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Three things to love (and two things to hate) about watching NBA games in the bubble

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The NBA is back on television and most of the experience has been great for us as viewers.

Sacramento Kings v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Kim Klement - Pool/Getty Images

Though I’m still disappointed the Charlotte Hornets didn’t qualify to be among the 22 teams invited to participate in the NBA’s bubble to conclude the regular season, as an avid NBA fan I’m thrilled to have televised basketball back in my life. I’ve missed it. I’ve primarily been tuning in to ESPN and TNT broadcasts and here are three things I love and two things I hate about my experience as a viewer of “bubble basketball.”

Three things to love

Basketball sounds. Without the overpowering noise of fans, jumbotrons, and PA announcers, self-proclaimed basketball purists like me are able to hear a nearly unfiltered beautiful melody of basketball sounds. I love being able to hear shoes squeaking on hardwood floors, nets popping on a swish, players calling out defensive switches, and teammates cheering from the bench. Many of these sounds are drowned out in traditional broadcasts. While most most bubble broadcasts do contain a light amount of piped in crowd noise, I really enjoy hearing more on-court chatter and pure basketball sounds.

The wall of virtual fans. I give the NBA a ton of credit for the way they have made the arenas feel intimate and even fun. When I heard about the games resuming without fans I thought the broadcasts might feel like they were taking place in a cavernous, empty gym similar to what we see in meaningless summer league games. But when I tuned in for the first time and saw a 17-foot tall video board full of virtual fans surrounding the court I was impressed. The video board eliminates the empty space behind the benches to give the broadcast a more intimate feel while the virtual fans add some color, movement, and life. I might be an old-school basketball purist, but I really like this solution.

Weekday afternoon games. I live in North Carolina and those of us in the Eastern time zone almost never have afternoon NBA games to follow. That’s all changed in the bubble. Now there are some days when games are tipping off right after lunch - on a workday! - that I can track while I jump on conference calls and answer emails. It’s a nice diversion to have on in the background.

Two things to hate

“Rail-cam”. The bubble contains a camera on rails that glides up and down the sideline. The camera is 10 feet behind the court’s apron and sits about six feet high. It’s supposed to replicate the feeling of having front row seats, but in reality all it does is make it impossible to see what’s happening on the far side of the floor. The camera angle completely eliminates depth perception. I can’t see if a defender on the far side of the floor is cheating off his man or if someone is wide open for a corner three pointer. Basketball is so full of quick but subtle movements to create space but all of that action vanishes on the far side of the court thanks (or no thanks) to rail-cam. Often the best view rail-cam provides is an ample shot of a referee’s backside. Not every “innovation” is a step forward.

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Boring, boring free throws. I’ve written before that the NBA’s biggest threat to losing viewers is the number of mind-numbing free throws attempted each game. Basketball is supposed to be entertaining, and there is nothing entertaining about watching free throws. The Ringer provided this insight: “Before the restart, teams averaged 21 fouls and 23 free throw attempts per game; since the restart, those figures have risen to 25 and 28, respectively.”

That’s right, NBA bubble games are averaging 56 free throw attempts per game! That’s just awful from a viewer standpoint. The amount of time it takes for a player to shoot and draw contact, fall down, get up, trudge to the free throw line, wait for rebounders to get set up, shoot a free throw, wait for substitutions, then shoot a second free throw is interminably long. To avoid free throws I almost never watch live NBA games anymore. I DVR them and gratuitously use the “skip 30 seconds” button every time the free throw procession begins. Cord cutting isn’t going to kill NBA viewership. It will be free throws. Mark my words.

But enough about the negatives. Games has resumed. The playoffs are looming. A joyful part of life has been restored during the turmoil that the COVID pandemic has unleashed on the world. The NBA is back it’s (mostly) faaaaaaantastic!