The NBA is three weeks from returning. It's quite exciting. We're used to a five-month hiatus between the final game of the NBA Finals and the first game of the following regular season. Now, less than three months will separate Game 6 of the 2020 NBA Finals and the opening of the 2020-21 regular season.
More basketball is good for those who like basketball. But unfortunately, the shortened offseason is inevitably going to impact the product on the court, starting with the December 22 opening slate of games. The league announced the schedule for opening night today; the Brooklyn Nets, finally boasting both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, will take on the Golden State Warriors, while the reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers will face off against their crosstown rivals and 2020's biggest disappointment, the Los Angeles Clippers.
On the surface, these games look excellent and will likely result in a ratings win for the league. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and Kawhi Leonard are the premier superstars in today's NBA. Even without Klay Thompson, the Warriors will still have Steph and second overall pick James Wiseman to trot out. They'll be exciting and fun.
In a normal year. But this year, the juxtaposition of last season and this will impact on-court play, especially on opening night. Durant will be on a minutes restriction as he works back into form following an 18-month hiatus to recover from his torn Achilles. It is hard to imagine both LeBron and AD going full tilt for the opening months of the season after a grueling playoff run that ended on October 12, much less the first game of the year. And Kawhi... Well, we all know about Kawhi and his load management.
The opening slate of games will merely be a taste of what's to come. The teams that didn't enter the bubble (or were ousted before the playoffs began) will have neither the desire nor the justification to load-manage. Curry, for example, will be raring to go after missing most of the last year with a broken hand. But for everybody else? The championship contenders who were in the bubble through September or October? Those teams will not be playing their best guys on a minutes schedule like they would any other season.
The players did get four unexpected months off, which will help in this particular area. But playing 35-40 minutes a night of playoff basketball for the better part of three months takes a toll. The teams in that position have championship aspirations this year, too. They aren't going to be eager to play their best lineups in a regular-season game for long stretches at any point. Winning regular-season games is important, but the best teams (Lakers, Clippers, Heat, Celtics, Raptors, etc.) are going to win those games regardless of if Jayson Tatum plays 36 minutes or if LeBron plays 32.
So, in an effort to save wear-and-tear on their stars, teams across the league will be load managing, and probably in a way we haven't seen before. Players like Leonard with degenerative physical conditions have perfectly reasonable justification to sit out every other game. Players like Durant, coming back from a season-ending injury, would be doing that anyway. This year, however, it'll be a part of a larger effort to preserve the best players' bodies regardless of any injury history.
Opening night will be a good example. We'll have glimpses of great basketball, but by and large it'll come in short stretches until the end of the season arrives and everyone begins jostling for playoff position. Until then, only the teams who haven't really played consistently since March (AKA the not-so-good teams) will be giving their best players heavy minutes. We better get ready for it. It should be disappointing but not surprising when the best players from good teams don't play a good chunk of the season thanks to a shorter-than-normal recovery period from playoff basketball.