In a somewhat less powerful display of democracy in action, the NBA’s rank and file has voted to tentatively accept the framework of their next season: a fast-tracked, 72-game campaign that will start on December 22. That sound you hear is an entire league whirring to life for the now-imminent business of the offseason: a rush order of draft picks, trades, and free-agent signings to get entire rosters pieced together in time for training camp on December 1.
There’s a lot of work to be done. But first—for those who have peeled themselves away from the electoral map—let’s lay out what this upcoming season will look like and how exactly we got here.
Why December 22? Why 72 games?
In your heart of hearts, I suspect you already know. The NBA, like many businesses that have been compromised by the ongoing pandemic, is chasing every dollar it can reasonably get. An uncomfortably large portion of the league’s financial model depends on selling tickets to get fans into the arena, selling them hot dogs and nachos once inside, and then funneling them into jersey sales or “premium experiences” from there. All along the way are opportunities for advertising—for fans to be sold something as they’re already buying something else. Even if the NBA is able to get a fraction of its usual crowds into the arena (for, again: more money), the damming of its revenue streams has forced the NBA to reconsider the way it does business. This is how you end up with the NBA Finals at Walt Disney World presented by YouTube TV.
To put it crudely: Starting just before Christmas is a cash grab. That’s not a judgment, just a statement of fact. The league office has reportedly claimed that starting on December 22 rather than January 18—Martin Luther King Jr. Day, another showcase day on the typical NBA calendar—would come with as much as $1 billion in potential long-term earnings. A compressed, 72-game season (just long enough to meet the NBA’s agreements with regional sports networks) could be reverse-engineered from there. The NBA will quickly gear up to a Christmas Day spectacular, reap the rewards of holiday ad buys, and piece together the kind of provisional schedule that could satisfy the league’s broadcast partners.
Why did the players agree to such an early start?
Well, many of them haven’t played in an NBA game since March. We don’t typically think of the league through the experience of its lesser teams, but those that didn’t make the bubble have been scrolling through Netflix for months, have had their fill of takeout, and are ready for some semblance of normal life. (I may be projecting.) Even teams that made it to the first round of the playoffs have been out of action since August. Pulling the league together for a December 22 turnaround feels sudden from a logistical perspective, but plenty of teams have been ready and waiting for things to kick back up again.
But also: money. NBA players have set salaries, but a portion of that salary—10 percent under normal circumstances—is held in escrow. Think of escrow as a way to guarantee the league’s revenue split between players and team governors. The NBA runs on a system of projections. If the league winds up making more money than it projected it would in a given season, the players will have their escrow money returned in part or in full. If the league undershoots its projections—like, say if a general manager (righteously) imperils the league’s business interests in China and the NBA season itself is later halted by a pandemic—then some or all of the money held in escrow would be paid out to the governors to compensate.
Even if the players would rather start the season in January, an earlier start date should mean more revenue to split and thus a better chance to get back more of their escrow contributions. Team governors reportedly started negotiations for the upcoming season by asking players to put as much as 40 percent of their salary into escrow, which given the circumstances, we can assume to be deliberately ridiculous. A December 22 start feels like the basis for a compromise. By giving the governors the start date they want and agreeing to spread their heightened escrow risk over a few seasons, the players have made progress in bringing that number down to one they can actually stomach.
How will the format for the season change?
Probably not as much as you’d think. Most of the league will operate out of their home markets, with the Raptors as a possible exception. Teams are expected to play about three times as many back-to-backs in order to squeeze in 72 games during a shorter span, but they’ll likely travel less than before as the NBA structures its season around baseball-style series with a run of games between the same two teams in the same market. That format will save time and minimize risk, but also comes with the benefit of being great television; imagine if every game with a scuffle or a cheap foul or some assorted petulance would be followed up with a quick rematch. The NBA is so well suited for a series format that it’s amazing it took the upending of the economy to get here.
The NBA may name All-Star teams for formality’s sake, but the game itself is expected to be canceled outright, and replaced with an actual break for players and coaches. The biggest change could come at the end of the regular season, with a play-in tournament even bigger and better than the 2020 model. Thus far, the plans the league is reportedly discussing would pit the team in seventh against the team in eighth to lock up a playoff spot. The team in ninth would play the team in 10th in a win-or-go-home matchup to keep their season alive, and the winner would have a chance to steal a playoff spot by beating the loser of the initial game between seventh and eighth. It’s an easy way to create games of consequence out of thin air.
Why isn’t the NBA building another bubble?
Mostly because it was a logistical labyrinth that operated at incredible cost and it made most of the players and coaches involved pretty miserable. The bubble was—and is—a last resort.
In that case, what problems could arise?
Without the protection of a bubble, the NBA will be at the mercy of the coronavirus and the vigilance of its players. Best of luck. The major American sports leagues that have attempted to operate from their usual markets during the pandemic have run into varying levels of problems—the Dodgers’ Justin Turner was pulled off the field for a positive COVID-19 test result in the middle of a World Series game. Most of those sports are played outdoors, mitigating the potential spread of the virus, and even then some of the leagues initially balked at allowing fans in the stands. Meanwhile, NBA teams may soon fill arenas to some prescribed capacity, perhaps even allowing some fans to sit courtside, mere feet away from players. As metaphors go, it’s almost too on the nose: The league’s desire to maximize profits and its need to keep players safe will collide right there on the sideline.
The NBA deserves some benefit of the doubt after pulling off the bubble safely, but running 30 discrete teams out of their home arenas is a very different undertaking from the centralized operation we saw in Orlando. Even if teams are as cautious as possible, players could still—and likely will—at some point test positive, considering that the national rate of infection continues to hit record highs. Safety is an obvious concern. Schedule flexibility is another lesser one. A December 22 start doesn’t leave much wiggle room for potential cancellations or postponements if the virus starts to spread through the league.
When will the season end?
We won’t know for sure until the NBA firms up its official calendar, but the expectation is that the league could squeeze in 72 games and wrap up the playoffs by mid-to-late July. That’s not entirely back on schedule, but it’s close enough that the NBA could hustle a bit through the 2021 offseason to get things more or less back on track. But if we’re being honest, the chances of successfully navigating the pandemic and getting fans back in the arena en masse has more to do with the votes being counted in Maricopa County than anything going on with the schedule.
But if the season ends in July, will NBA players still be able to compete in the 2021 Olympics?
If all goes according to plan—an enormous if—most NBA players should still be in a position to play. Those who go all the way to the NBA Finals, however, could be far less interested; some formulations of the schedule have the Finals ending as late as July 22, literally the day before the official start of the Tokyo Games. What better way to celebrate the title than to jump on a transpacific flight to play more basketball while exhausted and jet-lagged?
For as much as I would recommend going to Tokyo (and Kyoto … and Osaka … and … ) whenever possible, the Olympics just won’t make sense for everyone. If the Lakers manage to repeat as Western Conference champions, LeBron James and Anthony Davis—both gold medalists and finalists for the would-have-been 2020 team—could be hard outs for rest alone. Another extended season would mean that the Lakers’ two superstars would have played the better part of 22 months without a full offseason. Ditto for Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, if the Heat go on another deep run.
What does all this mean for the upcoming offseason?
It means things could get crazy. We already know that the draft is set for November 18, and according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the leaguewide moratorium on trades should be lifted at some point before then. Meanwhile, discussions will soon be underway to open up free agency as soon as possible. Expect chaos. Running through so much offseason business so quickly will wind up changing the way teams are actually built.
Which teams does this kind of schedule benefit the most?
There are a few different pools to choose from. In terms of logistics, the season series format—assuming it holds—could make things easier on teams like the Blazers, Jazz, and Kings, who tend to travel more miles during the season than most. Cross-country travel is the unseen tax on the NBA quality of play, and in particular on teams that are geographically inconvenienced. A proper play-in tournament would open the race to ambitious teams that might otherwise seem like a long shot, like Atlanta and Cleveland. Neither would have to pull off a top-eight record in the East outright—just a record good enough to get them within range of the play-in with enough momentum to push them through. Generally speaking, though, this seems like a format that will favor established rosters. Any team that doesn’t have to rush into training camp, binge strategic concepts, and work out chemistry on the fly will have a baked-in advantage.