The NBA playoffs are two weeks away and as we approach the end of the 2020-21 season one thing is absolutely clear: the Orlando bubble had a massive impact on this year. At my age, hangovers can crush an entire weekend, most of the teams who stayed in the bubble the longest are suffering a similar fate this season. Yes folks, the NBA bubble hangover is real.
The biggest factor here is the time off between the end of the 2020 season and the start of training camp. Game 6 of the NBA Finals finished on October 11 with the Los Angeles Lakers securing a 4-2 series win following a 106-93 victory over the Miami Heat. That came almost a year after the league opened the 2019-20 season on October 22, 2019. Perhaps more maddeningly, the NBA decided to start training camps for the 2020-21 season on December 1, giving the Heat and Lakers only 51 days off.
If that seems like an absurdly short break, that's because it is. The 2018-19 season ended on June 13, 2019 with the Toronto Raptors defeating the Golden State Warriors 114-110 to secure a 4-2 series win. Training camps didn't open until September 28, giving both teams 107 days to rest. (A note: teams don't have to open their training camps on those dates and the openings vary, but it's usually within a few days of the league's opening date.)
So how has this played out? Well it's quite obvious that staying in the bubble for less time led to a better performance during the 2020-21 season. Some notes on the results are below.
-The Philadelphia 76ers currently lead the Eastern Conference with a record of 45-21 (.682). They were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Boston Celtics. The Sixers were bounced from the bubble on August 23, and had 100 days off before training camps opened.
-The Brooklyn Nets occupy second place in the Eastern Conference (43-24, .642). They were swept by the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs. Stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving didn't play in the bubble, and the team's final game came on August 23. The Nets also had 100 days off.
-The Milwaukee Bucks are currently third in the Eastern Conference (42-24, .636). The Bucks had the top seed in the 2020 playoffs but were beaten 4-1 by the Miami Heat in the second round. Their last game was on September 8, giving them an 84-day offseason.
-The New York Knicks are the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference (37-29, .561) and didn't even play in the bubble.
-The Utah Jazz own the top seed in the Western Conference (48-18, .727) and were ousted in the first round of the playoffs by the Denver Nuggets in a thrilling seven-game series. Their final game was on September 1. They had 91 days off.
-The Phoenix Suns have the second-best record out west (47-19, .712). While they played in the bubble, they didn't reach the playoffs and were done on August 13. They had 110 days to rest. Even new team leader Chris Paul got a decent offseason, as the Oklahoma City Thunder were ousted on September 2, giving him 90 days off.
-The Los Angeles Clippers are in third-place in the Western Conference (45-22, .672) but were a massive disappointment in the bubble. They lost in the Conference Semifinals to the Denver Nuggets after taking a 3-1 lead. Their final game came on September 15, so they had 77 days off.
All of those teams were out early and don't seem to have been impacted by the extended season. The flipside, however, is telling.
-The Lakers won the title in 2020 and had the aforementioned 51 days off. Despite a loaded roster they've dealt with a litany of injuries. They currently sit at 37-29 (.561) and are in the sixth spot in the Western Conference. The Lakers are in real danger of falling into the play-in tournament.
-The Heat lost to the Lakers in the NBA Finals but looked like a rising power led by Jimmy Butler with some great young players like Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo. This season has been a disaster. The Heat are currently 35-31 (.530) and in seventh-place in the Eastern Conference.
-The Boston Celtics lost to the Heat 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals and were sent packing on September 27. They had a 77-day offseason. Despite a roster led by three All-Star caliber players -- including a bonafide star in Jayson Tatum -- Boston is currently tied with the Heat at 35-31 and barely out of the play-in tournament.
-The Denver Nuggets are the only team that seems to have bucked the trend. They are currently in fourth-place in the Western Conference (44-22, .667) after losing in the Conference Finals to the Lakers 4-1. Their 78-day offseason hasn't made a huge impact, though at one point they were 17-15 and seriously struggled to begin the season.
The lesson here is that the shortened offseason has had a profound impact on the 2020-21 season. The teams that stayed around the longest in the NBA's Orland bubble were hamstrung coming into this year. They were set up to fail and it doesn't appear there was any way around it. The Nuggets have been the one team to navigate a shorter offseason, but it's taken a superhuman effort from likely MVP Nikola Jokic to do so.
It's difficult to judge any of the teams that have struggled this season in the NBA. The hangover from the bubble is real and a number of teams may need to chalk up their failures to the league's decision to start the season too quickly.