot blocker and wing impediment while he could score both from the post and from the wing. Guards Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green stuck to their 3-and-D roles well, and aided by solid secondary playmaking by Rajon Rondo, the Lakers went 16-5 in the post-season to clinch their first title in a decade.

Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler raised his game to become a capable playmaker.   -  AFP

 

James was majestic. He showed no signs of ageing as he muscled his way to the rim by taking on defenders. His unique playmaking and passing abilities helped the Lakers – Davis in particular – to feast on hapless defences. His unrelenting focus steeled the team to compete for every point and to show no letup in the run-up to the title.

The East Conference finalists, the Miami Heat, were also a revelation in the Bubble. Since James left the Heat in 2014, the franchise was stuck in mediocrity, even if coach Erik Spoelstra always managed to push his teams to push above their collective weight. The inspired signing of forward Jimmy Butler in the 2019 off-season set the tone for a strong season for the Heat. Butler, a hard-working, no-nonsense, two-way player, had sought a competitive environment that recognised his strengths and built a squad based on grit. The Heat were a good fit.

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Rookie guards Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn showed poise and continual improvement over the season. Bulldog centre Bam Adebayo was an athletic revelation – he combined shot-blocking nous with the ability to defend at the perimeter and an uncanny ability to pass from the top of the key.

Butler himself raised his game to become a capable playmaker as he sought to drive to the rim to either draw fouls or drag the defence in and pass the ball to open sharpshooters such as the sniper Duncan Robinson or made athletic layups and dunks. Veteran guard Goran Dragić managed to thrive again – his wiles in the pick and roll and shooting helped the Heat ease their way to the finals with a 12-2 record.

The Heat underwent a setback when Dragić suffered a plantar fascia tear in the first game of the Finals. Adebayo had a shoulder injury that sidelined him for a couple of games. But Butler willed the team to win two scrappy games, taking on onerous roles as a playmaker, scorer and lead perimeter defender. In the end, it was not enough. The Lakers were too versatile and had more weapons to handle the challenges posed by the Heat.

Davis was the X-factor. He took on the duty to defend Butler one on one in the later games, and by Game 6 Butler was bothered by fatigue. James registered triple-double after triple-double (with 28, he is second only to Magic Johnson’s 30 in playoffs all-time), and the Heat finally had no answer, succumbing to a blowout in Game 6 of the Finals.

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James now has four championships – two with the Heat, one with his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and one with the Lakers. His teams might not have reached the peaks that the Michael Jordan-led Bulls managed in the 1990s en route to six championships (two three-peats), but James had the challenge of facing the strongest squad that was ever assembled in the Durant-Curry-Thompson-Green-Iguodala Golden State Warriors team. James has lasted longer than Jordan, carrying his excellence over 17 seasons, and he still has some more seasons to go. His record now puts him in the conversation with Jordan for the best-ever NBA player and deservedly so.

The future

The 2020-21 season is already marred by uncertainty. With Covid-19 continuing to batter the US, the NBA is unsure when or how the next season will begin. It is likely going to start early next year. The Lakers as constructed are primed to repeat, but they will have significantly stronger challenges this time around. The Warriors were decimated by injuries and squad attrition in 2020. Klay Thompson (recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament tear) and Stephen Curry will be back along with defensive demon Draymond Green. Besides, the Warriors have the second pick in the NBA draft and will refurbish their formidable core with young talent. Along with the Warriors, the ever-improving Denver Nuggets led by a genius pass-master in the 7ft Nikola Jokić and shooting guard Jamal Murray apart from a wounded Los Angeles Clippers led by Kawhi Leonard will pose the strongest hurdles for the Lakers.

The Golden State Warriors were decimated by injuries and squad attrition in 2020. Klay Thompson (above) and Stephen Curry will be back along with defensive demon Draymond Green next season.   -  AP

 

In the East, the Brooklyn Nets will feature the closest competitor to James in Kevin Durant, who is recovering from a devastating Achilles tear but has had more than a year to recuperate and who will be well-aided by All-Star scorer and point guard Kyrie Irving. The Milwaukee Bucks will seek another effective player to aid the reigning most valuable player Giannis Antetokounmpo or will risk losing their lone superstar to free agency later. And the Heat will be back in contention.

In terms of basketball, the NBA offers a competitive league in 2020-21, but it remains to be seen how it will weather the Covid-19 challenge that has upended sport and life the world over. If the Bubble is any indication, the league is well-primed to do so.