The NBA's Potential December Return Faces a Few Outstanding Obstacles

The NBA wants to come home in time for Christmas. But there are several reasons why that may be unrealistic.
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The NBA is coming back in December.

Correction: The NBA wants to come back in December.

The league informed the Board of Governors on Friday that it is targeting a late December, pre-Christmas return, a source familiar with the discussions confirmed to Sports Illustrated. The NBA’s preference is a 72-game schedule that would end the season by early July, before the scheduled start of the Summer Olympics. On this schedule, training camps would open in early December, less than two months after the Lakers finished off Miami in the NBA Finals.

ESPN first reported the NBA’s plans for a Christmas start.

So that’s settled, right? The NBA is back, LeBron James is back, the Warriors—remember them?—are back. Well … not exactly. The NBA may want to return around Christmas. But the league can't simply get what it wants.

Let’s start with why the NBA wants to come back so quickly. It’s become increasingly apparent to team and league officials that playing games in front of fans is unlikely, at least in the first quarter of 2021. As the NBA brainstormed ideas this summer, there was hope that, even without a vaccine for COVID-19, new safety measures—including rapid testing—would make it feasible to get fans in buildings. The league and players union even funded a Yale University saliva-based test; a cheaper, quicker option than commonly used nasal swabs.

Adam Silver told SI in July, “The extent those tests are successful and coming to market, that will also open up more possibilities for us in bringing fans into arenas, even pre-vaccine.”

But the U.S. is not there, not yet anyway, and the league’s focus has turned to maximizing its television revenue. A 72-game season would satisfy contractual obligations with its regional sports networks, as well as allow the league to rake in money from its multibillion dollar national TV contract.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver during the trophy presentation after game six of the 2020 NBA Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat at AdventHealth Arena.

The NBA can’t do anything unilaterally, however, and this is where the league faces its biggest obstacle: The players union. Union officials have often suggested that starting the season before 2021 is unrealistic (“My guess is we'll probably not start until early 2021,” NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts told SI in August, a sentiment Roberts has repeated to other outlets), citing the quick turnaround it would be for teams whose seasons ended in September or October.

But money talks, and every game the league is forced to slash off the calendar is more cash out of players' pockets. And for the majority of the league, a Christmas start isn’t an issue. Eight teams have been off since early March. Another six have been done since mid-August. The Heat and Lakers are the teams that could use an extra month, but will the needs of two teams—four, if you want to toss in both conference finalists—dictate when the NBA restarts?

There are other issues, of course. Privately, team executives have grumbled about the possibility of an abbreviated free agency. The NBA draft is scheduled for November 18. Traditionally, free agency opens shortly after. If the NBA wants to start around Christmas, training camps will have to open in early December, at the latest, forcing teams to shoehorn a full offseason into a couple of weeks.

There is also fear about what the coronavirus landscape could look like. “The spread of COVID-19,” Ohio Governor Mike DeWine tweeted on Thursday, “is getting worse by the minute.” Indeed, coronavirus infections are on the rise. More than 400,000 new cases were confirmed between October 14-21, per ABC News, with nearly 5,500 deaths. California (four NBA teams) has the most confirmed cases of any state in the U.S., followed by Texas (three teams) and Florida (two). Medical experts have warned about a surge in new cases after Thanksgiving, which could put the NBA in a position of attempting in-market restarts while virus numbers are spiking across the country.

It’s a scenario the NBA faced in July, when the league descended on central Florida just as the state began to post record coronavirus numbers. At that time, the league was preparing to play in a bubble-like environment. This time, the league could find itself facing a nightmarish logistical challenge of relocating teams that cannot play in home markets. And while the NBA had zero positive tests in the Orlando bubble, the likelihood of small outbreaks, which the NBA briefly experienced in the aftermath of the season shutting down, is high.

There are no good solutions, and the NBA may ultimately decide that regional bubbles, or “pods,” which have been discussed regularly on calls with team officials, may be the only way to safely return. For now, the league is zeroing in on Christmas, hoping to resume the season in time to reclaim its marquee television day.

Optimistic, yes.

Realistic? We’ll see.