The plan, which required a three-quarter majority and passed by a 29-1 margin, with the Portland Trail Blazers as the lone dissenting vote, will include the top nine teams from the Eastern Conference, including the Washington Wizards, and the top 13 teams from the Western Conference. The eight remaining teams will not participate given that they were well outside the playoff picture when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver indefinitely suspended the season March 11.
“The Board’s approval of the restart format is a necessary step toward resuming the NBA season,” Silver said in a statement. “While the COVID-19 pandemic presents formidable challenges, we are hopeful of finishing the season in a safe and responsible manner based on strict protocols now being finalized with public health officials and medical experts. We also recognize that as we prepare to resume play, our society is reeling from recent tragedies of racial violence and injustice, and we will continue to work closely with our teams and players to use our collective resources and influence to address these issues in very real and concrete ways.”
All 22 teams will live and compete within a bubblelike environment at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World, where contact with outsiders can be strictly limited. Each team will play eight additional regular season games as tuneups and to help determine playoff seeding and matchups. Games will begin July 31 and continue into October without fans in attendance. Teams will begin gathering for training camps in their home markets this month.
The NBA will use its standard 16-team playoff format that sees the top eight teams from each conference competing in four best-of-seven rounds to crown a champion. However, in a new wrinkle, the league could use a play-in round to finalize the field.
At the end of the additional eight regular season games, the top seven teams from each conference will have their seeds locked. If the eighth-place team in either conference holds more than a four-game lead over the ninth-place team, it, too, will advance automatically. If not, the eighth-place team will proceed to a play-in round against the ninth-place team to claim the final playoff spot. To advance, the eighth-place team would need to beat the ninth-place team only once, while the ninth-place team would need to win two consecutive games.
This format tweak accomplishes a few goals: It adds a jolt of intrigue at the start of the resumed season, it allows the league to increase its television inventory, and it ensures that Zion Williamson, the immensely popular New Orleans Pelicans rookie, will compete. The play-in round provides a path to the playoffs for six teams that were on the outside looking in back in March — the Wizards, Pelicans, Trail Blazers, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns — while still favoring the incumbent eighth seeds with the single/double elimination play-in format.
The NBA’s return-to-play process has unfolded in unusual fashion. Silver has been virtually invisible since a news conference in April, when he declared that the league’s return would be dictated by “the data and not the date.” While the commissioner said then that his decision-making would be chiefly influenced by a drop in coronavirus case counts, an increase in nationwide testing and the possibility of a vaccine, the national health crisis remains unresolved. Yet the NBA, which is facing billions of dollars in lost revenue with shuttered arenas and no games on television, is moving forward regardless.
Las Vegas, site of the NBA’s annual summer league, initially seemed to be the preferred destination, but the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex eventually won out thanks to its relative isolation and its bevy of sports facilities and on-site hotel accommodations. Disney’s close ties with the NBA also were a key factor; the company’s chairman addressed the league’s governors in April.
The NBA’s announcement comes as many prominent players, past and present, speak out and participate in protests following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota last week. Although the league has cultivated a reputation as a socially conscious organization throughout Silver’s tenure, the timing has struck at least one player as inopportune.
“Everything going on right now … [basketball] is NOT IMPORTANT,” Los Angeles Clippers guard Patrick Beverley wrote on Twitter.
Meanwhile, President Trump previously expressed hope for sports leagues to return.
“Government can’t wait until the NBA [starts] the season back,” Brooklyn Nets forward Wilson Chandler wrote on Twitter. “Need a distraction from the bulls--- that’s going on. Always in need of distractions.”
By taking a deliberate approach initially in response to the coronavirus, the NBA was able to monitor the returns of overseas sports leagues and wait for local jurisdictions to loosen restrictions that enabled teams to reopen their practice facilities. But with the need for multiple weeks to prepare teams to play games and the summer calendar beginning to slip away, the NBA had to make a decision. Any additional delay risked further compromising the 2020-21 season.
“Although we all know that there are much more meaningful and important issues for our country to focus on at this time, we are extremely grateful for the opportunity to play basketball again,” Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard said in a statement. “There is still much work to be done, but we are excited to be able to return.”
At least 10 players, including Nets star Kevin Durant, and New York Knicks owner James Dolan tested positive for the coronavirus. The NBA, which provided extensive instructions to teams on how to safely reopen their practice facilities, has yet to reveal the details of its health protocols for the resumed season. In a statement Thursday, the league said it was “working with infectious disease specialists, public health experts and government officials to establish a rigorous program to prevent and mitigate the risk related to COVID-19, including a regular testing protocol and stringent safety practices.”
Multiple people with knowledge of the situation expect those guidelines to be revealed in the near future, though players have been left with the impression that a positive test would require a player to self-isolate while play continued without him. The National Basketball Players Association will meet Friday to discuss the approved return-to-play framework.
The NBA has yet to announce its plans for independent media coverage of the campus environment. Shortly before the March shutdown, the NBA adopted emergency media guidelines that prevented reporters from entering locker rooms and required social distancing during interviews.
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