What I’m Hearing: USA TODAY Sports’ Mark Medina breaks down the future of the NBA heading into the 2020-21 season.
With the NBA’s owners proposing to start next season around Christmas, should the players view it as an early holiday present? Or would they like to return the gift?
“I don’t know what I think yet,” Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday. “We are in the throes of discussing it and in the throes of evaluating what it means in terms of the revenue-related issues that have been raised. Frankly, we’re also spending some time trying to get information on what this means in respect to player health.”
Some of that information varies by team.
The NBA Finals ended on Oct. 11, leaving the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat with just over two months to recover before the proposed start of next season. But eight teams have not played since the NBA suspended the 2019-20 season on March 11 because of the coronavirus outbreak. After the NBA resumed at the quarantined campus near Orlando, six more teams ended their season by mid-August and another eight by late August.
“The only thing that brings all of those different experiences the players had together is to have sufficient notice on when camp can open,” Roberts said. “There are guys that haven’t played since the suspension of play in March and they may have a different attitude or not. Frankly, I’ve spoken to players that did stop playing at or about that time, and they’re banging down the doors to get back to the practice facility.”
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As for Lakers and Heat players who ended their season just over two weeks ago?
“I don’t know how much rest guys just left the bubble need before they restart,” Roberts said. “I also don’t know how much runway everybody needs in order to get into camp. I need to have the players and those people that deal with the physiology of the professional athlete help me understand that.”
NBPA executive director Michele Roberts (Photo: David Dow, Getty Images)
Why has the NBA proposed an earlier start date after Commissioner Adam Silver had said January was a more likely target? The NBA lost $1.5 billion last season because of lost ticket and merchandise revenue as well as the cost of resuming the season at a quarantined site, a person familiar with the details told USA TODAY Sports. The person was granted anonymity because they were unauthorized to discuss league issues publicly.
The NBA also withheld 25% of player salaries beginning in mid-May in case the season was canceled.
The league wants to play next season in home arenas so it has flexibility either to hold games in empty venues or with limited fans, depending on how the pandemic plays out in the next few months. The league also wanted to set itself up to start the 2021-22 season in October, both to return to its traditional schedule and give players time off in the summer.
But the most pressing items Roberts wants to resolve include clarity on the league’s salary cap and when free agency will start.
“We’re probably closer toward resolving that issue,” Roberts said. “Frankly, that is something we can’t hold off for deciding too much longer.”
The NBA plans to hold a virtual draft on Nov. 18 and hopes to have free agency start shortly afterwards since that happens about a week after the draft in typical offseasons. But it remains unclear how quickly the NBA will calculate its salary cap, which will be impacted by the lost revenue from the disrupted season. The salary cap determines the amount of money teams can spend on their payroll.
“We have free agents that are losing their minds, as are teams that want to engage and negotiate. So that’s something we don’t have the luxury of delaying a decision on,” Roberts said. “As tough as this is, it’s not life or death. We want to do it right and not do it quickly if it sacrifices doing it right.
“In my view, we take as long as we need to take. But we can all agree we don’t want to drag this on unnecessarily. The players are probably the most anxious stakeholders in this business to get this done.”
Not only will Roberts have to weigh the players’ financial and performance concerns, she will have to evaluate how things affect players’ safety from the pandemic.
“I’m 100% going to be deferring to the folks that know more about this stuff than I do,” Roberts said. “I’m not an epidemiologist. So I’m not going to second guess what the science says.”
Therefore, it appears most likely the NBA will host games without fans. But what will that look like?
Roberts would like the NBA to replicate the safety protocols from the Orlando campus, which included daily COVID-19 testing, social-distancing and mask-wearing rules and hosting games with limited staff.
“If they are at home, there’s got to be some arrangement for them to be able to interact with their families without risking infection,” Roberts said. “We can’t hold the families hostage, but we have to make sure the players are able to interact with their families, and not infect or be infected by family, friends or neighbors.”
The NBA has to finalize logistics on how to enforce player safety for private team flights, hotels and arenas. Each team arena likely will be subject to different rules depending on the city.
After the NBA oversaw zero positive cases among players, coaches and staff in the bubble, Roberts sounded mindful of the difficulty of keeping those numbers outside of a quarantined campus.
“We probably have to do something bubble-like. But at the very least, we have to consider the length of time we’d expect these men to be in that kind of environment,” Roberts said. “It’s a lot easier if we put you back on campus. But I don’t think anyone wants to do that. And if we do it, we don’t want to do it for any length of time.”
Nonetheless, Roberts stressed “making these decisions is going to be especially tough and needs to be done carefully with some ability to be nimble.” Roberts conceded “it’s a totally different world than it is right now” if a proven and widely distributed vaccine becomes available soon. Silver recently said health experts have told him not to anticipate that, while adding it is “not a prerequisite” to host games with limited fans because of the availability of rapid testing and enforcement of social-distancing and mask-wearing rules.
But Roberts echoed the point that health experts made to USA TODAY Sports about the NBA hosting games with fans but without a safe and available vaccine.
“There is some value in looking at football and baseball because they don’t have full arenas. But they’re outdoors,” Roberts said. “That’s such a big difference to indoor activity. Much of the surge we’re hearing about right now has a lot to do with people returning indoors because of the weather. That concerns me.”
What doesn’t concern Roberts: her outlook on the NBA and the players union sorting out these issues.
“It would be silly to say we’re not possibly going to make a deal,” Roberts said. “Then we would just say hello to the end of professional basketball. I’m not anywhere near there. I’m a grown person. They’re grown people. You have to do something, you get it done. We’ve not yet had an inability to get things done.”
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