When I sat down in late August to write this essay — about neutral courts and how they’ve made the 2020 NBA Playoffs the most wide-open, unpredictable tournament the league has ever conducted — turns out I did not know the half of it. Less than 48 hours later, police in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot Jacob Blake 7 times in the back. NBA players still in the Disney Bubble would soon go out on a 72-hour wildcat strike.
[Don’t believe the naysaying, by the way: Without NBA players and their new post-Blake resolve, arenas in NBA cities would not have been made available for voting on Nov. 3 — in exactly those urban areas where creeping fascism had closed so many polling places. Neither would the league, its owners and players association have pledged to “immediately establish a social justice coalition, with representatives from players, coaches and governors, that will be focused on a broad range of issues, including increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.”]
I don’t want to diminish those efforts. Indeed, I would like to see that coalition formally funded. But events that last week in August only confirmed my original premise: We are in fact witnessing the most mercurial, fascinating NBA post season in history — and perhaps the most competitively compelling.
There are two surprisingly concrete explanations for what makes these playoff games so damned watchable: First, the Bubble’s quarantine construct necessarily does away with home court, as all the games are played on either of two fan-less facilities located on Disney’s Orlando, Fla. campus. No NBA playoff tournament had previously been held on neutral courts. Ever. The effect has been monumental and fascinating — and here’s why:
Sporting events are interesting because their results cannot be predicted ahead of time. The less predictable the result, the more interest. Traditional NBA playoff games are claimed by the home team 65 percent of the time. Winners are not predestined, of course, but this makes NBA playoff games less interesting from a competitive standpoint than, say, NHL and MLB playoff games, where the home team only wins only 54 percent of the time, according to 538.com. This is why we love the NCAA basketball tournament: 63 one-off games played entirely on neutral courts. Any team can win pretty much any one of those games. That’s compelling.
The impact of neutral courts inside the NBA Playoff Bubble has been striking. Only four times in 73 NBA seasons had a team fallen behind 3 games to 1 and come back to win that playoff series. The Denver Nuggets did it twice this summer, in consecutive series. We saw the top overall seed, the Milwaukee Bucks, eliminated in Round 2. That’s happened only twice in 20 years. The Clippers, a 2 seed in the West (and odds-on co-favorite to win the NBA title, according to Vegas oddsmakers) also lost in Round 2. Make no mistake: Home court protects favorites, the higher-seeded teams. And neutral courts weaken that paradigm almost to the point of shredding. They replace it not with random results but less predictable results. And that’s more fun, full-stop.
Dozens of assumptions and conventions normally attached to the playoff crucible also fell away this summer. For example, the recently completed Miami-Boston Eastern Conference Final: When the Heat won the first two games, it conveyed a different brand of superiority — because they had won neither game with the benefit of home court. And yet, when the Celtics fell behind 3-1, it never felt insurmountable — because, if they were to come back, never would the Celts have to win on Miami’s home court. Denver showed that, on neutral courts, a team can find something, make an adjustment and win three in a row. Sadly, for me, the Celtics could not make that happen. But lo and behold, we do have an NBA finalist, fifth-seeded Miami, that no one would have predicted when these playoffs started.
The NBA has rarely seen this sort of playoff fluidity, not since the NBA/ABA merger (1976-80), which effectively shook the snow globe and produced five different NBA champions in five seasons — the only time that has ever happened. Forget individual playoff games. On either side of this outlying interregnum, higher seeded NBA teams (buttressed by this potent home-court advantage) claimed individual playoff series 74 percent of the time. The NBA has been around for 73 years. In that time, 1 seeds, 2 seeds and 3 seeds have accounted for 71 championships.
Removing home court — expunging the predictability of moving that enormous advantage from city to city in the 2-2-1-1-1 format — has proved exhilarating. The entire psychology of playoff basketball this summer has become splendidly unmoored.
It’s not all about neutral courts. Other factors have contributed to this year’s playoff unpredictability.
The Pandemic of 2020 shut the season down for 4 months, of course. If it had resumed in exactly the form NBA seasons and playoffs normally take, playoff results would still have been radically impacted. In four months’ time, season-ending injuries can potentially heal. (Welcome back, Josef Nurkic.) Teams hitting on all cylinders in March cannot expect to pick up where they left off after 120 days devoid of competitions, practices, game conditioning, etc. (Goodbye, Milwaukee Bucks.) Shaking the snow globe in this fashion proved disastrous for some Bubble teams (Sixers) and revelatory for others (Blazers and Suns).
But league hierarchies had already been shaken, pre-Covid, by the crumbling of yet another previously ironclad NBA convention.
There is an anecdotal but highly relevant and reliable order of battle when it comes to NBA champions: On either side of the ABA merger, the NBA has been a league of hegemons. The Celtics ruled the 1960s with 11 titles in 13 years. The Celtics and Lakers dominated the ‘80s. The Pistons were obliged to slay each of those dragons before graduating to the position of NBA hegemon in its own right, come the ’90s. The Bulls lost over and over to the Pistons before finally supplanting them. Modern free agency has diluted the staying power of NBA hegemons somewhat, but the Lakers (2000-2002), Spurs (5 titles between 1999-2015) and LeBron-led Heat (2012-14) have all occupied this familiar, dominant role in the 21st century.
Before the pandemic hit, in March, the 2020 NBA playoffs were already shaping up as the most wide open tournament since 1979 — because the reigning hegemon, the Golden State Warriors were dead in the water. They had lost Kevin Durant to free agency, then Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to season-long injuries. What’s more, the team that had dethroned the hobbled the Warriors the June before, the Toronto Raptors, had lost their best player (NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard) to free agency.
The Lakers, top seed in the West this summer, have advanced to the NBA Finals. They are surely one of the NBA’s pre-eminent franchises. Lebron James and Anthony Davis are two of the top 5 players in the league. But make no mistake: These Lakers are no hegemons. They finished the 2018-19 season 37-45 and missed the playoffs. This is an entirely new roster assembled under a brand new coach.
And they will face a 5 seed for the championship, the Miami Heat — a fitting denouement to this summer of surprises. The last 5 seed to make the finals: Boston, in 2010. But this was no upstart. It was essentially the 2008 NBA champion that had played most of 2010 without a healthy Kevin Garnett. The lowest seed ever to win an NBA title? The 1994–95 Rockets, seeded 6th but who just happened to have been the defending NBA champions. Those ’95 Rockets won a second consecutive NBA title without having the home-court advantage during any round of the playoffs — the first and only team ever to turn that trick.
Thanks to our unlikely Bubble Summer, no matter who wins the 2020 NBA title, that team will be the second.
See here two listicles to sustain you during the NBA Finals, which start Wednesday night, Sept. 30:
Five Best NBA Teams Never to Win a Title
- Elgin Baylor’s Lakers 1961-69: Obviously, we’re talking “teams” in the broader sense here — specific collections of players who may have competed together over the course of several seasons. These Laker teams were truly elite but couldn’t beat Bill Russell’s Celtics, basically. Baylor never won an NBA championship. The day he retired in 1971, the Lakers started a league-record 33-game winning streak. Five months later, in June, they won the title.
- Late ‘70s Spurs: What a fabulous collection of talent here — Artis Gilmore, George Gervin, Larry Kenon, James Silas, “The Whopper” Billy Paultz, plus an assortment of great role players including Mark Olberding, Louis Dampier and beloved Celtics cast-off Frankie J. Sanders. Coached by Doug Moe, they lost a succession of Western Conference finals, to the Lakers mainly, but they did blow a 3-1 lead to the Bullets in the ’79 Eastern Conference finals. Washington went on to win the title.
- Sac Town Kings, 1999-2003: The 2002 team in particular, the one that lost to the Lakers in that epic 7-game Western Final, was loaded, deep and aesthetically pleasing in the extreme. Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Mike Bibby, Peja Stoijakovic and Doug Christie started, but this team also included a young Gerald Wallace, Hedo Turkoglu and Bobby Jackson.
- Phoenix Suns of 1993 and 2006 (tie): The 2006 team of Nash, Stoudamire and Marion was superb but never made the finals. The Suns of Barkley, KJ, Hornacek, Ainge and Dan Majerle were outstanding and put a scare into the peak Jordan Era Bulls.
- Utah of Malone and Stockton late 90s: Lost two consecutive finals to late-Jordan Era Bulls.
All Bubble Team 2020
The five Bubble participants whose play this summer was most improved from March 11, the day NBA regular-season play was suspended:
1. Jamal Murray: Made the jump to elite NBA status
2. Bam Odabayo: Ditto. Played great all season (anyone in a roto league knows this) but the Bubble was his coming out party for many NBA fans. Very curious to see how and whether L.A. can deal with him.
3. Jaylen Brown: Became the 20/10, defensive stopper, Jason Tatum wingman the Celtics had hoped he would.
4. Tyler Herro: So-so rookie season was followed by solid playoff performance, then punctuated with eye-popping star turn in the Eastern Finals.
5. Donovan Mitchell: Already a star on March 11, but averaged a next-level 36 ppg in 7-game loss to the Nuggets in Round 1.
Honorable mention: Devin Booker, Michael Porter Jr., Luguentz Dort