If you wanted to devise a system for determining the best of 30 basketball teams, it would look a lot different than the one that necessity has foisted upon the NBA.
Five months of competition, followed by 3 1/2 months of inaction, followed by 2 1/2 months of competition, the periods of competition playing out in circumstances so divergent that they might as well be separate seasons. If, in normal times, home-court advantage is as significant a factor as we have long convinced ourselves, then how can we possibly conclude that a team that wins an NBA Finals in an empty arena on a neutral court has proven the same thing as all of the champions who came before it?
There’s a lot that we do not know about how the NBA’s recently finalized plan for the remainder of its season will play itself out. One thing I think we can say without much hesitation is that history will have little choice but to regard the 2019-20 NBA champ separately from the champs of prior and subsequent seasons. In settling on a format that will see 22 teams descend on Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex for an eight-game sprint trial, followed by a play-in tournament, followed by a traditionally-structured 16-team playoff bracket with best-of-seven rounds, the NBA has set the stage for 2 1/2 months of basketball that will be its own self-contained narrative. The drama has the potential to be every bit as great as it usually is in the playoffs. The basketball has the chance to be every bit as compelling. But whoever ends up being the last team standing will be the champion of this particular construct and nothing more.
All that being said. . .
If you wanted to devise a system for evaluating a team against itself, for discerning the exact identity of a group of basketball players and coaches, for isolating the signal from the noise, the format you’d devise might look a lot like the one that is now at hand. You would give the coach all the time he could possibly need to prepare. You would ensure that each player is operating with the highest level of physical health that is possible this late in a season. You would give those players and that coach several weeks of daily workouts and practice before competition begins. You would limit all of the extraneous variables that can effect performance: travel, crowds, etc. In essence, you would attempt to create a vacuum in which outcomes are determined solely by individual performance and collective synergy.
This is the vacuum that the NBA has created, and it is one that will give us as good of a look at the reality of the Sixers as we would have gotten had the season progressed as normal. We will see basketball in its most organic form, and we will see whether this team really is as good as we were told to expect it to be. If Brett Brown can’t make these pieces fit after three months of film study and brainstorming and three weeks of practice, it will be fair to conclude that he is unlikely to ever make them fit. If Joel Embiid isn’t as strong and healthy and conditioned as he has ever been at this point in a season, it will be fair to wonder whether he will ever get to a point where such strength and health and conditioning is the norm. If, after 65 games of playing together, and then three months of reflecting on the lessons of those games, and three weeks of practicing to adjust to those lessons, the Sixers still look like a dysfunctional, haphazard, incongruous basketball team, it will be fair to conclude that maybe that is exactly what they are.
In short, the 2 1/2 months of basketball that the NBA has devised is the perfect sample for the Sixers to prove to the rest of us that they are who they thought they were. As always, their fate will be dictated primarily by their two young stars, who will be three months older and wiser and more healthy than the last time we saw them on the court. After a season filled with injuries and and absences on both of their parts, Embiid and Ben Simmons will show us exactly where they currently are in relation to the rest of the league’s talent. Brown will show us exactly where he is in relation to the rest of the league’s coaches. Between now and the end of the season, we will witness playing and coaching in its purest form. Here is the ball. Here is the opponent. Here are the circumstances. Let’s see what you can do.