As we inch toward the end of the year, the start of the next NBA season is still up in the air. A fair amount of star players are pushing the league to start the 2020-21 season on Jan. 18, according to Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes. Meanwhile, the NBA league office reportedly told the Board of Governors that Dec. 22 is the targeted start date for the 2020-21 season, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania. The Crossover staff debates if a late December start date is too soon.
Since 2020 is such a backward year, I guess it's fitting that I will answer this one backwards: Figure out when you want the Finals, and go from there.
The recent bubble Finals showed us that the crowded fall sports calendar is not the right time for the NBA Finals—true hoop heads and fans of the teams involved will watch, but casual fans have a lot of options. June is not just the traditional spot for the NBA Finals, it is probably the best time.
Moving to August sounds good in theory because it's a dead spot on the calendar, but the problem is that it's not really a dead spot. Football is already dominating the sports news cycle, and while I have no earthly idea why anybody would watch an NFL preseason game instead of an NBA Finals game, the fact is some people will. July could work, but more people go on vacation then and it's harder to get their attention. So I would start with a June Finals and work backward.
The top priority for the NBA should be having a legitimate, safe season, which means a) long enough to be a real season but b) safe for everybody involved, which means strict COVID-19 protocols and enough time off for the players between seasons. A Christmas Day start would be challenging for the Lakers and Heat, who stopped playing in mid-October. But it would work for everybody else, and the Lakers and Heat, remember, had no games from mid-March to July. So I'd start in late December.
If Dec. 22 is really the best way to maximize the financial health of the league, then I don’t think it’s a major issue. I don’t know when fans can come back, and otherwise I don’t really see the point in waiting.
Ensuring the Finals take place in June and the league calendar can move closer to normal is a significant payoff. Also, selfishly, I love international basketball and want the Olympics to be relevant.
The Lakers and Heat might appreciate some added time off, but I’m sure the majority of teams are itching to get back to normal. The major downside is a compressed offseason that’s going to make the draft, free agency and training camp into a serious crunch for teams. But unless waiting until January is totally necessary, starting ASAP makes enough sense.
My initial reaction was to start on Feb. 1, which is the first day of Black History Month. It would certainly be a nice symbolic gesture, but, alas, that’s the Monday of Super Bowl week, which means that the first games would be overshadowed by columns about the wacky questions asked at Media Day or whatever they’re calling it now.
That brings us back to Christmas, which just seems too early. So why not do this? Start the season on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. But plant a flag on Christmas Day. There are plenty of players who haven’t been on the court since March, and many more who left the playoffs early and will have had adequate rest. Invent some sort of made-for-TV bonanza, kind of like All-Star Weekend all mashed into one day. (Tape it if you don’t want to do it on Christmas Day.) Go nuts. Have a HORSE contest. Have Dr. J play Larry Bird in one-on-one. Stage the ultimate three-on-three tourney. Will it cannibalize All-Star Weekend? No, because they should cancel it in 2021 in the interest of getting the season done as early as possible.
Definitely not any time in December. LeBron James just saw his children a few weeks ago after being apart from them for over 100 days. You think he's going to be anxious to begin traveling anytime soon? The face of the league will surely not be on board with that.
The late-December start date is just insane. Sure, players had a four-month hiatus—but it wasn't a real mental or physical break. They were constantly preparing to return. That's psychologically taxing. They need a real break.
From the league's perspective, a quick return makes sense. They want to make up for lost revenue. But I can't imagine that players will be okay with playing so soon after a season that lasted nearly 12 months. The players need a break. Not to mention the reporters ...
A Dec. 22 start to the 2020–21 season certainly feels rushed, even when considering the havoc COVID-19 wreaked on the NBA calendar. But it's sensible for the league to get started as soon as possible. Shifting the season permanently to a December start feels untenable, and there is ground to cover in order to get the league calendar back on track. The Finals in June and free agency in July is still the best route for the NBA.
Perhaps the first week of January or Martin Luther King Day could make sense for the start of 2020–21. But waiting until fans arrive isn't the best path, nor is a lengthy offseason. Pushing the season opener close to the start of 2021 makes the most sense.
For the best interest of the players and the on-floor product, the NBA shouldn’t start until Martin Luther King Jr. Day, at the earliest.
The Lakers’ championship is just over two weeks old and a possible mid-December start date feels like it would unfairly penalize the league’s most recent Finals participants. Having the draft, start of free agency and beginning of training camp all occur within a two-week span feels like an entirely too short period for all the possible player movement, especially when you consider the uptick in COVID-19 cases around the country will bring in questions about whether players could move to new cities safely.
While the start date of the league is certainly important, a bigger question also might be when the league hopes to end the season. The Tokyo Olympics loom large in the league’s 2020–21 season schedule, and fans can only hope the league balances international considerations with its own domestic interests. Of course, it should be no surprise that owners are looking to start the season as soon as they reasonably can. But the most altruistic choice is to push the start of next season back to mid-to-late January at the earliest.
Starting the 2020–21 season by Christmas Day seems to be the NBA's most attractive option, but is it reasonable?
Without a bubble, any plan the NBA makes for the regular season will likely need to account for game postponements—such as what the NFL has dealt with amid positive COVID-19 cases. Starting the season in December would allow the league to budget room for rescheduled matchups while continuing to limit back-to-backs.
The longer the season’s start is delayed, the more the league will be restricted in inching toward normalcy and holding a full season and playoffs. Load management may be prevalent, but a December start would likely give the NBA the best chance at navigating a season outside a bubble where conditions cannot be fully controlled.
I like the idea of Christmas, personally. It allows the league to avoid losing momentum by being off too long, get the calendar back on track and hit a marquee date.
Every team had like four months off mid-season in 2020, and most teams have been off for months since the eventual restart. I do see the quick turnaround as a potential issue for the best teams, with the Celtics, Nuggets, Heat and especially Lakers being impacted the most, and I'm not sure how that is addressed. Perhaps with an extended break somewhere in the season? I'd even be O.K. with fewer games, too. However, I think the pros to a sooner start outweigh the cons overall.