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What's gone wrong with the 2020-21 NBA season?

Up until now, the 2020-21 NBA season has been fraught with what-ifs. The nagging awareness of what this season could have been has stayed in the back of fans’ minds. But why? Through roughly 25 games of the season, 21 out of 30 teams are within a 5 games of a .500 record. The parity fans have been craving for years has finally arrived. Yet the air of this season’s tires has still slowly eeked out. Why?

The most obvious reason for this is the ongoing trek of the league pushing through the coronavirus and the necessary Covid-19 protocols that have accompanied it. Because of this, fans have hardly been able to attend games, and so the atmosphere that sports come with is non-existent. There has been a noticeable pattern this season that when a team falls behind by fifteen or twenty points, the push to get back into a game by the team trailing is not as urgent. There is no sense of a home team being pushed forward by the support of a crowd or an away team wanting to stick it to that crowd and come back.

The lack of atmosphere this season can also be seen in comparing the environment of the Bubble to the environment of empty arenas. Though the Bubble also did not have fans, its setting was much more intimate. With teams playing in a small hall and a make shift court, along with the inevitable anxiety that comes from staying in one confined location for months, there was an undeniable intensity in the Bubble. Contrast that with the cavernous feeling empty arenas can give, with line of seats tarped off, and the endless travel to these empty arenas where no atmosphere awaits has waned on the players, and therefore the product.

Some of the lack of in-game parity can be traced to unavoidable trends in the league. The massive increase in the focus on three point attempts has led to insane final scores and wild in game runs. These runs represent the volatility of the three ball. They have resulted in most NBA games having one team leading by double digits for most of a game. The three ball giveth and it taketh away. If one team is up 15 points, that lead could evaporate in five minutes. It could also double.

I think when we refer to “parity” in the league, we mostly are referring to standings, and how final results and minute discrepensies in team records represent that parity. So why has this season felt hollow? I think it’s because the parity we all seek is more about in-game parity. Games constantly going back and forth, where no team can gain any sort of edge throughout, those are the best games. Those are the classics. The atmosphere of a crowd certainly aids in the feeling that stakes exist in any one game. The 2021-22 season will introduce a lot of new factors which may aid in regaining in-game parity. Hopefully by then, fans will be fully allowed back into stadiums. And believe me, fans will be chomping at the bit to cheer for their teams again. Add in the likes of Klay Thompson making the Warriors a factor again, a stellar class of new rookies, and further developed rookies from this season, and next season may turn out to be one for the ages.

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