The past few months (wait, it’s only been two weeks?!) since the suspension/cancellation of both collegiate and professional sports have been an exhausting time. It’s been one filled with polarizing debate and seemingly endless political posturing. Society as we have always known it has simply come to a standstill, and debate rages over when and how normalcy can start to return.
Let me be clear on one truth before anything else: sports are an escape, a pleasant distraction from the tiring realities of life. And while they are important to public morale and interest, their absence is not the most pressing problem when there are people suffering both due to COVID-19 and significant economic issues.
However, the return of sports—and specifically, the NBA—is still a matter worth discussing, especially as it pertains to when and how. As a humble writer who has zero background in virological epistemology, here is my stance: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
But when (if?) the NBA returns to complete this season, it will definitely not represent a total return to normalcy. Even if the league returns by mid-to-late June, which is the best-case scenario according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, it won’t appear like nothing ever happened at all.
For starters, NBA games will almost certainly be played in empty arenas. Again, I’m not a medical professional, but I do think that it’s asinine to believe that people will be once again congregating in crowds of nearly 20,000 people just 2-3 months after they were instructed to only leave their houses for essential purposes. The fact that college football, which starts in September, is already in jeopardy only reinforces that point.
It was always difficult to imagine the Memphis Grizzlies playing in an empty FedExForum, but that will very likely be the reality.
Yet not every possible difference for the NBA will necessarily be a negative one. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic may very well present an opportunity for NBA teams that they have never had before: Players and teams can now reinvent themselves technically in the middle of an NBA season.
Think about this: Game six of this past year’s NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors took place on June 13th. Training camp for most NBA teams then began on October 1st. So most NBA teams have an offseason of nearly four months in which they can plan for the following season.
Most players use that period of time to work on their craft and improve their overall game. While there are plenty of vacations (i.e the Banana Boat Squad), these are the months when rookie become veterans, veterans become stars, and stars even become superstars. Greatness only comes to exist when no one else is looking.
So the players of the NBA now have an unprecedented opportunity in front of them due to these unprecedented times. They may not be able to resume actual NBA play for somewhere between two to four months, but they can use that time to improve their game in its various facets much like they do in the offseason. And with that opportunity, many could perhaps return to this NBA season as significantly better players.
Imagine Ja Morant having that much time to spend in the weight room. Or Jaren Jackson Jr. using this time to work on his skill with his right hand.
Of course, there are some potential roadblocks to significant improvement during this long layoff. It’s not ideal that players currently aren’t allowed in their own facilities. And with the emphasis on social distancing, pickup basketball is almost an impossibility.
But it’s probably fair to assume that most of these very wealthy and well-connected athletes will be able to gain access to proper facilities in the meantime. And much of the skill work in basketball comes from personal training, with actual basketball games serving more as the platform for skill work rather than the source of it (although to be fair, I can say from experience that playing in games certainly makes a player more comfortable with the skills that they possess).
Regardless, the 2019-2020 NBA season will be remembered as an unique one for all the wrong reasons, if and when it finally returns. But if it does come back in the next few months, the players of the NBA may have a chance to transform both themselves and their teams before the dust of this season finally settles.