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The return of NBA basketball creeps closer with each passing day.
As reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe on Wednesday, the league is expected to release guidelines for teams to start recalling their players on June 1, serving as the precursor for ramping up toward officially resuming the 2019-20 campaign.
The league is discussing a three-step plan that includes a two-week recall period where players return to their respective markets for quarantine, 1-2 weeks of workouts at team facilities and then a 2-3 week formal training camp.
This is obviously good news for our sports-starved society, even with the myriad risks involved, but for those wondering what the league’s potential return looks like, here are the five main takeaways you need to know about.
1. We’re almost certainly getting basketball in July
Wojnarowski and Lowe reported the writing that’s been on the wall for awhile now, but the NBA is aiming for a return to basketball by late July. Given the timeline of this possible three-step plan, that tentative target date tracks.
This plan for commissioner Adam Silver to green-light the rest of the NBA season is described as almost certain to happen, only “barring an unforeseen turn of events.”
While it’s currently unknown whether the NBA will include all 30 teams, play out more regular-season games, feature a play-in tournament or just dive straight into playoffs, it seems as though NBA basketball will finally return in July.
2. We could get 70 games for all 30 teams
According to Sports Illustrated, the league is discussing completing a 70-game season. There are some very obvious pros and cons to this idea that will supposedly be kicked around.
On the plus side, getting to 70 games helps the NBA recoup some of its millions of dollars lost by playing games without fans and/or jumping right into the postseason. The TV ratings should be pretty high when sports return, and if a 70-game season is completed, even fans of non-playoff teams would at least get to watch them compete a few more times before the offseason. Five or six games isn’t much, but it also gives the teams right on that playoff bubble a puncher’s chance of making up ground for the 8-spot.
The obvious downside is putting non-playoff teams through a two-week quarantine, 1-2 weeks of workouts and then a 2-3 week training camp just for 5-6 games doesn’t really seem worth the hassle or potential health risks. The quality of basketball would likely be poor, and the playoff races in each conference are pretty close to set — 5.5 games separate the 8-seed from ninth place in the East, and nobody is within 3.0 games of the 8-seed out West. A play-in tournament would prevent those 5-6 games from being pointless, but the question of fairness then comes into play if a current playoff team loses a single game and suddenly misses out on a whole season’s worth of results.
The health risk doesn’t just include contracting or spreading COVID-19 either; how upset would a lottery team be if a significant player got hurt in one of these meaningless games that simply exist for financial reasons? It’d be great to see every team get a chance to play again in 2019-20, but there’s a reason players on lottery teams were reportedly less inclined to finish out their seasons.
3. NBA bubbles will be at Walt Disney World and Las Vegas
Part of the potential danger in finishing out a 70-game season with all 30 teams? That’s 14 more teams, each coming with dozens of players, coaches and team staffers, who are suddenly at risk of contracting or spreading coronavirus to family, friends and the public at large.
The NBA’s plan is to isolate teams from the general public. There won’t be fans in attendance at any of these games, and the league plans to set up two “bubbles” to play out their games in Walt Disney World in Orlando and Las Vegas, per ESPN, Yahoo! Sports’ Keith Smith and The Athletic.
These two settings have the facilities to house, feed and entertain the players, in addition to isolating them from the broader public and allowing them to play out their season.
4. The bubble isn’t really much of a bubble
The whole point of the bubble is to prevent contact with the outside world, because if even a single NBA player, coach or staffer contracts COVID-19 within this bubble, it’s only a matter of time before it rapidly spreads in a 5-on-5 contact sport. At that point, it becomes a matter of containment, isolating any possible positive tests from the rest of the pack.
However, Los Angeles Lakers veteran Jared Dudley told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin that there’s a common misconception about how strict these “bubbles” will really be. According to Dudley, who has been privy to some of this information on league calls, players will be allowed to leave the bubble.
“Now just because you leave, if we’re going to give you that leeway, if you come back with corona, you can’t play,” he said.
Alluding to The Last Dance, which showed Dennis Rodman leaving the Chicago Bulls in the middle of the season for a Las Vegas vacation, Dudley said every team “has a Rodman” that will take advantage of that freedom. He called such a potential decision “somewhat selfish,” adding that there will be pressure — especially for the team’s stars and starters — to remain within the confines of the bubble, but there will be no explicit rules forbidding them from leaving.
So basically, the bubble will keep fans and unnecessary personnel out, but it won’t necessarily prevent players within from leaving and subsequently exposing everyone inside to potential risks upon their return. The onus will then be on the players to do the responsible thing and stay put for the duration of the season/playoffs.
5. Daily testing should be a necessity
If that’s really the case, there’s no way around this one: For this lax kind of bubble to work, there has to be daily testing. You simply cannot allow a player leave and return and risk contaminating everyone else without it. The only way to catch a potential outbreak before it happens, no matter how strict the bubble is, is to provide daily testing.
The NBA has no set plan on this front yet, but daily testing almost has to be a necessity in a contact sport, and it becomes even more important if the league decides to finish out a 70-game season with all 30 teams instead of just jumping into the playoffs with 16. With that assumed requirement of constant testing comes a myriad of followup questions.
Silver has already taken the stance that the league will return safely and without taking tests from those who actually need them: public health officials, those on the front lines of COVID-19 and those who are showing symptoms. Is there any plausible way for the NBA to justify 300-400 tests a day (and that’s just for the players) as not taking them from someone else’s pocket?
The tests in question also have to provide same-day results to avoid the disease spreading if someone tests positive. The athletes themselves may be low-risk even if they get COVID-19, but if players are allowed to leave the bubble, and because this disease doesn’t always show symptoms during its incubation period, anything less than daily testing with rapid turnaround on the results would feel downright irresponsible on the NBA’s part.
No matter what the return of this NBA season brings, here’s a question worth asking: Which three teams will improve on their win totals next season?
In a similar vein, which teams would be the best fit for Anthony Edwards in the 2020 NBA Draft?