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Las Vegas Is the Key to Salvaging the NBA Season

As the NBA explores salvaging its season, a tournament in Las Vegas is the only way to do it.

The NBA season effectively begins in Las Vegas, with 30 teams descending on Sin City in early July for Summer League, the NBA’s annual rookie showcase.

This year, it could end in Vegas, too.

The league is exploring the feasibility of holding its entire postseason in Las Vegas, sources briefed on the NBA’s thinking told A CNBC report last week theorized that the league could play best of five series’ in the first round and the Finals, with a one-and-done style tournament replacing the two rounds in between. A league source told that the NBA was nowhere close to formalizing anything, but added “nothing is off the table.”

The question is: Should it be?

Sports is an afterthought at the moment. The world is on fire, with more than 900,000 confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19, the coronavirus, and more than 46,000 dead. In the U.S., the number of infections zoomed past 200,000 this week, with more than 4,500 deaths. There were 917 deaths on Wednesday, the deadliest day since the outbreak. More than 87% of Americans are under stay at home orders. Governors are begging for ventilators. Hospital tents are being set up in New York’s Central Park.

Finding protective equipment for medical workers is a priority.

Helping the millions economically devastated is a priority.

Getting everyone—everyone­—to understand that social distancing is the only way to slow the spread is a priority.

Finishing the NBA season? Not a priority.

But the NBA is a business, one hemorrhaging cash right now, and it has a financial responsibility to explore all possibilities. Publicly, team officials are optimistic. “I think they’re turning over every rock they possibly can to play and looking at every different outcome,” Nets GM Sean Marks said. Said Bucks GM Jon Horst, "We believe that we’re going to play and everything we’re doing every day and our communications and our preparations, everything we talk about is be prepared to play at some point and finish out the season and have a resumption.”

In a vacuum, Las Vegas makes sense. The NBA has a longstanding relationship with the city. A summer league has been held there since 2004. In recent years, it’s become the summer league. The NBA has relationships with hotels and arenas. It’s one of the few cities, perhaps the only city, equipped to hold this type of event.

Should it? Right now—impossible to say. At this point, several team and league officials told, any chance of a traditional postseason is out. Travel is expected to be challenging in the coming months. Cities are being impacted differently. What if restrictions in Memphis loosen before they do in Los Angeles? How would the NBA even hold these matchups?

Quarantining in one location is the only solution, and Vegas is the only city the NBA is currently giving any kind of serious consideration, per an NBA source. But even that faces enormous hurdles. Thousands of players and staffers would descend on Las Vegas for an event like this. Thousands of supports staff at hotels and arenas would be needed to make it work. Not to mention broadcasters and media. Testing would have to advance significantly in the coming months. Rapid tests, like the one now being produced by Abbott Laboratories, would have to be widely available. An event that could be squeezed into a few weeks would require tens of thousands of tests.

The NBA has a social responsibility here, too. There is public outrage at how asymptomatic NBA players have received coronavirus tests while everyday patients with symptoms can’t get them. Tests will need to be as cheap and readily available as thermometers for the league to justify using them to conduct a postseason. The spread of COVID-19 would have to dip significantly in the coming months, or the NBA will be accused of prioritizing profits over safety. Said a high ranking team executive from a playoff team, “We all want to play. But we all know we can’t play until things are dramatically different.”

Sending 16 teams to Las Vegas to play games in hollow arenas isn’t ideal. But it could evolve into a fun, one-time event that would bring the game back and, more importantly, get the television revenue flowing. Players would likely resist the idea of decamping under one roof—LeBron James already has—but the bet is if it means the paychecks keep coming and a champion will be crowned, they will come around.

Even without a team, Las Vegas has become a major NBA market.

Soon, it could get even bigger.