The celebration of generational icons Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett with each of their inductions into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame was a welcome distraction for fans from the postponement of the NBA’s 2019-2020 season. After discussions over the past few weeks of strategies for completing the season, Brian Windhorst of ESPN reported that the NBA was pessimistic about the feasibility of completing the season. “It is clear that the NBA is angling to set up a deal that enables them to shut the season down,” Windhorst reported Friday on “SportsCenter.”
Just a few weeks ago, the NBA seemed confident that the season would continue. Depending on the status of coronavirus in the United States and globally, the NBA was set to continue a shortened season and a full playoff schedule. Teams would play in empty arenas throughout the US and Canada. Pushing the season to a late July or even August finish would have maximized the number of games and fan participation.
However, the idea of extending the schedule deep into the summer has received pushback from players. Portland Trail Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard said in a virtual press conference that most players have doubts about a permanent move to begin future seasons as late as Christmas. This new system would also keep players away from their families during the summer. “I’m definitely not a fan of that and I don’t see many guys being a fan of that,” Lillard said.
With COVID-19 cases continuing to escalate across the nation while mass testing and treatment plans remain uncertain, the NBA has been forced to look for even more unorthodox options to finish up the season. NBA commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols last week in an interview that the league is considering two other options to return to the court: resuming the regular season without fans, or holding a charity tournament. In either case, all players would be tested and isolated in one central location. Various sites have been raised as possibilities, including cruise ships, Las Vegas or Los Angeles. The Nevada city is the only somewhat feasible spot to conduct the rest of the season because it possesses the hotel capacity for players from 30 teams, management and game officials like security and scorekeepers. With travel limited to that between the hotel and the arena, the risk of viral transmission would be dramatically reduced.
Of course, any of these proposals would involve playing without fans, which has been met with great resistance from NBA stars throughout the league. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James responded to the idea by saying, “We play games without the fans? Nah, that’s impossible. I ain’t playing if I ain’t got the fans in the crowd. That’s who I play for.” James later retracted his statements, saying, “if [the NBA] feel[s] like what’s best for the safety of the players, the safety of the franchise, safety of the league to mandate that, then we all listen to it.” Clearly, this would be a substantial adjustment for players, especially when they would likely be away from their families for long periods of time. The idea of NBA games without fans in arenas is both bewildering and unprecedented in the history of professional sports.
Players have expressed doubt whether playing in empty arenas would be successful, but they still recognize this is the only way the season could be salvaged. In many ways, completing the season is a necessity. Not only is the idea of ending a season without crowning a champion extremely disappointing, but the economic implications would be dramatic. Billion-dollar television contracts mandate that there will be a minimum of 70 games played. For those who rely on the NBA as their employer, the cancellation of the season means pay cuts and unemployment. The NBA employs 3,260 people, though this figure fails to include numerous media members and analysts whose careers rely on sports activity.
A canceled NBA season would be a strain on players as well. The economic damage of COVID-19 is impacting the finances of professional athletes at all levels. Vice president for the NBA Players Association and Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard CJ McCollum spoke to former NBA player and analyst Jay Williams on “The Boardroom” about the burden an NBA pay stoppage could have on the league’s athletes. “I would say out of 450 players … 150 probably are living paycheck to paycheck,” McCollum said. “I think a lot of guys are going to be hurting, especially people on minimums or people that didn’t just budget correctly and didn’t expect this to happen,” McCollum said. “Maybe they loaned money or paid money to family. Maybe they’re taking care of multiple people and now there’s a work stoppage for us and for a lot of people in America.”
Amid this time of great uncertainty, NBA players and owners have joined together in their efforts to assist with those directly affected by the NBA hiatus. Dozens of players and owners including Zion Williamson, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Mark Cuban have pledged thousands of dollars to their respective teams’ workers.
To avoid an indefinite change to the NBA calendar and the financial repercussions of cancellation, a change to the playoff format has been discussed. Teams who were battling for playoff berths in the original postseason format could participate in play-in tournaments prior to the playoffs. Subsequently, reducing playoff series to best-of-five or best-of-three series could speed up the process, ensuring an on-time start for next season. Lillard thinks this could be a viable solution. “They should do something like the NCAA tournament with every team: single-game elimination all the way up until the conference finals,” he said in the press conference. “If there was any time for them to get super creative … this is the time.”
Despite the considerable discussions on the future of the NBA, the growing reality is pessimistic.
Even the option of an isolated location may not be successful. With hundreds of players, team officials, and administrators all in close proximity to each other, the virus still has the potential to spread. A positive test could trigger widespread fear and a chaotic evacuation of the isolated area. The Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) put out a similar strategy and planned to resume their season in April. China has nearly zero reports of COVID-19 transmission in the past few days, according to Jason Beaubien of NPR. Despite this progress, the Chinese government imposed restrictions on team sports under concerns of undetected cases.
In the event that the season is canceled, the league has come up with intriguing alternatives for fan entertainment and player activity. An NBA 2K tournament is already in progress, and is being televised by ESPN. A H-O-R-S-E competition via video submission is also in the works; Trae Young, Chris Paul and other stars will be participating.
Professional sports leagues are still exploring options, hoping for the return of their leagues soon, despite the fact that hopes seem to dwindle every day. The English Premier League has discussed moving the rest of its games to China. MLB has discussed carrying out their entire season in Arizona in a similar format to the NBA Las Vegas proposal. The NHL has also considered the possibility of completing the playoffs at neutral sites in North Dakota.
President Donald Trump has maintained a positive stance on the return of sports as soon as possible in order to reduce the economic pitfall due to COVID-19 and return to some form of normalcy. On Saturday, Trump spoke to 13 sports commissioners and remained adamant about resuming sports with fans in attendance. Although Trump would not commit to giving an exact date of when he anticipates seasons resuming, he remained optimistic, telling ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Adrian Wojnarowski, “I think it’s going to be sooner rather than later.”