“Ongoing discussions,” Adam Silver said, and if you were listening in on Silver’s 75-minute (virtual) meeting with reporters on Monday, those words could have been the answer to several questions. On anthem demonstrations, something the NBA permitted in the bubble but is less inclined to do so now. On marijuana testing, which will be abandoned for this season—and perhaps permanently. On what to do if COVID-19 infections become too disruptive, compromising the integrity of what could be the most volatile season in NBA history.
“Like so many other organizations, we’ll no doubt face our share of issues as we continue to operate through the pandemic,” Silver said. “But we’re looking forward to getting back to work.”
On Tuesday, the NBA will do just that, kicking off a 72-game season that will be played in largely empty arenas. The NBA had a choice when its Finals wrapped in mid-October: Push the start into 2021, with the hopes that better testing or a vaccine would allow fans—and the 40% of league revenue they account for—back into buildings. Or the league could press forward with the longest possible schedule, maximizing television revenue while keeping its fingers crossed that the latest medical breakthroughs would bring a return to normalcy before the end of the season.
The NBA chose the latter.
And assumes all the risk that comes with it.
COVID-19 continues to spread quickly across the U.S., with more than 18 million confirmed cases and a death count that has zoomed past 300,000. Hospitalizations are at a record high. The pandemic has shut down parts of the country, and with Christmas around the corner, the next few winter months figure to get significantly worse.
The NBA will return amid all of it, crisscrossing the country—albeit at a reduced rate than in years past—staying in hotels, riding buses, relying on a 134-page safety manual to keep players healthy, all while playing a close contact sport that could turn one infection into five or ten, quickly.
Were there viable alternatives? Silver made it clear that a return to a campus environment for an entire season was “untenable,” and he’s right. While bubbling up is the safest way to protect the integrity of games, asking hundreds of players and coaches to commit to six months of isolation just wasn’t realistic. And while the NBA’s in-market return was a business decision, Silver noted that “tens of thousands of people rely on our league and its related businesses for their livelihoods.”
Still, among the ideas floated in recent months was creating bubble pods, short term, secure regional environments that, in at least one iteration, teams could enter for a month or so, followed by a two-week reprieve. On Monday, I asked Silver—how seriously was that scenario considered?
“Pod play doesn’t necessarily mean bubbles,” Silver said. “It often is used just to mean more regional play, and if that were the case, we’d be dealing with many of the same issues in terms of travel and players living at home. We have continued to look at mini-bubbles. Some of you may have heard we’re even potentially looking at a campus-like environment for the G League to potentially play a portion of its season. We’re not ruling anything out … as you might imagine, we have lots of alternative plans in the drawers, and depending on how this goes, we’ll look at other alternatives if we need to. But at least for now, this seemed to be the best balancing of interests.”
The challenge of in-market returns is less about the risk of serious illness—the vast majority of coronavirus infections lead to recovery, and NBA players are among the healthiest in the world—but the potential for disruption. Any player that tests positive—and more than 50 have since the league began testing in late November—will miss a minimum of 12 days, per the NBA’s protocols, ten if he tests positive and is asymptomatic or ten days from the end of his symptoms. After that there is two days of individual workouts, along with a cardiac screening, before a player can return to his team.
Silver says the NBA is anticipating more positive tests, though there is no threshold for how many would cause the season to be stopped.
“There are not firm numbers on this,” Silver said. “I think it’s somewhat similar to the guidance we were given when we went into the bubble. The view is I think if we found a situation where our protocols weren’t working, meaning that not only did we have some cases of COVID but that we were witnessing spread either among teams or even possibly to another team, that would cause us to suspend the season. I think we are prepared for isolated cases. In fact, based on what we’ve seen in the preseason, based on watching other leagues operating outside the bubble, unfortunately it seems somewhat inevitable. But we’re prepared for all contingencies.”
Then there is the vaccine. The NBA, like the rest of the world, is optimistic that the production of multiple vaccines will bring an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. Silver was emphatic that the NBA won’t seek any special treatment. “It goes without saying that in no form or way will we jump the line,” Silver said. “We will wait our turn.” Still, the hope is that mass distribution of the vaccine will reach the league before the end of the season.
“It’s our hope that given the planned rollout of the vaccine that [the pandemic] will be going in the other direction,” Silver said. “That it will become increasingly more likely that there will be a return to a home-court advantage, that come May, June, July, which right now our season is targeted to end mid-July, that by that point there really will be a meaningful opportunity to have fans in our building.”
The NBA has banked some credibility on pandemic planning, and it’s worth noting that while the initial test results were startling—48 players tested positive in the league’s first round of testing—the numbers have dwindled since. The league will lean heavily on its carefully constructed protocols while hoping players take them seriously, too.
“We’re confident that we can do [complete the season], and if we weren’t, we wouldn’t have started,” Silver said. “I will say, though, that we do anticipate that there will be bumps in the road along the way. It’s one of the reasons, for example, we issued the schedule just as a first half of the season. … I’m confident in the design … but I’ve also learned that we’d be making a huge mistake if we didn’t remain humble.”