'It's About Money, Clearly': NBA Insiders Question League's Motives to Return

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterJune 27, 2020

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - FEBRUARY 16: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver applauds after Team LeBron beat Team Giannis 157-155 in the 69th NBA All-Star Game at the United Center on February 16, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

With all the focus on how and when the NBA should return, it's easy to overlook the critical question: Should the NBA come back?

After months of research, deliberation and negotiation, the NBA released its return schedule Friday. Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans will tip off against the Utah Jazz on July 30, followed by LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers vs. Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers.

Unfortunately, the NBA's announcement coincides with significant spikes of coronavirus cases around the country, including the state of Florida, where the rest of the season will play out. Earlier in the day, the league announced 16 of the 302 players tested positive ahead of the exodus to Orlando (5.3 percent).

"We're coming back because sports matter in our society," Commissioner Adam Silver said on a conference call. "They bring people together when they need it most."

Emotions are running high, from people tired of quarantine, frustrated they'll need to burrow deeper into their hermitage, to those believing society should go back to normal regardless of the consequences. Add in the growing Black Lives Matter movement, aspiring to facilitate significant societal changes in response to the killing of George Floyd and several similar racial injustices, and the answer only grows murkier.

"It's about money, clearly," one Western Conference executive said. "I'm just curious to see what practices they use if multiple people get it. At what point do they shut it down?"

"I have supreme trust in Adam. I think he is the absolute best in the business, but there will be an outbreak in the bubble," one agent said. "You'll see. It's definitely going to happen. It will not stay contained, not when you have [Disney] workers coming in and out."

That remains a widespread fear around the various corners of the NBA. The Disney "cast" supporting the players in the multiple Orlando properties won't be subjected to the same stringent testing requirements as the players. Can it be considered a bubble with external staff going in and out?

Paranoia is a rational response at this point, but one expert seemed impressed by the league's measures. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Stadium the NBA's restart plan is "quite creative ... I think they might very well be quite successful with it" while noting that "they really wanted to make sure that the safety of the players was paramount."

Shams Charania @ShamsCharania

Dr. Anthony Fauci told @Stadium he is supportive of the NBA’s restart plan: “It’s quite creative.. I think they might very well be quite successful with it... They really wanted to make sure that the safety of the players was paramount.” https://t.co/qwo5bCDrVt

"It's on the rise in the majority of states in the United States right now," Silver acknowledged. "My ultimate conclusion is that we can't outrun the virus and that this is [something] we're going to be living with for the foreseeable future."

Saving 88 regular-season games and the playoffs are important to the league, but its potential failure could inform the NBA how to protect all of the 2020-21 season. There's no reasonable expectation that a vaccine will be available and widely distributed anytime soon.

"I would have hoped that this [country] could get this under control by December like every other country is managing to do," the agent said.

An Eastern Conference executive laughed at his naivety for initially expecting next year to start in October in arenas full of fans.

"There's no way," he said after several conversations with his colleagues around the league.

Next season is projected to start in December, and it may not look that different than the Orlando experiment, especially if it's successful.

"You at least have to try," the Western Conference executive said. "I think [Silver] acknowledging the potential downfall was wise."

There was general agreement among those polled on the upside if the return is successful. Television and streaming ratings should be tremendous. The league can't make back revenue lost without fans in attendance, but the compromise to exclude eight teams was a reasonable one.

"I wish all 30 teams were able to play," the Eastern Conference executive said.

"The NBA already made one huge mistake they can't undo," journalist Chris Palmer tweeted. "They should have just started with a 16-team playoff. The [six] other teams add 220 NBA personnel and one month to the season."

To which Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie responded: "None of that matters. Zion needed to be in this thing [the Pelicans were in 10th place]. And they needed regular-season games to satisfy as many regional TV contracts as possible. Now the playoffs can not only make up for revenue but they might actually profit."

Keep in mind that for every $2 million of lost NBA revenue, the players lose approximately $1 million collectively. It is in their best interest to play if finances are essential.

"Once they get to the bubble, they'll be fine. Orlando may be the safest place in the country," the Eastern Conference executive said, though his confidence seemed to recede when discussing the Disney support staff, even though that "shouldn't be a problem."

It only takes one mistake.

Several were concerned about the Orlando site itself, using phrases like "it will be a mess," but with harsher language.

"Once the games get going, and everyone's in the groove, it will be fine," the former executive said. "But the logistics, player feuds [on and off the court], the lifestyle the players are used to, team personnel access, media access. The problems could be endless. If LeBron wants to use the pool for two hours and only his teammates and player friends are allowed around, how does another star get access if needed?

"Are teams going to organize team dinners every night? Get-togethers like summer camp? I'm really interested to see what the top-notch organizations [as far as management] such as the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics do."

"That's a long time for training camp," the Eastern Conference executive said. "At least [under normal circumstances] you can do other things. I don't think the players know what they've signed up for—or at least they're starting to realize it now."

The NBA has no path to perfection. The only solution was picking the least-worst option.

The motivation may be financial (though it may also be more than just financial). The players and the league are in agreement, at least collectively, that the best path is through Orlando.

"[Basketball] can show how we can balance public health and economic necessity, plus a desire for shared experiences and something to cheer for through the months ahead," Silver said.

The first game is just over a month away, for better or worse.

Pro Hoops History's Curtis Harris, a longtime academic whose work has focused on civil rights in America and the efforts of professional basketball players in the mid-20th century to secure their civil and labor rights, took exception with Silver's explanation.

"The only logical reason they're trying to restart the season amidst an uncontrolled pandemic in a state that's lit up like a Christmas tree with COVID-19 cases is because they want to salvage whatever money they can," Harris told Bleacher Report. "I appreciate the safety measures they plan on instituting, but we just had the highest number of recorded infections both nationally and in Florida today. 

“Please, just say the league needs the money to pay its bills. We all understand that right now ... I'm sure I'll watch some games anyway, despite how I think it's a bad idea to restart the season, but don't feed us this cockamamie higher purpose about pro sports."

That's a compelling take, but it's one that has many sympathizers. Conversely, Silver's view that basketball is a vehicle to help a damaged world, both financially and socially, is also a viable perspective. There probably isn't a perfect, one-size-fits-all philosophy that can make sense of our times.

One respected NBA journalist posted a personal message suggesting the NBA's return will actually have emotional meaning, beyond the money. But the tweet was met with an avalanche of negativity, prompting him to take down the tweet.

"The actual basketball is going to be possibly the best we've ever seen," one former Western Conference executive said. "No throwaway games ... All-Stars and superstars playing every game. Literally, game after game. That means something."

A total of 22 teams will return, with nine fighting immediately for the final three playoff slots (two in the Eastern Conference, one in the Western), followed by the full slate of 16 teams and seven-game series. This season's winner will bear an asterisk—but not as a demerit.

In this immensely challenging year, the final franchise standing should deserve even greater respect for surviving and thriving through 2019-20.


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


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.