Would LeBron James and Other NBA Stars Really Skip Early Games?

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistOctober 27, 2020

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (23) reacts after no foul was called against the Miami Heat during the second half in Game 3 of basketball's NBA Finals, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The shape of the 2020-21 NBA season is beginning to emerge, and so is the speculation about which superstars may or may not be on board with the league's plan.

In a pivot from a previously rumored February or March start date to allow for fans to return to arenas—which now seems like a pipe dream with the COVID-19 pandemic raging on—the league is now targeting a start date around Christmas with a 72-game schedule, likely to be played in home markets with no fans in attendance.

That would put the start of training camp, which the New York Times' Marc Stein reported Monday could come Dec. 1, less than two months after the Los Angeles Lakers wrapped up their title run. There's already talk from his teammates that LeBron James won't go for it.

"I think most guys if they said we start in December, [I] think they're like, 'I'm not gonna be there,'" Lakers guard Danny Green said Monday in a podcast interview on The Ringer. "... I wouldn't expect to see him [James] probably for the first month of the season."

That's not going to happen.

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James may feel that way now—the proposed opening night is just shy of his 36th birthday, and he's coming off a three-month stay at Disney World in which he didn't see his kids. He won't be the last star to bristle at the idea of going back to training camp barely six weeks after the belated end to the 2020 Finals. It's not very palatable to anyone.

Back in March, when the full scope of the threat posed by the coronavirus was just beginning to become known, James came out strongly against the suggestion that the NBA might have to play games without fans for a few weeks until the virus was under control.

"I ain't playing," James told reporters March 7, four days before the NBA's season was suspended when Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. "I ain't got the fans in the crowd. That's who I play for. I play for my teammates. I play for the fans. That's what it's all about. If I show up to an arena and there are no fans in there, I ain't playing. They can do what they want to do."

Three days after those initial comments, when the threat was becoming more real but had not yet come to a head, James walked his stance back.

One can only speculate as to whether NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called James that week in March to tell him that, no, the league's best player and biggest star wasn't going to sit out games if they moved forward with no fans. Whatever caused it, James came around and eventually became one of the biggest champions of the league's restart plan.

He saw the bigger picture, even while America and the NBA searched for its soul following the killing of George Floyd. The NBA could use its platform to promote social change while also salvaging some television money. If they cancel the 2019-20 season and forfeit a year of playing, earning and getting their social-justice messages out to the public, nobody wins. Most players ended up on that side too, with a handful of exceptions. Some saw the financial ramifications. Others just didn't want to go that long between games.

The same is true now. The NBA and players' union are negotiating at breakneck speed to set a new salary cap, the Nov. 18 draft, free agency sometime in the last week of November, training camp at the beginning of December, and games around Christmas, long one of the NBA's showcase days.

Would some players like a longer offseason after the physical and mental exhaustion that came with playing in the bubble? Of course. Team governors would like to sell tickets to fans too, but they're not going to be able to. Fans can't wait to get back to games, but they'll have to wait until the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine. As we've learned during this pandemic, everybody has to make sacrifices.

The NBA has decided to control what it can control. Some in the league have pushed in past years to permanently move the league to a December-August calendar, Silver maintains the ultimate goal is to get back to the October-June timeline for the 2021-22 season.

From a revenue standpoint, this upcoming season is screwed up regardless. It's about the long view—the same long view that led James and other star players to come around on the unprecedented Orlando bubble that initially had them skeptical.

Pulling off this season in home markets with all the travel that involves, and wrapping up in time to start next season in October, will take more sacrifices from everybody.

Following Green's comments about James, Lakers forward Jared Dudley tweeted: "The show will go on, just don't cry a river when stars sit out TV games... esp Top teams that played a longer full season ..."

There's going to be more of that kind of talk in the coming weeks. And maybe there will be some load management. But the idea that James, or someone else of his stature, would actually take off the beginning of the season to rest is far-fetched.

The bubble was, by all accounts, a ratings disaster for the NBA as it competed for airtime with the NFL, MLB and other sports in a part of the calendar it is not accustomed to playing in. Everyone will be highly motivated to make up at least some of that ground in this compressed follow-up season, and that's not going to happen if the highest-profile players are sitting out national TV games. I

f the players don't have that on their minds, it will be made clear to them by the league, or when the salary-cap projections come out.

Even more so than successfully completing the 2019-20 season, getting through the 2020-21 season will define the NBA's fortunes for the next several years. Everyone from Silver to James to team governors to the rank-and-file among the players knows this. Maybe James will just have to have a shorter offseason to make it happen.


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on TwitterInstagram and in the B/R App.