NBA and COVID-19: Short and long-term impacts of league’s suspension

As of Friday 8th May, NBA teams are free to open their practice facilities. This marks the beginning of the long road to bringing live basketball back to the public.

However, the future of the 2019/20 NBA season remains in doubt. Should the NBA void the current season? Or should it do all it can to resume and reach a conclusion?

In a parallel universe, where we are COVID 19 free, the conference semi-finals are now in full swing. LeBron James is tearing up the Western Conference, while Giannis Antetokounmpo is dominating the Eastern Conference, as the Greek Freak looks to prove to the basketball world that he is the new King. The former MVP and the reigning MVP are on course for a seismic NBA final showdown.

However, in our universe a quarter of the regular season remains un-played. In fact, it is almost 2 months since any basketball was last played. Or to put it another way; Over 1500 hours – enough time to watch all 6 episodes of the Last Dance around 500 times.

When an eventual decision to resume basketball is made, players will need a substantial block of time to get NBA ready. Not only in terms of fitness, but in terms of injury prevention. No amount of individual work outs, at a teams practice facility, or a private home gym, will get players in adequate shape to play competitive basketball to a standard that is watchable to the public eye. There is also the players psychological health to consider. There will no doubt be players that will feel uneasy playing competitive basketball while COVID 19 still has a strong grip on the world, with no vaccination in sight.

All things considered; it is likely that we remain a long way off seeing live basketball return to our screens. Even when basketball returns, we can expect a lower standard product than the one that was abruptly postponed on March 11th, as players get to grips with competitive basketball after unprecedented time away from the court. Off the court, and into the stands, it is certain that mass gatherings will not take place for the foreseeable future, which will mean that any basketball, for now, will be played in empty arenas.

It is entirely plausible that the start of the 2020/21 NBA season, whenever that may be, will also be played behind closed doors. This will obviously have negative impacts on the finances of all 30 NBA teams. Player salaries look set to be impacted, going into next season, as the salary cap is adjusted in accordance with the loss in revenue. All in all, from on the court to off the court, when basketball makes its return, it will be a vastly different game.

Adam Silver has previously stated that ‘everything remains on the table’, the three options as to how to deal with the remainder 2019/20 season are: Option one – void the season and concentrate efforts on the 2020/1 season. Option 2 – truncate the season, with the possibility of heading straight to the play offs. Option 3 – resume the season and complete it in its entirety.


All three scenarios will each possess their own challenges. Far too much time, effort and money has been put into the current season to just write it off. If the NBA decides to go straight to a play offs, then those teams currently outside the play offs, such as the New Orleans Pelicans, will say they reasonably believe they can make the play offs should they be given the chance. Is there enough space in the calendar to resume and complete the season in its entirety?

The latter scenarios will also give rise to an asterisk next to the eventual champion of the 2019/20 season. What about player contracts that are due to expire over the summer? Will there be a make-shift trade deadline to allow players to sign for new teams or re-sign for their existing teams? What about the 2020 draft? We could be in a situation where a draft is held, and players that are drafted are able to complete in the 2019/20 season.

Where will games be played? Some US states may be lockdown free and able to host such sporting events, but other US states may still be in a state of lockdown.

Most NBA teams share their arenas with other sports teams, careful planning would be needed to fit potential games in the schedule. Many of these arenas will hose other non-sporting events too.

What happens if the NBA returns, and a current player contracts the disease? Do we go back into a state of hiatus? Do we carry on the season, and any player that tests positive for COVID 19 is forced to self-isolate and miss several games? These are a few of the many questions that will need to be answered before any play is resumed.

Even if we are to void the 2019/20 season, and plan to begin the 2020/21 season, the exact same questions will be asked, as the virus is not going to disappear any time soon. The decision the NBA must eventually make, is not an enviable one.

I believe that the NBA should complete the regular season and see out the 2019/20 season. Several NBA owners have claimed that there is still hope that we could see a resumption as early as the end of June. Using that date as a ‘best case’ scenario, however unlikely that is, I have listed below potential dates that would be used to complete the remainder of the season.

  • Mini pre-season – 5 games over 2 weeks – July 1st – 14th July
  • Fully complete the regular season (roughly 20 games per team) – 20th July – 31st August
  • Play offs first round – 3rd September to 17th September
  • Conference semi-finals – 20th September to 4th October
  • Conference finals – 6th October to 20th October
  • NBA finals – 24th October to 14th November

It will certainly be a strange experience watching such a huge sporting event, such as the NBA finals played behind closed doors, but basketball in an empty arena is better than no basketball at all – as long as everyone health and safety is made an absolute priority. Resuming the season in this way will have a long-lasting impact on the NBA calendar.

The 2020/21 season, and every future season will have a season calendar that would look something like this:

  • ‘Winter league’ – December
  • Pre-season – February
  • Season begins – March
  • All Star weekend – August
  • Season Ends – September
  • Play offs – September to November
  • Lottery Draft – November

This potential new format will prevent the NBA going head to head with the NFL, which could increase viewing figures and potentially net the NBA more money in TV deals. I believe the NBA should embrace the likely change to the long-term NBA calendar. The NBA could use the current situation to reduce the number of regular season games. This has been a contentious point of discussion.

The main argument against this is the fact it is difficult to see why owners would agree to reduce the number of home games their teams host, and thus decreasing their income. With the virus set to impact the finances of teams, this would give the NBA the perfect opportunity to implement a reduction in regular season games.

My idea is to have all 30 teams play each other twice (once at home and once away), then each team would play each team in its division a further 2 times (again, once at home and once away).

This would mean that the regular season would now be made up of 66 games. Such a reduction in home games would mean there will be no more back to back games, which at times lead to a lower quality product, as the impacted team clearly suffer from fatigue against the fresher team.

The lack of home games and income could be compensated for with a tournament – another idea that Silver has long talked about. This tournament could take place between teams that do not reach the play offs, and the winner would qualify for the first lottery pick, the runner up would get the second pick, and so on.

This would give teams something to play for as the regular season ends, as this tournament would be seeded based on final standings. Such a tournament would hopefully stop the notion of teams ‘tanking’ to secure a high draft pick, while ensuring the worst teams are not rewarded for having such poor seasons. Of course, the safety and wellbeing of the public should remain the highest importance, and thoughts of resuming any sports leagues, should take a back seat while the world wrestles with a global pandemic.

No one knows when society will be in a place to safely go about normal life, but when the NBA can safely resume basketball it should find a way to conclude the 2019/20 season. Regardless of what impact concluding the season will have on future NBA seasons. Reducing the number of regular season games, implementing a tournament and changing the NBA calendar, so as to not coincide with other major US sports, have all been ideas that Adam Silver and the NBA have talked about, now is the ideal time to put these ideas into practice, and further improve the sport we already love.

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