The confusion was rampant among the crowd at the Chesapeake Energy Arena on March 11, when the Oklahoma City Thunder’s game against the Utah Jazz was postponed moments before tip-off.
Soon after the delay, Jazz centre Rudy Gobert was announced as the first player to test positive for coronavirus. NBA commissioner Adam Silver followed the announcement with swift action, halting the NBA season immediately. This move spurred other sports leagues to do the same, as the NHL suspended its season and the MLB delayed the start of their season. Sports were put on hold, with no resumption in sight.
But on June 4, the NBA greenlit a plan for return. The 2019-20 season will resume in Orlando, Florida on July 30 at the Walt Disney World Resort.
The Disney resort is an ideal site, as it allows the NBA to create a “bubble” and house all teams inside. The games will be held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, which can have multiple courts set up and has the infrastructure to broadcast the games.
Players will follow strict rules regarding social distancing and masks, with nasal swab tests administered regularly. Additional measures include optional proximity alarms for the team and league staff that alert users when they are within six feet of each other and biometric rings that record heart rate, respiratory rate and body temperature to help alert teams if there is a COVID-19 case.
The bubble will have a maximum of 1,600 people inside at any given time. Teams that pass round one of the playoffs will be allowed to book rooms for families to join. All team personnel will be tested daily and follow social distancing procedures while inside the bubble.
If a single player is to test positive for the virus, they will be quarantined immediately with the NBA monitoring their teammates closely. Additionally, if a player is to leave the bubble, they will be quarantined for at least 10 days and then must test negative twice for the virus before being allowed back in.
A 16-team plan with the teams going straight into the playoffs would have been the safest route, but instead the league has opted for a 22-team return. The top 16 teams from the Eastern and Western conference will return, with six teams that could potentially ascend to the eighth seed in either conference joining them. This includes five Western Conference teams: the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and the Washington Wizards from the Eastern Conference.
Beginning on July 30, each returning team will play eight regular season games for seeding purposes. With five to six games per day, the regular season is expected to finish by Aug. 14. A potential play-in tournament is currently planned for Aug. 15 to 16, to decide the final seed in each conference. After the tournament, the playoffs will begin, with Oct. 13 being the date for an NBA Finals Game 7, the last possible game of the NBA playoffs.
The eight regular season games seem arbitrary at first, but they are important for a number of reasons. Firstly, the games will allow players to get their conditioning up to par before the playoffs begin. Players have begun training individually at their team practice facilities again, but playing full games helps reduce injury risks that may have been an issue if the teams went straight to the intense playoff games.
The eight games are also crucial from a financial perspective, as the addition of 88 regular season games means the players will have a collective salary loss of $345 million instead of $645 million. Additionally, the teams will be able to fulfill TV contracts. Lastly, the games allow for the race for the eighth seed to come to an exciting conclusion.
The aforementioned eighth seed play-in tournament is contingent on the standings at the end of the season. If the eighth seed is ahead of the ninth seed by four or more games, then the eighth seed clinches the playoff spot. However, if the eighth seed is only ahead by a smaller margin, then the play-in tournament occurs.
The eighth seed is still rewarded, as they only have to win one game against the ninth seed to clinch the playoff spot while the ninth seed has to beat the eighth seed twice to win the playoff spot.
After finalizing the playoff seeding, the playoffs will proceed with their regular format of eight teams in each conference going through four rounds of best-of-seven games to crown a champion. With the lack of travel, the first and second rounds of the playoffs can be played out at a quicker pace.
Traditionally, the higher seed in each matchup is awarded with home court advantage, as four out of a possible seven games in a series are played on the higher seeds court.
Alternatives to home court advantage
Traditionally, the higher seed in each matchup is awarded with home court advantage, as four out of a possible seven games in a series are played on the higher seed’s court.
In their home court, the fans and familiarity with the court afford major advantages to players, but this will be absent at the neutral site in Orlando.Thus, team executives have proposed some alternative advantages for the higher seeds.
These include possession of the ball in the second, third and fourth quarter after the jump ball to begin the game, one player being allowed an extra foul before fouling out or the team receiving an extra coach’s challenge. To instill a sense of normalcy into the fan-less games, the NBA has pondered using crowd noises from the NBA 2K20 video game.
The NBA has assigned hotels to teams based on seeding, with the highest ranked teams lodging at the Gran Destino Tower while the remaining teams stay at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa or Disney’s Yacht Club Resort. Whether the NBA will implement any of the other proposed changes that give advantages to higher seeds remains to be seen.
A number of players, led by Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving and Los Angeles Lakers guard Avery Bradley, wanted to hear the league’s detailed plan on important issues for the black community before the return. Bradley stated “Regardless of how much media coverage will be received, talking and raising awareness about social injustice isn’t enough…” The coalition has lobbied for better hiring practices for black front office and coaching candidates, as well as donations to organizations aiding black communities and partnerships with black-owned businesses.
Additionally, the coalition voiced several issues regarding the restart. These include a large number of COVID-19 cases in Florida daily, and insurance for players who suffer possible illnesses and injuries during the end of the season. Commissioner Adam Silver stated that “we can’t outrun the risk” and acknowledges that if there is a significant spread, the league may shut down again. Concerning insurance, the NBA and the NBA Players’ Association have agreed on an enhanced insurance plan that covers conventional injuries and career-ending injuries related to COVID-19.
Silver stated that players will be able to abstain from the restart if they feel uncomfortable regarding health risks or in order to highlight the protests. Players will face no repercussions, other than lost salary for missed games. Bradley has opted out of the season, amidst concerns for his son’s respiratory illness as well as a commitment to projects to aid his community.
The risk of COVID-19 still looms large, and the NBA restart plan seeks to mitigate concern with a host of measures in place. The ending to the 2019-20 NBA season will be unorthodox to say the least, but one that fans will be glad to have anyway.
Graphic: Anh Phan