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Dan Bickley

NBA flourishing without fans in attendance in thrilling bubble playoffs

An NBA logo is displayed outside a basketball arena Friday, Aug. 28, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)

The NBA is staging one of the greatest comebacks in the history of organized sports.

The league was shut down by a pandemic. It was nearly canceled by racism. It forges on with indomitable star power and undeterred attitude. It is unmoved by those clapping back at its politics. It is thriving without fans in attendance.

You want miracles? On Wednesday, James Harden won a Game 7 with his defense.

The Orlando bubble has featured an undeniable influx of marquee players. Devin Booker graduated to superstar status during the Suns’ 8-0 romp through the bubble. Damian Lillard was even better. Donovan Mitchell, Jamal Murray and Caris LeVert significantly raised their profiles. And that’s just the “B” team.

It has been a fortuitous year for Jimmy Butler, whose intensity was on display during a trip to Phoenix last November, when the Heat star decided to stage his own pre-game workout at a Valley health club. He rudely interrupted a lunchtime pickup game at L.A. Fitness while performing his drills in their space. He nearly came to blows with those most insulted, including a local underground MMA fighter who could’ve inflicted serious damage. Cooler heads prevailed.

This season has also been a godsend for the Suns.

In recent years, Valley basketball fans would be writhing in anger over recent developments: T.J. Warren emerging as a monstrous offensive force for the Pacers after being cast aside and given away by general manager James Jones; Steve Nash becoming head coach of the Nets, after serving as a consultant to the Warriors, while doing nothing for us Phoenicians in the process; and, of course, the unsettling, depressing ascension of Luka Doncic.

The latest:

Former head coach Igor Kokoskov said during a very recent interview that he would still be head coach of the Suns if the team had drafted Doncic instead of Deandre Ayton. That also means that Jones might not be GM and Monty Williams would be coaching elsewhere.

“There is a frightening momentum of development,” Kokoskov told a European journalist. “Last year (Doncic) was one of the most talented basketball players in the world but today he is among the few selected best basketball players in the world. It should not be forgotten that he is only 21 years old and he will be playing 17-18 years with the prolongation of professional athletes’ careers.”

Kokoskov, who is now coaching in Turkey, also said this:

“I believe that if (Doncic) stays healthy, there is no chance he won’t get a ring. I can’t see a force around that can stop it. Of course there is this … We knew he would be one of the best, but who anticipated that it would reach this level in such a short time. I think nobody. Anyone who says, ‘I did’ is also lying.”

On the surface, Kokoskov’s words sound comforting. They prove that even the Slovenian national coach wasn’t sure that Doncic would make such an instant impact, translating so well to the NBA.

Kokoskov is also covering his own backside because that gets him off the hook. For not standing on a table and insisting the Suns select Doncic with the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft. The cold, hard reality:

Ayton will never be better than Doncic. That much is obvious. But the Suns can still beat the Mavericks to a NBA championship. And if that happens, it will be Jones’ gift to the franchise.

It will make individual accomplishments of Doncic vs. Ayton seem meaningless. It will validate the institutional weirdness that surrounded the selection of Ayton and the inevitable firing of McDonough. It will be worth the losses incurred along the way.

So much emotion has already been expressed in the NBA’s restart. So many conflicts have yet to be resolved. Who is better, Kawhi or LeBron? When will next season start, on Christmas Day or in the spring of 2021? Does Milwaukee give Giannis a reason to stay or every reason to go?

This much is certain: The NBA is flourishing under chaos, benefitting from the strongest leadership and the best assortment of collective personalities the league has ever employed.

The difference – and the results – speak for themselves.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.


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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier