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The NBA Has a Plan to Return. Now Comes the Hard Part.

Adam Silver’s 22-team proposal will reportedly be approved Thursday, clearing the way for the league to resume play July 31 at a bubble site inside Walt Disney World

NBA/Ringer illustration

Eighty-five days after Rudy Gobert’s positive test for COVID-19 prompted the NBA’s suspension, the league is on the verge of resuming its 2019-20 season. Shams Charania of The Athletic reported Wednesday that, during a meeting of the league’s board of governors on Thursday, NBA commissioner Adam Silver plans to “propose a 22-team return [to play]” at a single site—Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida—“based on feedback, collaborative discussions and input from constituents around the league.”

As has been the case for several days, it’s widely assumed that “an overwhelming majority” of the NBA’s 30 owners will approve Silver’s plan to resume—if not provide “unanimous support”—clearing a path for the return of the league that in many ways introduced the prospective dangers of the coronavirus pandemic to the general U.S. public nearly three months ago. An approved proposal will also have to pass muster with the National Basketball Players Association; union chief Michele Roberts has already made it clear that her membership, broadly, “really wants to play.” Multiple reports have suggested the NBA has July 31 circled on its calendar as an intended start date.

All 22 teams will play eight regular-season games to cement seeding for the playoffs, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, which will include a play-in for the no. 8 seed in each conference. (Vaya con dios, World Cup–style group stage.) The returning teams will reportedly include the 16 that were in playoff position at the time of the suspension: the Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, Heat, Pacers, 76ers, Nets, and Magic in the East, and the Lakers, Clippers, Nuggets, Jazz, Thunder, Rockets, Mavericks, and Grizzlies in the West. The final six teams will be those that were within six games of a postseason berth when the season halted: the Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs, and Suns in the West, and the Wizards in the East.

The proposal would mean that the eight teams with the league’s worst records—the Hornets, Bulls, Knicks, Pistons, Hawks, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, and Warriors—can officially look forward to next year and toward an offseason (draft lottery, free agency, draft) that will evidently start sometime in mid-to-late October. Those teams might reportedly push for a dispensation to hold some type of a training camp over the summer, to get their players and coaches together en masse at least once ahead of a 2020-21 season that could start on or around Christmas Day.

The decision to include eight regular-season games before moving into postseason play ticks two boxes for the league, teams, and players. For one, it allows players who have spent nearly three months away from the rigors of NBA-level exertion and game play to have some time to knock off the rust, build up their conditioning, and redevelop some rhythm with their teammates before heading into a playoff series. It also gives the NBA more product to sell. A 22-team format that includes regular-season games to broadcast is “worth several hundred million dollars more in revenue than the 16-team straight-to-playoffs plan,” league sources recently told ESPN’s Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe.

After the conclusion of the eight-game ramp-up, it’ll be time for the play-in pilot, which, according to my Ringer colleague Kevin O’Connor, about three-quarters of the league’s general managers supported in a recent survey. According to both Charania and Wojnarowski, if the team seeded ninth ends the season more than four games out of the eighth spot, the team in eighth will make the playoffs. If no. 9 is within four games, though, there will be a playoff between the two teams, with no. 9 needing to beat no. 8 twice to make it into the postseason field, and no. 8 needing just one win to advance. That provision seems aimed at addressing the concerns of players like Damian Lillard, who told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports that he would not participate in games that didn’t include a meaningful pathway to actually earning a postseason berth.

O’Connor reported last week that “rumblings across the league suggest the NBA will require teams to arrive at Disney World around July 16” before beginning quarantine in an attempt to limit potential exposure to and spread of COVID-19 among those who will be playing in and working at the “campus” site. The league has been brainstorming testing protocols for some time that would allow a safe resumption of play. Even if the league can build up an adequate supply of tests to ensure that players, coaches, staff, and other league personnel can get multiple weekly or even daily tests, though, there remain major public health concerns associated with leagues returning to business as coronavirus continues to spread. The pandemic has now caused more than 1.8 million total cases in the U.S. and at least 106,000 deaths. On Wednesday, Florida announced 1,317 new cases and 36 more deaths, the state’s largest single-day surge in six weeks.

Since allowing teams to begin reopening their practice facilities last month, the NBA has mandated a variety of guidelines aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19: checking the temperature of anyone who enters a facility, restricting how many players and staffers are allowed to be there at one time, barring athletes from using therapy equipment like hot tubs, and disinfecting all equipment (including basketballs). Charania reports that additional provisions in Orlando will mean that players will not be allowed to shower in the arena in which they play; players on the bench will have to “sit in spread-out rows” while inactive players sit in the empty stands, in an effort to maintain some social distancing; and players will not be allowed to have any guests or family members at the “campus site” until the start of the playoffs. ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reports that players and coaches “will be allowed to golf and eat at outdoor restaurants in Disney” but will be expected to adhere to social distancing guidelines. More specifics on the health protocols that the league proposes to put in place to ensure the safety and well-being of the people it expects to keep at Disney World from mid-July through, potentially, October 12 will surely be forthcoming.

Questions abound about the proposal and where the league will go next. What does a fan- and fanfare-free NBA game look and sound like? How will the remaining regular-season slate be structured to avoid some teams getting the short end of the scheduling stick? (The early returns sound both compressed and complicated.) Will teams that would’ve been in line for home-court advantage in the playoffs get some other kind of benefit in recognition of the work they put in before the stoppage? What will the resumption mean for bookkeeping matters like player salary reduction, establishing next year’s salary cap, and setting a 2020-21 league calendar?

Then there’s life outside the league. The NBA—a league whose population is 81.9 percent players of color—is returning to action in front of a nation in the grip of protests over police brutality and racial inequality. Many players and coaches have been vocal in supporting the protests that have followed the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer; some have taken to the streets themselves. Will those working to advocate for social and political change choose to continue their protests in uniform with the cameras on? And how would the NBA—which has supported players’ rights to express themselves on social and political matters under Silver’s tenure, but has also preferred to keep those expressions off the court—respond to protests in the bubble environment?

And, most important, how is the NBA going to hew to its stated mission of prioritizing health and safety while calling on thousands of employees to report to a single site to play physical, fast-paced, up-close-and-personal games in which everybody’s breathing heavily and all over one another all the time on indoor courts with a pandemic still raging? TrueHoop’s Henry Abbott posed a score of health-protocol-related questions to the league office last week; on Monday, he received a response saying the league “won’t answer any of the questions above. Nor will they respond in any way, with even a few sentences about say, the role of science in reopening. Not now.”

Answers will come, one way or another, but the league office, owners, and players are tired of waiting and want to play. After nearly three months on the shelf, the NBA’s return is now imminent. First comes the board of governors vote; then, game on.