The Whiteboard: Why doesn’t the NBA’s planned return feel more exciting?

Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images /

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This is not how I expected reports with details on the NBA‘s return to feel.

At the onset of coronavirus, in the first few weeks without basketball, it was easy to feel glum. Sports were wiped out across the board, people were quarantined in their own homes and it felt like there wasn’t much to distract us from a depressing situation where people around the globe were sick and dying. Basketball was the least of our concerns, but its necessary absence gave us no reprieve, no distraction from the troubles of our world.

More weeks passed, and the NBA hunger pangs grew stronger and stronger. It felt like if and when the league finally did return, it’d be cause for celebration. It’d be our salvation from boredom, depression and the craving for resolution after an incomplete season was put on hold.

Details have been trickling in for weeks, but Wednesday’s reports provided a concrete structure for the conclusion of the 2019-20 campaign: 22 teams in a bubble at Walt Disney World Resort, a target start date of July 31, eight regular season games, a possible play-in “tournament” and then the regular postseason drill.

But whether it’s the murder of George Floyd, the repeated scenes of police brutality on peaceful protestors, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic or — for those of you with your heads in the sand who’d rather just “stick to sports” — the unsatisfying playoff format the league is employing, the anticipation for announcements of the NBA’s return fell flat.

So why wasn’t Wednesday’s big NBA news more exciting?

No one wants NBA basketball to return more than me — as someone whose livelihood and long-term job security depends on it being played, as someone who’s loved the game since he was a three-year-old kid transfixed by Grant Hill highlights on VHS, and as someone who, like many of you, could use a mental and emotional break from all the current troubles of our world.

And yet … even as a concrete plan was laid forth, even as we realized the NBA wouldn’t just jump right into the playoffs, even as the Phoenix Suns — the team whose miserable basketball I’ve covered for five years without a single playoff appearance! — got included and would be playing their first meaningful basketball games since 2014, that fleeting moment of elation felt hollow.

On the surface, the proposed format didn’t help. The play-in “tournament” is really just a battle between the 8-seed and ninth place in each conference after those eight remaining regular-season matchups are played out. If the ninth-place team is within four games of the 8-seed, they play each other in a tournament that’s single-elimination for the No. 9 team and double-elimination for the No. 8 team. The winner of those face-offs snags the final playoff spot in each conference.

After so many creative ideas like a World Cup-style group stage or more expansive play-in tournament (you know, that involves more than two teams per conference) were floated, this solution was a letdown. The Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings are all 3.5 games out of the 8-seed, and the San Antonio Spurs are 4.0 games out. What’s the point of bringing the Suns back for eight games when they’re 6.0 games back and have four teams they need to somehow leapfrog in a span of eight games?

(I know the answer is money, but it’s incredibly anticlimactic to expand the field to 22 teams and only allow one fringe playoff squad in each conference to even have a chance of making the final cut, especially with all the health risks of bringing extra teams to Orlando in the first place.)

On a broader note, however, there’s this in escapable feeling: While sports often provide us with a welcome distraction, that’s not what our country needs right now. Not when so many people are grieving and suffering. Not when our country is engulfed in chaos and conflict. And not when a simple “Black Lives Matter” post is somehow controversial for that one distant aunt on Facebook.

Maybe things will feel different once July rolls around, but it’s hard to feel excited about anything this week.

No matter your stance on the George Floyd protests or political affiliation, this social issue of systemic racism and police blatantly murdering black men is one that strikes at the very heart of a predominantly black league. For anyone to ignore these players’ and coaches’ anguish, to simply expect them to “shut up and dribble” for the sake of one’s own entertainment in quarantine, to use basketball as sanctuary from the uncomfortable conversations we NEED to be having about race and inequality at this pivotal juncture in American history … it just doesn’t sit right with me.

None of that is the NBA’s fault, nor is it reasonable to expect the world to go on hold forever until we can achieve the daunting task of solving a 400-year-old systemic issue. The biggest reason the NBA shouldn’t return down the road is ongoing coronavirus concerns, and since we don’t have the full details on how that bubble will operate yet, how often and widespread COVID-19 testing will be in Orlando, etc., there’s nothing really new on that front. One problem at a time.

But even if there are still two months between now and the eventual return of NBA basketball, Wednesday’s reports nowhere near matched the hype we might have expected even two weeks ago. It will speak to the inherent problems in our nation and in the sports industry if we don’t make significant progress toward justice and equality over the next two months, especially when the fans who have been noticeably silent over the last week start expressing their excitement about watching black athletes play hoops again.

Hopefully by the time the NBA is ready to kick back into gear, it’ll feel more exciting. Because hopefully by then, this country (and this pandemic) will be in a better place.

First, we still have work to do.

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