After weeks of negotiations and some changes of direction strategically, the NBPA voted Thursday to approve the NBA’s plan to hold a 72-game 2020-21 season that would commence Dec. 22. The deal would see training camps open on Dec. 1; the 2021 playoffs would conclude before the start of the Tokyo Olympics.
The financial framework for the season and the health and safety protocols that will govern players’ lives outside the bubble, among other factors, remain to be negotiated.
Initially, the two sides floated the possibility of a January or February start to the season, but the NBA reversed its position once it became clear that the ongoing spread of the virus would make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to host large numbers of fans in arenas this season.
The agreed-upon schedule represents a quick turnaround from last year, with opening night set for just 73 days after the final game of the Finals. By comparison, 132 days passed between the final game of the 2019 Finals and the start of last season.
Little else has been set in stone, with Silver acknowledging that the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, which has killed more than 234,000 Americans, leaves many unknowns.
The following is an overview of 10 frequently asked questions about the NBA’s future after its successful bubble experiment. This story will update as new information becomes available.
What were the NBA’s next steps after the Finals?
The first step was to exhale after what Silver called “the longest season ever.” The NBA’s 2019-20 season took more than a calendar year from media day to the end of the Finals because of an unprecedented four-month hiatus prompted by the coronavirus in March. Players described mental and physical exhaustion in the bubble, and they will look to make the most of this condensed offseason.
The leaders of the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association didn’t have much downtime. Shortly after the bubble ended, they began negotiations on a financial framework and schedule to cover next season.
Both sides expressed cautious optimism about those negotiations, and the talks proceeded productively with some minor delays. The NBA and NBPA held extensive negotiations to conceive the bubble, and Silver said a spirit of “partnership” developed in the face of billions of lost revenue that impacted both sides. Roughly 40 percent of the NBA’s annual $8 billion revenue is tied to arena-related spending on tickets, concessions, parking and merchandise.
“We’re going to have at least one season that’s going to be challenging [financially],” Roberts said in late August. “We have to sit down like grown people, put aside the temptation to be greedy and appreciate the risks that are being taken by the players. I’m optimistic. We were able to do the work without lockouts and strikes [in 2017], and we should be able to do it again.”
The players missed an Oct. 30 deadline to reach agreement on the schedule with the owners, but they voted to approve the 2020-21 schedule framework on Nov. 5. Further agreements are expected in the coming weeks to finalize the financial picture and the health and safety protocols covering next season.
Why do the NBA and players union need to negotiate if the collective bargaining agreement runs through the 2023-24 season?
The NBA’s comprehensive collective bargaining agreement was designed for normal operating terms, not a global pandemic that halts play and keeps fans out of arenas. The owners and players had to negotiate the terms of the bubble point by point, and they will need to follow the same process for next season because there is no way to guarantee in November exactly what operating conditions will look like in January or March.
“Everything that we’re doing exists outside the current collective bargaining agreement,” Silver said. “We need to negotiate everything — when training camp starts, when we start [the season], how we’re going to continue operating potentially under reduced [revenue], frankly. Those discussions are ongoing.”
How will the salary cap be impacted by the pandemic?
The NBA’s salary cap is tied directly to “basketball-related income,” the league’s term for revenue. Over the past 35 years, the salary cap has shown annual declines just twice, never by more than $2.3 million. Silver’s tenure, meanwhile, has been defined by remarkable growth, with revenue doubling over the past decade. When Silver stepped in as commissioner in 2014, the salary cap was $58 million. That number has nearly doubled to $109 million this season, thanks in large part to lucrative new media rights deals.
The loss of months of arena revenue because of the coronavirus would therefore trigger the largest salary cap drop in NBA history if left unchecked. The implications of such a drop would be massive. Few teams would be able to hand out sizable contracts to free agents this offseason. Some teams would unexpectedly be pushed into the luxury tax and be subjected to huge bills. Any offseason plans that teams had developed before March would be thrown out the window.
As a result, the NBA and NBPA are expected to agree to artificially hold the salary cap at or near its current level for next season. Pursuing such a compromise could serve as a financial bridge through the 2020-21 season and help the NBA maintain a sense of normalcy through the rest of the pandemic. In that scenario, upcoming free agents could still expect to have suitors, teams would have a decent amount of flexibility to tweak their rosters, and owners wouldn’t need to worry about onerous and unexpected luxury tax bills during the pandemic.
Holding the cap steady would require a significant portion of player salaries be placed into escrow to account for the projected revenue declines.
Will the NBA build another bubble or return to Disney World?
League executives, owners and team executives are eager to get back to normal business as soon as it’s safe, and they do not plan to utilize a bubble to open the 2020-21 season.
Additionally, there was stiff resistance to another bubble from the players. They spent months away from their families in confined isolation, and reentering a similar lifestyle for part or all of a six-month season would be a tough sell, especially because the NFL and MLB resumed play largely without bubbles.
The NBA is expected to begin next season playing games in its arenas with or without fans, ramping up crowd capacity if and when it becomes feasible and monitoring the impact of positive cases among players as it goes. It’s possible that the NBA could turn to a bubble or a modified bubble for its playoffs if the coronavirus pandemic continues into the spring and summer.
When will the 2020 NBA draft be held?
The 2020 NBA draft, which was originally scheduled for June 25, has been rescheduled for Nov. 18.
In a typical year, the gap between the Finals and the draft is a week or two. The Nov. 18 date is more than a month after the conclusion of the Finals, a larger-than-usual gap to accommodate negotiations.
When will 2020 NBA free agency open?
The NBA has not yet officially set its free agency window because it must first finalize terms with the players union on the salary cap. In a typical year, free agency takes place about one week after the draft. The expectation this year is that free agency would open a few days after the Nov. 18 draft so that teams could be prepared for training camps to open on Dec. 1.
When will the 2020-21 NBA season begin?
The NBA and the National Basketball Players Associated reached a tentative agreement on Nov. 5 to open a 72-game season on Dec. 22, with training camps opening on Dec. 1. Both sides had previously discussed a mid-January target, but moving up the start date and trimming 10 games would allow the NBA to maximize its television revenue potential by hosting games on Christmas Day and returning its postseason closer to its typical calendar window.
It’s worth noting that next season’s All-Star Game was originally scheduled for Feb. 14 in Indianapolis. The NBA has not announced official plans to delay, cancel or otherwise reschedule its annual midseason showcase. Hosting such an event during a pandemic would be difficult, and top players might prefer extra rest given the schedule disruption and the mental and physical grind of the bubble experience.
When will fans be able to attend NBA games, and when will arenas return to full capacity?
This is one of the trickiest questions for the NBA because the answer could be determined on an arena-by-arena basis and it depends wholly on the unpredictable spread of the coronavirus. Before the league shut down in March, local and state government officials in California and Ohio issued orders preventing NBA teams from holding games in front of mass gatherings during the pandemic. Those types of regulations could still apply to some teams by the time next season begins, and different jurisdictions might have different limits on how many fans can attend a given game.
Silver has said “additional advancements” such as rapid testing will be necessary to get fans back in seats. If it becomes possible to administer coronavirus tests and get instant results, such a process could be added to the check-in procedure at NBA arenas and facilitate fan attendance.
“There are a lot of pharmaceutical companies focused on that,” Silver said. “There’s a huge marketplace for that.”
Portland Trail Blazers President Chris McGowan said his organization has been preparing to host fans at Moda Center at the start of the season by upgrading its cleaning procedures, air filtration systems, and ticketing and entry processes. How many fans will be allowed to attend will be determined in part by mandates from Oregon’s governor.
“It’s definitely important to get back open in some form or fashion, but we will never compromise safety for our fans, employees and players until the risk is eliminated,” McGowan said. “The lion’s share of our time and energy is spent on the things we can control to make sure [the arena is] a safer environment.”
Across the league, executives are preparing for a gradual return to full capacity that could take months to play out unless a vaccine becomes available to the masses.
“I think you’ve got to assume [the return of fans] is going to be staged at some level,” McGowan said. “It will be different in every market. There’s not a blanket answer. Everyone is in a little bit different situation. We’re prepared to open. Hopefully we can open with some fans. Over time, as the risk gets eliminated or we get better at [hosting crowds safely] and consumers feel comfortable, we can scale up and get back to a normal capacity.”
Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in early November that sporting events might not see a return to normal until the fourth quarter of 2021. The Athletic reported in early November that NBA owners are interested in opening a portion of luxury suites at limited capacity this season.
Will NBA players be available for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics?
While it initially seemed unlikely that NBA players would be able compete when the Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to open in July after a year-long delay, the league’s move to a December start should change that. In a typical year, players enjoy at least a few weeks off between the end of the Finals and the start of preparations for the Olympics. That period would be condensed in this scenario, but motivated players could theoretically make it work, especially if their NBA teams were eliminated before the latter stages of the playoffs.
There’s a lot at stake for USA Basketball, which has won three consecutive Olympic gold medals. It’s fair to ask whether top superstars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry would be interested in competing given the coronavirus pandemic and the disrupted NBA schedules. Foreign players such as Ben Simmons (Australia) and Rudy Gobert (France) could also be affected.
When will the NBA season return to its usual October-to-June calendar?
The NBA has strong motivation to get its calendar back on track as quickly as possible. Television ratings for the Finals plummeted this year, in part because of increased competition from other sports such as the NFL, MLB and college football, which are smaller factors or non-factors during the typical Finals window in June.
If the 2020-21 season runs from December to July, a slightly condensed 2021 offseason could get the NBA back on track for a typical October-to-June calendar for 2021-22. As with most of the NBA’s long-term planning, it’s too soon to know for sure.
Read more about the NBA: