“Trading Baskets” is a weekly NBA column written by Reagan Griffin Jr. and Eddie Sun. The writers “hand off” each week’s installment, continuing an ongoing dialogue to challenge the way fans think about basketball. Click here to read last week’s edition.

Death, taxes and NBA champions. Even in the unpredictable circus that is the year 2020, some things are simply inevitable, and will be until the end of days. 

In other sports leagues, professional and collegiate, a good chunk of the entertainment value comes from the chaos and excitement driven by the unknown. As this nation’s most popular sport, football’s large following can partially be attributed to its high variance. The NFL’s comparatively short schedules and one game per round playoff format makes for a wide spread of outcomes, and it keeps fans on their toes. 

The same goes for the MLB, whose grueling 162-game regular season marathon (under normal circumstances) quickly turns into high-intensity sprints for playoff series. 106-win juggernauts can be easily disposed of, and the last team to sneak into the postseason can win it all. 

College basketball is perhaps the greatest at marketing uncertainty, so much so that March Madness is an annual spectacle despite a subpar quality of play — at least compared to its professional counterpart. But where else can a team named the Golden Retrievers upset the overwhelming favorites in the first round?

Dutiful non-NBA fans know to expect the unexpected. It’s different for those who enjoy basketball at the highest level, where normal is the league’s preferred modus operandi. You’d have to go back to 1995 — with Michael Jordan returning from his foray into baseball — to find a true upset champion. Those Houston Rockets were, and still are, the only winners to come from the bottom half of playoff standings. The last champion to come from outside the top two seeds in its conference? The 2011 Dallas Mavericks. 

Successful NBA teams are often dynastic, ruled by powerful player-monarchs until they abdicate their thrones or become usurped by the next in power. For years, we got accustomed to the Curry-KD Warriors battling the LeBron-led Cavaliers. And before that, it was the Miami Big Three and the Spurs, and that was preceded by the Kobe-helmed Lakers and so on. It’s a testament to the evergreen importance of player talent and the league’s playoff structure that flattens variability in favor of the most calculated, expected outcomes. 

This NBA season brought a much-needed changing of the guard, with star players forming new superteams. LeBron James and the Lakers are on a mission to restore old traditions; the league’s most decorated franchise looks for a return to greatness with the help of (arguably) its most accomplished player. In contrast, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks represent a youthful, upstart squad ready for the big stage. And of course, the Clippers loom large with their deep collection of unique talents and personalities. With a week until the playoffs begin, these three teams, as projected since the beginning of the season, are the clear favorites.

Perhaps the Toronto Raptors have something to say as the defending champs who look formidable yet again. Or maybe the zany Houston Rockets and their extreme brand of small-ball could give the top teams a run for their money. But history is usually a good predictor of things to come, and all indicators point to the two LA teams and Milwaukee as the main suitors for the Larry O’Brien trophy. 

Of course, these are uncharted waters for the NBA. We’ve never seen all teams congregate in the same space and play in the same arenas. We’ve never experienced games where the only live fans are broadcast via video conferencing software. There’s no telling how this altered reality will affect the players, coaches or even the referees. However, the early “bubble” returns show a continuation of what we saw all season, before COVID-19 halted play for four months.

Generally, great teams are beating good teams. Good teams are beating bad teams. There are some nice surprises here and there, but no larger trend that suggests that the NBA has fundamentally changed. Offenses are only averaging 1.5 more points per 100 possessions in the bubble compared to pre-bubble, and shooting less than a percentage point better. Even aesthetically, the virtual fans, pumped-in noise and theater lights haven’t stopped NBA basketball from looking and feeling like … NBA basketball. 

More importantly, the league pulled out all the stops to create this bubble and cultivate some sense of normalcy, and it’s an investment that certainly paid off. Whereas other leagues and the country at large are still ineffectively handling the pandemic, there have been zero positive cases since the NBA restarted play. In this regard, the league has not only become a beacon of hope, but also a model of what effective leadership and organization can accomplish. 

The NBA reminds us that things are, indeed, very different. Its aggressive ad campaign centralizes around a new slogan: It’s a “whole new game.” But despite all the COVID-19 related changes, the league’s conventions haven’t radically shifted. Rather, this is a new normal — and emphasis on normal. Expect things to proceed accordingly.

“Trading Baskets” runs every Friday.