The NBA restart: Hit or miss?

Playing without fans in the NBA bubble inside Disney World, there have been no positive Covid-19 cases so far, and the fixtures have played out as scheduled. On the face of it, basketball’s return has been a success, but is this really the case?

After the long coronavirus-induced suspension, the 2019/20 NBA season finally restarted on July 30th. Playing without fans in the NBA bubble inside Disney World, there have been no positive Covid-19 cases so far, and the fixtures have played out as scheduled. On the face of it, basketball’s return has been a success, but is this really the case? 

Both fans and figures within the game were worried that crowdless basketball would be a watered-down version of the sport they know and love, and LeBron James even stated in March that he’d refuse to play to an empty arena. Others even questioned whether the five month break would reduce the quality of play, leading to a spate of injuries, among other concerns. With the NBA restart well underway, we look at whether these fears have come true, and whether or not league basketball’s return has been a success overall.

Pro: The standard of play

Even though there were concerns that players could be out of shape, less intense due to fear of injuries, and uninspired without the crowds, the NBA is as exciting as ever — if not more so. Overall, scoring numbers have actually soared since the restart, with 15 of the 22 teams exceeding their averages before the season’s hiatus. Games have also averaged nine points more than before the break, and the number of 3-pointers in each game is up too. Furthermore, there have been more close games than washouts, and plenty of crucial overtime to keep fans on the edge of their sofas. This is believed, in part, to be down to the fact that eight teams out of the playoff picture weren’t invited to the bubble, thus leading to a stronger pool of sides.

Con: Fouls are up

Despite the high quality of gameplay, the foul rate is edging up and disrupting the flow of the matches. Take the Blazer-Mavericks game, where the Mavericks shot 33 free throws alone, ten more than they averaged prior to the league’s shutdown. The rise in fouls could be due to increased tiredness among the players, and is certainly something to keep an eye on throughout the remainder of the season.

Pro: Afternoon basketball

With so many games to play before the 2020/21 season, fans have been given a rare treat: afternoon basketball. While this usually happens on weekends during a normal season, this is still few and far between, and the earliest tend to start at 7pm ET. But during the summer restart, afternoon games have taken place almost every day, as well as days where basketball is broadcasted for ten straight hours from noon onwards. 

With so many people now working from home, this increased number of televised games has been a godsend for basketball fans and betting companies alike. Day games have been credited with a huge rise in the number of NBA wagers worldwide. Before the season began, Sports Intel noted that “the serious parity in the NBA may never be greater” which makes wagering on it “all the more fun”. As the pool of teams playing is more even, the return only makes this ring more true, and may perhaps explain this trend further.

Con: The fake crowd noise

Playing basketball without fans is an unfortunate reality of the pandemic, and the NBA’s attempts to make the games feel more normal have so far been mixed at best. Like many other leagues around the world, broadcasters have piped in fake crowd noise during games to make the atmosphere feel less eerie for TV viewers. However, unlike the NHL (which has won praise for its realistic, well-timed sound), there have been some teething issues with the NBA’s television coverage. For instance, the volume was too loud during ESPN’s broadcast of Bucks-Rockets with cheering also amplified at random times. Other games have even seen shot-scoring moments met with no cheering noise at all.

Pro: No spike in injuries

Despite fears that the NBA restart would lead to more injuries as players rushed back to play after such a long layoff, this fortunately hasn’t come to pass, even with high-profile injuries to the likes of Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons and Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac. “Up to this point, I would have imagined more,” sports medicine specialist Dr. Michael Terry told the Chicago Tribune. “That’s a testament to these guys really working to maintain their fitness to be ready”. Though he warned that the situation could change as the season progresses, so far, so good. 

Con: The courts

The presentation of the playing fields has been strange, as the NBA has chosen not to fill in the baseline borders around the courts, making them look empty and unappealing. This is far less effective than the WNBA’s approach, which added color to the sideline and baseline borders to match the rest of the court, creating greater contrast and a fuller feel. In addition, the virtual logos on the courts haven’t worked perfectly, and even start glitching whenever a player walks through one, making them look like they have paint on their faces.

Verdict: Hit

All in all, considering the unprecedented circumstances, the NBA restart has arguably been a success. Aspects like the crowd noise and court presentation are minor complaints in the grand scheme of things, while the rising number of fouls is to be expected when players are more fatigued. Most importantly, the gameplay itself is as good as ever. Simply enjoying an uninterrupted return is no mean feat either — just look at the disruption caused by coronavirus outbreaks in MLB. The fact the NBA has avoided this is to be applauded in itself.

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