The NBA Is Ready For Its Restart, But There Will Be Bumps Along the Way

The NBA's restart won't be flawless, but the league is entering its Orlando bubble in a good place.
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Bradley Beal joined Davis Bertans on the NBA’s opt-out list, the Nets are officially sending a skeleton crew to Orlando and the league officially has its first basketball-related fire to put out.

Why won’t there be re-seeding?

Travel—the first argument made against ordering the postseason 1-16—is no longer an issue.

Surely the Blazers, Pelicans or Kings are more worthy playoff teams than the zombie Nets or Wizards? Combine the two rosters and they still get blitzed by Milwaukee in the opening round.

And wait—why isn’t the league just bringing the 16 playoff teams again?

The NBA won’t reseed—the league never seriously considered it, preferring to maintain as close to a normal looking postseason as was possible—but it underscores a point: This will be an imperfect postseason. NBA teams are trickling into Orlando this week, hundreds of apprehensive players, coaches and staffers with no idea what to expect. The game experience will be unique and the lifestyle change will take a mental toll.

“For some guys, especially the young guys, this might be a little difficult,” said Celtics guard Marcus Smart. “We don’t know how people are going to react. We don’t know what’s going to happen … you have to be mentally strong for this.”

In recent weeks, there have been encouraging signs about the NBA’s ability to pull off its postseason. In Germany, the Basketball Bundesliga League successfully completed its season. The Chinese Basketball Association’s bubble has held up. While positive tests have popped up around the NBA over the last week, the numbers have been manageable. The Raptors, in Florida since late June, have not had a positive test. The league is bracing for a new wave of positives when teams begin a pre-quarantine this week, but the hope is that once inside the bubble flare-ups will be limited.

“It would be concerning if once [the players] sit through our quarantine period, and then were to test positive, we would know that, in essence, there’s a hole in our bubble,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference this week. “That our campus is not working in some way.”

Make no mistake: The NBA is the most functional major U.S. sports league right now. The NHL eagerly beat the NBA to a return to play announcement, then spent the next month trying to figure out how to do it. Baseball’s blew its chance at an early return by waging a public spat over money (great optics there) and are now playing fast and loose with its test results. The NFL’s protocols call for a player experiencing coronavirus symptoms to report them to the team’s medical staff and who thinks in a league where contracts aren’t guaranteed that that’s going to happen? Every NFL locker room could turn into a hot spot.

The NBA, as we roll into the second week in July, is in a decent place.

But that could change, quickly.

Early on, a resumed season could look a little goofy. While six Western Conference teams will battle for the final playoff spot—OK, five, if you want to exclude the LaMarcus Aldridge-less Spurs—the East’s final spot could fall to whoever backs into it. The Wizards new leading scorer is rookie Rui Hachimura. The Nets starting point guard could be Caris LeVert, who will be backed up by just signed Tyler Johnson. Or maybe Jacque Vaughn, the ex-NBA point guard turned head coach who will be auditioning to keep the job next season.

And don’t forget: If Brooklyn misses the playoffs, they keep their first round pick.

Not that any team would tank, of course.

Then there is the social justice movement, which players have made clear will—and should—be top of mind in Orlando. The NBA, in consultation with the players union, came up with a list of messages players will be allowed to wear on jerseys. That list has already received criticism, with Jaylen Brown telling reporters that he was “very disappointed” with agreed-upon list while Sixers forward Mike Scott called it “a bad miss.”

“They didn't give players a chance to voice our opinions on it,” Scott said. “They just gave us a list to pick from. So that was bad. That was terrible.”

Backlash is coming from the other side, too. Sports has become a target for politicians. In 2017, Donald Trump went after NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem, and attacked the NFL for allowing it. If NBA players kneel—something that is certainly possible—the league could get dragged into a nasty debate during an election cycle. The NBA understands this, but to top league officials supporting the Black Lives Matter movement is important. There are obvious business reasons—the NBA rank-and-file is 75% Black—but fundamentally, the league believes in it. If there is conservative criticism, well, that just comes with the territory.

This won’t be flawless, and we still don’t know what the league’s breaking point for positive coronavirus tests is and just how the NBA will respond if a marquee player (like, say, LeBron James) tests positive during a significant series (like, say, the NBA Finals). Major League Soccer beat the NBA into an Orlando bubble and they have already sent one team (FC Dallas) packing. All things considered, the NBA is entering its campus phase in a good place. How long that will last is the big question.