The NBA, which suspended its season indefinitely on Wednesday, faces similar challenges but has somewhat greater flexibility when it comes to the calendar. Spring semester timelines and graduation deadlines don’t apply the way they do for college hoops.
After placing the NBA on a 30-day hiatus to determine next steps, Commissioner Adam Silver said that the schedule could be pushed back into the summer, a move that could salvage a potentially lost season and crown a champion.
“Even if we’re out for a month or out for six weeks, we could still restart the season,” Silver said during an interview with TNT. “It might mean that the Finals take place in late-July. It was my feeling that it was way premature [to say] that we’ve lost the season.”
At the same time, Silver acknowledged “of course it’s possible” that the rest of the regular season — which was roughly three-quarters complete before the suspension — and the playoffs could be canceled. Naturally, teams might respond differently if forced to choose between a delayed schedule and a canceled season.
For lottery teams that have no hope of reaching the playoffs, April 15, the official end of the regular season, was already in sight. If the NBA resumes play as normal after the 30-day hiatus, nearly half of the league’s teams would be restarting activities and some cross-country travel solely for the purpose of playing meaningless games. Those teams would need to reschedule dates and navigate around arena conflicts, even though the buildings probably still would need to be empty. Given those circumstances, it’s easy to understand why those teams might be more inclined to cancel the rest of this season and look forward to the next one.
For teams chasing a championship, though, the motivation to proceed with games is strong as long as the contests are deemed safe. Giannis Antetokounmpo is chasing his first title with the Milwaukee Bucks. LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers have enjoyed a dream season. The Los Angeles Clippers have spent the past nine months doing everything they can to build a contender. Those teams, other top contenders and the NBA’s television partners have major emotional and financial motivations for holding a playoffs, even in an abbreviated form.
From a scheduling perspective, the NBA playoffs are a massive undertaking and a logistical nightmare: four best-of-seven rounds play out over a 65-day stretch, with as many as four flights between cities for each round. Even if all extra rest days were squeezed out and games were played every other night, the NBA needs eight weeks to work through its standard format.
A May 1 restart date with no elimination of regular season games means the Finals wouldn’t end until the second week of August. That timing would create direct conflicts with numerous events, including the NBA draft (June 20), Las Vegas Summer League (July 5-15) and the Tokyo Olympics (July 24-Aug. 9). In other words, something probably would have to give.
NCAA official Dan Gavitt told CBS Sports that the governing body had considered holding a single-site, scaled-down version of its men’s basketball tournament as a last-ditch effort. In that scenario, 16 teams would have played in Atlanta over five days. Such an option would have eliminated the need for regular travel, provided content for the NCAA’s television partners and, most importantly, crowned a champion.
Silver said Thursday that he has been in regular contact with the National Basketball Players Association and television partners Disney and Turner, noting that “everybody indicated absolute willingness to work together.” All parties should keep an open mind to outside-the-box solutions such as the one Gavitt described. The two highest priorities should be obvious: crowning a champion so that the season doesn’t go to waste and generating as much television revenue as possible knowing that it is unlikely fans will be able to attend games in person for the foreseeable future.
If the NBA simply canceled the rest of the regular season, 14 teams could go their separate ways, thereby cutting the logistical problems almost in half. Instead of rescheduling games in 30 buildings, the league could simply focus its efforts on scheduling playoff games for 16 teams. Instead of needing more than 100 days to play out the regular season and playoffs, they would need only 64 days for the postseason.
Even then, it’s possible that a 2-2-1-1-1 playoff format through the first three rounds would require too much travel risk. Home-court advantage also might be eliminated anyway because arenas probably would need to be fan-free. So why travel at all?
Theoretically, the NBA could hold its 16-team playoffs or a smaller eight-team tournament at a single site. Picture the most-talented and most-watched AAU tournament imaginable. Three or four games could run daily at one or two venues, with each team playing every other day. ESPN, ABC and TNT could broadcast the games even if only essential personnel were allowed.
Running an eight-team tournament would take about six weeks if teams played every other day. In other words, the NBA could wait out the coronavirus until May 15 — two full months — and still complete an abbreviated postseason by the end of June without major schedule disruption. If three months of downtime were needed, the NBA could still crown a champion by the end of July.
Such a scenario sounds radical, but drastic times demand drastic measures. Multiple executives expressed skepticism this week that the season could go on, but the NBA’s biggest stars and television executives surely would prefer proceeding with the playoffs — in any form — rather than punting on the rest of the season.
That’s why Silver took the rational step of approaching the next few months on an incremental basis, keeping all options on the table in the face of the coronavirus until the last possible moment.
“It’s frankly too early to tell,” Silver said. “It depends on how quickly this virus spreads. It also depends on what the theory is going to be to treat it. This changes hour-by-hour in terms of what we know.”