The NBA's Pandemic Problem

The NBA is exploring the idea of reopening team facilities as early as May 1 in states that have loosened stay-at-home restrictions. But how will the league protect its competitive balance?
Author:
Publish date:

The public is starved for sports content, as rare glimpses of sports on television recently have shown. The anticipated Bulls documentary broke viewership records in its first showing, while last week’s NFL draft (home version) reached 55 million viewers over three days, a 35% jump from a year earlier.

So it’s no surprise to see the NBA leap at an opportunity to begin the process of returning: The league is exploring the idea of reopening team facilities as early as May 1 in states that have loosened stay-at-home restrictions, two sources familiar with league operations told SI.com. These discussions are preliminary, with May 1 being described as a moving target. While the NBA has been clear that there is no timetable for a return (“There’s still too much uncertainty at this point to say precisely how we move forward,” commissioner Adam Silver said after the NBA’s Board of Governors meeting on April 17), allowing players access to facilities for individual workouts is viewed as a first step in that direction.

“The minute it’s safe we want to get back and get the guys practicing and getting ready for games,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told CNN. “But we’re not there yet.”

What would be a surprise would be to see the NBA do it without fully addressing one obvious issue.

This isn’t a player safety argument, though you could easily make one. Georgia and Oklahoma have started to re-open, though there has been plenty of pushback. While Georgia governor Brian Kemp gave the all-clear to several businesses, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms instructed her constituents to “stay home—nothing has changed.” When Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt re-opened the state last week, Norman, Okla. mayor Breea Clark accused Stitt of pitting cities against each other, Hunger Games style.

Still, it’s a little too alarmist to protest elite athletes working out in private facilities. The NBA isn’t mandating full scale practices—they aren’t even allowing full team workouts. But if players want to come in individually to shoot, use the weight room or watch film, it’s hardly cause for concern. Besides, there’s a case that by opening them up, they are actually protecting players. If public gyms are open in certain states, NBA players—many of whom have not picked up a basketball in weeks—will gravitate to them. By opening up team facilities, the league can control who a player comes in contact with, limiting the risk of infection.

What’s safer—a sanitized practice facility or an overcrowded Equinox?

The issue is how the NBA protects competitive balance, and by extension the integrity of a potential postseason. Players from a team allowed to workout in one city would have an advantage over players from another team who are not. An example: If the playoffs started today, the Lakers would play Memphis in the first round. Tennessee’s stay-at-home order expires on Monday; California’s runs indefinitely. Grizzlies players working out a team facility would have a clear competitive advantage of Lakers players limited to Zoom workouts.

An abbreviated postseason was already sure to draw questions about the credibility of the champion; LeBron James’s legacy would be dissected for decades should his fourth title come this season. Any imbalance in teams’ ability to train might just blow that credibility entirely. The NBA will give players a 3-4 week training camp before resuming play, but there is a clear advantage to having access to a facility for twice that long.

The solution could be scuttling the idea of crowning a champion, while pushing forward with a playoff. These are unique times—why not come up with a unique solution? The NCAA tournament was wiped out last month—how about an NBA one? All 30 teams, quarantined in one location. Single elimination. Players will play, because players want to get paid. Networks will show it because, well, did you see H-O-R-S-E? Media will cover it because sportswriters are just as desperate for content. The NBA could have a Final Four. The Atlanta Hawks could be a Cinderella story.

It’s worth considering. The clock is ticking. The spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus, is slowing, new infections are declining, though not fast enough and not at a sharp enough rate. League officials have accepted that a bubble-like concept is the only way to finish the season, but there will soon come a time when next season becomes the priority. There’s nothing wrong with players safely returning to work. But all championships are not equal. The integrity of a title matters.