Luke Walton sat behind a table with a familiar sponsors’ backdrop behind him and a microphone in front of him. But before the Sacramento Kings head coach could talk, he had to take off the surgical mask covering his mouth and nose.
The cameras on Doc Rivers made the veteran coach look like he had just been slimed before the Clippers could figure things out. As Lakers guard Alex Caruso tried to answer a question, someone from the media forgot to mute their microphone, bringing the interview to a quick pause.
Welcome to NBA Media Day 2.0 — the virtual edition — where there are constant reminders that everything is different from the last time we saw anyone play basketball.
Yeah, people are talking about basketball, but they’re also talking about Black Lives Matter, about police stops that escalated and about fighting for justice. The same coronavirus that stopped the NBA season nearly four months ago? That’s still a huge issue too.
But for as much as everything seemingly has changed since we last saw the Lakers and the Clippers run up and down a court, those two teams are hoping that the work they put in earlier this season will somehow translate into title contention when games resume in Orlando, Fla.
The two best teams in the Western Conference, teams that sacrificed their futures in trades for Anthony Davis and Paul George to try to win now, are about to enter an environment where no one knows quite what to expect.
“It kind of is a whole new ballgame. It’s almost like anybody can win — it’s why a lot of people are like it’s going to be an asterisk next to whoever wins. I think that just makes it so much tougher,” Washington Wizards star guard Bradley Beal said. “It makes an even playing field in a way. It gets guys back healthy for teams that didn’t have that during year. It gives guys time to rest and get back into it. It’s an even playing field. If you were hot during the year, hell, I might be cold when I get back.”
But Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, Lakers coach Frank Vogel and Clippers coach Doc Rivers all said the same thing during video conference calls conducted with the media this week — that who they were when the season stopped March 11 is crucial to who they’ll be when games restart at the end of July.
Pelinka said the Lakers’ 49-14 record was “very significant in terms of a team identifying its fabric, its DNA and its chemistry.”
“Orlando itself is going to be as much of a mental test as a physical test because of the circumstances,” Pelinka added. “… This team of guys loves being together and love playing together.”
Beyond chemistry, Rivers thinks the Clippers might be a more optimized version of their team when they get back. They’ve been productive in their time off, stepping back and sharpening how they view the team they’ll put on the court.
“There will be a carryover. I don’t think we’ve ever had a chance after 60 games to take a three-month break, evaluate what we were doing well, what we were doing poorly, what we should’ve done more or less and then put it back together,” Rivers said. “I think that’s to every team’s advantage. I think those games matter because it gives you a window of who you were.”
One Western Conference scout is not sure play before the layoff will carry over.
“After a three- to four-month hiatus, I’m not sure if the previous games matter,” said the scout, who asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. “This is basically a new and much abbreviated season in which anything can happen.”
The scout said he’s fearful that the tightened training camps and fewer scrimmages won’t be enough to get players physically up to speed, and injuries to key players could be a likelihood because of it.
“And then what happens if someone catches COVID?” the scout wondered.
The uncertainties about how players will react physically to the time off, how they’ll react mentally to the isolation in Orlando and how they’ll perform in a foreign environment without fans and home-court advantages make it hard to count on much of anything.
“It’s going to be a challenge for everyone, from the top-seeded teams that have had amazing 60-game regular seasons so far to the teams like us who are trying to get into that playoff scenario. The challenge is going to be finding that rhythm again,” Walton said. “… It doesn’t carry over. … For every team, it’s starting over, really. We’re further along because now we know each other, but that continuity needs to be found again. And you’ve got a limited window.”
For top-seeded teams like the Lakers, Clippers and the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks, that isn’t great news if it’s true. Those teams in the old version of the 2019-20 season had firmly established themselves as the best, the most worthy of an NBA title. But on a day when players and coaches around the NBA sat in front of cameras for virtual news conferences, it’s easy to remember that the ways we thought this season could end are going to change.
The Lakers and the Clippers still might be best equipped to handle it.
“I loved where we were at, so I definitely hope there will be some continuity and carryover,” Vogel said. “How quickly that takes place is a great question mark.”