Oftentimes in basketball, it’s the little things that make the biggest difference.
As the NBA restart date draws near, you know which players are sitting out of the bubble, you know which teams are poised for title runs, and you know that Jimmy Butler is a psycho and is already receiving noise complaints for working out in his hotel room in the middle of the night. But you probably didn’t know how the following four underrated factors could play a huge role in determining which contender emerges from the Orlando Bubble as the champion.
Note: The “Contending Class” includes the following 10 teams. If one of these 10 don’t win the title, I’ll retire from writing for leading my readers astray:
1) The fallout of a mandatory two-week resting period for a positive test
Obviously, if a player, especially a star-level player, tests positive for the coronavirus during the playoffs, it’ll impact how we view the winner of that series. But what if, for example, two weeks before the playoffs begin, Joel Embiid catches COVID-19 from a bad Shirley Temple, and is forced into a mandatory two-week resting period? According to the NBA’s bubble rules, Embiid not only gets sent into Isolation Housing for two weeks and undergo additional cardiac screening, but he also isn’t allowed to exercise during those two weeks, even if he’s asymptomatic.
Two weeks with no exercise? Think about how you feel when you take a two-week hiatus from running, lifting, or playing basketball — it takes you weeks to get back into the same shape you were in before the two-week break. And that’s for recreational exercise, not NBA basketball. No matter what kind of shape Embiid was in before those two weeks, he’ll be way out of basketball shape compared to the rest of the players when he returns. It might take him an entire seven-game series to feel like himself again. It might take even longer for a teammate like Ben Simmons, who tends to excel with Embiid out, to regain chemistry with Embiid. If the Sixers are facing a formidable opponent like the Celtics in the first round, their season may be over in the blink of an eye.
How do fans and basketball historians reconcile something like that? It’s not like Embiid is out with an injury. It’s not like he’s out of shape due to his own laziness. Do the Asterisk Avengers on Twitter come calling for the 2020 Larry O’Brien Trophy if this happens? Better yet, how does this impact the way the 76ers’ front office assesses its roster and coaching staff heading into the 2020 offseason? Do they run it back for another year with coach Brett Brown? Do they give up on the Embiid-Simmons partnership?
The point here is that a positive test, even if it’s during the eight regular season games, could have some long-term ramifications on teams for the 2020 playoffs and beyond.
2) Role players on a neutral court
You’ve probably heard the Inside the NBA guys — Chuck, Kenny, Shaq and Ernie — reference the old NBA playoff adage: Superstars always show up, but role players don’t travel. Superstars are going to put up consistent numbers regardless of the setting — that’s what makes them superstars. Role players, on the other hand, play more relaxed and confidently in front of their home crowd. In fact, even in the regular season, there’s a noticeable difference in role player production at home versus on the road. Since the Orlando Bubble will be unlike anything players have ever participated in during their professional careers, the million-dollar question will be: Will role players play more like they’re at home or on the road in Orlando?
The obvious conclusion to this unanswerable question is that role players will play more like they’re on the road given that they’re literally on the road and in an uncomfortable setting away from their families. If that’s the case, then you should expect the role players from the teams that were the most successful on the road in the regular season to perform well in the bubble. The four best teams on the road this season were the Lakers (26-6), Bucks (25-9), Raptors (23-9), and, surprisingly, the Mavericks (21-12). Of those teams, the Lakers (114.5 PPG at home; 114.2 on the road) and Mavericks (116.1; 116.7) were the teams whose performance was least affected by playing in unfamiliar settings.
If the role players play like they’re on the road in the bubble, then the 76ers (10-24), Heat (14-19) and Nuggets (18-14) are in big trouble. Of the Contending Class, the 76ers (minus-5.2), Heat (minus-2.7) and Nuggets (minus-0.2) are the only three teams to actually have a negative point differential on the road.
Conversely, if role players perform more like they’re playing at home while inside the Orlando Bubble, then those three teams — 76ers (29-2), Heat (27-5) and Nuggets (25-8) — along with the Bucks (28-3) and Clippers (25-7) will be in great shape. Of those teams, the Bucks (plus-14.7!!) and 76ers (plus-10.4) are the only two teams with a double-digit point differential at home.
3) The impact of refereeing in an empty gym
The role players aren’t the only ones that will be impacted by the lack of fans in the arena. Referees, unsurprisingly, are swayed by home crowds and tend to call more fouls against visiting teams. Check this out: eight of the 10 teams in the Contending Class, were called for less fouls at home than their opponent during the regular season. The teams with the greatest home court refereeing advantage by this metric were the Mavericks (minus-2.7), Heat (minus-2.3), Bucks (minus-1.8) and Clippers (minus-1.6). While the foul differential is circumstantial evidence and isn’t necessarily indicative of home court influence on the refs given that certain teams play a more foul-prone style of defense than others, it’s certainly something to keep an eye on. So, if you notice that key members of the Heat like Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo keep finding themselves in foul trouble throughout the playoffs, you’ll have a better understanding of why.
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By Pat Heery | Last updated 7/17/20