There are two words that come to mind when Doris Burke thinks about this NBA season: patience and flexibility. Both of those words popped up frequently on a recent ESPN phone call about coverage for the upcoming campaign, which Burke will call from either her home or in venues. It’s unclear how that will all play out, but on Friday, she’ll make her way to Boston to call the Celtics’ Christmas Day tilt against the Brooklyn Nets.
When she is at home, though, Burke has a set up so she’ll be able to do her job remotely. It will, of course, be a little different due to the fact that she can’t closely monitor things that are much easier to see at arenas — interactions between players and coaches, for example — but there’s also the potential for things to go quite awry technologically. Burke points to a recent college basketball game, where the technology that Dan Schulman and Jay Bilas had went haywire and Holly Rowe had to do play-by-play from the sideline until they came back.
She also has a little experience with all of this. While the consummate professional throughout her Hall of Fame tenure as a broadcaster, Burke was put on the spot during the 2020 NBA Draft. It was her first time on ESPN Radio’s coverage of the event, and two hours into the broadcast, a piece of equipment went dead and she was treated to a whole lot of static.
“To ESPN’s credit, the manager working the broadcast jumped on the phone, and in about 15 minutes had me download an app,” Burke recalls to Dime over the phone. “The technology was incredible, I was back within the hour, I finished the broadcast on my telephone. And I thought, ‘Boy, this is crazy, one, the professional expertise of this young man, Camillo, at ESPN, but also, the required flexibility that is needed.’ You have to be nimble right now in broadcasting.”
That nimbleness, along with those aforementioned two words — patience and flexibility — also come to mind when Burke thinks about this season for players and teams. When asked about her general thoughts on this season, she went right to a domino that has fallen (Giannis Antetokounmpo signing his supermax extension with Milwaukee) and one that is teetering closer and closer towards hitting the ground (James Harden’s efforts to get traded).
But she also mentioned the fact that this season is a marathon squeezed into the timetable of a sprint, particularly for teams like the Los Angeles Lakers that had a condensed offseason due to the length of time between the end of the NBA’s Orlando Bubble and the start of this season. Burke is interested in how they’ll manage things with LeBron James entering his 18th season, or a team like the Brooklyn Nets leaning on depth due to Kevin Durant coming off of a horrific injury that oftentimes needs a whole lot of time to come back from.
“Let’s not overreact early to what we see early in terms of rotations, because there are challenges coming here that we don’t know,” Burke said. “I talked about flexibility and patience in terms of the broadcast, I think the same can be said for the teams.”
Ultimately, Burke is like you or me in that her excitement for this season is through the roof. Basketball is back, and while the circumstances through which this season is going to exist are heartbreaking, the fact that this silly little game we all love has returned gives Burke an “elevated level of excitement.”
To celebrate the return of the season, we asked Burke for five teams that interest her the most heading into 2020-21. While stressing that this was not in any particular order, here’s who she made it a point to highlight:
1. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks can sleep a little easier at night knowing that Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t going anywhere. Still, there are title-or-bust expectations in Milwaukee, and while their defense is going to be outstanding, Burke has her eyes on the team’s offense.
Yes, Antetokounmpo has found ways to develop his game for years on that end of the floor — he isn’t Duncan Robinson as a shooter, but his range has constantly gotten expanded every year. But when the chips have been down in Milwaukee, their offense has struggled to get out of the mud in the postseason.
“You had them fall short yet again in the playoffs in spectacularly disappointing fashion, in my mind, after the year they put together,” Burke says. “And I guess what intrigues me is the idea that they are going to use the season, essentially, to become a more diverse offensive team.”
Burke points to a pair of players who should benefit from this. One is Khris Middleton, who oftentimes plays off of Antetokounmpo but may be afforded a little more room to work this year. The other is the recently-acquired Jrue Holiday, for whom the Bucks mortgaged their future to bring on board. His defense should, as always, be stellar, but he is ripe to get a number of opportunities for a team that Burke thinks needs to have more answers on its their offense.
“I am dying to see from the Milwaukee Bucks what shape this more diverse offense takes,” Burke says.
2. Denver Nuggets
Same as anyone else who watches basketball, Burke was enthralled by what the Nuggets did in the NBA’s Orlando Bubble.
“They had to grind through two 3-1 deficits, they proved a season ago they are real, they are going to be here for a while, and they are close,” Burke says.
She specifically pointed to the play of Jamal Murray, who exploded in Orlando and averaged 26.5 points, 6.6 assists, and 4.8 rebounds per game in the postseason while shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 45.3 percent from three. This performance, she reckons, was Murray announcing that he is a “foundational” piece for Denver alongside All-Star big man Nikola Jokic.
Now, the question is who will be that third guy who pushes them past the finish line? There is one player that Burke believes is on the roster who, if he adopts the mindset of one of his teammates, has the potential to get the job done.
“Does Michael Porter Jr. have the same grit and the same mentality that Jamal Murray had the prior season?” Burke asks. “People attacked Michael Porter Jr. on the defensive end last season, what is his response? Because the fact of the matter is, we’re talking about a gifted offensive player that can rise and fire like a Kevin Durant — I’m not saying he is Kevin Durant, I’m saying he has the release point, the elevation, the rise-and-fire, the mechanics, he has everything that tells you he can be an NBA shot maker when it matters most.”
A more under-the-radar storyline in Denver she advises watching: Who fills in for Jerami Grant, who left the team in the offseason to join the Detroit Pistons? While Jokic and Murray kept the offense humming, Grant was tasked with locking up just about everyone you can imagine on the defensive end of the floor. He’s gone now, and Burke believes they need to figure out if they have someone who can answer that call on their roster.
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Here’s the funny thing about the Sixers: In our conversation, Burke spoke for several minutes about a number of things that fascinate her about this team. The two stars got brought up, as did the moves around them, as did the new coach, as did the new hoops executive, as did how the team is going to play on both ends of the floor. Like so many NBA fans, she can’t help but, as she put it, be “seduced by the Philadelphia 76ers.”
What intrigued me is how Burke brought up a number of reasons why Philly is as fascinating as ever, and even after all of them, none of them were the fact that they’re going to be linked to James Harden until his situation resolves itself. “The fact that you’ve already read that Doc Rivers did in fact call Ben Simmons and have the conversation means it’s foremost in the Sixers’ mind,” she posits — but there is so much surrounding the Sixers that “rumblings they could trade an All-Star for an MVP” is more on the back burner than anything.
As for this team, Burke has questions about a number of things. She wants to know about Joel Embiid’s mentality, as she thinks a physical and psychological commitment to being great could bring his game to new heights … if he wants it.
“Greatness in the MVP comes at a price,” Burke says. “It comes at a 365 day, for all intents and purposes, commitment. You see it with LeBron James, you see it with Kevin Durant, you see it with Giannis Antetokounmpo, those guys are passionate about the pursuit of greatness. And I believe that Joel Embiid would be, very much like James Harden, if he put the work in and engaged himself mentally and physically, he’d be a top-5 MVP finisher for as long as he chooses to be, provided his body holds up. So I am fascinated by that.”
She’s also fascinated by the defense provided by Simmons, who can and will check just about anyone. And on the other end of the floor, Philly has made the decision to go all-in on shooting, something that she has a hunch will pay off under the stewardship of new head coach Doc Rivers.
“What you have done, hopefully, is surround those two guys with more shooting,” Burke says. “It’s the one prerequisite, it is why you’ve got Joel Embiid, at times do it in subtle fashion and sometimes more overt, it was clear to me that he was frustrated that the Sixers let J.J. Redick get away. Joel had great success in that two-man action with J.J. Redick, that was who they started out the game with. So, listen, it doesn’t matter, like Brett Brown used to always say, space is critical. With those two stars, spacing is absolutely critical. ”
On a more macro level, there is Rivers and Daryl Morey, both of whom are respected NBA decision makers and are now tasked with both getting this team over the hump and building something sustainable.
“What impact Doc and Daryl have, ultimately, on the long-term direction of the franchise?” Burke asks. “This is a team that excites me, you can get frustrated by that excitement. I cannot wait to see their excitement play out.”
4. Los Angeles Clippers
It’s hard not to have your eyebrows perk up when someone mentions the Clippers, in large part, as Burke noted to me, about the reporting that came out during the offseason about there being some resentment about the preferential treatment that Paul George and Kawhi Leonard received last year. As Burke says, it can be really, really hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube after that happens, and now, the man tasked with doing that is someone who was with the team when they fell to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semis last year.
Still, Tyronn Lue is one heck of a coach with championship pedigree, and brings what Burke calls “a relaxed, confident air about him.” As much as he’ll be asked to handle things as a tactician, he’ll have to bring balance to a team that had some pretty evident internal issues.
“New team, but associated with the last one,” Burke says. “So how does Ty navigate Kawhi and Paul and what was allowed a season ago vs. whatever habits and decisions you want to make as the new head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers?”
George is the other major piece here. Burke was not a particularly big fan of the things that George said in the aftermath of their postseason loss and Rivers’ ouster in L.A., specifically mentioning his complaint that he believed Rivers used him in a similar manner to Ray Allen or Redick.
“I found that very unbecoming of a player of his level,” Burke said. “It would have been wonderful to see Paul say, ‘I didn’t play to the standards I’ve set for myself, I’m an elite two-way player, I failed.’ There’s something, to me, very appealing about that. Which of us, in our own personal lives, have not failed spectacularly? We’ve all done it, we all know the feeling, and so I don’t know, for a multi-time All-Star, a guy who’s in the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year conversation, I wish he would have had a different tact early.”
5. Brooklyn Nets
Burke and I spoke one day after the Nets blitzed the Golden State Warriors in their season opener, but even beyond that, how can you not be fascinated with what’s going on in Brooklyn? Obviously there are the team’s two stars, a pair of “incredible shot creators and fearless shot makers when the games matter” in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, both of whom showed few signs of rust during the preseason and to start the year.
But two stars does not a team make, and major parts of Burke’s excitement stem from the Nets’ new head coach and the team’s depth. While Steve Nash is a first-time coach, Burke already sees aspects of a championship winning coach in how he carries himself.
“Steve Nash has handled challenges early with incredible grace,” Burke says. “He has this great moment on the call where he said, ‘Oh, I didn’t hear what Kyrie said, what was it again?’ He seems very much like Steve Kerr to me in that his days as a player, his time around the league, ongoing interacting with players, I think will go a long way to helping him navigate the season.
“He said something to us in our first call that really struck me,” Burke continued. “He told me the story of, when Mike D’Antoni took over in Phoenix, Mike was watching the team play a little pickup basketball before the season started, and he remembers Mike saying something along the lines of, ‘Why would I overcoach this? Look at what I have at my disposal.’”
That talent goes beyond the top-2 players, as Burke praised Brooklyn for building up “incredible depth at every position.” Behind DeAndre Jordan, the team has Jarrett Allen. Beyond Durant and Irving, the team has a pair of players in Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert who are capable of taking over basketball games and alleviating some of the pressure as shot creators and shot makers. Joe Harris is there to let it fly from deep, creating the necessary space that guys need to make things happen.
“They’re deep, they’re talented, they’ve got scoring in their second unit, navigated some interesting early challenges with great grace,” Burke says. “I’m excited by them.”