When will the 2019-20 NBA season resume, and what will the playoffs look like? We’re tracking the big questions and updates as the league gets closer to a return to action.
The season began an indefinite hiatus on March 11 after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. Commissioner Adam Silver initially said the suspension would last at least 30 days, but a late July return is now looking like the best-case scenario.
Get the latest from ESPN’s insiders and analysts on the NBA’s response to the coronavirus outbreak here.
What’s the latest?
The NBA is planning a Thursday vote of the league’s board of governors — with owners expected to approve commissioner Adam Silver’s recommendation on a format to restart the season in Orlando, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne.
The NBA has been examining several options, but numerous members of the board of governors told ESPN that there’s growing support for a plan to bring 22 teams to Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports in July. This format would likely include regular-season and play-in games to compete for playoff berths in both conferences.
The NBA has yet to endorse a plan, and only one of the ideas presented is no longer believed to be a legitimate consideration — bringing back all 30 teams. The 22-team plan would include teams that are currently within six games of the final playoff spots in each conference.
The New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs would land in Orlando under those guidelines, with the Washington Wizards joining as the only team within six games of the No. 8 seed in the East. A proposal for 20 teams remains alive, and that would include only New Orleans, Portland, San Antonio and Sacramento in that format.
Regardless of how many teams are ultimately included in the playoffs, the NBPA has consistently stressed that it wants several regular-season games played prior to the start of the playoffs
What are the disagreements on the return-to-play scenarios?
In a survey of all 30 general managers, which was viewed by ESPN, 16 said they would prefer the league come back with just the typical 16 playoff teams, with the teams and seeding based on the standings when the season was suspended.
That was one of four potential return to play options presented, and it earned more votes than the other three options combined:
Resume the regular season with all 30 teams followed by a play-in tournament (eight votes)
Going straight to the playoffs with either a play-in tournament or a World Cup style group stage (five votes)
Resume the regular season with all 30 teams and then go straight to the playoffs (one vote)
Zach Lowe goes in depth on what he thinks is the best way for the NBA to return, whether it’s a play-in tournament or going right to the playoffs.
Who would be helped and hurt most in a neutral-site playoff format?
What about the safety logistics?
The NBA has principally consulted with two experts throughout the pandemic: former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy and Dr. David Ho, director and CEO of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia University.
Concerns about testing capacity and perception in the initial weeks of the shutdown have shifted to issues of protocol — the league’s position has been to closely watch other sports return to action, learn from what has gone well and adapt that information to suit its needs.
Murthy has spoken to league leaders and team owners, and, informally, to others across sports who confidentially contact him. The questions are all of the same ilk: When can fans return to games? How should they respond if someone tests positive? How often should they test athletes or staffers? How should they safely keep distance between staffers and players?
The answers to those questions are still unknown.
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban speaks about how safety will be the priority when the NBA makes its decision on returning to action.
Do players want to play?
In team-by-team virtual calls with players this week, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts said the “overwhelming” sentiment has been that “they really want to play” and resume the 2019-20 NBA season.
“It’s time. It’s time,” Roberts told ESPN. “It’s been 2½ months of ‘What if?’ My players need some level of certainty. I think everybody does.”
Roberts said she believes the union will be able to give feedback on any return plans quickly because of the collective bargaining that has already taken place via a joint task force, and the virtual calls she is holding with each team. She said the players’ association does not necessarily need to hold a vote on the league’s plans.
“If we thought we needed a vote, we would. If we’re ratifying a [collective bargaining agreement], we need a vote,” she said. “But our preferred method is talking to people or just having them talk to us. Then if we get a sense of what the sentiment is then we can move forward.”
What about travel?
The NBA informed teams Wednesday that players currently overseas will be granted clearance to reenter the United States, regardless of U.S. travel restrictions existing in those countries, according to a memo obtained by ESPN.
Among marketplaces where governmental restrictions are keeping practice facilities shuttered, teams have asked the NBA whether players can bypass returns to those cities and report directly to the league’s proposed campus environment for the start of training camps, sources told ESPN.
Most teams in regions still adhering to stay-at-home policies have an abundance of players who left their marketplace during the shutdown and would need to quarantine for an extended period — perhaps as long as 14 days — prior to joining workouts in team facilities. Teams want to avoid having to quarantine significant portions of their rosters twice — once upon returning to more restrictive markets and then again in Orlando.
The NBA has told those teams that it plans to work with them on solutions that possibly include redirecting some teams directly to campus/bubble sites instead of team facilities to hold training camps.
Executives from the Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors were among those on a general managers’ call with the league office who expressed concern that waiting on the league to release a timetable complicates their ramp-ups to return in ways that are unique to those marketplaces, sources said.
Will family members be able to join players in Orlando?
The NBA and the union are progressing on a plan that would allow for a limited number of family members in the bubble environment, sources told ESPN on Wednesday.
Conversations have centered on the timing of family arrivals at Walt Disney World Resort, which are likely to start once an initial wave of teams is eliminated and the number of people within the league’s bubble decreases.
Family members would be subjected to the same safety and coronavirus testing protocols as everyone else living in the NBA’s biosphere. Many players are eager to have family join them in Orlando, particularly those on contending teams who anticipate lengthy stays in the playoffs.
What are NBA facilities like right now?
The Trail Blazers were among the first two NBA teams to return to facilities three weeks ago, when eight of their rostered players showed up. Most of the league has since followed suit — the Dallas Mavericks opened their gym Thursday, and the Knicks opened on Friday, leaving only the Celtics, Bulls, Pistons, Warriors, Spurs and Wizards shut down. Boston’s facility is set to open Monday, and the Bulls will follow suit on Wednesday.
What’s going on with the league financials?
That will be the next big question as soon as the NBA finalizes a return-to-play plan. Silver told players that 40% of league revenue comes from money built around game nights in arenas. Without that revenue, there could be a drastic decline in the projected $115 million salary cap and $139 million luxury tax for 2020-21.
The initial cap projections were based on an expected $8 billion in basketball-related income (BRI), which is now expected to decrease by at least $1 billion and potentially as much as $2 billion. BRI takes into account a wide range of revenue from gate receipts to broadcast rights, and it is split roughly evenly between teams and players.
NBA players are already having 25% of their paychecks for this season withheld to account for the loss in revenue. That money — and potentially additional pay cuts — could be returned to teams if the final restart outcome doesn’t even out the BRI split.
The league and the players’ union will need to make adjustments to the CBA and how the business of basketball operates going forward. ESPN’s Bobby Marks provides eight proposed tweaks for the upcoming offseason and 2020-21 based on conversations with front-office executives and player agents.
Editor’s note: ESPN is owned by The Walt Disney Co.