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Amid coronavirus shutdown, NBA hasn’t given up on salvaging the regular season

The coronavirus pandemic has kept Staples Center shuttered and NBA teams on the shelf.
(Frazier Harrison / Getty Images)

Second in a series of articles about the 2020 futures of major sports leagues.

It’s been on the minds of NBA owners and executives, players and coaches, league officials and insiders. There’s optimism that play could return this year before the league calendar flips forward, but what does that look like during the coronavirus pandemic? And who would be expected to show up?

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, speaking during a webinar Tuesday, was the first to be blunt about it. His Warriors, besieged by injuries and offseason defections, are the only team statistically eliminated from the playoffs. And for Kerr and his staff, they’re moving forward as if the season was over.

“It feels like the end of the season for our team. It just does,” Kerr said. “We don’t know anything officially. There’s still a chance the league could ask us to come back and play some games. … Everybody is just kind of assuming that this is it, that we’re not going to be involved anymore.

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“… We are absolutely in offseason mode.”

The NBA is not.

By the time April becomes May on Friday, the NBA will have been suspended for 51 days. No games have been canceled. As sports tries to eke its way back into American life, with pressure to turn every inch forward into a mile, a return to “normal” this season is about as unlikely as Dr. Anthony Fauci lacing them up to play guard for the New York Knicks.

According to one executive, a serious proposal hasn’t come across the desk for a return to action that doesn’t include some form of regular-season games.
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Still, hope persists in league circles that the NBA will return this summer — and not necessarily just for the postseason. All options are being considered.

In conversations with officials from across the NBA, it’s clear that significant pockets of the league remain hopeful some semblance of a regular season can be completed before the playoffs begin.

According to one official, internal models show that an 82-game schedule and a full 16-team postseason could be completed by early September if the league were to take the court again June 1. While no one expects the league to be playing games in a month, the desire exists to play as many games as possible. According to one executive, a serious proposal hasn’t come across the desk for a return to action that doesn’t include some form of regular-season games.

Some league executives, though, view the additions of teams and games to the league’s plans as creating more potential problems.

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NBA commissioner Adam Silver discussed a potential restart of the league two weeks ago during a conference call, responding to most of the queries — How could it happen? When would it need to start by? Where would it be? — the same way.

“We’re just not ready to set a date yet in terms of how long we could wait before we no longer would be able to continue this season,” Silver said. “I would just say everything is on the table, including potentially delaying the start of next season. Again, we just need more information.”

The push to play can be categorized by three different motivators. First, the NBA and team owners see sport as a valuable distraction at a time when the public could use it. Second, since the NBA was the first to shutter, the league feels like a leader in the fight against the pandemic and wants to be an active participant in a return to play.

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The third component is money.

With revenues choked, particularly from lack of ticket sales, the league has to try to protect its relationship with television partners, who injected a reported $24 billion into the league with a nine-year commitment that began in 2014. If there are no games, the NBA will have to satisfy its commitments to broadcasters, either in refunds or future considerations.

It’s not clear what it would take for the league to return to action. A situation where there’s zero percent risk is impossible, no matter how tight the quarantine. There are real questions about the right time to procure the testing necessary to restart the league, particularly while most Americans still have limited access.

That’ll take time, but the NBA still thinks there is plenty of it. If the league believed it could complete the 82-game regular season by restarting June 1, then it stands to reason a full playoff schedule could easily be accomplished if the league is playing by the first week of July. Shortening first-round series to five games or fewer would buy even more time.

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League officials — both with the NBA and teams — maintain that a new list of regulations for the potential opening of team facilities in states where stay-at-home measures are relaxed aren’t a signal games are on the horizon.

For now, the NBA is still listening to ideas. It has been since Utah’s Rudy Gobert was the first player to test positive for coronavirus March 11, the night the NBA pulled the emergency brake, bringing its season to a skidding stop.

“Inside the NBA” analyst Kenny Smith took to Twitter to suggest a 30-team, single-elimination tournament for the NBA title. Others have pitched creating a quarantine environment, whether in one city or in multiple. Las Vegas and Orlando have been floated as possible hosts.

A system where one or more sites house multiple teams is seen as the most likely scenario in a return because it would greatly reduce travel.

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Games almost certainly would be played without fans, turning basketball courts into television studios. Rules about the number of people inside those buildings could lead to usage of remote cameras and virtual news conferences. ESPN’s Mike Breen, the unofficial voice of the NBA, told Bryant Gumbel on HBO’s “Real Sports” that if he’s calling games again this season, he expects to be doing it in an off-site studio instead of courtside.

The Clippers became NBA championship contenders with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, but after this season, if there is one, some key players could leave.

On Wednesday, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who not too surprisingly has been the NBA’s most visible owner during the pandemic, appeared on CNN and said he was “cautiously optimistic” the league would resume at some point this summer. Hours later, Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry told CNBC the same thing — that he expected playoffs to start sometime in July or August.

The mechanisms of how to get there are still very much up in the air.

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“For me, I’ve been prepping my clients that right around May 1 is when we’re going to maybe start getting answers,” veteran NBA agent Todd Ramasar said. “… What I’m advocating for is their health and safety, and not just from COVID.”

That means a slow build toward a return to action, with players working their bodies back into shape before being thrown into any game action — especially playoff action.

When a report surfaced Thursday that some team owners and players’ agents wanted to cancel the season, Lakers star LeBron James had a definitive reply.

“Saw some reports about execs and agents wanting to cancel season??? That’s absolutely not true,” James tweeted. “Nobody I know saying anything like that. As soon as it’s safe we would like to finish our season. I’m ready and our team is ready.

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“Nobody should be canceling anything.”

He ended that message with a crown — the same way the NBA hopes to end its season.

A series examining the challenges major sports leagues, teams and athletes are facing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.


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