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Cutting Number of Teams Would Give NBA Better Shot at Resuming

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, right, looks as Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James as he runs up court during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, March 6, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — How long will it take for the NBA to return?

“Initially, through the first week, two weeks, we were looking at more specific scenarios,” commissioner Adam Silver told TNT’s Ernie Johnson on Monday. “… What I’ve learned over the last few weeks is we just have too little information to make those sort of projections.”

In other words, he doesn’t know.

That’s not great news for those hungry for basketball. Silver was clear that “we won’t be in a position to make any decision” until at least May. But it’s better news than what ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported last week, that the “NBA is angling to … shut the season down.”

In truth, Silver is looking at all possibilities, from completing the regular season and playoffs in full to terminating the 2019-20 campaign without a champion. The theme throughout his conversation with Johnson was the health and safety of the players, staff and fans…economic repercussions be damned.

But if the league can safely return “in a perfect world,” with a full schedule and fans in the seats, it will. Unfortunately, our shared reality is far from perfect, and it’s time to start thinking about cutting to the chase.

Silver and the NBA won’t decide what’s next unilaterally, but in concert with the players union, broadcast partners and government health and safety officials. In a conference call over the weekend, President Donald Trump urged Silver to get the league restarted as quickly as possible. Doing so will take a massive effort—one with no guarantee of success.

Beyond almost 500 players leaguewide, each team has a large contingent of personnel needed to pull off a game, from coaching staff to trainers. Then there are officials, clock operators, statisticians, camera operators, broadcast crew and even floor moppers. How would the NBA ensure that everyone is virus-free?

It may be doable, but probably not 30 times over. The needs of each franchise—including travel, accommodations and catering—is probably too much to ask, and that’s before considering a public viewing audience of fans. Instead, a central location may make the most sense, and the NBA has significant experience gathering together annually in Las Vegas for summer league.

It’s a similar notion to what Major League Baseball is considering, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan: “The plan, sources said, would dictate that all 30 teams play games at stadiums with no fans in the greater Phoenix area. … Players, coaching staffs and other essential personnel would be sequestered at local hotels, where they would live in relative isolation and travel only to and from the stadium.”

The NBA may have no other choice than to play games without fans at a neutral site, similar to what Major League Baseball is considering in Arizona.

The NBA may have no other choice than to play games without fans at a neutral site, similar to what Major League Baseball is considering in Arizona.Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

The NBA might be able to take it even further, mirroring December’s G League Winter Showcase, which featured all of the games in the massive ballrooms at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. Players wouldn’t have to travel back and forth; they’d be able to stay at the hotel in a biodome of sorts. It would be difficult and expensive but not too far off from what the NBA has already produced twice in the past couple of years.

Everyone involved, beyond just the players, would need to join them in isolated quarantine. The goal would be to reduce the risk to as close to zero as possible. Unfortunately, that number will always be above zero, at least until a vaccine is developed (beyond the scope of the current season).

One mistake and the league could come crashing down again. There’s no avoiding that possibility, though the league can do everything within its power to minimize that likelihood.

Per Passan, “Federal officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the National Institute of Health have been supportive of a plan that would adhere to strict isolation, promote social distancing and allow MLB to become the first professional sport to return.”

The NBA can similarly promote social distancing to a point, but not on the court itself. The league would need access to advanced testing, which raises ethical questions. When so many in the country are unable to easily acquire a COVID-19 test, why would the NBA have priority?

Fortunately, according to Baxter Holmes of ESPN, “The NBA and NBPA have been collaborating in assessing the viability of multiple blood-testing devices for the coronavirus that could provide accurate results within a matter of minutes.”

Holmes described a test that would yield results within 15 minutes with “the prick of a finger.” But would the NBA have priority with such technology, assuming it becomes available, over the general public?

Perhaps the NBA can lead the way in making sure the testing devices are widely distributed, along with helping the league get back on the court.

Complicating matters, if the players are sequestered together in Las Vegas, they probably need to leave their families behind for however long it takes to complete the season. Supporting an NBA biodome would be extremely challenging for the players and staff. Double and triple those numbers, and the risk becomes exponentially greater.

That’s not something the players are going to easily agree to, though when faced with the economic realities of no season, they may recognize it’s the only option. That’s a lot to ask, and it’s something the union is going to have to rally around to accomplish.

To reduce the numbers, and the corresponding risk, the NBA should seriously consider canceling the rest of the regular season to reduce the team count to 16. That would mean the loss of around 250 games, which would considerably lighten the load on a centralized location.

How would the league’s broadcast partners feel about that? How would the league go about passing on those economic losses to the players?

The NBA could steal a move from its own playbook and play games at Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay like it does for the G-League Showcase.

The NBA could steal a move from its own playbook and play games at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay like it does for the G-League Showcase.David Becker/Getty Images

It’s too much to fathom at this point, which is why Silver was honest in admitting he didn’t know the path ahead. The goal is to finish the season, even if that means going deep into the summer. The players union must agree to proceed, given contracts either expire or roll over to the 2020-21 season July 1. Without consensus, the season may not be salvageable.

But everyone involved, including the networks, have financial incentive to find a solution. The priority just has to be ethics over greed. There’s too much at stake for the NBA to rush back without taking every precaution possible while understanding it cannot be the top priority in the world when so many are suffering and struggling for their lives.

Silver represented the league and the players well Monday. He didn’t offer platitudes or false hope. It’s not time for pessimism, though the season may be lost. The NBA hopes to represent an important return to normalcy, beyond helping to get the economy restarted, as a uniting step toward worldwide healing. But only when it’s safe and right to do so.

Patience is not easy to muster when so many are forced to shelter in their homes without the drama that only sports can provide, but it’s an absolute necessity.


Email Eric Pincus at, and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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