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Where Does the NBA Go From Here?

As the world grapples with the coronavirus, the NBA is trying to plot a path forward. There are plenty of ideas, but no answers, yet.

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Not even the NBA knows when the NBA will be back. Following the suspension of the regular season on March 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the league believes its best-case scenario for games to resume is in mid-to-late June, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Sunday. Planning ahead is important, but when faced with a global pandemic, the NBA’s plans might as well be a page of scribbled lines.

Every imaginable scenario for restarting games is being discussed, league sources say: a postseason play-in tournament could replace the remainder of the 2019-20 regular season; the playoffs could feature shortened series; all or some games could be played at a neutral site; the start of the 2020-21 season could be delayed until December or possibly until 2021. In a worst-case scenario, the current season is canceled and next season is postponed. League sources told me that if games do resume, fans likely won’t be in attendance, and players, coaches, and other team personnel would have to go undergo regular testing for the coronavirus to prevent community infection. It’s a lot to ask—maybe too much—for games to happen this spring or summer, though the league is trying to plan for every potential situation. No one really knows when Steph will splash deep 3s, Giannis will pulverize rims, and LeBron will challenge Father Time again. If a multibillion-dollar enterprise like the NBA doesn’t know when it will get back to business, then how could any of us know when our normal lives will resume?

The truth is, we can’t know. Our cultural norms have shattered and the coronavirus pressed the pause button on life as we know it. The NBA, as an institution, is grappling with the same kinds of issues facing families and individuals across the globe.

In conversations with executives and agents around the league, questions are being asked, some big and some small, about how significantly the salary cap will be impacted, whether the league will mandate all teams close their practice facilities to players, when the draft lottery and the draft itself will happen, and how the league and teams will coordinate with draft prospects. Most team executives expect meetings to happen through FaceTime or a similar video software like Zoom, but they wonder how players will go through the type of extensive medical checks they would experience at the NBA combine.

Is it possible the NBA could stumble upon something that works? Perhaps. Many members of the league office, and individuals in team front offices, have long supported moving the start of the regular season to December. Hawks CEO Steve Koonin recently proposed the idea at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, claiming it would limit the amount of time the NBA overlaps with the NFL schedule, which dominates sports news coverage from September through February. Plus, it would give the NBA a kind of TV programming pole position during the slower summer months. “Relevance equals revenue,” Koonin said. “We’ve got to create the most relevance, and the revenue will fix itself.”

Team executives seem to be warming to the idea of a December start, though their evolving opinions may be due to necessity, depending on how long the wait is until games are played. It could be a good time to experiment, though. As mentioned earlier, installing a postseason play-in tournament to determine the playoffs was discussed. The playoffs could change formats to reduce the number of games in a series, which Rockets general manager Daryl Morey proposed in the past. It would be a way for the league to test-drive nontraditional ideas without a long-term commitment.

Any iteration of a return to action will come with questions about player and public health at large, and whether it’s possible for players to get up to speed in the middle of the summer after an extended break. And assuming COVID-19 is still an issue worldwide, how exactly would the league test all players, coaches, team attendants, executives, and referees? Would a player log a “DNP - Coronavirus” if he tests positive, and be automatically out for two or three weeks? What if three of his teammates also have it, like the Nets right now? Would the league have to be suspended again?

These are thoughts, questions, and ideas being discussed around the NBA. But we’re short on answers, and any we might have would be only theoretical at this point, and tied to a larger question: How will the coronavirus progress? No scientist or government knows for sure, so Adam Silver sure doesn’t. But I already look forward to the day I can turn on the television and watch live basketball, and hear the squeak of the sneakers and the swish of the net. It will be a sign the world is healing.