Let’s try to make sense of what happened not even two weeks after the 2021 NBA season. The Nets appeared to be in the final after two big wins to start the season. They are now under .500 after losing four of the next five. The Heat, who reached the Finals last year, has the worst point difference in the East, thanks in large part to a major loss to the Bucks. Those Bucks, meanwhile, started 24-3 last season, but are only 3-3 to start this one. That’s somewhat the same record as the Warriors, who started this season in such dire circumstances that they invited questions about the future of Stephen Curry. The Suns are second in the West, the Nuggets are 2-4, and the top five teams in the East lost in the first round or missed the playoffs altogether in 2020. Phew.
Look, obviously a lot of this has to do with a natural bunching at the beginning of the season that happens every year. It is normal. It happens to many teams. There is nothing to be ashamed of. However, those oddities also reflect what has been an odd start to this odd NBA season. Augmenting an almost complete roster of games during a pandemic, with some teams with up to nine months off and some teams with just two, and adding a never-before-seen, compressed schedule (home and home series!) Was always going to has some unintended consequences. It is entirely possible, and frankly even probable, any mess in the rankings will resolve itself. (No one, even after 2020, is ready for the Cavaliers in their place.) But more than ever, it has become incredibly difficult to discother in the first part of the season what is real and what does not matter.
An all-season bubble was never a realistic option for the NBA. That always seemed obvious to me, although some people has wondered why the league went this current route after being so successful in Orlando. No one involved wanted to go through the mental grind of that level of isolation again, especially for how much longer it would has required this round. The cost to the league was also quite high. While the mental cost of the bubble shouldn’t be underestimated, on a physical level, it actually provided the benchmarks for good basketball. There were no trips. The conditions were the same for all teams. The venues were intimate and well produced. In a rather strange way, the bubble created an environment that, for better or worse, was exclusively about basketball.
What is happening now is completely different. The travel schedules are out of control. DNP breaks are already a priority. The home and home series has resulted in many splits, which can help some of the weaker teams beat those that normally wouldn’t. (See: Blazers other Warriors, Pistons other Celtics, Hawks other Nets, Kings other Suns). Meanwhile, most of the arenas are cavernous and empty, although you might still see a masked dance team performing for canvas. The Raptors has the benefit of playing in front of the fans, except that is happening in Tampa, more than a thousand miles from home. In a fairly clear exit from the bubble, the current season has introduced so many variables – from various layoffs to travel to the list of player-approved restaurants – wherever you look around the league, it’s hard to discern what is an accurate reflection of Basketball reality.
What does this mean? As a fan, what can you be really excited about? Collin Sexton looks amazing for Cleveland, and it’s entirely possible he made a genuine leap. But are you tempted to criticize its initial success? If you love the Knicks and are able to let go of your personality around them by losing, should you feel promising about the future? Or does a win other the Bucks, who lost to a team under .500 just once before the bubble last season, mean anything this year?
There could also be legitimate problems for teams. The Nuggets, for example, has high expectations after a berth in the conference finals in Orlando. The team has struggled defensively from the start, but was that expected after having one of the shortest layoffs in the league? While this season give Denver enough of a glimpse of just how good Michael Porter Jr. is, especially if he could be the piece used to acquire a superstar in a trade? The Wizards has a pair of wins after a 0-5 start, but what if Bradley Beal starts to question his future if the team continues to fight? While you really get a proper reading of your association with Russell Westbrook this year?
None of this is even to question the NBA’s decision to return. We has somehow passed that point in this pandemic, and the league gained credibility after the bubble. In a general sense, the rushed nature of this season pays off for power brokers if they get the financial train back on track starting in the 2021-22 season. But the games has yet to be played in the meantime, and it’s very difficult to separate the surprising nature of the early returns of the season with all the new factors at play. Even if some of the most unexpected emergencies linger, when will we know they are real?
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.