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Bubble progress report: NBA is back and surprisingly sharp

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I don’t know if this will work, but it’s definitely working

New Orleans Pelicans v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA is back in the midst of a U.S.-wide pandemic. It was the first of the major four sports to resume play, choosing to migrate to a league-wide bubble environment in COVID-ravaged Florida in the Wide World of Sports complex on the Disney compound.

I was skeptical but hopeful. I was sympathetic to anyone who said all sports should be shut down indefinitely. As Sean Doolittle, closer for the Washington Nationals said, “Sports are like a reward of a functioning society.”

It’s a test America is failing and a reward it does not deserve. But there is way too much money, billions of dollars, on the line and sports are back, baby. We are here. With the bubble in place (and violated in various spots), and the scrimmages nearly completely it’s time to ask ourselves how the experience of having the NBA back has been.

To this discerning eye, it has been an extremely pleasant surprise. The NBA and its broadcast partners have redesigned the visual language of basketball so you don’t feel like you’re in an empty gym with a chasm of unused seats. Instead you see the personality, morality and aesthetics of a professional basketball league and its players, mostly Black and mostly in their 20s.

We are also, shockingly, seeing basketball played at a really high level. The fourth-month hiatus has seemingly been used to get into and not out of shape, and as a time for players to nurse themselves back to full strength.

The Clippers, Thunder, Bucks and Raptors have looked really sharp. My beloved Memphis Grizzlies less so. Jamal Murray looks frisky, Luka looks dangerous and ... ugh ... James Harden is averaging 13 free throws. You can’t have everything, I guess.

I was afraid that the lack of fans would steal away the energy the crowd feeds the home team with and sap of the game of it’s natural excitement and feeling of momentum. Maybe I’m just a fiend hard up for a hit, but so far the games have not lacked for drama, excitement or execution.

It’s also extremely pretty to look at. The courts are well-lit, which is no small thing. I was fearful this product would look like a cheapie Summer League type of experience, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. The league is pushing all of its chips in the middle of the table to salvage this season. I’m not sure it’s going to work in the end, but it’s definitely working right now.

It should also be noted that among the major professional sports, the NBA also seems to this outsider to be taking the public health part of the equation extremely seriously. Forming a bubble seemed like the only hope. And this is a league where a trip outside of the bubble’s boundary or an opportune trip to a strip club for some chicken wings gets you a 10-day stay in quarantine. People call it a punishment, but what it really is, is a public health precaution.

In a world where nearly double digit members of the Miami Marlins can test positive for COVID-19 and then turn around and play a rival team in a baseball league that is not restricting travel (!!!!) puts into stark contrast just how seriously the NBA is taking this.

What are your thoughts on basketball so far? Has it lived up to your expectations? Do you wish the Pistons had received an invite (I’m still firmly a NO on this one)?