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Houston guard James Harden appeared to have lost some weight during the recent layoff. Could that have an impact on his play, and how will the shutdown affect everyone else? Nell Redmond/Associated Press

 

While the NBA’s ratification of its return-to-play plan brought a dose of good cheer last week, it raised plenty of weighty questions, too. How, exactly, will the league protect its players from the novel coronavirus? Will Adam Silver shut down the sport again if there’s an outbreak? How will ESPN manage its conflict of interest in covering and hosting the postseason at Disney World? Will basketball’s stars, who spent another weekend protesting police brutality, use the upcoming playoffs as a platform for activism?

Health protocols, risk tolerance, media ethics and social justice will all shape the viewing public’s reintroduction to professional basketball. But that’s only the beginning of a long list of unprecedented factors and extenuating circumstances that will complicate life for those trying to wrap their minds around the 22-team experiment in Florida.

Start with the timeline. If regular-season games begin on July 31 as expected, the NBA would have endured a 142-day stoppage since Silver suspended play on March 11. That’s longer than a typical offseason. By comparison, only 131 days passed between the last game of the 2019 Finals and the start of the 2019-20 season.

During a normal summer, players are free to travel for pleasure, rest, work with trainers, play five-on-five, participate in group activities with their teammates and gradually ramp up for training camp. The coronavirus has made those activities difficult, if not impossible, as players have been held in limbo, kept indoors, and barred from team practice facilities for months.

The sharp break from the traditional calendar should raise concerns about choppy play, conditioning, fitness and increased risk of injury. Some teams and players are likely to have accrued advantages based on access to home gyms or weight rooms. Houston’s James Harden and Denver’s Nikola Jokic both look noticeably slimmer in social media posts, but there are bound to be others on the opposite side of the scales. Ditto for major health issues, too: Portland is expected to welcome back Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins from long-term injuries, while Utah will be without Bojan Bogdanovic due to a May wrist surgery.

The NBA’s format presents challenges of its own. Each team will play eight additional games before a possible play-in round for the eighth seed in each conference. Plenty of attention has been paid to the possibility of a projected lottery team like the Pelicans or the Blazers sneaking into the playoffs, but the extra regular-season games will play an even greater role in determining the playoff matchups by sorting out standings battles.

If the NBA had skipped straight to the playoffs, teams could have used June and July to prepare for specific playoff opponents. Instead, there’s only uncertainty. In the East, the Pacers and Sixers are tied in the standings for the fifth seed while the Nets and Magic are separated by only a half-game for seventh. Out West, the Jazz, Thunder and Rockets are separated by just one game for fifth, while three other teams seeking a play-in are tied for ninth. Given all those undecided races, no team headed to Orlando can feel confident knowing its first-round playoff matchup, much less its path to the title.

Although staging the playoffs at a single-site campus without fans was a no-brainer from a health standpoint, utilizing an empty, neutral venue will fundamentally alter the dynamics within a seven-game series. The higher seed won’t have home-court advantage to stake an early 2-0 lead or to close things out in Game 7. The lower seed can’t look forward to the typical Game 3 energy boost. Teams with rabid fan bases can’t count on their crowds to influence referees, boo opponents or egg on runs by celebrating big plays.

The officials are another can of worms entirely. Will referees call more fouls because they can hear every slap of the wrist? Or, will they call fewer because players will be less likely to hunt calls and play to the crowd? Will there be more technical fouls because every complaint and confrontation will be impossible to avoid? Or, will there be fewer because there’s no crowd to increase the tension?

Unresolved Lincoln-Douglas debates like those abound. Will more experienced teams be better prepared to adapt to these new surroundings, or will younger teams be able to get up to speed more quickly? Will pure talent win out in a pick-up-like atmosphere, or will chemistry prove decisive as teams shake off rust?

Will shooting specialists who are more proficient at home than on the road perform better or worse at a neutral site? Will the bubble-like environment help teams focus on basketball or will it lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation? Will the public apply an asterisk to the champion due to the unprecedented circumstances or will it award extra credit for overcoming so many fresh obstacles?

There is a level of discomfort to mulling these questions, knowing that a positive coronavirus test could shake the entire playoff landscape, that a string of positive tests could potentially cease play, and that the country is enduring one of its most fraught moments in decades as protests continue.

But for some, there is a genuine thrill that accompanies the competitive unknowns that are baked into the Orlando experience. With so many aspects of game play impacted, virtually every piece of conventional wisdom from October through March must be reconsidered.

If sports were easy to forecast, there wouldn’t be much point to watching. In that vein, the most compelling reason to watch these playoffs is because they will be the least predictable in NBA history.

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