This summer may change the NBA forever

By: New York Times |

Published: March 19, 2020 12:58:31 pm

The league has been affected in other ways by the illness. (AP)

By Marc Stein

The truest reply to pretty much any question about the NBA’s hopes for restarting its shuttered 2019-20 season is that none of us have the answers.

Can the league really restart in June if players keep testing positive for the coronavirus? Would teams play a few regular-season games, if we somehow get to that point, or just jump right into the playoffs? Are arenas destined to be closed off to fans when the league does come back? How realistic is it for the season to carry into August or even September? What impact would all that have on the 2020-21 season?

Nobody knows, sadly. Not yet.

“We are trying, and we are motivated to play again when we can,” Bob Myers, Golden State’s president of basketball operations, said in a conference call Tuesday, six days after the league suspended operations. “We all want to play, but not at the risk of anyone’s health.”

My plan this week had been to try to offer a respite from the more dire real-world questions piling up in the face of the coronavirus crisis. I wanted to explain why the league office has been exploring every avenue to try to address a few of those unknowns and salvage some sort of proper ending to its 74th season.

The NBA player mocked the virus before testing positive

Then the Brooklyn Nets announced that four of their players had tested positive for the coronavirus, with Kevin Durant telling The Athletic that he was among them. The sporting world, without warning, was reminded yet again how fluid this all is — and perhaps how futile the league’s efforts may prove to be.

As one of the smartest NBA medical people I know told me shortly after the Nets’ bulletin: Assume you are carrying the coronavirus, and take every precaution you can to avoid spreading it.

Yet there are still optimists in this league — even as seven players and counting have tested positive — who cling to the belief that the season can be resurrected as we’re seeing happen now for professional basketball in China, where the virus originated. Among the optimists’ motivations:

— The NBA has crowned a champion in each of its 73 previous seasons and wants to avoid the sort of unappealing, unresolved conclusion to a season that Major League Baseball endured in 1994, when a labor impasse halted play in August. League officials want this even if it means returning from a first-of-its-kind extended delay to play in empty arenas and serving up the type of raggedy product that could well result from a lengthy hiatus.

— It had already been a brutal season for the league financially before the coronavirus outbreak, stretching back to the China controversy in the preseason started by a tweet from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. During All-Star Weekend in Chicago, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver estimated the “substantial” financial hit from Morey’s tweet would be in the “hundreds of millions” of dollars. The next bill will surely be steeper in terms of lost revenue, refunds owed to television partners, etc., if March 11 indeed proves to be the final day of the NBA’s 2019-20 campaign.

— Some key NBA figures welcome an experiment with radical changes to the schedule, such as contesting the NBA Finals in August, pushing free agency into September and starting the 2020-21 season on Christmas Day. It is hardly unanimous, but there is a faction eager to turn the delay forced upon the league by the coronavirus outbreak into an unexpected testing ground.

It’s still way too soon for anyone at Olympic Tower in Manhattan to say the NBA won’t cancel the rest of the season. How could they? The best medical minds around are still getting a handle on how grave the outbreak will be in North America.

Fears persist that conditions in the United States could worsen the way they have in Italy if Americans don’t get more serious about heeding government directives to practice social distancing in hopes of reducing the spread of the virus.

“For a while, life is not going to be the way it used to be in the United States,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is widely regarded as the nation’s foremost infectious disease expert, told CNN. “We have to just accept that if we want to do what’s best for the American public.”

Yet more energy around the league, at least for now, is being invested in gathering ideas for a comeback as soon as conditions allow rather than in heeding the naysayers who, after hearing the latest on Durant and the Nets, would suggest focusing on ensuring that next season starts on time with minimal disruption.

A drastically reconfigured calendar is indeed generating increased discussion. The league’s 30 teams were directed Sunday to ramp up their search for dates through the end of August, in NBA G League buildings and team practice facilities as well as their usual arenas, in the event that the NBA gets the chance to see what playoff games actually look like in July and August.

Those who support such an overhaul, like Steve Koonin, the Atlanta Hawks’ team president, believe that a calendar running from September to August with opening day on Christmas, as opposed to the current July-to-June structure with opening day in mid-October, would ultimately put the NBA in more direct competition with baseball rather than with college football and the NFL.

The ever-growing status of NBA free agency as a huge July hit has inevitably led some teams to wonder how popular the biggest playoff games could be if staged later in the summer rather than in June, thus pushing the draft/free agency/summer league trifecta all the way into September.

Rest assured there will also be a measure of resistance to such broad changes, which would ultimately have to be collectively bargained with the players. Some teams are skeptical and, even in the short term, bound to question the wisdom of a major shift in policy with little advance planning or a better feel for unintended consequences.

Among the uncertainties: What would be the impact, good and bad, on the WNBA if the NBA plays more of its season concurrently? Might we see WNBA/NBA doubleheaders, as Terri Jackson of the women’s players’ union recently suggested to USA Today?

What’s clear is that a summer of experimentation would be a silver lining in what has otherwise been a deeply challenging and emotionally draining season for Silver’s league because of the China tensions and the January deaths of Kobe Bryant and David Stern.

Especially after days like Tuesday, when the entire NBA was knocked back anew, it would be quite an uplifting sight if the outbreak, now a pandemic, eases to the point that the NBA would be allowed to stage games in June, July and August — even without fans.

It would mean that the United States, as a nation, rebounded in dramatic fashion.

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