When will NBA return? A Q&A on where, what will it look like, how to watch

When will NBA return
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A restart of this NBA season — albeit in a very different form — has gained momentum in recent weeks, and it seems more and more likely games will be back this summer, prompting the obvious question of when will NBA return? Those games will be played without fans in the building, and there could be other format changes, but the league wants to complete a season that legitimately crowns a champion.

There are countless things still undecided about a return, but as plans take shape this is where they stand today, according to sources and other reports. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman put together this update.

When will NBA return?

NBA commissioner Adam Silver reportedly plans to decide in 2-4 weeks.
—Dan Feldman

Do NBA players support the return? NBA owners?

Yes. An “overwhelming” majority of players support a return to play this season — if steps are in place to make things safe. A number of the game’s biggest stars — LeBron James, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrookestablished a united front after a conference call saying they wanted to return to play this season, forming a powerful lobby that will influence other players.

Another player reportedly put the split at 70% wanting to play this season as long as things are safe, 30% do not. That is an overwhelming majority that want to come back, but also a sizeable minority with concerns. Players want to know what the risks are with a return, and some will want more safety guaranteed than others.

As for the owners, there is no public polling, but the buzz around the league is they unanimously want this season to play out. Financially, that should be expected. They and their organizations are taking a big hit in the pocketbook and they want to restart games, make their television partners happy, and regain momentum for the league. More importantly, they want next season — even if it starts around Christmas — to be played in full, all 82 games.

The owners of some teams well out of the playoffs have questioned if they should shoulder the expense of sending teams to a “bubble” location for a handful of meaningless regular season games. Still, they will do so for the good of the game if NBA Commissioner Adam Silver asks them to.
—Kurt Helin

When would NBA games resume? How often could teams play?

The NBA is still mapping out potential timelines, but most sources around the league expect games — whether they be regular season, part of a play-in tournament, or playoff games — to begin in July. Those games would be preceded by a roughly three-week “training camp” for players to get back in shape and readjust to playing. The timing of all of that will depend on both the coronavirus in America and the availability of rapid testing.

How often teams would play also is not fully decided, but most around the league expect a condensed schedule with playoff games every other day for teams (and a rotation so games are being played and broadcast every day). If there are regular season games we possibly will see some back-to-back games for teams as the league pushes to get as many games in a limited time as possible.
—Kurt Helin

How can I watch?

The playoff games, once they tip-off, will be broadcast on ESPN and TNT, as per usual. Teams’ regional sports networks likely would be able to show any regular season games played as well as the first round of the playoffs, as they traditionally would. The schedule for the games (if they are played) will be announced at a later date.

The also NBA wants to use this opportunity to explore new camera angles and greater use of technology — possibly pushing their 3-D game experience or other new technology — to help draw viewers in since the energy will be different without fans in the building.
—Kurt Helin

Where would NBA games be played?

Most likely inside a “bubble” or “bubbles” in an MGM hotel in Las Vegas (the Mandalay Bay) and/or at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. There has been momentum toward two bubbles of late, with possibly the West teams in Las Vegas and the East in Orlando. (Other cities are still in consideration, but are seen as long shots.)

The NBA has coalesced around the concept of the bubble — Adam Silver described it as a “campus setting” to owners — where players, coaches, trainers, staff, and everyone would live, eat, practice, and play games in one location. The idea would be to test everyone before they come into the bubble, and regularly inside the facility, with the hope of keeping the virus out — and quickly quarantined and controlled if it gets in. It’s not only people with the teams or broadcast crews who would be tested but also people with the hotel and facility (janitorial staff, chefs, security, etc.).

Players would be able to leave the “bubble” but would be tested upon re-entry. Players’ families and significant others also are expected to be allowed in the bubble, they would face the same testing requirements.
—Kurt Helin

What would be the safety protocols? Would there be enough testing?

It’s all about the testing. The NBA’s return this season hinges on accurate, widely available rapid testing. There will be other layers of protection inside the bubble facilities as well, but testing is the lynchpin. Anyone entering the bubble would be tested, and Silver said he wants daily testing for players and team staff in the facility. There also would be extensive testing of everyone (hotel staff, for example) involved. In addition to testing, there would be temperature checks (which can catch people with symptoms, even if not everyone shows them), increased sterilization of surfaces, and other steps.

One concern for the league: That they can get the estimated 15,000 tests they need for this without being a drain on tests needed in other parts of the nation where there are outbreaks. The league faced a PR backlash back in March when entire teams were tested (including players without symptoms) while in those same states  citizens with symptoms could not get a test. The NBA learned its lesson on that front.
—Kurt Helin

What happens if a player tests positive?

That player would instantly be quarantined, and there would be contact tracing and testing of everyone that player was in contact within recent days. That team may not play games for a couple of days, depending on the situation.

Play would not stop. Silver emphasized this to both players and owners in recent calls — the league cannot shut down again after one positive test if it is going to get through this season and finish the playoffs. A player who tests positive would be treated almost like a player with a sprained ankle or other injury — he would not be able to play, but games would continue (except in this case said player would not be in street clothes on the bench, instead he would be quarantined away from the other players). Injuries are part of the luck of the playoffs, a positive test would be treated the same way by the league.

Ultimately, to finish the season, the NBA and its players face the same question the rest of society does right now: What is an acceptable level of risk?
—Kurt Helin

What format would the season, playoffs take?

This is one of the big questions still hanging over a restart of the league, and the NBA is mapping out a range of scenarios. One of the key questions in answering this question becomes how deep into the fall the league is willing to go. Is Labor Day weekend the cut off? Is it mid-September? October?

There are three options for the NBA restart (each follows a three-to-four-week training camp to get players back in shape). First would be to bring back all 30 NBA teams, play at least some of the postponed regular season games (if not all), then jump into a playoffs with seven games in each round. This is the NBA’s preferred option financially, but it also would run the longest into the fall, and the more teams brought into a bubble the harder it is to maintain.

Second would be to have a play-in tournament with the final playoff seeds up for grabs. This likely would involve seeds seven, eight, nine, and 10 (and maybe 11 and 12). This compromise has gotten pushback from some teams (what’s the point of earning a playoff spot in the regular season?), plus this would be something to broadcast not covered in the current television agreement, forcing that to be renegotiated at a time there are a lot of other priorities. The final option is to go straight into the playoffs, using the standings as they were when play was suspended. This is the cleanest and most straightforward option, however, it also does not help as the regional networks hit their broadcast goals and it would mean some teams would stop play in March and likely not retake the court until December.
—Kurt Helin

How late could the season go?

The latest word: October. But we’re not that far removed from Labor Day being considered the deadline. This seemingly keeps getting pushed back and could get pushed back again.

The NBA was approaching its most lucrative time of the year – the playoffs – when the shutdown occurred. It’s just logical to make every reasonable effort to play the postseason, even if it disrupts a future regular season.

Prolonging the current season also buys more time for advances that allow fans into arenas next season. Silver said the league draws about 40% of its revenue from ticket sales and other game-day sources.
—Dan Feldman

When will the next season start?

The NBA is open to delaying the start of next season. December gets mentioned most often, because that’d fit with finishing this season then having a shortened offseason.

But there’s a degree of hopefulness with that timeline. Coronavirus creates uncertainty in how quickly the NBA can restart this season, let alone finish it.

Even if the NBA cancels the rest of this season, there are no guarantees about when it’d be safe to start next season amid a pandemic. Unlike this season, next season would definitely include all 30 teams and possibly travel between cities – more points of concern.
—Dan Feldman

When will the NBA draft and free agency take place?

The league is reportedly set on holding the draft after the current season (whether canceled or completed). That’d allow teams to put current players into trades involving draft picks. A delay would also allow a chance for team workouts and a (potentially virtual) combine. Right now, the pre-draft process is out of whack. The NCAA indefinitely deferring its withdrawal deadline eases the NBA’s ability to postpone the draft.

If holding the draft before the season finishes is untenable, there’s absolutely no way to hold free agency until then. For the playoffs to be credible, players must have contractual allegiance to only their current team.
—Dan Feldman

What are the financial ramifications (including to the salary cap) of the stopped season?

Simply, the NBA is losing significant revenue while on hiatus. That hurts both owners and players, as the Collective Bargaining Agreement calls for each side to split revenue approximately 50-50.

So far, owners have borne the brunt of the losses. Players will soon feel the pain through paycheck deductions. A lower salary cap could follow.

A goal was preventing a significant decline in the salary cap (which is $109.14 million and was projected to be $115 million next season). The salary cap is typically calculated based on revenue. Yet, owners and players could agree to artificially boost the salary cap while withholding a higher portion of salary from all players. That’d protect certain classes of players – 2020 first-round picks, 2020 free agents, players who signed max extensions last year (Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray, Pascal Siakam and maybe Jaylen Brown) – from getting particularly disadvantaged. It’d also smooth (pun intended) the transition back into normal conditions whenever that happens.
—Dan Feldman