5 things to watch for when the NBA season returns

With the NBA season on the verge of a return after a 4-month hiatus, here are five major things that we at Sideline Spice will be keeping a close eye on.

1. Will the bubble work?

Adam Silver and the NBA have gone to huge lengths to rescue this season amidst the pandemic raging through the United States and the world.

If all goes to plan, the 2019/20 season will be celebrated historically as one of the greatest feats of Adam Silver’s reign as Commissioner. However, there are so many pieces to this puzzle and all it takes is one small lapse in judgement for all of it to be for naught.

As recently as 23 July, another NBA player (Aron Baynes) has tested positive for COVID-19, adding to a growing list that includes 9 players and 10 staffers. Thankfully, the early testing procedures and security measures since seem to be quite effective leading into the season restart on July 30. What’s going on outside of Disney World Orlando however, is out of the league’s control.

While all the players, staff and management have all come into the NBA bubble in recent weeks, it is well documented that the staff and workers servicing the bubble such as hospitality workers, hotel staff, etc are all still coming in and out of Florida, where the coronavirus is running rampant.

Most recently, news has come out of Lou Williams team permitted absence out of the bubble just to hit the strip clubs. 

Unsurprisingly, as with any large sample size of humans, there are varying degrees of complacency when it comes to restrictions and adhering to these measures. 

It does appear to date that the safety measures have been very effective, and the league also seems to be closely reviewing and refining their control measures. However, as seen all around the world, all it takes is one small slip up to pop this fragile multi-billion dollar bubble. 

There are so many risk factors when it comes to this unprecedented NBA season, and unfortunately, there seems to be little reason to have faith that every single party involved will maintain 100% adherence to the strict security measures to pull this off. 

2. How will the change affect teams with a strong home-court record?

Milwaukee (28-3), Philadelphia (29-2), Miami (27-5) and, the LA Lakers (25-7) have earned the best home records through the 2019/20 season to date.

Of these teams, Philadelphia has by far the largest point differential between their Home (+10.4) and Away (-5.3) games. Their 15.7 point differential swing is the most significant in the entire league, with Miami as the next closest (+9.3 vs -2.7, 12.0 overall).

One of the most interesting facets of the NBA bubble is how this will affect teams who traditionally enjoy a massive home-court advantage. Without the electric atmosphere and rapid fans to draw energy from, how will this affect teams? Even bookmakers are aware of how home-court advantage changes the odds. 

It also puts the spotlight on what the actual value of “home-court advantage” is this season, when all games will be without crowds or the comfort of your home, friends, and family. This shortened season has neutralised any concept of home courts, and records are now purely just about standings and opponent seeding.

The NBA bubble has largely levelled the playing field when it comes to home-court advantage. In a bubble (pardon the pun), this actually presents a really interesting experiment that we wouldn’t usually get the opportunity to see. Is home court advantage an actual winning factor? Could the sport of basketball actually be played at a higher level without this external noise? 

Professional sports will eventually go back to being played in front of live crowds, not just for monetary reasons but also for the pure passion of fanbases. This season will be one of the most interesting seasons in history, as it will showcase what professional basketball will look like without crowds and home-court advantages.

3. How will this affect older teams?

The top 5 still active teams sorted by average age are

Houston Rockets – 30.1

Milwaukee Bucks – 29.7

Los Angele Lakers – 29.6

Los Angeles Clippers – 28.3

Dallas Mavericks – 27.6

Much was said earlier this season before the pandemic shutdown of Houston’s high-minute distribution and tight rotation of players. The Lakers are also well documented with their hodgepodge mix of older veteran players.

It’s a fact that contending teams traditionally employ more rotation depth during the regular season to keep starters fresher and limit injury potential especially towards the end of the season and playoff spots are clinched. This however is obviously not a traditional season.

During the regular season, 84 players (2.8 per team) averaged at least 30 minutes per game, and just 16 were north of 35 (0.5 per team). In the playoffs, those numbers have shifted to 62 (3.9 per team) and 30 (1.9 per team), respectively (per Bleacher Report).

On July 31st, there will have been 142 days since any player has played a meaningful NBA minute. This will undoubtedly benefit older veterans, who need all the rest they can get leading up to the playoffs. Load management is far less important without an 82 game season and months to slog through. 

The extended rest does however elevate the risk of injury across the league. Looking across to other sports such as La Liga, injuries have been far more commonplace. Studies have attributed this to an extended break and drop in-game conditioning, then suddenly being thrown back into the grind of professional sports. 

It’s anyone’s guess what will actually happen. However, we can assume that this extended rest would be less beneficial for younger teams like Boston (average age 25.3), who arrive at Disney World Resort on fresher, younger legs. Whether this will affect the league and the injury risk to players as we’ve seen across other sports, remains to be seen.

4. Don’t sleep on the Raptors’ chances of repeating.

If NBA championship odds are an accurate indicator of favouritism, the Raptors are the 6th favourite to win the title. Whilst I understand that they don’t have Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard this season, that’s incredibly disrespectful for the defending champions. Outside the “big three” (Milwaukee Bucks, LA Lakers, LA Clippers), I believe that the Raptors have the best chance of winning the title this season.

Losing Leonard is no doubt a big blow to their championship aspirations. I personally think Pascal Siakam is a solid low-end #1 option, but you’d be forgiven for not having the same faith in him. Even in a best-case scenario, he likely doesn’t measure up to some of the other number one options on contenders.

However, what Toronto arguably lacks in top-end firepower, they more than makeup for with elite depth. VanVleet and Lowry are arguably a top-3 playoff back-court, Norman Powell is a contender for Most Improved, and was averaging over 23ppg for the six games prior to the shutdown. Ibaka and Gasol are an elite defensive front-court, and both can space the floor with reasonable effectiveness. Terence Davis is an incredibly underrated rookie and has shown a combination of elite outside shooting and elite athleticism. This isn’t even accounting for incredibly valuable role-players like OG Anunoby and Rondae-Hollis Jefferson.

The Raptors are not only surprisingly stacked, but they’re deeper than last season’s championship team. In fact, I’d argue that they’re the deepest team in the NBA. It’s true that rotations shorten in the postseason, but having this level of depth makes you a lot less susceptible to injury than any of the other contenders.

You cannot discount the intangible value of recent championship experience. Of their core rotation players, only Terence Davis wasn’t a member of the team last season. Not only have they “been there and done that”, but last season would still be fresh in their minds. The pressure of postseason basketball is less likely to phase them compared to most of their competitors.

Conventional and advanced statistics are also kind to the Raptors.

The adage “Defense wins championships” bodes well for Toronto. They boast the #2 defense in the NBA, behind the Milwaukee Bucks, and rank in the 94th percentile for both perimeter defense and interior defense.

As they proved last season, the Raptors have both the length and the depth to frustrate the Giannis’ and Embiid’s of the world on the offensive end of the ball.

The Raptors have two other key ingredients that are conducive to championship-winning basketball: 

  • Elite off-ball movement.
  • Elite shooting.

According to BBall Index, VanVleet (92.8 percentile), Davis (91.8 percentile) and Powell (91.4 percentile) are rotation players who are elite perimeter shooters. The aforementioned VanVleet (95.7 percentile) and Powell (94.5 percentile), as well as Pascal Siakam (90.2 percentile), are rotation players who are elite off-ball movers.

It’s almost unheard of to have three players graded in the top 10 percentile for both statistical measures, which bodes very well for the Raptors. Although they don’t have the same top-end star power, their statistical profile is eerily similar to the Durant-era Golden State Warriors teams, elite company to be keeping.

The Raptors resume their regular-season campaign July 31 against the LA Lakers and are currently 3.5 point underdogs. I wouldn’t be surprised if they win that game, en route to securing the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference.

I think that Toronto will meet the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals, and once they’re there, they won’t be scared, as they vanquished them the prior postseason. Don’t sleep on the defending champs. 

5. Will the Rockets’ unusual brand of ultra-small ball continue to be successful?

Before the season went on hiatus, one of the biggest memes floating around was the Houston Rockets’ obsession with small-ball. For those who need a refresher, they not only traded Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks but were adamant about playing the 6’5” P.J. Tucker as their center.

The Rockets’ results with Tucker playing center were surprisingly positive, with a 12-7 record over that span. 7 of those wins were against teams in the Orlando Bubble, which is a very positive sign.

One of the things that will be very interesting to monitor will be whether the Rockets continue to eschew playing a center and favour small ball, or whether they’ll cave once faced with one of the many talented big-men out West.

It wouldn’t surprise me if under-utilized but productive big Isaiah Hartenstein sees a much bigger role when the postseason begins, but if any coach/GM combination is likely to ignore conventional wisdom, it’s Mike D’Antoni and Daryl Morey.

To nobody’s surprise when analysing a team led by James Harden and Russell Westbrook, the Rockets struggle at both ball-movement and defense. When the oft-memed Harden is your top graded perimeter defender for the season (77.8 percentile), that does not bode well for your team.

One thing that is a big surprise is the Rockets being the 5th-favourite for the title according to oddsmakers. Not only do I think that they’re a much worse team than teams like the Toronto Raptors, but Harden and Westbrook have been known to regress significantly under the pressures of playoff basketball. Coupled with the fact that they’ve both just recently recovered from COVID-19, asking them to lead the Rockets to the promised land with next-to-no help is a big ask.

On the other hand, a large factor in Harden and Westbrook fading during the postseason is the immense regular-season workload they’re forced to take on every single season. Over the last five seasons, they’re the two league-leaders in usage rate. They’ve also never had the benefit of a four-month in-season break before. If they show no ill-effects from their bouts with COVID, the Rockets could have their stud backcourt well-rested and firing on all cylinders.

If the Houston back-court are at their MVP-winning best, role-players such as Robert Covington and Danuel House Jr are a strong enough supporting cast to allow the Rockets to emerge as a dark-horse in the wild West. I just think that too many things need to go right for that to be a likely outcome. Regardless, due to their unique and extreme obsession with small-ball, there’s no doubt that the Rockets will be amongst the most polarizing teams in the Bubble.

What are the storylines that you’re most excited to see play out once the season returns? As always, leave your thoughts in the comments below!