We are still a long way away from anything resembling a course of action for the return of the NBA season. With the country still in the grip of the spreading coronavirus pandemic, league officials have only put together loose proposals for what a return to action might look like—how much of the remaining regular season might be played, how playoffs series might be structured and how the Finals might be arranged.
“I don’t think there is anything you can say for sure about any of it except that there are a lot of ‘what-ifs’ out there,” one league executive told Heavy.com. “They don’t know how long this virus is going to be with us, how long we will be doing social distancing and what the players (union) are going to be OK with doing to get the season done with. All you can say for sure is that they want to get it done, they want to play it.”
The NBA, of course, was the first sports league to suspend its operations because of the coronavirus after Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus on March 11. Most remaining games that night were played and the league shut down on March 12.
The mechanics of getting it back up and running are daunting. After speaking with multiple league executives, there was some agreement that if the league does return to squeeze in the season, games will be played at a neutral site without fans. One site that has emerged as the most probable: Las Vegas.
CNBC reported last week that Vegas has, “emerged as the best location to resume the season.” Front-office executives agreed with that assertion but pointed out that there were no solid plans—at least not that had been circulated to teams—for games to be played in Las Vegas, which is home to the NBA’s Summer League. The NBA uses two adjacent facilities, the Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion on the campus of UNLV to conduct that tournament.
Chinese League Could be a Model for NBA
It’s also possible, though, that some remaining regular-season games could be played in two or more neutral sites, perhaps as a type of play-in tournament before the postseason begins. The league would like to get to at least 70 games played in order to fulfill its television contracts, but that could get difficult. Some teams (Dallas and Atlanta) have already played 67 games while others (Lakers and San Antonio) have played only 63.
The NBA will be watching closely what happens in China, where the Chinese Basketball Association has been bungling its attempts at getting the league started again. The 20-team league planned originally to restart on April 2, which got pushed back to April 15. That has been further pushed back to May—though even that has not been approved yet.
Under the CBA’s plan, 10 teams were to play in Qingdao and 10 in Guangdong. There were to be two weeks of regular-season play, each team playing four games. The games would be played without fans and the playoffs would be cut from eight teams to four and played in a two-week window.
The NBA could use a similar model for its return, especially if it goes well in China. So far, it has not.
NBA Players Will Have a Say in Return Format
But the CBA has a bigger issue that the NBA does not have—nearly all its best players are foreigners, most of whom went home when the CBA put the season on hold in late January when the coronavirus was nearing its peak in the country. Those players were required to return to China and spend 14 days in quarantine, a move that made many players balk, especially as their families in the U.S. were now facing the spread of the virus.
Only 15 of the 38 non-Asian foreign players on CBA rosters had returned for quarantine as of last week.
NBA players who have been exposed to the virus already have been (controversially) tested. Some, like Gobert, teammate Donovan Mitchell, and Celtics guard Marcus Smart, have been cleared of the virus without having shown symptoms.
When the NBA does take steps to restart the season, it will need to work with the union to ensure the players are on board, a protection for players that is not in place in China. It will have to make sure that broadcasters and league sponsors will be assuaged by whatever plan emerges, too, whether it is Las Vegas-based or lands in multiple neutral sites.
The league, though, is still a long way from having a plan.
“We’re kind of waiting this out like everyone,” the league executive said. “This virus does not give you a timetable.”