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The NBA May Be Back Much Sooner Than Anyone Thought

Basketball could be home for Christmas, which could be a gift for a well-rested team like the Warriors and hellish for teams that lasted in the bubble for months, like the Lakers

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It has not been two weeks since LeBron James and the Lakers won the NBA title, but their championship already feels like it’s deep in the rearview mirror. After playing a virus-free three months inside the Orlando bubble, the league isn’t looking to decelerate. On Friday, reports surfaced from an NBA board of governors meeting with new information on when the 2020-21 season could begin (spoiler: a lot sooner than we all thought), how many regular-season games teams will play and where, as well as whether fans could be in attendance.

Here’s what we know about next season so far, and what it would mean for teams this offseason and beyond

  • Start date: According to reports, the NBA is targeting December 22 as the tip-off date for next season. That’s in less than two months. A normal offseason lasts about four months starting after the last game of the Finals, meaning this would be about half of that. It would also keep the NBA on TV for Christmas Day, which is widely considered the league’s marquee regular-season event. Previous rumors had pegged the league’s start to sometime around January, maybe even February to allow fans to be able to attend games.
  • Length of the season: The league is reportedly trying to play 70 to 72 regular-season games. A few weeks ago, Adam Silver said his goal was a full, 82-game season. But whether it’s because of spiking COVID-19 rates or a lack of progress in rapid testing, the league has apparently scaled back its ambitious thinking. This new schedule would reportedly earn teams and players an extra $500 million, allow the league to finish before the Summer Olympics, and possibly return to a normal schedule in 2021-22.
  • Format: The hope is to stay out of the bubble. Instead, owners are reportedly considering baseball-style series where teams play each other multiple times in one location to limit travel and the possibility of infection. It will be interesting to see how basketball would deal with positive tests outside of a bubble environment. Both baseball and football have been able to haphazardly reschedule or replace players in order to keep their seasons going, but this upheaval has clearly altered teams’ competitiveness in a given game.
  • No All-Star Game. It seems unlikely that All-Star Weekend, which was set to take place in Indiana, will happen. If we did H-O-R-S-E over Zoom, we can do a 3-point contest that way too, right?
  • Fans in the stands: This is the biggest question looming over the league, given how much money it has lost. The NBA needs ticket revenue, yet a majority of NBA cities are still restricting large gatherings. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports that these restrictions have led to the acceleration of the original timeline, as owners are less likely to wait for fans who may never be allowed into the building before the season is over. The Athletic’s Shams Charania says that the arenas that would allow fans could include “testing for courtside seats and better air purifiers in buildings.”

If the basic outline holds, the changes will have repercussions. The first is that the offseason will have to be fast-tracked. With the draft set for November 18, the league would have about two weeks to complete free agency in order to get training camp in before the December 22 target start date. This could lead to a quieter, more conservative offseason … or an absolute frenzy. The league’s reputation suggests that chaos is likely in order, even if this is not a particularly tantalizing free-agent class.

The regular season will be a sprint too, with teams likely playing more back-to-backs and more games in fewer days, similar to what they had to do in the bubble. Such a quick turnaround would also likely hurt the teams that had the most success in the bubble; the Lakers, for instance, will have to begin gearing up for their title defense a month or two after their Finals win, which could end up taking a physical toll. And for a team like the Clippers, it raises even more questions about Kawhi Leonard’s health and the team’s approach to his load management. While a reduced game load could make every regular-season game more important, it might also lead to even more star players sitting out, especially for those who played heavy minutes in Orlando.

For other teams, though, playing sooner rather than later is exactly what they want. Teams that didn’t travel to Orlando have now gone over seven months without playing a game against another NBA team. The Warriors, for example, are now healthy and ready to compete for titles again. And though some Nets players participated in the bubble, both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are presumably ready to hit the ground running.

What’s next? Bargaining. The players association will have to sign off on any proposal the league’s owners agree to—as well as any modifications to the collective bargaining agreement. And while players would probably welcome not having to reenter a bubble environment, they may also want more offseason time to get healthy and prepared for next season than the current plan affords. October 30 is the deadline for the NBA and NBPA to agree to alterations to the CBA. It is also about eight weeks before the proposed new start time, which is reportedly the minimum amount of time Silver has told the union it will have between an agreement and the start of next season. Buckle up.