Go ahead, call this a hypothetical, since the various sports leagues’ restart plans – wallet-driven wish-casting disguised as a benevolent gesture to help return normalcy to the nation – is little more than a subject-to-change hypothetical anyway.
I’ll believe the NBA is back when and only when my Twitter feed is again flooded with Celtics fans complaining that Mike Breen is rooting for the Celtics’ opponent. I expect that to be sometime in 2021.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t deal in hypotheticals too. So consider this: Say that somehow everything goes well in the Orlando bubble and – stay with me, because this requires a significant dosage of willing suspension of disbelief – the reworked NBA season is played in full, without further interruption, abbreviation or outright shutdown due to positive COVID-19 tests among the participants.
And say that the Celtics emerged as the champions. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, you know. It really isn’t.
How would you feel? How would it rate?
Would you think of it as the real and authentic Banner 18, equal to all of the champions that came before?
Or would it be Banner 18 with a big, ol’ fat asterisk? Call it Banner 17.5, maybe?
There certainly would be no parade. Would it be more fitting to celebrate it with a Zoom meeting among season-ticket holders and something smaller than a banner? Perhaps, say, a pennant at TD Garden identifying the Celtics as 2019-20 NBA Orlando Bubble Champions?
Yes, these are the silly things sportswriters think about when the sports calendar is mostly wide-open. But I truly do believe the Celtics have a chance at winning this thing, provided – here’s yet another caveat – that this thing gets going at all.
They certainly have a better chance of winning it now than they did back in mid-March before the pandemic mandated the hiatus. The reason for that should be obvious: Kemba Walker has had a chance to rest that troublesome knee.
Walker was a wonderful addition to the Celtics in every way this season. He’s a slightly lesser player than Kyrie Irving, but he makes up for that and then some by being an inclusive and generous teammate, on and off the court. He was the antidote to the venom Irving injected into the Celtics’ bloodstream last season.
But Walker was struggling with a left knee injury before the break – at one point, it required the drainage of fluid and he missed several games. When he did return, he struggled, shooting 12 of 43 over the Celtics’ last three games before the league shut down. More alarming, his familiar burst was missing.
Walker acknowledged in a call with reporters this week that the time away was good for his health. “I really, really needed to get that break,‘' he said.
If he can play at his excellent pre-All-Star break form upon return, the Celtics have to be considered a contender. Jayson Tatum emerged as a legitimate No. 1 scoring option with Walker struggling or sidelined, and Jaylen Brown continued to develop into an all-around force. While Marcus Smart was one of the first players to acknowledge testing positive for COVID-19 in March, he has made a full recovery.
So far, the Celtics have not had to deal with some of the variables that other teams have. The Bucks, the presumed favorite in the Eastern Conference, had to shut down their practice facility this week after receiving their COVID-19 test results from Friday. The Clippers, a favorite in the West, have had to take a similar approach. The Lakers, perhaps the overall favorite, have had one important player, Avery Bradley, opt out of playing, and Dwight Howard is considering doing the same.
The Celtics could face a challenge in September during playoff time. Gordon Hayward has said he would leave the team, and the bubble, for the birth of his child; his wife, Robyn, is due that month. But that is something the Celtics can prepare for, and it’s also a long way away.
So much can happen with this restart plan between now and then, and so much will happen. We just don’t know what, or when. It’s hard not to be cynical about the whole thing given that the league abruptly and appropriately shut down March 11 after Rudy Gobert’s positive test, and nearly four months later is pushing forward to play despite harbingers everywhere that this is a bad idea.
I cannot help but find myself wondering what it would take for the NBA to abort this restart plan. There are still more than two weeks before the games begin again, and we’re going to hear about more positive tests and more facilities being shut down. If a superstar tests positive, does that make the league reconsider all of this? Or would it take multiple superstars? And what if it happens once the playoffs begin? The importance of staying healthy in the postseason has taken on a whole new meaning, and damned if it isn’t a dark one.
But if we’re going to talk ourselves into believing the NBA’s return can be pulled off in some reasonable and satisfying way, we can certainly talk ourselves into believing the Celtics will have at least a chance to emerge as the champions.
Can they be the best of the bubble? You know it – if the bubble doesn’t pop first.