Success And Failure In The NBA Bubble
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The 2019-20 NBA season is (finally) over. That’s not a cause for celebration, but rather a recognition of the longest, most tumultuous season in league history. After a season marred by a troubled relationship with China, the untimely death of Kobe Bryant, and a four and a half month hiatus due to the coronavirus, the NBA found both success and failure while finishing its postseason in the ultra-ambitious bubble campus in Orlando.
While our full understanding about the successes and failures of the NBA bubble won’t be known for months, and potentially years due to pending discussions on a new collective bargaining agreement, and the uncertainty of the league’s immediate future, it is fair to examine the immediate wins and losses of the league’s restart and conclusion.
Bubble Success #1: Health
First and foremost, the greatest success of the NBA bubble was that no NBA player or coach contracted coronavirus in Orlando. With fears over how the coronavirus was spread, the integrity of the bubble, and the potential for catastrophic spread of the virus in Orlando, there wasn’t a single positive test from league personnel who entered the bubble.
Between ultra-aggressive (and expensive) testing, detailed health protocols, and strict punishments for players who broke those protocols, the NBA found a way to effectively eliminate the threat of the virus from derailing the remainder of the season.
Despite worldwide paranoia, questions from players, fans, and media, commissioner Adam Silver’s ambition and expertise exceeded all expectations in Orlando and laid the groundwork for all professional sports leagues in the country to return to action.
Bubble Failure #1: TV Ratings
Though the league merged healthy on the coronavirus front, it’s far from stable when it comes to ratings. The NBA has seen a sharp decline in ratings from previous seasons, even with superstar LeBron James returning to the NBA Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers, which should have drawn increased numbers.
Whether the league’s increased political commentary is to blame, or the unusual restart calendar, midday start times, or widely available illegal streaming option are hurting viewership, the NBA needs to resolve the issue if it wants to continue to grow both nationally and globally.
Though it won’t be reflected in the domestic ratings, the NBA’s relationship with the Chinese government appears to be on the mend. After a year-long suspension from China’s CCTV, the state-run broadcasting system aired game five of the Finals last week to more than a billion viewers across the globe.
The league lost hundreds of millions of dollars from Chinese advertisers this season after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for protestors in Hong Kong, but the NBA appears to close to fixing its marriage with the country, an important step for the league’s finances and global appeal.
Bubble Success #2: Finding a Voice
While ratings might be down as a result of the league’s shift towards politics in this election year, the NBA and it’s players seem to be comfortable with their newly assumed role.
Last week during his annual pre-Finals address, Silver said he understood the complaints of those turned off by the league’s political voice but is happy with the league’s message.
“These are unique times,” Silver said. “And I think that given the circumstances, I still firmly believe it was and is the right thing to do.”
Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell echoed Silver’s statements during the team’s restarted season in Orlando.
“Look this is our message,” Mitchell said of his many statements regarding racial equality. “We’ve been going through this for not just the past six months but for four hundred years. If they don’t want to hear it then don’t watch.”
Whether the majority of fans like the message, or how it’s been portrayed, the league never shied away from its messaging. With increased attention to voting, with support from league owners, players have to view their messaging as a success.
Bubble Failure #2: Solving What’s Next
As the NBA succeeded in finishing the 2019-20 season, a myriad of issues remain before fans will see basketball in 2021.
While many of the issues couldn’t begin to be resolved until the total finances were calculated at the season’s end, there seems to be little agreement on what next season will look like. Among the many issues remaining, the league must decide how many games it hopes to play, when to begin and end the season, whether to account for the rescheduled 2020 Olympics, whether to return to a bubble or follow the lead of playing in home arenas like the NFL, MLB, and NHL and how to mitigate the losses from the pandemic plagued season.
Healthy discussions between the NBA owners and the players association can turn this failure into a success, but having a better roadmap before sitting down at the negotiating table likely could have resolved unneeded headaches.
Bubble Success #3: New Stars Emerge
Though viewership was down, the league introduced the world to a handful of new stars, even as LeBron James extended his stranglehold on the league with his fourth championship in 10 Finals appearances.
The Jazz and Denver Nuggets first-round series featured historic performances from Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray, while Miami Heat youngster Bam Adebayo proved he will be a force in the league for the foreseeable future.
Most importantly, Dallas Mavericks sophomore guard Luka Doncic proved to be worthy of his title as the league’s best player once James’ career comes to an end. The NBA had incredible luck transitioning from the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird era to Michael Jordan in the ’90s, to James in the 2000s.
Doncic has the talent to carry the load for the next decade and showed it during the Mavericks brief but spectacular playoff run.
Failure #3: The Other Teams
While the 22 teams invited back to the bubble were able to supply their fans with terrific gameplay, those eight teams that were left behind have been largely failed by the NBA. Though the league allowed the non-playoff contenders to gather for minicamps to help lessen the competitive advantage gained by teams in Orlando, little was done to support those fan bases.
By the time the league resumes play, likely in either January or February of next year, the eight teams not invited to the bubble will have been away from competitive basketball for at least 10 months. As viewership has dropped, those fledgling teams may struggle to bring back casual fans after such a long hiatus.
Players from the eight non-invited teams likely would have resisted gathering for a mini-tournament risking unnecessary injury, the NBA needed to find a better way to support the product of his less successful teams.
It’s a minor complaint but could have a lasting impact for some teams already struggling to succeed in the NBA.