A Breakdown of the NBA’s Options For Restarting in the Short Term

A Breakdown of the NBA’s Options For Restarting in the Short Term
Mon 11th May 2020

The NBA season was suspended on March 11, and since then we have learnt little about what the league’s plans are for resuming play in 2020, or even if that is an option that’s on the table.

At present there is no schedule for teams to return to practice (let alone an indication of when a return to games might occur), although gossip on Twitter would seem to suggest that Adam Silver and his team have been planning for a number of contingencies. By now we’ve all heard about the infamous “bubble” in Disney World or Las Vegas, or 16-team tournaments, or even canning the season entirely.

With so much misinformation and unsubstantiation floating around, we thought it’d be a good idea to break down exactly where we currently sit in the quest to return to some form of basketball normality.

What The NBA Wants

Unsurprisingly, what the league itself wants to happen is pretty clearcut; as many games as possible. Why does the league want this? Again, it couldn’t be simpler; follow the money.

As part of its broadcasting rights deal, the NBA has a number of contracts with various regional sports networks (RSNs) to show regular-season games across the country. While these contracts do vary slightly, the majority stipulate that once teams hit 70 games through the schedule, the league retains ALL of the revenue for the remaining 12 regular season games.

With most teams sitting somewhere in the 64-67 range for games played this season, you can see why the NBA is reluctant to move straight to a 16-team playoff system, which would essentially involve eschewing 12 full games per team’s worth of revenue.

The NBA’s goal – if it is at all possible – is to essentially the resume the season where it was left off on March 11, and play as much of the regular season and the postseason as it can, with all 30 teams involved.

Obviously, though, as time continues to pass the possibility of playing regular season games – many of which, essentially, will be meaningless – is fading. Silver and his team reportedly are using a “decision tree” method, where the longer the league remains in hiatus the more potential options – tree branches, if you will – are disregarded.

Unfortunately, we do not know what level of the decision tree Silver is up to. The league wants to play regular season games, but with each passing day the logistical issues become more and more pronounced. 

If The NBA Can’t Have What it Wants…

There are a number of other options on the table, through which Silver et al can move as the days and weeks progress. 

These are not groundbreaking. If the regular season cannot go ahead as planned – which, frankly, is almost a foregone conclusion – the league has several stages it can implement. The first is to simply cancel some regular season games, for example taking each team’s normal 82-game schedule down to 75, or 74, or 73… You get the picture.

The second is to call off the regular season and move straight in to a full 16-team playoffs based on the conference standings as they currently are. This is obviously sub-optimal given the tightness of the playoff race in the West, but is also better than an 8-team playoffs or a 16-team playoffs with truncated (3 or 5 game) series.

While there has been some chatter about a potential postseason play-in tournament, the odds of this actually going ahead are astronomical. The NBA is in no position to be attempting grandiose changes given its current financial position. They need money and they need that money to be guaranteed; the only way that happens is to maintain – or at least try to maintain – the status quo as much as possible. 

From the NBA’s perspective, how basketball comes back isn’t really an issue. Competition integrity (i.e. ensuring this season’s champion doesn’t come with an asterisk) is, quite rightly, so far down the league’s list of priorities it may as well not even be on there. Silver and his team need eyes watching their product, that’s the bottom line and to think otherwise is naive.

How Does The NBA Get What It Wants?

By now it should be clear to even the most casual basketball fans that the NBA – and 99% of its players – are desperate to get back to work, the real question is how that happens.

As mentioned already, the idea of a postseason play-in tournament has been floated, with teams like the Blazers, Kings, and Pelicans – who are all 3.5 games behind the Grizzlies for the 8-seed in the West – understandably keen to give themselves a chance to sneak in to the playoffs. The problem is this would essentially be moving the goalposts while the game is mid-progress; it’s not fair to teams, fans or players to parachute in a halfbaked idea in order to facilitate an “everybody wins” mentality.

The “bubble” concept – a brainwave which literally came as soon as the season was postponed – is firming as the likeliest option for restarting play. Contrary to widespread reporting, this would not be some “nobody enters, nobody leaves” form of hard quarantine for players and staff. It is more likely to involve a softer version of quarantine, with bubble participants allowed to come in and out under strict conditions and regular testing.

Obviously, the bubble is restrictive both in a literal and a figurative sense. Players are unlikely to be particularly thrilled about spending extended stretches away from family and friends. However, on the flip-side, the longer this goes on the likelier they are to need the economic boost a return to work will no doubt provide.

The other factor to keep in mind is that testing for COVID-19 will need to be at a nearly ubiquitous level before the NBA will be able to return in any meaningful capacity. This is true from a purely practical sense – anyone entering or leaving the bubble will need to be tested – but also from a public relations standpoint. The optics of a couple of hundred fit, healthy basketball players receiving tests on a daily basis when at-risk demographics all over the country can’t even get one when they’re sick would be appalling.

To recap; the likeliest outcome we’re currently looking at in the event of testing becoming freely available to all is a postseason “bubble”, where 16 teams compete in either 3, 5 or 7 game series in the usual playoff format.

The next question, though, may be the toughest to answer.

Where Does The NBA Get What It Wants?

This seems to be the major sticking point in the league’s plans, and may well be why we’ve received so little information from Silver and co. over the last two months.

By all accounts a plethora of pitches by a variety of potential location suitors have been made, but as it stands we know next to nothing about where the league intends to implement its end-game.

The likeliest result would seem to be Disney World in Orlando, with its abundance of hotel rooms, vast, open spaces and pre-built infrastructure a clear attraction. ESPN, for example, hosts multiple sporting events from Disney World each year, which means the necessary television set-ups and production familiarity are already there.

There also remains the possibility of the league choosing a neutral site in a neutral city, for example the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. MGM management reportedly made several proposals to a number of professional leagues in recent weeks, and it makes particular sense for the NBA given it already has experience there thanks to the summer league and G League Showcase.

The problem with a casino spending two months hosting a sport primarily focused towards young people is… Well, it should be fairly obviously. The NBA – and particularly Silver – has made a big deal about being altruistic in the past (read: Donald Silver) and to so egregiously make a money grab like that would be viewed extremely cynically in some influential quarters.

Disney World is the logical option. It would, in fact, be a surprise to see the NBA resume anywhere else.

How Long Does The NBA Have To Get What It Wants?

Somewhat surprisingly, the league doesn’t seem to be in much urgency to get things going. 

What appears to have formed is a mindset that every week of basketball that’s missed now will just add a week to the start date of the 2020-21 season, with that looking more and more likely to be in December 2020 or even January 2021.

Finishing this season ASAP – ideally before Labor Day – is obviously the goal, but there seems to be a growing belief that encroaching on the NFL’s territory in the second half of the year isn’t necessarily a disaster. In normal years it takes four months to complete an offseason between the NBA Finals and opening day of the next season, but in these extraordinary circumstances there’s no reason why the 2019-20 season couldn’t finish in, say September, and the 2020-21 season begin at the start of November.

What’s the upshot of all this? Well, essentially that we don’t know anything concrete, but it’s looking more and more encouraging that there might in fact be basketball on our TV screens within the next couple of months. 

What form that basketball will be in is a complete mystery, but rest assured the NBA – and particularly the NBA owners – can’t afford to postpone indefinitely. They need an end date as much as the average fan does.

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