After the NBA season shut down on March 11, discussion quickly turned to the big questions about the rest of the season: when, where and how. As it turned out, the when was July, after more than 100 days away. The where was the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. And the how was a bubble environment that saw a massive list of safety protocols enacted but also saw a return-to-play unlike anything sports fans had seen before. Players, coaches and staffers for 22 teams -- not to mention league staffers and media members -- uprooted their lives to spend months away from home. The first players arrived on July 7 and now the 2019-20 NBA season has finally come to an end, more than one full year after teams reported to training camp, with the Los Angeles Lakers claiming their 17th championship.
Here's a comprehensive look back at everything that happened on and off the court in the 100-plus days of bubble life.
Before the bubble
Resuming the NBA season was far more complex than simply rescheduling games. Once it became obvious a return to home arenas wasn't an option, the league honed in on creating a bubble, eventually deciding to resume play at ESPN's Wide World of Sports. Getting there wasn't easy.
The journey through months of uncertainty after the NBA shut down March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic was challenging. But the league benefited from strong, long-standing relationships among Chris Paul, Bob Iger, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts. That trust and rapport helped push the restart process forward, up hills where it could have gotten stuck. -- Ramona Shelburne
For an NBA coach in the age of COVID-19, there were many strange, new challenges to meet on and off the court, and seemingly every question about how to approach the resumption of the 2020 season presented a paradox. -- Kevin Arnovitz
On June 22, when Toronto was still in Phase 1 of its reopening plan, the Raptors traveled to Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Florida, where they held training camp until relocating again to the NBA's official bubble. -- Tim Bontemps
Welcome to the bubble
The first players arrived at Walt Disney World on July 7, nearly four months after the NBA season had shut down. All 22 teams were checking in for a stay of at least six weeks, and for two of them, the bubble would be the only place they'd visit for more than three months. So the bubble needed to provide more than basketball -- it needed to become a home away from home for everyone involved, for better or worse.
The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association made a concerted effort to provide components of normality, such as a players-only lounge with NBA 2K, TVs, arcade gaming and pingpong. And, yes, there were six barbers, three stylists and three manicurists on site, operating out barbershops set up in each team's hotel. -- Baxter Holmes and Eric Woodyard
With physical distance encouraged more than ever, there would be untold hours of solitude for players living in the NBA bubble. The mental toll was a key point of discussion upon entry to the Disney campus. How those inside were able to cope helped determine the bubble's viability and success. -- Baxter Holmes
For the players, the first three weeks after arriving in the bubble were relatively smooth. Teams got acclimated to the Disney campus as the league continued to take massive precautions, working to make sure its players had all the comforts, food and approved fun that bubble life can offer. -- Malika Andrews
Players, coaches and other key personnel quickly settled in upon arriving in the bubble at Walt Disney World and found numerous ways to keep themselves busy when they were not practicing or working out. From pingpong to pool parties, here is a look back the 10 best things the players did while on lockdown.
Bubble seeding games
Rather than jump directly into the playoffs, the NBA scheduled 88 seeding games -- eight each for 22 teams -- and established a way for the six invited teams who were outside the playoff picture when the season was put on hold to play themselves in. The Phoenix Suns nearly did that, becoming bubble darlings by going a perfect 8-0 in the restart. But they were kept out of the West's first-ever play-in game by the Memphis Grizzlies (who entered the bubble in eighth but fell to ninth by the time the play-in was staged) and the Portland Trail Blazers and bubble MVP Damian Lillard.
It's not easy to recall the storylines and themes that dominated the 2019-20 NBA season prior to its suspension, but as much as reopening night was a celebration of basketball's return, it was also a showcase of two of the NBA's most charismatic teams and four of its most dynamic players.
The National Basketball Coaches Association polled its members and found heavy support for a more casual look in Orlando: polo shirts, slacks, and sneakers. The league approved, but some pro-suit coaches were wary of proclaiming their allegiance and standing against a beloved mentor. -- Zach Lowe
When 22 NBA teams started flowing into the bubble, so too did wine. After all, the nearly 1,400 players, staffers and others inside the NBA bubble were facing long hours of isolation in their respective hotel rooms. So being able to open a bottle at the end of the day and share a glass at a distance with fellow players brought something beyond normalcy and comfort. -- Baxter Holmes
To commemorate the unusual efforts involved in the 88 seeding games, we asked our experts for their vote in all six major awards categories to NBA typically doles out, specifically recognizing performance in the bubble. As a bonus, we even added two categories, because the longest season in NBA history deserves some extra awards.
Before the Blazers' play-in game showdown with the Grizzlies, Damian Lillard was named MVP of the seeding games. Then he led Portland to a 126-122 win over Memphis in the NBA's first play-in game to determine a playoff spot since 1956. -- Kevin Arnovitz
Bubble playoffs begin
By the time the playoffs finally arrived four months after their scheduled April start date, there was a growing sense of normalcy. Though day games were a new twist, the first round still had 16 teams facing off in best-of-seven series. Little did the NBA know that the outside world would soon encroach on the bubble in unexpected ways.
At a certain point on the first day of the 2020 playoffs, the novelty of the bubble and the circumstances surrounding it receded. For almost 11 hours, the NBA was its familiar, best self: superstars young and old; spectacular displays of athleticism and guile; an event.
The 76ers were an expensive team with an audacious strategy from an aggressive front office and a group of players who believed they were on the cusp of superstardom. Instead they ended up going through the motions of the end of the dreaded letdown season.-- Brian Windhorst
The official scorer marked it as a 28-foot, unassisted 3-point field goal, but the shot heard 'round the bubble was much more than that. The internet quickly ran out of adjectives to describe Luka Doncic, but his buzzer-beater in Game 4 against the LA Clippers made one thing clear: Doncic is the best young basketball player on Earth. -- Kirk Goldsberry
Game 4 between the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers was always going to be memorable. It was taking place on Aug. 24, 8/24, the numbers that the late Kobe Bryant wore. And when starting Lakers point guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 4:58 left in the first quarter, the score read: Trail Blazers 8, Lakers 24.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau research, the duels between Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell that saw them score more than 40 points apiece twice in this series marks the first time that a pair of opposing players have done that multiple times in a playoff series. And they're both only 23 years old.
The Dallas Mavericks announced themselves as a present-day force, the Indiana Pacers demoted center Myles Turner to corner spot-up duty, Goran Dragic returned to the starting lineup and opened up scoring pathways for Jimmy Butler, and Carmelo Anthony proved the doubters wrong. -- Zach Lowe
Bucks stage walkout
In the days following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the world watched to see how NBA players -- who'd dedicated the season's restart to social justice -- would respond. The Raptors and Celtics had discussed potentially boycotting the first game of their conference semifinal series, but the Milwaukee Bucks were the first to take action by refusing to take the court for Game 5 of their series against the Orlando Magic. The rest of that day's games were eventually postponed, and the players' action led to three days without games -- and a far bigger impact across sports.
The Bucks intended to sacrifice a playoff game, only to have their opponent, the league and players and teams from sports leagues around the country join them in solidarity. They didn't expect to be the thread that caused the NBA to unravel. But that thread had been fraying for a while.
The United States has come apart, its reckoning regarding the police's disproportionate use of violence toward its Black citizens sharply pronounced in sports because of its influential Black population. The message players sent when they walked out on Aug. 26 was not that point guards are now moonlighting as legislators, but literally, their humanity must come first -- that these Black lives literally matter. -- Howard Bryant
The NBA and National Basketball Players Association set a goal for the season restart to take collective action to combat systemic racism and promote social justice. While the fight is more visible now, this generation of NBA and WNBA players has been standing up and speaking out for years, as they have been directly and indirectly affected by these issues.
Following the NBA players' walkout and subsequent return to play, there were no simple answers to the most serious questions, and no singular route to progress. Our panel of experts offered a range of ideas to this generation of players who are looking toward the next phase of their activism, excerpted from longer conversations. -- Kevin Arnovitz
Playoffs resume with wild upsets
Basketball returned, again, on Aug. 29 and it didn't take long for the playoffs to surprise and delight fans (well, except the fans of the teams on the wrong end of the surprising results). Two title favorites, the Bucks and Clippers, were both bounced in the second round. The Clippers' loss came at the hands of the Nuggets, who became the bubble's best comeback story by overcoming 3-1 deficits in both the first and second round. And the bubble's best barista made sure the Finals would have a true Florida flavor.
Other than a quick flash here and there during the restart, there were few remnants of the body of work the Milwaukee Bucks produced before COVID-19 hit the NBA. They looked like a pretty good 48-win team that takes care of its business against the dregs of the league but struggles to find shots against competent defenses. -- Kevin Arnovitz
Only five Division III players had made it to the NBA before Duncan Robinson's meteoric rise with the Heat this season. Robinson is the embodiment not only of the Heat's culture of player development but also of Miami's mastery of the modern NBA offense. -- Ramona Shelburne
This season was ticketed to be the Clippers' ascendancy, not a derailment -- but things move quickly in the NBA. After a stunning second-round elimination, it must be pointed out that the Clippers' season has been a failure. It must be reported that stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are one season away from having the option to enter free agency. -- Brian Windhorst
In just his second postseason, Jokic led Denver back from the brink of elimination six times in the Nuggets' first two series. They became the first team to pull off consecutive comebacks from down 3-1 in a series, stunning the Utah Jazz and then the LA Clippers.The NBA now knows what the Nuggets can do with their center at his new fighting weight.
Before the Celtics drafted him, one bit of feedback in their background checks seemed surprising -- NBA talent evaluators kept suggesting Jaylen Brown might be too smart for basketball. But now the 23-year-old has become one of the NBA's most demonstrative players and it's clear why the guard is not just a thoughtful player in this moment but one for this moment. -- Baxter Holmes
When Jimmy Butler checked into his hotel, he wasn't interested in the coffee made with prepackaged pods that came with the room. Luckily, the Miami Heat star had brought his own setup, including a French press, a pour-over and a grinder -- and he turned it into a budding bubble business. -- Malika Andrews
When the season began a year ago, there was no way to know that franchise icon Kobe Bryant would perish in a helicopter crash just four months later. No way to know a pandemic would halt the NBA season and the world in its tracks in early March. No way to know how the league would stop, crying out alongside the country for social justice, on Aug. 26. But having experienced it all, having felt it deeply, LeBron James' reaction at advancing to his 10th NBA Finals was so, so human. -- Ramona Shelburne
An hour before the 2019 NBA Finals tipped off in Toronto, commissioner Adam Silver reminded those watching that basketball's founder, James Naismith, was a Christian missionary who brought the game to China and Europe in the belief that it could be a common language. In the months that followed, the NBA would be rocked by a sequence of traumatic incidents, many of which have irrevocably changed the way it does business. -- Kevin Arnovitz
The first bubble Finals
Hollywood. South Beach. It was a dream NBA Finals matchup, only it was taking place inside a bubble, in front of small pockets of socially distanced friends and family, with fans relegated to courtside video boards. Still, the matchup between the Lakers and Heat provided a chance for LeBron James, in his first Finals as a Laker, to face off against his former team on the league's biggest stage, and eventually claim a fourth championship.
To understand how a Los Angeles Lakers franchise that made all the wrong kinds of headlines last season turned into an overwhelming favorite in the 2020 NBA Finals, you have to go back to the connection and pledge star LeBron James and owner Jeanie Buss made to each other at a private dinner in March 2019. -- Ramona Shelburne
There might not be any clear precedent for what Miami has done in just two years: rebuilding into a contender on the fly from a position of on-paper weakness. It is one of the greatest front-office accomplishments in recent league history -- more difficult, in a way, than the free-agency coup of 2010. -- Zach Lowe
The Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers combined to play in nine of the past 15 NBA Finals series -- including seven consecutive from 2008 to 2014 -- without ever facing each other until this year. Still, these franchises are connected in ways that go far beyond LeBron James winning titles with the Heat or Pat Riley coaching the Showtime Lakers to glory.
Forgive Chris Bosh if he winced when he tuned in to Game 1 of the NBA Finals. While the basketball world fawns over the staying power of former Heat teammate LeBron James, Bosh, who is one year older than James, is left to ponder the what-ifs of his career. He would be a prototypical player for today's NBA and would meld perfectly with a young Miami team that plays together, shares the ball and maximizes its talent. -- Jackie MacMullan
Kobe Bryant was the elder statesman on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team that won a gold medal in London. Anthony Davis was its young buck. Bryant saw something in the lanky 19-year-old, and over the years, their relationship grew behind the scenes. Davis continues to make good on Bryant's faith in him throughout these playoffs. -- Ramona Shelburne
Here are unseen moments from inside the league's unique campus in Florida.
The bubble gave the Lakers time to reflect on what got the franchise through their most difficult year. -- Ramona Shelburne
After the longest season in NBA history, LeBron James and the Lakers celebrated a 17th franchise title and reflected on the year that was. -- Dave McMenamin and Malika Andrews