Nearly three months after the NBA suspended its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it appears the league is one step closer to returning to play. It’s no longer a matter of if or when the NBA will be back. The answer to the former is a surefire yes; to the latter, a reported target date of July 31. Now all that is left—beyond the very important logistical feat of keeping everyone safe inside the “campus-like environment” at Disney World in Orlando—is figuring out the how.
Following a board of governors meeting Friday, the league is reportedly set to vote Thursday and decide what the format for a return to play will look like and how many teams it will include. As the safety of players and staff members is weighed along with the league’s other concerns (namely, revenue and competition format), numerous proposals have been reported, including a World Cup–style format, the elimination of conferences, and different variations of a postseason play-in tournament.
But according to ESPN’s latest report on the discussions, the plan that is gathering the most steam is a 22-team scenario concocted by commissioner Adam Silver and the league office. Despite so many different parties being involved with so many different agendas, the report indicates that Silver has the backing of the owners no matter what scenario he recommends. In the 22-game scenario, all 16 current playoff teams would travel to Orlando, plus all teams within six games of a playoff spot. That means New Orleans, Portland, San Antonio, Sacramento, Phoenix, and Washington would all participate in what’s expected to be a handful of regular-season games and some kind of play-in scenario that gives Damian Lillard what he wanted: a shot at making the playoffs.
Why six games? Because historically teams haven’t been able to come back from more than five games with this amount of games remaining on the schedule.— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) May 29, 2020
Other scenarios are still reportedly in play, including a 20-team approach where only four West teams (Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio and New Orleans) would return along with the current playoff teams. The plan to bring back all 30 teams, as Mavs owner Mark Cuban suggested, seems to be all but eliminated from consideration.
The players and the NBPA have been adamant about not wanting to jump straight into the playoffs and staging not just regular-season games beforehand, but enough training camp time to physically get up to speed and avoid injuries. Until team facilities opened up in mid-May, most players were inside homes or apartments without gym equipment, or in the case of Giannis Antetokounmpo, without access to a basketball hoop. Some players, like Andre Drummond, resorted to lifting everyday items around their house. Others were able to run outside, but some, including John Collins, were limited to doing body-weight or band resistance workouts that teams monitored. Some teams eventually sent their players equipment to help them stay in shape. The NBA has yet to allow group workouts between teammates, even at the team facilities.
As June 1 approaches, the timeline for a return is becoming increasingly precarious. NBPA executive director Michele Roberts recently called for the league to give the players concrete information about a possible return. Time is short for multiple reasons. If the 22-team scenario gets approved by a three-fourths majority of the owners on Thursday and the July 31 date to resume is solidified, the NBA will likely be hoping to fit in a handful of regular-season games, a play-in, and a full postseason to determine a title winner before the NFL presumably kicks off its season on September 10. That’s a 41-day window. In a normal year, the playoffs usually stretch over two months.
Beyond the complicated task of getting 30 owners to agree on one plan, there are the even more serious health circumstances looming over the league’s return. On Thursday, there were more than 22,000 new cases and over 1,200 new deaths due to the virus in the U.S. While soccer leagues around the world have returned to play as cases have declined in Europe, basketball’s return remains a bigger question, especially given it’s played indoors. Just this past week, the EuroLeague canceled its season.