The question looms large in wake of the NBA suspending its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic: When will play resume, and what will it look like when (or if) it does?
The sobering reality is that it’s still too soon to say. Commissioner Adam Silver said as much in a sitdown with ESPN's Rachel Nichols last week.
"I honestly don't know just because I don't have a good enough sense of how long a period this is going to be,” Silver said when asked the most likely options for resuming the season. Silver did express optimism that some part of the season could be salvaged, but he maintained that the safety and health of players and fans would always be paramount.
Despite the uncertainty, it has become clear from credible reports that the league is driven to carry out the 2019-20 season to some sort of conclusion.
Take Marc Stein’s latest “On Basketball” newsletter as an example. Stein cites a prevailing desire to avoid an unresolved conclusion to the season, (for philosophic reasons) along with severe financial losses as motivators for finding a way to resume play.
The latter impetus is key. As Stein notes, even before the COVID-19 outbreak, Silver estimated multiple hundreds of millions of dollars in losses as a result of the preseason Daryl Morey-China controversy. And if the NBA decided to simply continue without fans, NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh estimated $500 million in lost ticket revenue, which doesn't take into account TV and advertising considerations. Recent projections have the total damage as high as $1 billion or more.
Those figures are certainly front of mind for owners as they navigate these uncharted waters. Stein also reported that, “key NBA figures welcome an experiment with radical changes, such as contesting the NBA Finals in August, pushing free agency into September and starting the 2020-21 season on Christmas Day.”
Here, financial considerations reign again. Sure, there’s a cost to shaving off a quarter of the 2020-21 regular season, but owners would surely choose that over losing an entire postseason’s worth of games (especially a postseason as anticipated as this one). Plus, as far as alternative schedules go, a league calendar year running from December to September mitigates competition with the NFL regular season.
According to Stein, discussions on this timeline have increased to a point where the league is directing teams to actively seek out dates and venues (G League arenas, etc.) for potential games deep into the summer.
But what can’t go undiscussed is the strain that a hyper-shortened season would put on players. Bulls fans should remember that the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season also started on Dec. 25. It began with a Derrick Rose game-winning buzzer-beater at Staples Center on Christmas Day and ended with injuries (Rose’s torn ACL and Noah’s left ankle sprain) cutting a potentially deep playoff run short.
“The schedule in that lockout year was stupid. We played 66 games in, like, 90 days,” Kyle Korver recently told NBC Sports Chicago. “That was bad for our team.”
Resuming this season after a months-long hiatus could introduce conditioning concerns, especially because players are currently barred from utilizing team facilities until further notice.
These precautions, while necessary, only scratch the surface of the complexities before us. Multiple WNBA teams share arenas with NBA clubs. What happens if or when schedules overlap? Top prospects (Anthony Edwards and Tre Jones, so far) are starting to declare for the draft. How will the hiatus impact pre-draft protocols? When will the draft even be held? What will the salary cap look like when free agency rolls around? The list goes on.
A little over a week has passed and there are still way more questions than answers. That’s not likely to change any time soon. But at least we can hold out hope that the 2019-20 playoffs might be played. Count on the NBA to be creative, but it’s crucial to make sure it’s done safely for all.