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NBA owners approve commissioner’s return-to-play plan

The Lakers' LeBron James and the Clippers' Kawhi Leonard will continue their pursuits of another NBA title beginning July 31.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It had been 84 days since the NBA last held a game, and it could be 57 until they host another one, but Thursday marked an important milestone in the league’s quest to restart its 2019-20 season.

The NBA’s board of governors voted 29-1 to approve a 22-team plan, giving the NBA its most significant victory on its road toward a return to play this season.

The plan calls for a start of games on July 31 from Walt Disney World in Orlando without spectators, though the NBA said that date is “tentative.” The NBA also has set Oct. 15 for the 2020 NBA draft and Dec. 1 as the “likely” start date for the 2020-21 season.

The Portland Trail Blazers, according to people with knowledge of the call, were the lone dissenting vote.

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It’s the first in a series of a significant steps to a resumption of play. Friday, the NBPA, the union representing players, will hold a vote among its team representatives on the plan. From there, the NBA has to finalize a deal with Disney World to use the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex while also finalizing extensive health and safety procedures for a safe return to action.

Like all of the NBA’s plans since the league suspended action March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the plan hinges on the word “tentative” — which appears 24 words into the league’s announcement Thursday.

A closer look at the moving parts in the NBA’s plan to resume its season, including the standings and new format.

Appearing on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” on Thursday night, Commissioner Adam Silver said the vote is just a part of the league’s process to coming back — a process that could easily be disrupted.

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“We’ve got a long way to go here,” Silver said. “… There’s constant changes in what we’re learning about this virus.”

The Lakers and the Clippers will be joined by the other 14 teams in the top eight of the conference standings as well as Portland, New Orleans, San Antonio, Sacramento, Phoenix and Washington. Those 22 teams will play eight games each — “seeding games,” as the NBA is calling them — before the postseason begins.

The NBA will play multiple games each day from the Orlando campus, as many as 5-6 during the seeding games, with teams expected to play on back-to-back days once. The sports complex features three basketball facilities, each with multiple courts.

If the ninth-place team is within four games of the eighth-place team at the end of the seeding games, those two teams will enter a brief play-in tournament. If the No. 9 seed can beat the No. 8 seed twice in a row , the No. 9 team will advance into the postseason.

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Following the seeding games and the play-in tournament, the league will then proceed with playoffs in the traditional format, four rounds of games, each a best-of-seven series, culminating with the NBA Finals.

For the teams playing inside the sports complex, players and staff will be subject to massive testing for the coronavirus — possibly daily. Silver said that a single positive test wouldn’t force the league to suspend action once again.

The future for the league also got a little clearer Thursday, with the NBA announcing that it’s targeting a Dec. 1 return for the start of the 2020-21 season — meaning the league would have less than a two-month cushion from the end of the Finals to the start of the following season.

The Clippers have been preparing since the start of the season to play for a title, but their playoff path will look much different than anticipated.

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For the teams not invited to Orlando, the gap in games will be nearly nine months.

“While we are disappointed that the announced return to play proposal excludes the Cleveland Cavaliers, we understand all of the unprecedented factors that contributed to this outcome and we accept the hard decisions Commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA’s Board of Governors had to make,” Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman and coach J.B. Bickerstaff said in a statement. “We also respect the exhaustive and life-altering measures that were considered as a result of COVID-19, but as a team, we greatly desired to be a part of the season’s resumption.”

The league explored other playoff concepts, Silver said, but was urged by Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan to not be too gimmicky.

“Let’s come as close to normal as we can,” Silver said of the consensus for a plan.

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The NBA isn’t there yet — it might not be “normal” until they can get fans back into arenas — but Thursday, the league took its most significant step since the season’s suspension.

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