I’m back, writing about the National Basketball Association, and it could not have come at a better time because I have never been more proud to be an NBA fan.
On Aug. 26, the Milwaukee Bucks staged a boycott of their first-round playoff game against the Orlando Magic in the name of justice for Jacob Blake. The boycott sparked a wave of protests across professional sports, and the NBA playoffs were even postponed through Friday.
Most importantly, NBA players not only proved they hold the power, but they used their power to enact positive change.
On the day of their boycott, Bucks players spoke with Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, and their actions seemed to directly lead to Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers calling for a special session of the state legislature to vote on a legislative package that includes police reform.
Before agreeing to resume the playoffs, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association agreed on a set of commitments to social justice that includes establishing a social justice coalition, converting arenas into in-person voting locations and dedicating advertising spots to promote advocacy.
In doing all this, NBA players once again showed their power in bringing about social change, continuing to be at the forefront of athletes influencing political reform.
While the players have excelled in the realm of social justice, the NBA itself has done an excellent job in its handling of the ongoing pandemic.
A bubble — keeping only essential league members together during the pandemic — is never ideal. Players and staff are isolated from their families and the outside world. I can only imagine how burdensome this must be for those stuck inside the bubble for an extended period of time.
But the league has at least done a tremendous job of keeping the players safe during these trying times. There have been no COVID-19 cases inside the NBA’s Orlando bubble. With that being a public health success, players’ families began to flock to Orlando in mid-August.
Beyond the NBA bubble keeping players safe and healthy, it has done wonders for the product of basketball itself. Without travel, NBA players seem to be taking their game to another level offensively. And even off the court, the close-quarter conditions of the bubble are helping to fuel the sort of human interactions that fans love to see on social media.
Now for the basketball itself, there is certainly a lot clogging up the headlines. Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell are human flamethrowers. The Eastern Conference Semifinals are going to be an absolute slugfest. Even going back to the pre-playoffs bubble, I could rave about the absurd performances of the Phoenix Suns or Damian Lillard.
But this section is for the unsung heroes, which is why it might be a bit odd I am writing about Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard has been overshadowed thus far by the Murry-Mitchell matchup, the shiny Los Angeles Lakers and the playoff debut of the great Luka Doncic. But in a six-game series victory over the Dallas Mavericks, the reigning Finals MVP averaged 32.8 points per game, 10.2 rebounds per game and 5.2 assists per game, while dealing with struggling co-star Paul George and the on-court disgrace that is Marcus Morris Sr.
Sure, there is plenty across the NBA to discuss, but everyone needs to remember that Leonard is a merciless basketball demon on his way to win a third championship with a third team.
Sticking out west, the Houston Rockets are in serious trouble. In Game 6 of their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, we saw their issues on full display. The Thunder outscored the Rockets 12-2 in the final four minutes to win the game 104-100, and it happened as Russell Westbrook completely crumbled and James Harden shied away from the spotlight.
The Rockets have never attained any serious playoff success with Harden at the helm, and with the Western Conference landscape not set to get easier anytime soon, it may be time for the Rockets to consider a major personnel change.
Lastly, I just want to plead that the NBA add an award for most improved team chemistry because if any team has ever deserved it, it is this year’s Boston Celtics.
The Celtics changed from a team with a toxic locker room filled with a bunch of guys who couldn’t take responsibility for their play to a team of friendly and respectful players who share in each other’s accomplishments. That change in chemistry has done wonders for the team’s on-court performance.