If 2020 were like any other year, the National Basketball Association (NBA) 2020-2021 season would already be underway. Instead, the 2019-2020 season has just ended. Now, Commissioner Adam Silver is scrambling to adjust the league’s schedule to balance all the unique factors at play.
One date has already been determined: The NBA Draft will be held on Nov. 18. But everything else is still up in the air. Last week, Silver proposed Dec. 22 as the start date for the 2021 season. The announcement has been met with mixed reactions.
Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA), expressed her caution in an interview with USA Today.
“I don’t know what I think yet,” she said. “We are in the throes of discussing it and in the throes of evaluating what it means in terms of the revenue-related issues that have been raised.”
Obviously, player health and revenue are the major two opposing factors, but there is more to this issue.
While many NBA teams haven’t practiced since March, some have been playing games for the past several months. Los Angeles Lakers guard Danny Green last played on Oct. 11.
“I think most guys, if they say we’re starting in December, I think they’re like, ‘I’m not gonna be there,’” he said. “If I had to guess, because we have a lot of vets on our team... I just don't expect guys to want to be there or show up willingly.”
Especially for aging players, having to recuperate from the season and return to playing form in less than three months might be impossible.
However, the NBA and its stakeholders don’t want to miss out on potential revenue. Even the players aren’t unanimously against an early restart. After all, this year’s loss of revenue will result in a lower salary cap than expected, costing free agents millions of dollars. This is significant because starting on Dec. 22 allows the NBA to retain the revenue from its iconic Christmas Day games.
The NBA proved that sports can still operate during a global pandemic, functioning without a single positive COVID-19 test during its “bubble.” But several NBA players have expressed their feelings of exhaustion caused by living in such an isolated space, and it seems unlikely that they would agree to do it again. Meanwhile, the National Football League and Major League Baseball have shown how messy it can be to try and have a more typical season, each having entire teams test positive.
Nevertheless, the NBA’s ability to innovate during this pandemic may lead to the safest “normal” season structure yet. They will be able to look at other sports’ regulations to determine what works well and what does not, and in the end, they will pick a course that protects the safety of the players and other employees.
Ignoring all of the outside issues of starting the season in December, there are several interesting implications in terms of basketball itself. Firstly, who will benefit most from this early start? Some have been quick to say that the teams who haven’t played since March will have the clear advantage because they are well rested.
But frankly, I think these teams will struggle to compete with the teams that have been playing against tough competition for months. In all honesty, the teams in the best situation are those who came to the bubble but didn’t make it to the second round of the playoffs. These teams will get a lot of rest but won’t be too out of shape.
Secondly, the first few months of games will likely feature a lot more experimentation than usual. By Dec. 22, teams will have had around a month to get their rookies accustomed to their systems. Most teams will have had their newly signed free agents for only a couple of weeks. This will give extreme advantages to teams that aren’t changing their roster much. Between this and the disparity of resting days, expect the first few months of basketball to feature a lot of one-sided games.
It’s important to note again that the December start date is not set in stone. If the NBA and the NBPA don’t agree to that date, Commissioner Silver will likely look toward January, his original target for the start of the season. If this happens, it will alleviate some of the concerns about competition and player safety. And while those are great things, I’d be lying if I said that skipping Christmas Day games wouldn’t make me a little sad.