What Data Does the NBA Care About?

The NBA is determined to finish the season in a bubble, but the number of coronavirus cases continue to surge in Florida.
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Whatever goodwill the NBA built by becoming the first major professional sports league in America to suspend play during the pandemic is quickly evaporating. In the immediate aftermath of the suspension, the league was putting out PSAs to educate people about the coronavirus, and Adam Silver famously indicated he, at the urging of Bob Iger, would put the “data before the date” when trying to figure out if play would resume. Since then, the league and NBPA’s brain trust lasered in on a return plan, even though the data hardly paints a rosier picture than when the season was suspended.

Florida is a mess. As the pandemic kicked into gear in the spring, the state waited—against the advice of medical professionals—to start shutting down. And now the state has reopened earlier than most, and not surprisingly, there has been a massive spike in cases. After having a daily positive test rate in the single digits for all of May, that number jumped in June, reaching a high of 17.33% on June 19. Amid the spike in cases, earlier this month Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state would not be shutting down again. Only recently did Florida start requiring people wear face masks in public. And for good measure, people are so eager to get into Disney that its reservation system was overwhelmed when it finally opened back up—and the park is already sold out for the first two days it’s open in July.

At this point, it’s painfully obvious the strong financial motivations the NBA, team governors, and players have to return. Everyone stands to lose a lot of money without a season, and there’s the added threat of the league tearing up the CBA to squeeze more dollars out of the players no matter what happens this summer. But right now the NBA is reaching its first pain point of its return plan, and the strategy seems to be to remain silent.

Nobody from the league’s leadership ranks has commented about the spike in cases in Florida in a meaningful way. NBPA executive director Michele Roberts told ESPN they are “closely monitoring the situation” and will “add further restrictions” to the campus if needed to protect the players. All parties—save for seemingly a minority of players with varying interests—are committed to the plan, even if the situation in Florida is worse than when the bubble was first conceived.

There have been multiple reports about increasing worry from people within the league about the plan to return. But that worry doesn’t mean anything without action. Does the league have any further protocols they can enact to create a safer environment? Is there a number or event that would cause the plug to be pulled on the whole plan? These are incredibly difficult questions, but they are the questions the league has invited by deciding to play in the middle of a deadly pandemic.

Right now, the idea basically seems to be get everyone in Florida, get everyone tested, and figure it out from there. From an on-court standpoint, the league appears to be aiming for most positive cases happening when people first arrive in Orlando, and then the soft bubble helping keep everyone safe when the actual games begin. But that ignores both the potential long-term effects the virus could have, and the increased pressure a new plateau in cases could put on keeping the virus out of Disney.

The NBA isn’t at the mercy of anyone. Though he had been engaged in discussions with public health experts and other industry leaders, Silver made the decision to shut down the league on his accord the night Rudy Gobert tested positive. The league has had autonomy in how it decides it wants to return, and if anything, has taken advantage of the fact that both Florida and the federal government are run by people who appear to be bored with the inconvenience of the pandemic as opposed to actively trying to slow down the number of cases. The NBA is so insistent on returning, it’s now done the opposite of what Silver suggested would be the mantra when a return was first explored. At what point will the data become more important than the date again?