These are uncertain times.
Certainly you’ve heard that refrain too often from too many people over the last nine months. And more than likely you’ll continue hearing it until life returns to some semblance of normal.
The NBA released its schedule on Friday, one that is normally written in stone. But this season, only the first half was unveiled so that the league can work postponed games into the second half.
At the very least, the NBA knows it intends to crown a champion by July 22 – one day before the men’s Olympic basketball tournament begins. For Canada, that statement in itself is loaded, as the country must win a last-chance qualifier beginning June 29 to book its ticket to Toyko in the first place.
That means, with the NBA season slated to open in less than three weeks, Canadian players know the league’s uncertain schedule is the only definite chance they’ll have to perform on a big stage.
“[The Olympics] would be a really good experience, especially being in a different country playing. I look forward to it. I just hope it happens. Like I said, just trying to get through this season the best way we can, try to get it through it healthy and then look ahead,” Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray said in his season-opening media availability.
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Murray, the 23-year-old Kitchener, Ont., native broke out in the NBA bubble, posting multiple 50-point games as the Nuggets reached the West final, where they eventually lost to the champion Los Angeles Lakers.
That spotlight Murray earned means more responsibility is coming his way this season as the Nuggets look to take the next step. Individually, he said he’s worked on defence and rebounding as a means of jumpstarting his polished offensive game.
“You can get locked in on offence or just on one side of the court, but when you’re locked in entirely and really vocal on defence, the offence will take care of itself,” Murray said.
If the Nuggets are to reach the same heights this season, Murray would be unavailable for Canada’s qualifying tournament. It would also put his potential Olympic status in jeopardy with the quick turnaround to Tokyo.
As always in 2020, that’s a big if. But a Canadian roster at its full potential would be the best the country has ever seen, led by Murray.
“Going against the best athletes in the world on the biggest stage, it would be a lot of fun. Plus, you get to play with guys I never get to play with or practise with. I’ve got some good friends on there, too.”
One of those friends is Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, entering his third NBA campaign. The 22-year-old from Toronto gets his chance to shine this season after the Thunder traded away veteran leaders Chris Paul and Steven Adams, while key pieces in Danilo Gallinari and Dennis Schroder left in free agency.
That leaves Gilgeous-Alexander to run the show.
“I think I’ve worked hard enough to deserve that responsibility and trust from [GM] Sam [Presti] and the rest of the front office, the rest of the coaching staff. But really I’m just ready to take advantage of the opportunity I’ve been given,” Gilgeous-Alexander said on Friday.
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Along with fellow Canadian Luguentz Dort, the Thunder last season pushed James Harden and the Houston Rockets to Game 7 in a surprisingly scrappy first-round series.
In the loaded West, playoffs may no longer be in the cards for the rebuilding squad, but that’s what critics said before last season, too.
“We’re all NBA players just like the rest of the teams. We all run, jump, bleed, breathe the same way the rest of the teams do, so I don’t feel like we’re at a huge disadvantage. I think our main focus as a group is just to get better every day and never be static, never be satisfied and I think everything else will take care of itself,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
“Whether it’s the playoffs, whether it’s not the playoffs, it doesn’t matter as long as we’re getting better.”
Recently, the Thunder guard expressed extremely similar sentiments when discussing Canada’s chances against a U.S. team at the Olympics.
All of a sudden, Murray and Gilgeous-Alexander have become leaders on their NBA teams.
That experience should only help if the Olympics happen, and if Canada qualifies, and if both are available to play.
“Any time you play for your country, it’s a different type of honour than just playing on a team or in a league,” Murray said.
It’s still unclear whether the two will get that chance. But certainly, both will be ready if the time comes.