The longest season in NBA history is finally complete. More than a full calendar year after teams reported to training camp, the Los Angeles Lakers were crowned champions, accepting the Larry O’Brien Trophy on Sunday night inside the NBA’s campus environment at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The NBA’s bubble was a success, allowing the season to be completed safely during a pandemic, but now the focus shifts to an atypical offseason, which will set the stage for the 2020-21 regular season. Countless questions loom, starting with the big one.
When will the 2020-21 NBA season begin?
It is not clear right now. When the league set the restart calendar for the 2019-20 season, a Dec. 1 start date for 2020-21 was floated. Given that the league has said it would give eight weeks of notice before the scheduled start to next season, Dec. 1 is off the table and Dec. 25 is looking increasingly unlikely. NBA commissioner Adam Silver told CNN last month that his “best guess” was that the season would not start until 2021. January is a possibility, but the start of next season could still be much later, perhaps March. The reality is there are only projections — nothing is firm.
What’s going to happen to the draft?
The 2020 NBA draft will almost certainly take place Nov. 18, the date the league landed on when it postponed the draft last month from the previously announced Oct. 16 date. It’s too early to know when the 2021 draft will take place, though the late start to the season means it will almost certainly be delayed from its normal June timeframe.
What about summer league?
The NBA’s restart in the bubble began during what would typically be the time for the offseason Las Vegas Summer League, which meant the 2020 version was canceled. Currently there are no plans to stage a winter version of the event before next season. It’s too early to tell what might happen to the 2021 edition.
What has to happen for a new season to start?
First, the players’ union and the league must come to an agreement on how to manage the expected drop in revenue from the pandemic. This will largely center on what the salary cap looks like, perhaps for the next two seasons.
The most likely outcome right now is an agreement that keeps the salary cap artificially inflated, most likely at the same level it was during the 2019-20 season ($109 million per team). This would mitigate a bear market in free agency and prevent teams from facing huge unexpected luxury tax payments that would come with a steep cap drop.
To make sure the owners and players maintain the roughly 50/50 split of revenue as their current deal calls for, players probably will have to agree to give up a percentage of their paychecks throughout the season to help balance those books. Just how large a cut and just how to manage getting to that even split is going to be a central part of the talks.
Teams must also agree how to share money among themselves. Revenue sharing has been turned upside down with regulations in different states potentially alternating the normal course of business.
For example, the state of Florida has lifted all COVID-19-related restrictions. That means the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat — two teams typically lower on the revenue-generating scale — could legally fill their arenas, while normally high-earning teams like the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers might not be allowed to have any fans in attendance, due to California’s ongoing restrictions.
Will teams be able to have fans at games?
Silver has said multiple times, including as recently as during the Finals, that the league wants to have a full 82-game season with fans in arenas. It might not be at full capacity in many places and it’s possible it won’t be in all 28 NBA cities at the start.
Arena-based revenue makes up 40% of the league’s income. Every game most teams play without it, even with local and national television revenue, could be a money-loser.
Some contingency plans have been discussed — such as reforming a bubble or multiple bubbles, sources said — that is not the first option at the moment.
The league is not currently planning to wait for a COVID-19 vaccine. To instead assure fan safety, there are hopes rapid testing will have enough reliability and availability — while being cost effective. Several NBA owners as well as the league itself have made investments in companies developing these types of tests.
Adam Silver says fans at NBA games will be determined by the accessibility of rapid testing and a public vaccine for COVID-19.
Will the NBA playoffs again be played next August, September and October?
If the season were to begin in January as the NBA hopes, and the league commits to playing a full 82-game regular season (as Silver has said is the plan), the answer is yes for August and September but unlikely in October. That’s because, as Silver said earlier this month, that probably would take NBA players out of the mix for the Tokyo Olympics.
A regular 82-game season is 177 days long (roughly six months) with the playoffs taking an additional 10 weeks.
If the league starts on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 18), the season could end on July 14 with the playoffs starting on July 17. That would take into account probably eliminating All-Star Weekend in Indianapolis and replacing it with regular-season games. We would probably also see more back-to-back games to fit the full 82 games into a 152-day window.
There is no quick fix for the league returning to playoff games in May and June unless the NBA wants a shortened 60-game season — similar to what occurred in 2011-12 when a lockout forced the league into a 66-game season.
A shortened 2020-21 season would see 60 games played in a 103-day span, resulting in more back-to-back games (Dallas played 21 in 2011-12) and possibly teams playing on three consecutive nights. There were 42 sets of back-to-back-to-backs in 2011-12.
While there was discussion even before the pandemic about potentially shifting the regular NBA calendar, it appears the NBA will make a long-term effort to get back to something closer to the traditional October start and June finish, possibly for 2021-22.
“I think we’re learning a little bit more about our television audience as we are experimenting,” Silver said last month, “and part of it is fewer people are watching television in the summer, different competition, especially when you get into the fall with the NFL, college football and all that. So that’s all into the mix, as well.”
Is there going to be a lockout?
Both sides do not believe so, but there are some harsh realities about to arrive. Consider a player making $10 million per year who plays in California. He could have to pay nearly 50% in federal and state income taxes, potentially have 25% or maybe even more of his salary held in escrow because of revenue uncertainty (the league holds 10% in normal years anyway) plus agent fees of up to 4%.
For the past decade, as the country recovered from the Great Recession, the NBA has been in a tremendous period of revenue and salary growth. Now most players are facing pay cuts to salaries they thought were guaranteed. Coming to grips with that could make the talks that need to happen difficult.
However, no one wants to deal with the negative effects that a lockout would bring, including fan pushback with the sports calendar already in flux and numerous leagues and college conferences dealing with fallout. The union and league currently have a good relationship and the hope is they can work together to create a short-term stop gap plan that would enable the league to carry on.
How much money is actually at stake?
No one knows for sure. Billions without question.
Besides the economics of the CBA, what else has to be negotiated between both sides?
Once those key issues are agreed upon, the league and players association will turn their attention to setting the basketball calendar for the 2020-21 season, starting with the opening of the free-agency period.
The start date of the NBA year (originally July 1, then delayed to Oct. 19, now still to be determined) is a critical component as it allows the NBA to fill in the blanks for the rest of the 2020-21 season, and impacts multiple player contracts.
The Lakers’ Anthony Davis can opt into his $28.8 million contract for the 2020-21 season. Originally the date to do that was June 23, which was then pushed to Oct. 14 when the restart calendar was set. That date (which so happens is today, Wednesday) was made invalid by the delay to the start to the NBA year, and Davis’ new opt-in date will coincide with the revised calendar year.
A hypothetical Dec. 1 start date to free agency, for example, would put the Davis opt-in date sometime in the last week of November.
Because the season probably will run past June 29, players like the LA Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will see their player option dates changed. Both had a June 29 opt-in date for the 2021-22 season.
The Golden State Warriors’ $17.2 million trade exception from the deal that sent Andre Iguodala to Memphis in July 2019 was originally set to expire this summer. That was delayed until Oct. 24 and now will be moved to seven days after the start of free agency.
The Oct. 17 guaranteed date for the New York Knicks’ Taj Gibson, Reggie Bullock, Elfrid Payton and Wayne Ellington will now be pushed back until the day prior to when teams can negotiate with free agents (which was originally Oct. 18). New York could have up to $40 million in cap space if the four players are waived.
The start date to the regular season will also have enormous consequences.
The day before the first regular-season game is the deadline for when Giannis Antetokounmpo can sign a supermax extension.
Are teams allowed to make trades since the season is now over?
The answer is no (for now).
Teams are currently not allowed to sign players to an extension, waive players under contract and, most importantly, conduct trades with another team (or teams). Expect the transaction window to get lifted once there is an agreement on the aforementioned CBA with the players.
One thing to note is that from when the regular season ends to before the draft, there are rarely trades. Last offseason, the first trade occurred on June 15 when the Pelicans verbally agreed to send Anthony Davis to the Lakers.
Is my favorite team/player going to be involved in trades?
We haven’t seen a lot of financially-based trades in recent years but there could be some of that this season. Some teams facing deep red ink might have to prioritize cutting salary over basketball decisions. Also, teams haven’t been able to make deals for eight months and counting. With a draft coming up, you can be assured there will be some action.
Will the transaction moratorium be lifted before the draft?
There is much unknown to the offseason but one thing team executives confirmed to ESPN is that the transaction moratorium will be lifted before the draft.
With so much revenue being lost, how will that impact free agency?
With the salary cap likely to stay flat at $109.1 million, there are only four teams (Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit and New York) projected to have spending power above the $9.3 million midlevel exception.
That means we are going to see a bevy of players opting in to their contract before free agency starts. While Anthony Davis and Jerami Grant are almost certain to still opt out, there are 29 other players who have a player option in their contract. Big names such as DeMar DeRozan, Gordon Hayward, Andre Drummond and Mike Conley probably will not become free agents.
Keep an eye also on how teams prioritize using cap space and also their midlevel exception.
Teams are facing an economic crunch as a result of a lack of revenue coming in and are facing the unknown on what the 2020-21 season will present when it comes to attendance.
With a below-average free-agent class, free agency could end up as a slow crawl, with teams taking a conservative approach on how much money they spend and also the length of years they are willing to commit.
Because of that, expect the transactions to be dominated by trades.
I know we are talking about the 2020 offseason but what does the free-agent class of 2021 look like?
We still have to get through the 2020-21 season, but next offseason is already filled with major storylines, not to mention a top-heavy class of free agents.
If Giannis Antetokounmpo does not sign a supermax extension before the season, the back-to-back MVP will not only be the top storyline in 2020-21 but also the marquee free agent in 2021. He could be joined in a class with Leonard, George, Hayward, Drummond, DeRozan, Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday, Kyle Lowry, Spencer Dinwiddie, Kelly Oubre Jr., Rudy Gobert, LaMarcus Aldridge and recently crowned four-time Finals MVP LeBron James.
Then there are the potential restricted free agents from the draft class of 2017, including Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Bam Adebayo — all of whom will be eligible to sign contract extensions with their current teams this offseason.
How the league sets the salary cap for 2021-22 will play a pivotal role in which free agents switch teams.
If the cap stays at $109.1 million (the same as 2019-20 and possibly 2020-21), teams like the Dallas Mavericks and the Lakers will not have max cap space available. Still, as many as 10 teams could be in the mix for max free agents a year from now, depending on what happens this offseason.
ESPN’s Bobby Marks contributed to this report.