The NBA has undergone difficult years before, such as the NBA lockout of 2011, but never before have teams faced circumstances like they did in 2020. While the 2020 season has come to a successful close, many are wondering what impact this unusual year will have on the upcoming offseason.
Back to the Court
Near halfcourt at the Barclays Center, longtime NBA official Scott Foster watched Brooklyn Nets’ guard Theo Pinson dribble out of the final seconds of the regular-season finale on April 10, 2019. With all eyes on the Miami Heat bench, where Dwyane Wade stood after checking out of his final career game 10 seconds earlier, no one else was watching Pinson, nor were they watching Duncan Robinson about 20 feet away.
As the horn sounded and Foster grabbed the ball from Pinson, Robinson walked off the court after the 15th appearance in his rookie season. The former Michigan star played in five Summer League games three months later but didn’t return to the court in a regular-season game until Oct. 23, 2019, 196 days after the loss in Brooklyn. Almost exactly one year later, Robinson again left the court at the conclusion of the Heat’s season, though this time it was after NBA Finals Game 5, not a meaningless regular-season game. And this time he’ll return to the court in just 72 days.
While unbalanced offseasons happen every year in every league in every sport on the planet in which teams are eliminated at various points, this year’s COVID-inflicted unbalance is unprecedented. As Robinson left the court, Wade was receiving congratulations from fourth-year forward James Johnson, who returned to the Heat for a fifth season but was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves in February. Johnson appeared in the Wolves’ next 15 games, including their loss at Houston on March 10, one day before the NBA indefinitely suspended the 2019-20 season.
Johnson's new team, the Dallas Mavericks, weren’t invited to the bubble and, barring a reversal of the announced December 22 start date for the 72-game 2020-21 season, Johnson will go 288 days between games. The former first-round pick has missed time with minor injuries in several of his 11 NBA seasons but has never missed the final weeks or months of a season. Johnson has never gone 288 days between real games in the NBA, college, or high school.
Had James Johnson remained with the Heat, he would’ve played in an NBA game in August and September for the first time in his career. Prior to the bubble tip-off on July 30, none of the more than 50,000 games in NBA history were played in July, August, or September. And prior to the bubble, the shortest NBA offseason was 127 days after the Warriors and Cavaliers began the 2017-18 season just 18 weeks after Game 6 of the 2017 NBA Finals.
"They haven't played competitively since March," one veteran head athletic trainer for an Eastern Conference team told ESPN, referring to the Timberwolves and seven other teams who didn’t play in the bubble. "How are they gonna react?"
Medically, there’s obvious concern, but no one knows exactly how the players’ bodies will respond to playing 72 games in 146, or one game every 2.02 days. (In 2018-19, the last full season, teams averaged one game every 2.17 days.)
“When you have an individual who is a superstar talent, there is no atrophy with regard to the excellence in terms of the talent itself,” Darren Heitner, the founder of Heitner Legal and lawyer for several players in the NBA, NFL and other professional leagues, told BetMGM. “When you take time away from the gym, it may take a week or two to get back to normal, but you get back to normal because of muscle memory. I think the same thing is true here . . . I don’t think that talent atrophies in any way. In fact, it could end up being a net benefit.”
For whom could it be a net benefit?
Veteran-laden teams like the Milwaukee Bucks or Los Angeles Lakers, who as of now are the only two NBA teams with an average experience of at least seven years. After entering the bubble as the NBA’s most experienced team, the Bucks flopped in the first round, while the Lakers, second in experience, won 16 of 21 games en route to the organization’s 17th championship. Meanwhile, the Lakers’ NBA Finals opponent, the Miami Heat, entered the bubble with eighth-best NBA betting championship odds (+2500) and were one of the least experienced teams in the entire league as youngsters Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn, and Duncan Robinson teamed with veterans Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic.
Entering the bubble, the Heat’s championship odds were actually twice as good as they were entering the season (+5000). And while oddsmakers placed the Heat’s 2019-20 win total (43.5) 4.5 wins higher than the previous year’s win total (39), backcourt concerns kept the Heat buried behind the Nets and 13 other teams. Had oddsmakers known No. 13 pick Tyler Herro would have a sensational season, Kendrick Nunn would challenge Ja Morant for Rookie of the Year, and Duncan Robinson would become one of the best shooters in the NBA, the Heat wouldn’t have had the 14th-best odds.
“Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson are guys the Heat very diligently signed to 10-day, rest-of-season contracts and got them locked onto multi-year, favorable deals at the tail end of the season,” Jon Chepkevich, Director of Scouting for the Professional Basketball Combine (PBC), told BetMGM. “That opportunity evaded everybody this season because in mid-March, the pandemic rolled around when teams were starting to talk with agents and start getting contracts lined up with guys of that ilk.”
Chepkevich worked with Nunn at the 2018 PBC, an annual two-day secondary draft combine for players who don’t receive an invitation to the NBA Combine. Nunn wasn’t drafted out of Oakland in 2018, spent the season in the G League and signed with the Heat hours before the loss to Brooklyn in the regular-season finale. Then, Kendrick Nunn exploded with one of the best debut seasons in NBA history from an undrafted player.
Like Duncan Robinson, Nunn had 196 days between his signing date and the Heat’s 2018-19 season opener (though Nunn hadn’t played since his G League finale on March 29). And like Robinson, Nunn played in the 2019 Summer League and began training camp with the Heat on Oct. 1, nearly six full months after signing.
“As far as the impact of no Summer League or other potential undrafted guys getting exposure in the pre-draft process,” Chepkevich said, “definitely the lack of the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in April and no in-person combine events, it’s tricky for guys to get the exposure they’d normally get, so it’s entirely possible that somebody who could have a potential impact like that in a normal year maybe slides through the cracks this year.”
Online sports betting oddsmakers didn’t know Nunn’s strong Summer League would lead to an explosive rookie season, nor did they know Alex Caruso, who went undrafted out of Texas A&M in 2016, would become LeBron James’ most efficient teammate in James’ entire career. Of 864 possible two-man combinations last year, Caruso-James was the best, with the Lakers outscoring opponents by 18.6 points on average when both were on the court. Oddsmakers didn’t know, nor did the public, and if the public somehow knew—or sufficiently accepted a rumor of–the impact of Nunn, Caruso, Duncan Robinson, and other undrafted players who had months to prepare for their debut season, oddsmakers would’ve prepared accordingly.
“As is very typical in offseasons a lot of the [line] movement is based on rumors,” Heitner added. “Look at last week alone, you have rumors James Harden is going to the Nets . . . [t]he public believes there’s a possibility, and they want to get in early in case it occurs. I think that’s normal in a standard year. We’re seeing some of the same things now in a world dominated by the coronavirus.”
After Adrian Wojnarowski’s report last week of Harden’s interest in joining Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, the Nets’ NBA Championship odds increased to +500, second to the Lakers. The Nets’ odds might've decreased if they didn't re-sign sharpshooter Joe Harris to a four-year, $75-million deal. And, for example, in that case, their odds might’ve increased again after Harris’ departure if oddsmakers knew the Nets would hit the jackpot with a less-heralded player like Desmond Bane, whom the Boston Celtics drafted 30th overall on Wednesday night before trading him to the Memphis Grizzlies. Chepkevich believes the former TCU star could follow a similar path to Kendrick Nunn as a “tailored-made plug-and-play” player.
Bane, however, won’t have four months to prepare for his rookie season; he’ll have 32 days, by far the shortest period between the NBA Draft and season opener in NBA history. The 6-foot-6, 215-pounder hasn’t played since TCU’s loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 Tournament on March 11 and could make his NBA debut on December 22 alongside teammates and against opponents who haven’t played in nearly 300 days.
Or only 72 days.
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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88