The last week has been a belch of NBA activity, brought on by the increasingly real possibility of teams playing regular-season games just eight weeks from now. It’s high time for every franchise to get its house in order. For the Sixers, that meant bringing in Daryl Morey to oversee and clarify their front office. The Rockets that Morey left behind named Rafael Stone, the team’s general counsel, as his successor—and then hired Stephen Silas, a former assistant with the Mavericks, as their new head coach. So it was with business wrapping all around the league, from New Orleans to Indianapolis to Los Angeles. Eight of the NBA’s nine head coaching vacancies are now filled. The head basketball ops job for every organization is spoken for. So begins the march toward the draft, and beyond it, a haze of penciled proposals and eraser smudges where an official calendar should be.
Remarkably, the most ambitious scheduling option for the NBA’s 2020-21 season has gathered the greatest momentum. As was reported by The Ringer’s own Kevin O’Connor, league officials briefed team executives on Wednesday on the particulars of a 72-game slate that would kick off on December 22, forsaking a proper offseason for something closer to an intermission. In 2019, 131 days passed between the final playoff game and the start of the regular season. If the December 22 start sticks, the NBA would shave 59 days from an offseason that already has a backlog of potential transactions.
To unmoor the NBA season from its usual schedule is to change the way rosters are built and conceived. Team executives have been waiting for this offseason for months. They’ve talked through scenarios, played out the seemingly infinite possibilities, made diagrams with straws, and may have already agreed to a few deals. Yet until the league is open for all offseason business, no general manager can fully gauge the madness of the market in front of them.
The only way for the NBA to make a December 22 start date is to rush to meet it. According to Marc Stein of The New York Times, some front offices are bracing for free agency to begin as soon as 48 hours after the draft. Teams will need to move quickly to make the most of training camp (which is currently expected to begin during free agency), and players will have to find the available exceptions and cap room before the money begins to dry up. In that kind of rapidly evolving marketplace, the idea of putting in an offer sheet on another team’s restricted free agent—and tying up cap space for two days in the process—could be self-destructive. Those are days of business that a team can’t get back. That’s not going to stop Brandon Ingram from getting a shiny new deal, one way or the other, but it could quiet the bidding on otherwise valuable role players like Bogdan Bogdanovic and Jakob Poeltl.
How all this plays in the unrestricted market is another, more chaotic question. There are only six teams projected to have real cap space, five of which fell to the lottery last season. (The sixth, Miami, might only be willing to dole out one-year deals as the Heat pine for Giannis Antetokounmpo.) If those six teams hurry to make moves or choose to limit their spending in a pandemic economy—taking the possibility of bigger, long-term contracts off the board—veteran free agents could look for the mid-level escape hatch.
Agents and players aren’t above momentary panic; if the offseason landscape gives way to an avalanche of player movement, it’s only natural that some might look for the stability of a reasonably compensated role with a playoff team. There just aren’t that many desirable markets with cap space to choose from. This puts free agents in a bind; by ruling out even one or two teams from the six with ample money to spend, whether for basketball reasons or personal preference, a player could box themselves out of the lucrative contracts they expected to sign. This is where things get interesting for the contending set. Once a player starts to weigh one team’s midlevel exception against another’s, it becomes easier for winning teams to compete on the open market.
This could be the free agency equalizer for the defending champion Lakers, a down-on-its luck franchise that could really use a break. In theory, a short offseason is terrible news for a team that fielded the oldest roster in the league last season and played its last game less than three weeks ago. (Just ask Danny Green.) Yet if the helter-skelter signings and the scarcity of cap space push more talented players into the exception market, the Lakers might well cut other suitors in line. The idea of someone like Danilo Gallinari, Jae Crowder, or Marc Gasol winding up in L.A. might be more than a sloppy photoshop.
Remember, though, that every contract to come out of free agency is a human decision, first and foremost—simply one played out on a more privileged scale. Don’t underestimate the personal complications involved with this kind of schedule compression; for players with families, changing teams could mean uprooting quickly in the midst of a pandemic, suddenly separating partners and children from their routines and support systems. Or, alternatively: A player could fly off to report to their new team while their family stays in their former home to work out a move on their own timeline, a kind of bubble in itself. No matter how players find their way to their new teams, the suddenness of a December start could undercut the quality of play for the first few months of the season. Fast-forwarding through individual training schedules into an expedited training camp is a shortcut to sloppy, uneven play. It could take months for some teams to sort out how they should even play.
So much of the 2020 offseason comes down to a player or team’s appetite for upheaval. An organization like the Thunder, the only one still without a head coach, can lean into the volatility of its circumstances. OKC is already at an inflection point with what was the third-most expensive roster last season. What’s another move for a team that will probably lose Gallinari in free agency, could trade Chris Paul, and should explore the market for Dennis Schröder? Yet otherwise, teams that make significant changes this offseason will then have to scramble to actually implement those changes—from the rush into camp to an unusual schedule with pandemic-dictated practice guidelines. There has never been a stronger structural argument in favor of continuity, which has to weigh on the collective brain trust of any team at a crossroads. Denver, for example, could either return a Western Conference finals roster or take some big swings on its supporting cast. The Nuggets are cultivators, a team that staked its future on slow-burn development and the incremental benefits of shared experience. The same could be said, of course, for so many other franchises that built and developed gradually until the time came to trade off beloved role players and sell out their way of being for a shot to contend.
Maybe now is that time for Denver, considering the Nuggets could be a player away from pushing even further in the postseason. But a steady course doesn’t sound so bad when so many teams will be desperate just to get their players in town for camp. In a league where franchises are desperate for the slightest edge, there could be an actual competitive advantage this season just in having a team with minimal assembly required. Maybe that idea moves the needle for an organization like the Jazz as it mulls its options with Rudy Gobert, the All-NBA center who butted heads with his costar and, terrifyingly, is now eligible for a supermax extension. Some change around the franchise is to be expected after the team sold this week for $1.7 billion, which is not an amount one pays for business as usual. But a trade for Gobert assumes that some other team will swing a huge trade to acquire a nontraditional and soon-to-be expensive center when the wider NBA is wrestling with its elemental revenue. Pervasive caution may be its own sort of gridlock.
Due to those sorts of implications, the schedule has become the story. That won’t stand in the way of the league and a projected $500 million in savings, though it might explain why a fast-tracked offseason would lead some teams to more conservative decisions. Of course, the start date itself is still up for negotiation, as is everything beyond the day of the draft. December 22 is the crux of a plan, but isn’t final. With still no certitude, front offices are left with a tree of splintering scenarios to contend with, beginning with when and how much every team will be able to spend. The team that wins the 2021 NBA championship is out there somewhere, alive in a spreadsheet. Making it real begins with a date.