Publicly, the NBA has been vague about its plans to restart after suspending the season on March 11. There is no schedule for full teams to return to practice, never mind to play real games. Privately, however, commissioner Adam Silver and his team in the league office have been making contingency plans for every imaginable scenario for how the coronavirus pandemic might develop, according to recent conversations with sources from teams, agents, and the league. “What’s been hard for people to understand is the amount of flexibility that Adam has,” said one source with knowledge of discussions in the league office. “He doesn’t need to make a decision until he has as much information as possible based on where we are as a country and where the NBA is as a league.”
Numerous plans have been reported in recent weeks—from an 88-day schedule to complete the entire 2019-20 season to a push to cancel the season. The truth is, all of it’s a possibility; the NBA hasn’t made its plans public because everything is still on the table. Multiple sources corroborated that Silver and his team have a decision tree that will guide the NBA’s choices. The league can chop off portions of the remaining schedule depending on what happens from both a player and public health standpoint. Here’s the league’s thinking based on a variety of possible events:
• If it’s safe to do so, the league’s hope is to complete as much of the regular season and the postseason as possible, involving all 30 teams.
• If the restart of the regular season continues to face an extended delay, then some number of regular-season games would be canceled.
• If the entire regular season needs to be canceled, the NBA would begin with the postseason, and only 16 teams would need to play.
• If necessary, the NBA could truncate the playoff schedule with three-game series in the early rounds, or schedule back-to-back games at any point, to swiftly conclude the playoffs.
“It’s the responsibility of the league to explore all of our options for a return to play this season,” NBA chief communications officer Mike Bass said in a statement to The Ringer when asked about Silver’s contingency plans.
As frustrating as it is for basketball fans, teams, and players to be in limbo, it’s simply too soon to make a call. The world is changing from day to day and week to week. Many states are moving toward lifting stay-at-home orders, and teams are trying to decide whether to open practice facilities now that the NBA has eased its restrictions and installed strict safety protocols. Though none of the NBA’s plans for resuming play are solidified, some scenarios are more probable than others. Here’s what I’m hearing about what could happen in the coming months as the NBA prepares to resume games.
Will non-playoff teams play again this season?
The Warriors are eliminated from postseason contention. The Cavaliers and Hawks are close, as are many other teams, like the Timberwolves and Pistons. There is a belief around the league that their seasons are over. Some players want to get back on the court. “I’m excited to get some reps,” Cavs big man Larry Nance Jr. said. “I want the year to come back. I’m not gonna act like I know if we will, but I just really hope we do.” But one front office executive on a Western Conference lottery team said that while the NBA isn’t messaging that their seasons are finished, the thought is that the league won’t have the time or resources to bring all 30 teams to one location and play out the regular season. “We want to get it over with as soon as possible. If we are back to playing games, we’ll use it toward preparing for next season,” said an Eastern Conference assistant coach. “Our players have an itch to get back on the court, but the organization prefers they not return and risk injury when we are already looking ahead to next season.”
If regular-season games can be played, however, they will be. The NBA has contracts with regional sports networks (RSNs) for regular-season games. Once most teams hit 70 games, the league retains 100 percent of the revenue from those RSNs—except for a handful of teams such as the Lakers, who have a per-game contract with Spectrum SportsNet, according to a league source.
The NBA could first settle on a set amount of time at a neutral site over which it’ll schedule games—let’s say it’s six weeks. It’ll then need to figure out how to maximize those six weeks, factoring in what is safest and what is most financially beneficial. Would it be better for all 30 teams to play regular-season games to earn closer to 100 percent of the revenue they receive from RSN contracts, and shorten the postseason? Or is it better to scrap the season and play as many playoff games as possible to fulfill the contracts with national networks like ESPN and Turner Sports?
“The first game when we get back will probably be a playoff game,” said a league source with knowledge of plans for resuming games. It’s a realistic outcome, considering testing isn’t yet widely available in the United States and only three teams (the Cavs, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers, per multiple reports) have opened their doors to players to practice under strict conditions. Limiting the number of teams at a neutral site to 16 would also limit the amount of tests needed, minimize risk of infection, and shorten the time needed to complete the season.
Will the NBA use a postseason play-in tournament?
A postseason play-in tournament has been weighed but is considered highly unlikely, according to multiple league sources. While a tournament could be attractive to fans and lucrative for the league in future seasons, it’s considered too dramatic of a shift in the short term. The league already has its existing contracts with RSNs and national networks, so the best use of time would be fulfilling those deals rather than introducing another unknown on top of every other uncertainty the league is facing.
It’s unfortunate. The NBA was gearing up for an exciting playoff race in the Western Conference. The Blazers, Kings, and Pelicans are all 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies for the 8-seed. The Spurs are lurking, too. But introducing a new rule in the middle of the season would be like if your fantasy basketball commish changed the league from rotisserie scoring to head-to-head scoring a week before the playoffs began. It’s not fair.
Where will games be played?
Nothing has been determined yet, and many pitches have been made to the NBA by venues to host games, but Disney World appears to have an edge because it’s a private property with thousands of hotel rooms, which means it could create a “bubble” to keep players safe. Disney’s grounds could have an area strictly for players, coaches, and game staff, and another area set for Disney employees, cleaning attendants, and food service workers. The ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World also hosts dozens of competitions each year and has the infrastructure set up to broadcast live events.
Neutral sites such as the MGM Grand in Las Vegas remain in consideration. MGM Grand recently made a proposal to the NBA and numerous other sports leagues to host a return to play. The league already has a degree of comfort with Las Vegas, considering it holds summer league and the G League Showcase there. But Disney has a lot of advantages that may fit the unique circumstances. And let’s be real, Las Vegas is nicknamed Sin City for a reason. As one front office executive joked, “Would the NBA rather have ESPN cut away on commercial to the Magic Kingdom at Disney World or a Vegas slot machine?”
What actually is a bubble?
The NBA’s “bubble” has been interpreted by the public as some sort of sci-fi biosphere in which no one could enter or leave until the season is over. That would be the safest path. But players are opposed to the idea of being locked in a Vegas hotel room or at Disney World for more than a month. The bubble won’t actually be that restrictive; those quarantined there, including players and coaches, would likely have the freedom to leave if they choose and the ability to move around in the bubble, league sources say. Special precautions would just have to be taken to increase safety. It’s unclear whether families would be allowed, though most sources expect the league—and possibly a number of players—to push for as few people to go to the neutral site from each team as possible. It’s considered a long shot to have teams play in their own cities because of all the complications presented by travel and hotels.
A neutral site would just be easier in terms of scheduling games and staying safe. At Disney, for example, certain areas of the park could open for players to see a movie or eat together as a team. It seems like something out of dystopian basketball fan fiction, but a controlled setting like Disney World might actually provide players more freedom to move around than some have in their home cities, where stay-at-home orders could remain for months and some stars usually can’t walk the streets without being mobbed. “Why would any player leave Disney anyway?” one assistant coach chuckled. “There’s nothing to do in Orlando.”
Is there a deadline to make these decisions?
The longer the NBA is willing to wait to begin the 2020-21 season, the longer it’ll be willing to wait to conclude the 2019-20 season. The goal posts are always moving. In early April, shifting the start of the 2020-21 season to December wasn’t realistic for team owners because of the uncertainty the league would face in future seasons. But now, league sources say there’s an increasing belief among front offices that the season will need to start in January because of the financial implications of this suspension. About 25 percent of league revenue comes from ticket sales and related revenues like luxury boxes, suites, parking, and concession stands, according to multiple sources; that number is far higher for some big-market teams, which also affects smaller markets because of revenue sharing.
“It’s pretty brutal to the model [if fans can’t be in arenas],” said one Western Conference front office executive, adding that it would not only affect league spending but hurt team employees, who are paid far less than players. Multiple executives on the basketball operations and business operations side of team front offices said that many jobs will be lost, and the impact will be felt for years if fans aren’t in the seats.
The NBA wouldn’t rush to bring fans back, and many cities or states won’t allow it—for example, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said it’s unlikely large gatherings will happen again until 2021, which means no Lakers or Clippers games. But the longer they wait to start next season, the greater the odds that a larger share of the season will have fans in seats.
Finishing the season before Labor Day is preferred since the NBA doesn’t want to dip too far into the NFL season, but it’s not a necessity. Completing the season is the priority. The time from the end of the NBA Finals until the start of the following regular season is usually around four months, but league insiders say this coming offseason could be completed in as little as one month, if necessary—after all, it took only weeks for the league to get ready after the 2011 lockout.
How much will the loss of revenue hurt the salary cap?
It’s too soon to have this conversation, league front office executives say, because no one knows if games will be played and how much revenue those games would yield. The salary cap is set through a complex process based on revenue from the prior season, so right now projecting the 2020-21 salary cap is impossible without knowing if any more games will be played in 2019-20. And since no one knows when fans will be allowed back in arenas, next season’s revenue could still fall well short of expectations considering the amount of money made from live games.
However, it’s not too soon to wonder what solutions the NBA and NBPA will push for to solve the problem. Will players prefer for the cap to go down this offseason so there will be more money in the pot for the 2021 offseason? The 2020 class is weak, and many players who could have earned big paydays, like Andre Drummond and Gordon Hayward, could opt in to the final year of their contracts anyway. But players who already signed rookie max extensions with salaries tied to the cap, such as Ben Simmons and Pascal Siakam, could end up getting much less than anticipated. Or would the union prefer to see money distributed fairly among incumbent players and rookies, and keep the cap artificially high? That way, players like Simmons and Siakam wouldn’t get screwed, and draftees signing rookie-scale contracts wouldn’t earn dramatically less than their counterparts in prior years, and hopefully in future years. Or will players push for smoothing the cap, after declining to do so led to the cap jump in 2016? There are too many unknowns to make a determination, but the decisions made will have a ripple effect for many years to come.
With so many unknowns, why is the NBA opening up practice facilities in states loosening stay-at-home orders?
Safety is the primary reason. Players have not-so-secretly been going to local gyms and high schools and parks to get in work if they haven’t been able to at their own homes. The league would prefer they go to a controlled setting with strict precautions being taken to increase the likelihood of their safety, rather than an uncontrolled environment like a YMCA or Equinox gym.
The Mavericks weren’t one of the three teams to open their doors to players on Friday, even though Texas is among the states loosening its stay-at-home restrictions. “There are lots of questions that need to be answered first before we can do testing right: efficacy, availability, how often [we test],” Mavs owner Mark Cuban said in an email. “We can deal with these issues in a closed Hotel California environment, but not in a revolving door environment where people will be coming in and out and we don’t know their contact points outside the facility.” That’s precisely what the NBA is hoping to figure out over the coming weeks.
By opening doors now, the league is broadcasting to teams that it’s time to figure out how to create safe conditions for players to practice and ramp up for the possibility of playing games—which was outlined in a 19-page memo sent to each team. Sources say the NBA is hoping that all players, coaches, and staffers will be in their respective teams’ cities by early-to-mid-June in order to begin training camp.
By that point, the NBA will be able to learn from the experiences of other sports leagues. The NFL announced its schedule on Thursday night. MLB is expected to present players with a proposal next week. The PGA Tour is planning on resuming play in June. Around the world—from the KBO in South Korea to the Bundesliga in Germany—some sports plan to be in full swing by June. Waiting will allow the NBA to avoid the bad optics of being the first league to reopen, and give it more information about what worked, what didn’t work, and whether resuming play is even possible.
“The NBA will put safety first. That is what matters,” Cuban said. And actions speak louder than words. Of 15 teams that could have opened their doors to players last Friday, only three did so. Teams are being extraordinarily cautious, and Silver is taking it slow before making any calls about resuming play. As frustrating as that is, it’s the right decision.