What will the rest of the 2019-20 NBA regular season and playoffs look like? We’re tracking the big questions and updates as the league prepares to return after beginning an indefinite suspension on March 11.
The NBA’s board of governors has a 12:30 p.m. ET call on Thursday with the intention of approving the league’s plan for a 22-team return in Orlando, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The final details of that plan are still coming together.
Get the latest from ESPN’s insiders and analysts here.
What’s the latest?
The NBA is targeting a resumption of regular season games on July 31, with 22 teams arriving at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports earlier in July. A timeline shared with teams as a last possible date for a Finals Game 7 lands on Oct. 12, sources told Wojnarowski.
Each of the 22 teams will play eight regular-season games in Orlando for seeding purposes for the playoffs. Joining the 16 current playoff teams in Orlando will be the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs in the West and the Washington Wizards in the East.
If the No. 9 seed is more than four games behind, the No. 8 seed will make the playoffs. If the No. 9 seed is four games back or fewer, there will be a play-in tournament. The expectation is that the NBA draft and the opening of free agency would follow in sequential order in October.
The NBA’s board of governors requires a three-fourths passage of the 30 teams on a plan, but there is an expectation among owners that they will fall into line and overwhelmingly approve the commissioner’s recommendation.
What are the specifics of the potential play-in tournament?
That’s still to be determined. The Grizzlies currently hold the No. 8 seed, with a 3.5-game lead on the Blazers, Pelicans and Kings. The Spurs and Suns are further behind.
With an eight-game regular season, how will the league determine standings and seeding given an uneven number of total games played among teams? Portland has already played 66 games, but San Antonio is only at 63. How the league sorts out those details remains unknown.
Who would be helped and hurt most in a neutral-site playoff format?
What about the safety logistics?
The NBA has principally consulted with two experts throughout the pandemic: former U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy and Dr. David Ho, director and CEO of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center at Columbia University.
Murthy has spoken to league leaders and team owners, and, informally, to others across sports who confidentially contact him. The questions are all of the same ilk: How should the league respond if someone tests positive? How often should they test athletes or staffers? How should they safely keep distance between staffers and players?
The answers to those questions are still unknown.
Do players want to play?
In team-by-team virtual calls with players in May, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts said the “overwhelming” sentiment has been that “they really want to play” and resume the season.
“It’s time. It’s time,” Roberts told ESPN. “It’s been 2½ months of ‘What if?’ My players need some level of certainty. I think everybody does.”
What about travel?
The NBA informed teams that players currently overseas will be granted clearance to reenter the United States, regardless of U.S. travel restrictions existing in those countries, according to a memo obtained by ESPN.
The NBA has told those teams that it plans to work with them on solutions that possibly include redirecting some teams directly to campus/bubble sites instead of team facilities to hold training camps.
Executives from the Brooklyn Nets, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Toronto Raptors were among those on a general managers’ call with the league office who expressed concern that waiting on the league to release a timetable complicates their ramp-ups to return in ways that are unique to those marketplaces, sources said.
Will family members be able to join players in Orlando?
The NBA and the union are progressing on a plan that would allow for a limited number of family members in the bubble environment, sources told ESPN.
Conversations have centered on the timing of family arrivals at Walt Disney World Resort, which are likely to start once an initial wave of teams is eliminated and the number of people within the league’s bubble decreases.
Family members would be subjected to the same safety and coronavirus testing protocols as everyone else living in the NBA’s biosphere. Many players are eager to have family join them in Orlando, particularly those on contending teams who anticipate lengthy stays in the playoffs.
What about the teams not in Orlando?
For those teams left out of the playoffs, there has already been dialogue on the possibility of mandatory summer training camps and regional fall leagues of four to five teams that could bridge the lengthy gap between seasons, sources told ESPN. Those are ideas many teams consider vital, and there’s an expectation that the NBA will raise possible scenarios such as these with the players’ association.
The inequities facing smaller markets had to shape the league’s thinking, Thunder owner Clay Bennett suggested on a board of governors call. Nine months without games — March to December — could have an impact on developing players, cultivating sponsorships and selling tickets in markets where franchises struggle to gain a hold.
What’s going on with the league financials?
That will be the next big question as soon as the NBA finalizes a return-to-play plan. Silver told players that 40% of league revenue comes from money built around game nights in arenas. Without that revenue, there could be a drastic decline in the projected $115 million salary cap and $139 million luxury tax for 2020-21.
The initial cap projections were based on an expected $8 billion in basketball-related income (BRI), which is now expected to decrease by at least $1 billion and potentially as much as $2 billion. BRI takes into account a wide range of revenue from gate receipts to broadcast rights, and it is split roughly evenly between teams and players.
NBA players are already having 25% of their paychecks for this season withheld to account for the loss in revenue. That money — and potentially additional pay cuts — could be returned to teams if the final restart outcome doesn’t even out the BRI split.
The league and the players’ union will need to make adjustments to the CBA and how the business of basketball operates going forward. ESPN’s Bobby Marks breaks down what those negotiations will look like here.
Editor’s note: ESPN is owned by The Walt Disney Co.