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Where the NBA Stands Two Months After Suspending Its Season

How much risk is the league willing to take on in order to resume the 2019-20 season?
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Typically, fans and media speculating on the inner workings of the NBA do so at an information disadvantage. Amateur internet sleuthing and well-founded guesswork alike can still leave uncertainty, and even the most well-connected reporters don't always get certain confidential information. For the last two months, however, the NBA seems to be just as unsure of how to proceed as those wondering about its future from the outside. “Frankly, they’re making this up as they go along,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said Tuesday night on SportsCenter. “That sounds like it’s an insult, but it’s not. It’s just a reality.”

That reality has become increasingly clear in recent weeks as the NBA has repeatedly modified its stance toward continuing the season, which has been suspended indefinitely since March 11. Basketball -- and nearly everything else in this country -- has been sitting in limbo over the last two months, but NBA commissioner Adam Silver gave some clarity to the situation on Tuesday, saying that the league is aiming to make a final decision on whether to continue or cancel the season within the next two to four weeks, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania.

The NBA has plenty of money at stake in this situation, and therefore plenty of incentive to return to play. Starting this Friday, the league will begin withholding paychecks for players, which has led to greater urgency to find a way to salvage at least some part of the 2019-20 season. Roughly 40 percent of the NBA’s money comes from in-arena, game-night revenue; even in the event basketball returns, it likely won’t be with fans in attendance, which will cost a huge chunk of money. Still, recouping the other 60 percent -- mostly via TV revenue -- is far preferable to punting on it entirely. Revenue losses this season will likely impact the salary cap for years to come, which could have unforeseen adverse effects on both players and organizations.

“The CBA was not built for extended pandemics,” Silver said. It does, however, contain a force majeure clause that allows the league to terminate the collective bargaining agreement in the wake of something like a pandemic. The NBA and National Basketball Players’ Association agreed earlier this week to extend the deadline that maintains the league’s right to invoke that clause through September, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski; the initial window would have closed this week.

Ultimately, the league’s decision of whether or not to continue, and the manner in which that should happen, will hinge on how much risk the NBA is willing to assume to preserve the remaining games and the money that they’ll generate. Until a vaccine is developed, there will always be a heightened degree of risk of contracting the coronavirus when playing a contact sport like basketball, even without fans at games. “This is going to be a study in risk tolerance,” Windhorst said. “We’re not going to have a cure and we’re not going to have a vaccine in time for this season. So this is going to come down to the NBA building layers of protection. How much risk are you willing to accept?”

Silver asked NBA players the same question on a massive conference call last Friday, according to Wojnarowski, telling them that “there are no guarantees” for when the NBA will be back in its familiar form. He also outlined where the league stood currently, presented possible paths forward, and answered questions from players. In a Board of Governors meeting on Monday, the league discussed health and safety concerns for the resumption of the season, and attendees felt “increasingly positive about the league’s momentum” toward starting back up.

On Tuesday, Wojnarowski reported that NBPA representatives reached out to players via text message to ask whether they want to return to play or not. Charania later reported that there hasn't been any formal survey, though that doesn't necessarily discredit Wojnarowski’s report of an unofficial poll. On Tuesday, some of the league’s preeminent stars, including LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Kawhi Leonard, held a conference call to “establish a united front” in favor of returning to play, according to Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes. The NBPA also sent a memo to agents stating a desire to find a way back onto the court, per Charania’s reporting.

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Silver is reportedly hopeful that the postseason can proceed in its usual format -- four rounds of up to seven games involving eight teams from each conference -- but is also open to the possibility of a play-in tournament to account for the lost regular-season games that could have allowed teams to break into or fall out of the top eight. The league is eyeing at least a three-week training camp before any official restart of the season. At this point, it feels all but preordained that the 2021 season won’t start on time.

The current prevailing option for finishing the current season is holding the playoffs in a “bubble” that would keep players, coaches, and essential personnel isolated as teams essentially play in empty arenas. The two most palatable locations appear to be Las Vegas and Disney World, where players would have enough room to move around while still being confined to the bubble. Residents would have to be tested constantly and the NBA would reportedly need around 15,000 tests, which Silver has been assured won’t interfere with access to testing for ordinary citizens. “We won’t be taking tests from needy people,” the commissioner said.

Last Friday, the NBA allowed teams in states with lightened stay-at-home orders to reopen practice facilities for individual workouts, though not every eligible team returned to the gym that day. While the reopening of practice facilities is a far cry from fully resuming competitive basketball games, this step could indicate progress toward a safe restart of the season.

The biggest question the NBA faces is how it would respond to another positive COVID-19 test. The last time a player tested positive it triggered an immediate leaguewide shutdown, but according to Wojnarowski, “the NBA’s hope would be that players who test positive for COVID-19 wouldn’t require shutting down a team or season, but only the removal of a player amid persistent testing of those who had come into contact with him.”

That feels a touch too risky given the relatively low stakes at play. This virus has proven to be both deadly and easily spread. In a sport like basketball, it could be highly difficult to trace the spread of the virus, and thus, ensure player safety. On Tuesday’s Board of Governors call, the league office “wasn’t optimistic” about the availability of rapid-response testing over the next month.

Save for impatience, it’s unclear what changes have occurred since March 11 that would justify sports leagues like the NBA to resume or the country to return to its normal operations. Some Americans seem to believe COVID-19 can simply be wished away once they grow tired of it, but that’s not really how this works. The virus is no less deadly than it was on first contact with the United States and some scientists project there could be a second spike in cases this fall. There’s little evidence that suggests the country has this crisis under control.

There is no precedent for this situation. The NBA can mitigate risk, perhaps more than nearly any other entity in the country, but there isn’t an objective, accepted point at which that risk is worth whatever payoff waits on the other side. The NBA will be watching how other leagues across the world handle their restarts, but like the rest of us, they’re working almost entirely in the dark.