NBA vs. WNBA: Who had a better season in the bubble?

Photo of Wide World of Sports Complex Sign
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What are time machines good for? Perhaps for changing the parts of history one deems unnecessary or for witnessing some of life’s greatest moments. Philosophically, what if a time machine is simply a filter for humans to think retrospectively (or futuristically) about these events?

Luckily, a time machine is unnecessary to reflect upon the recent NBA postseason and WNBA season.

It has been less than three weeks since the Seattle Storm became the 2020 WNBA champions in a sweep against the Las Vegas Aces. For the NBA, it has been less than two weeks since the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat in six games to claim the 2020 NBA title, marking the franchise’s 17th championship.

The NBA resumed play at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on July 30 with a format of 22 teams competing for a spot in the playoffs. Alongside the seeding, the players were met with daily COVID-19 testing and precautions and were allowed to partake in various activities within the park.

The WNBA followed with the same bubble format but did not experience a sudden suspension of play in mid-March. With the WNBA beginning play around the end of the NBA season, the WNBA was unaffected by an extended slump in active play. Playing at the IMG Academy with all 12 teams participating, the league engaged in COVID-19 testing and precautions similar to the NBA’s. The main change was a shortened 22-game season.

To compare these two unique seasons, I’m going to highlight the good and bad that each league experienced. Playing into the basketball theme, I’ll ditch those adjectives for “3-pointers” and “blocked shots”: 3-pointers for standout moments, and blocked shots for moments each organization could have done without.

NBA

3-pointers

Los Angeles Lakers as champions

Coming off the heels of a poor 2018-19 season and the death of legend Kobe Bryant alongside his daughter Gianna Bryant at the beginning of the year, the Lakers had a lot to play for. After LeBron James missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years during the 2018-19 season, it was unlikely he was going to make that a continued habit. Luckily for James, the Lakers’ front office was on the same page, trading the team’s young core for a seasoned veteran in Anthony Davis during the 2019 offseason. Yet this wasn’t enough for NBA analysts and commentators to get on board with the Lakers winning it all, as the LA Clippers held a much deeper lineup headlined by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.

Regardless, the Lakers competed at a high level during the regular season, with a significant run in the second half of the regular season before the suspension. The second half of the regular season was especially memorable, as the Lakers had another motivator in playing in memory of the Bryants. Upping their level of play and purpose, James and Davis led the Lakers to a championship. This era of the Lakers appears to be primed for another dynasty, but there is a busy offseason ahead. Nonetheless, starting the decade with a Lakers championship was both fitting and nostalgic considering the franchise’s history of dominance.

Activism

In a 2018 interview with CNN, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver described players being active socially and using their platforms to speak about important issues as “part of being an NBA player.” Two years later, his comments hold even more truth, as NBA players continued their history of activism within the bubble format. From players refusing to play in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake to athletes having the ability to rename their jerseys, to the front office stepping in and renaming the court with phrases such as “Black Lives Matter,” it is clear Silver realizes the importance of player activism. All of these acts, among other moments, continued to show the power of professional sports within social and political movements. The NBA and its players want to be front and center on these issues, which will hopefully translate into collective tangible change.

Rising and continued stars

James is arguably still the face of the league, but as his “basketball clock” continues to tick with older age, the league is scrambling to fill those cyclical shoes. The scrambling is an assumption, but to be frank, it’s unnecessary to panic about the new face or faces because the bubble showed who they are. Back-to-back regular-season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged just under 30 points in the regular season and more than 25 points in the postseason, continuing his path to superstardom. Also solidifying his space in the future was Luka Doncic, who posted statistics similar to Antetokounmpo’s. The same can be said for Damian Lillard, Nikola Jokic, Devin Booker, James Harden and others who found success during the postseason. Alongside steady talent, rising stars included Michael Porter Jr. and Gary Trent Jr., young players who showed promise among their prolific teammates.

Blocked Shots

LA Clippers and New Orleans Pelicans

Many favored the Clippers to win it all during the 2019-20 season, especially if Leonard and George both clicked. With those two promising efficient scoring alongside a veteran bench that had the likes of Lou Williams and Marcus Morris, the stage was set for a road to the finals. But everything came crashing down when the Denver Nuggets pulled back from a 1-3 deficit against the Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals. Credit needs to be given to the Nuggets for their phenomenal play in the second half of the series, specifically to Jamal Murray and Jokic, the main catalysts in dismantling the Clippers. However, George and Leonard combining for 24 points on 10-38 shooting in a Game 7 performance is very disappointing and calls into question how this team will hold up in future playoff series. Speaking of playoffs, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the New Orleans Pelicans were not favored to win the NBA championship but had the potential to slip into the eighth seed. This potential slightly lessened once the bubble format was announced and then again once they actually began to play. Between Lonzo Ball’s lackluster play and Zion Williamson barely seeing the floor, the young team left the bubble with a 2-6 record, and head coach Alvin Gentry was fired soon after.

Opt-outs and injuries

Players DeAndre Jordan and Spencer Dinwiddie tested positive for the coronavirus, keeping them from entering Orlando, while other players, including Willie Cauley-Stein, Wilson Chandler, Trevor Ariza and Avery Bradley, opted out of the bubble for various reasons. Once play resumed, injuries began to occur significantly: Ben Simmons, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson Jr., Domantas Sabonis and Zach Collins all had season-ending injuries. Other players also had temporary injuries throughout the bubble. This may have been caused by the monthslong pause in play, resulting in players not being properly prepared for this level of play. Conditioning is valuable, but it cannot replace in-game situations, and it’s hard to match the intensity and energy required on the court.

Decreased viewership

With TV viewership down during the pandemic, the NBA was not spared from this downward trend. While much of sports TV viewership has suffered during the pandemic, the NBA had a 37% decline in playoff viewers, and Game 3 of the NBA Finals saw a historic low of 5.3 million viewers. Though this trend can be observed across all sports amid the pandemic, the NBA’s viewership decline began before this. The average number of viewers for the first three NBA Finals games was 17.9 million in 2018 and dropped to 13.6 million in 2019. This decrease may be due to fans not seeing the teams they want in the finals, injuries to favorite players, increased trading among teams, lack of young talent, increased political messages, fans switching to online streaming or other factors. Regardless, the NBA may rightfully use the pandemic as reasoning for its decline in viewers, but if this issue continues, the league will have to find a remedy for what seems to be a drop in fan interest and, even worse, a drop in revenue.

WNBA

3-pointers

Seattle Storm’s title win

Sue Bird not only won her fourth championship but also became one of three players to win titles in three different decades, joining Tim Duncan and John Salley. At 40, Bird is also the second-oldest player to win a WNBA title. However, age was no indicator throughout the three-game sweep against the Las Vegas Aces, as Bird dished out a WNBA Finals record 16 assists in Game 1. The majority of these assists went to Finals MVP Breanna Stewart, who also made history by becoming the first player in the league to score 35 points and 15 rebounds in a finals game. These statistics only paint a small picture of the three-game sweep. While the Aces had some solid play in Game 1, there was just no stopping the dynamic synergy between Bird and Stewart, with guard Jewell Loyd proving another effective offensive outlet for the Storm. It was a well-deserved ending for Seattle amid Stewart and Bird battling back from injuries they suffered during the 2019 season.

Activism

Similar to their NBA counterparts, WNBA players continued their engagement in activism and social issues. However, this season was even more organized, as players formed a social justice coalition with help from Black Girls Rock! founder Beverly Bond, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza and Carolyn DeWitt, president and executive director of Rock the Vote. The WNBA also partnered with the Say Her Name campaign, dedicating its season to Breonna Taylor and striving to obtain justice for Black women overall. Players Maya Moore, Natasha Cloud and Renee Montgomery took it a step further, sitting out for the entire season to focus on criminal and social justice reform. All forms of contribution to equality are significant, but the women of the WNBA have made a commitment in doing it as a collective unit. The NBA tends to struggle more because of its larger size and the fact that certain players’ voices carry more attention than others’ do. However, the significant pay disparity between the two organizations leaves the WNBA way more financially vulnerable than the NBA. High risk, but to the WNBA, a more impactful societal reward.

Increased viewership

As previously stated, TV viewership has been down for many sports due to a lack of television viewing. For the WNBA, it was a viewership gold mine. The league received one of the largest TV schedules in history, with 40 games played on CBS and CBS Sports Network and 24 games played on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2. The season opener brought in the most viewers since 2012, while the four games that made up opening weekend saw an average of 401,000 viewers per game. Game 3 of the WNBA Finals, which saw the Storm claim the trophy, experienced a viewership increase of 27% in comparison to the Washington Mystics’ 2019 championship-clinching game. The bubble set the WNBA on the right path in building a bigger fan base to start this new decade, and the league should continue to receive more lengthy TV schedules.

Blocked shots

No Sabrina Ionescu

Ionescu was not the only player impacted by injury, but hers was perhaps the most significant to fans and intrigued viewers alike. Ionescu’s stardom wasn’t self-contained within the women’s college basketball world, expanding to intersect with many different fans and legends, one of whom was her mentor, Bryant. Her basketball IQ, relentless scoring and eagerness to involve her teammates made her a dominant force at Oregon and seemingly set the table for an NCAA championship in 2020. That is, until March Madness was canceled because of COVID-19. Drafted first overall to the New York Liberty from the comfort of her own home, Ionescu intrigued basketball fans who were eager to see if the rookie’s dominance would hold up at the professional level. After a rocky start, Ionescu regrouped and came back with a 33-point outing against the Dallas Wings in her second game before suffering an ankle sprain July 31, which prematurely ended her season. This was unfortunate for Ionescu, who was a likely contender to secure the Rookie of the Year award and lead the Liberty in a new direction. It was also unfortunate for New York, which lost a high-profile star to watch in between opening week and the playoffs.

An even shorter season

Reducing the number of games may have been beneficial to viewership, but some players reported being in a distracted headspace while playing this season. Fewer games meant more pressure, and the last thing anyone needs during this pandemic is more pressure. Like within the NBA, there were opt-outs, and injuries prevailed — multiple players opted out for various reasons, and teams such as the Indiana Fever were gashed by injuries. Other noteworthy injuries included Bird, Sylvia Fowles and, prior to entering the bubble, Kelsey Plum. A shorter season also kept players from padding their stats as much as would usually be possible. Some WNBA records are based on game streaks, and the shorter season did not allow for these continuous records to be broken. Outside of continuous records, it just simply was not enough time for veteran players to uplift their resumes and for rookies to find their footing in the league.

There are other factors that contributed to the NBA’s and WNBA’s bubble successes and failures. Considering how many moving parts existed and the fact that we still got moments such as those presented above, a strong case can be made for the format’s success within either league. After all, this format had never been accomplished before. Nevertheless, let’s hope the 2019-20 season can be written off as a unique experience for all basketball fans, with a return to tradition around the corner.

Raven Gatson is a sports staff writer. Contact her at [email protected].