Opinion: What the NBA needs for season to restart
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The NBA has been at the center of the coronavirus pandemic since the virus first arrived in the United States. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert was the first celebrity to contract the virus on American soil, leading to the abrupt cancelation of a game that was set to tip-off in Oklahoma City and the subsequent suspension of the season. In the days that followed, every other sports league canceled or postponed play, from March Madness to The Masters to the start of the MLB season.
Gobert tested positive for the virus on March 11 and sports and much of society has been on gridlock ever since. As the calendar has pushed into April, most states have “shelter in place” provisions that have banned any sort of public gatherings. Bars and restaurants are closed, air travel is minimal, and “social distancing” has become the buzzword of the year.
The NBA, led by commissioner Adam Silver, still hasn’t given up hope on resuming the season. The league is keeping a close eye on the Chinese Basketball Association, which planned to return this week before being delayed another month. Basketball can also take cues from Major League Baseball, which leaked a wildly ambitious plan to start the season that appears to provide more questions than answers.
When will the NBA come back? What has to happen before it does?
These are the conditions that must exist for basketball to return, whenever it happens.
1. The availability of rapid-response testing
Before the NBA can return, it needs to know which of its players have the virus and would be capable of spreading it. The league is looking into the availability and viability of rapid-response testing, according to ESPN, which would be a major first step towards returning to play.
Is it realistic or ethical for the league to procure the number of rapid-response tests that would be required to restart play? There remains a Covid-19 testing shortage across the country, with hundreds of thousands of people either being denied a test or on a waiting list to get one. Thus far, the time it takes to get test results back has typically varied from several hours (in best case scenarios), to up to a week, to several weeks.
There has already been consternation about wealthy NBA franchises being pushed to the front of the line for testing while regular people wait. How would Americans respond if the NBA suddenly has hundreds or thousands of rapid-response tests when most of the country is waiting to get tested at all?
Rapid-response testing is a logical starting point for a return to play, ideally buoyed by mass testing being available to the public. Can the NBA really pull this off quickly enough to save the season?
2. A central location to house everyone for the NBA’s ‘bubble’
If basketball comes back this season, it likely won’t involve teams traveling from city to city to play games. Instead, the NBA would pick one or two host cities, where teams would be sequestered and play their games until the season is over. This is similar to the idea being tossed around by the MLB, which would have all 30 teams stay in Arizona and play games in empty stadiums for the remainder of the season.
The NBA has already reportedly discussed cities that could host its bubble. Las Vegas has been mentioned and seems like a logical fit given its abundance of hotels and several basketball arenas that are annually used to host summer league. The Bahamas and Atlantic City have also been mentioned as possible host cities.
Figuring out the logistics of where to host an NBA bubble is going to be a gigantic task. Even then, what would NBA players think of being isolated from their families until the season is over? What happens if the virus emerges inside of the bubble?
Putting the entirety of essential NBA personnel in one or two locations to play games in empty arenas might sound like a good idea in theory, but it’s going to be a nightmare to pull off.
3. Agreement on what the season’s format will look like
The NBA season is supposed to be 82 games long. Most teams have played about 65 games so far. Would the league be able to resume the regular season if it were to restart? Would it jump straight to the playoffs? Would the format of the playoffs be the same?
To win the NBA championship, a team has to win four best-of-seven series. The playoffs typically run from mid-April to mid-June. If the same format is kept, how would that affect free agency, the draft, and the start of next season? If they league adopts a truncated playoff format, what would that look like?
There are so many different ideas for how the league could crown a champion. Perhaps the playoff rounds could be shortened to best-of-five series. Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie pitched a 28-team tournament with a play-in round for the final two seeds. Maybe the league can just send the top four teams in each conference into an abbreviated playoff format so it can still crown a champion.
Coming to an agreement on a format — whether it includes the end of the scheduled regular season or just the playoffs — is going to be another big hurdle.
4. What happens if a player contracts the virus?
Here’s a hypothetical: Let’s say the NBA restarts the season only to have LeBron James test positive for Covid-19. How things proceed from there would be a topic of debate.
Would the Lakers play games without James until he tests negative for the virus? What if other teammates become affected? Would it really be fair to crown a champion this season if a key player or multiple players were unable to compete because they caught the virus?
This would all have to be agreed to beforehand by league governors and the players association. Which brings us to …
5. Buy-in from everyone involved on what happens next
There are a lot of different parties with a seat at the table when it comes to determining how the NBA proceeds from here. The NBA governors have to come up with a plan that is agreed to by the players association and with the league’s broadcast partners. There are so many parties with different priorities that coming together to restart the season feels like it’s going to take a miracle to pull off.
How would this affect the salary cap? What would happen to the start of next season? How would the offseason calendar change? Coming together an agreement for all the moving parts won’t be easy.
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The NBA is exploring every avenue to bring back basketball this season and crown a champion. It isn’t giving up hope yet. But at this point, even the best case scenarios feel like a pie-in-the-sky dream to come together quickly enough to still give teams an offseason and time to prepare for next year.
If the NBA eventually does return, it will have so many hurdles to clear.
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