How the NBA Could Resume Amid Coronavirus Shutdown

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterMarch 23, 2020

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 12:  Exterior of Staples Center after both the NHL and NBA postpone seasons due to corona virus concerns at Staples Center on March 12, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — The NBA went on hiatus March 11, and if there was any concern the league acted too hastily, the rapid spread of the coronavirus throughout several teams (Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets, Utah Jazz, Detroit Pistons, etc.) relieved any doubt.

Very quickly, the NBA went from full attendance to considering games without spectators to fully shut down. It was undoubtedly a difficult decision but one that wasn't difficult to execute. No more games.

The real challenge will be starting back up. When will that be a serious consideration, and what will that look like?

"I honestly don't know," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told Rachel Nichols on SportsCenter on Wednesday, answering a similar line of questions.

"Should we consider restarting without fans, and what would that mean?" Silver asked rhetorically. "Because presumably, if you had a group of players and staff around them and you could test them and you can follow some protocol, doctors, health officials may say, 'It's safe to play.'"

That's not going to happen with new player diagnoses popping up just about daily. But assuming the league can keep its players in isolation—quarantined until doctors and health experts agree the health threat has passed enough for play to resume—how would the NBA proceed?

       

Getting to 50

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 11: Referee David Jones #36 talks with Head Coach Dwane Casey of the Detroit Pistons during the game against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 11, 2020 at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expr
David Dow/Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a recommendation that any events with 50 or more people should be canceled for the next couple of months. If that limit holds, can the league even put on a game?

Start with up to 17 players on each team, including those on two-way contracts who won't be returning to the G League this season. That's 34, but keep out all but the 13 active players per team. That's down to 26, but it's over halfway there.

Coaching staffs range in size, but would limiting the bench to one head coach and one assistant be a reasonable stipulation?

Add in three referees, the clock and scoreboard operators, the NBA's liaison to the instant replay center, the statisticians who track game data live, a trainer, physical therapists, a team doctor, camera operators and a skeleton crew of team security, floor-mopper, broadcast crew, some level of media coverage and so on. How many people are needed on hand just to get an NBA arena up and running?

The number 50 isn't realistic.

           

Alternatives

L.E. Baskow/Associated Press

That remains the case even if games are played at practice facilities. Players are easy enough to quarantine. So too are the officials. But everyone else on the list? It's not enough to have squads that have passed the intensive scrutiny to resume play.

One transmission, even to a non-player, and the league shuts down again.

Multiply the risk to 29 arenas (with the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers sharing Staples Center) and the travel involved. Can the league isolate and quarantine that much personnel?

Then there's the logistical nightmare of rescheduling games. How many regular-season games are cut, understanding there's a financial component to each one eliminated? Playing without a crowd will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and that's being optimistic. The league is staring down at least $1 billion in losses as things stand.

To alleviate the complications, perhaps a neutral site would make more sense for the league. Bring the entire NBA to Las Vegas, where they have T-Mobile Arena and the nearby facilities at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center. The city certainly has the hotel capacity with casinos currently closed.

A central, controlled environment might give the NBA a practical shot at finishing the season. The next issue would be getting the broadcast partners on board, including the local and national networks. Given the dearth of live entertainment and no need to wait for fans to get off work to fill stadiums, perhaps games could be played throughout the day, one after another, until the schedule is complete.

It's not the only way the league can make it work, but it would minimize travel and the number of game operations staff that would need to be isolated. There's no easy solution to what the world is facing, and the NBA is no different.

         

The When

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

The "when" is still a mystery. Technically, all player contracts either roll over to the 2020-21 season or expire outright as of July. Under the circumstances, the NBA and the players union are likely to work together to find a solution, even if that means pushing that rollover date to the fall.

Whatever income is lost by the league, roughly 50 percent will be passed on to the players. That loss will undoubtedly impact next year's salary cap, which was last projected by the NBA to reach $115 million.

That number will drop for next season and subsequent years, although the league and union can agree to some form of cap smoothing to make the decline less of a shock to the system. The NBPA rejected cap smoothing before the 2016-17 season, when the league's current television deal kicked in. It refused to accept a lower salary cap than the system dictated, with a subsequent balloon payment to the union after the season.

Instead, the cap jumped $24 million, enabling the Golden State Warriors to sign Kevin Durant but also leading to many oversized, regrettable contracts (like Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Ian Mahinmi, Timofey Mozgov, etc.). Looking ahead, the union may need an about-face on cap smoothing when confronted with what could be a $95 million cap next season, or even $75 million in the worst circumstance.

Pushing back the conclusion of the current campaign could delay the start of next season. Perhaps now is the time, given the league and union will need to negotiate their way out of the existing crisis, for more fundamental change to the league.

In early March, Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin suggested at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston that the league push its entire schedule back, operating from December to August instead of October to June. Koonin said the NBA doesn't need to be competing with the NFL and should instead take advantage of the available time over the summer for games.

That would probably mean pushing the draft back, along with free agency and summer league. The panel was discussing theoretical fixes to the NBA, but Koonin's idea may be happening organically by circumstance. The global pandemic may usher in sweeping reform to the NBA schedule—certainly in the short term, and maybe it spurs on fundamental change.

The priority before the league can return to some version of normal is health. The finances pale in comparison to player, team and public safety. When it's right to do so, the NBA and NBPA (along with the broadcast partners and, to an extent, the arena operators) need to work in concert to make it happen.

Silver wasn't prepared to say what form the resolution will take. How could he? The world is searching for answers on much broader issues. But the NBA's return would be a welcome distraction for the millions cooped up in their homes.

Hopefully there's a pathway that opens for the embattled 2019-20 season to be completed in some form or another.

          

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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