Just yesterday NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that as states begin to ease restrictions on their “shelter in place” decrees, the league will permit the effected teams to return to their practice facilities if the lifted restrictions allow for it. This means that for instance, there is a chance the Cleveland Cavaliers could return to practice at the Cleveland Clinic Courts as Ohio Governor Mike DeWine is scheduled to announce a pull back of certain restrictions beginning at the turn of the month.
More importantly for the psyche of the country at large, this could be the first small step towards a return to professional sports in the United States. At the very least, its the first time there has been any sort of wind in regards to a return to play and practice in the four major team sports. Still, rather than provide any sort of clarity, confusion and questions abound on what to make of this decision.
Something is curious about Silver’s statement at large. Namely, this is not a planned and organized roll-out of return to business for the NBA and its teams. There are 14 teams in 11 states that are currently under “stay at home” orders that will expire on May 1st or sooner. Certainly, within the states involved there is sure to be differences in what kind of activity will be allowed or disallowed as each governor tries to find his/her way through the gradual process of attempting to return to something resembling normalcy. Of those 14 teams just 8 of them would be considered playoff teams as of today, that’s half of the regular 16 that compete in the first round. The highest seed to begin practicing could be the 3- seeded Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference. In the West it could be the 4-seeded Utah Jazz. As much as its good to hear about any activity for the NBA, as much as it can stoke what little optimism that we have, its clear this announcement today is not a fast track to an NBA playoffs. Further, Silver has said as much.
However, I am not here to be negative, rather the opposite. Many an individual to this point has tried taking a crack at describing what a return might look like for the NBA. Many more have lamented how complicated it is and because we are so seemingly far out from a return haven’t even really bothered with dealing with the details.
What better opportunity than now, with our first inkling of any type of sports optimism since Rudy Gobert was diagnosed with COVID-19, to come up with my own plan on how the NBA should proceed forward.
Before I begin, I absolutely recognize that I am simplifying this process. Its very easy to sit here from my desk and play arm chair commissioner and pretend like I know it all. People’s well-beings are at stake here, and like I have mentioned before, some things are more important than sports. I don’t see the harm in speculating though and I do see a lot of fun in it, so here we go.
My plan is admittedly smaller and less encompassing than some may like. There has been a lot of talk of finishing the regular season in either a full or truncated fashion. There has been talk of playing the playoffs in full among all the qualified teams. I have even seen one suggestion floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons that the NBA should have a 12-team playoff. My plan is unfortunately smaller than all of these, but for good reason.
The NBA should not only scrap any remaining regular season games, but should also get rid of the first round of the playoffs as well.
That’s right. Go with the top four seeds from each conference only. Why? For a number of reasons.
First, re-starting all thirty franchises is entirely impractical. My proposition is that the remainder of the season will be played within the City of Las Vegas. Vegas, which obviously doesn’t have its own NBA franchise, but is the unofficial home of USA Basketball and the NBA Summer League will easily have the facilities for 8 teams and will also have the built in amenities available to house players, staff and the like for as long as needed considering the dearth of empty hotel rooms the city is currently home to. Naturally, social distancing and even quarantine will still need apply. Players, staff and possibly their families will need to remain among themselves only as much as possible. Its easy for me to say, but its a small price to pay for helping the spirit of our nation (not to mention allowing everyone involved to get paid).
Packing up and sending eight teams to a potential NBA bubble in Las Vegas will be considerably easier than sending thirty teams, or even sixteen. The less teams, the less logistical headache and the less potential risk involved.
Additionally, with a sudden and abrupt end to the NBA season I think cutting the number of NBA teams that qualify for the playoffs is more fair when you consider how a potential playoff race could have altered the lower seeds entering the playoffs. For instance, would any of the Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans or Sacramento Kings have caught the Memphis Grizzlies for the 8th seed in the West? We will never know. They were all just 3.5 games behind Grizzlies at the time the season suspended, and the Kings in particular were hot, having won 7 of their last 10. The Pelicans were riding the wave of healthy rookie Zion Williamson. In a situation where the bottom seeds of the playoffs are essentially murky, and in a league where there’s probably one too many playoff rounds anyway when you consider that a team with a .462 winning percentage in the East was probably going to make the playoffs, why not eliminate the ambiguity and just go with the cream of the crop?
Yes, a team that exceeded expectations like the Oklahoma City Thunder will not be rewarded. The same can be said for the star-studded Philadelphia 76ers. Its a shame, but if those teams wanted to make the playoffs, they had their opportunity to work themselves to a 4-seed or higher in the 60+ games that were played.
Lastly, only one team ever ranked lower than the 4th seed has ever won the NBA Finals. That was the 1995 Houston Rockets, who were the defending champs. That’s it. The possibility of us missing out on the potential Finals winner by eliminating the bottom four seeds in each conference is extremely low. The benefits here outweigh the drawbacks.
With all this in mind, when May 1st approaches and governors begin to announce their plans, the league should take a comprehensive look at where each state falls. From there, even if your state is beginning to open up, if you aren’t a 4-seed or better in either conference your players and staff can pack it up. We will hopefully see you for training camp in November.
On the bright side, based upon the research I have done, there is the potential for two teams- the Miami Heat and Utah Jazz to begin practice depending on what their respective governors announce on May 1st. Those teams should put together a health and safety plan in order to protect their players and essential employees to be submitted to the league office. In fact, no team has to wait until their governor lifts restrictions to submit this plan. Its actually better to have it in place in advance. Once approved and permitted by law they can begin practice in anticipation of more and more teams coming to the opportunity to resume their operations.
Moving on, a lot has been made about what the quality of play will be when the teams will return. It will be hard for players who have been inactive for months to just jump right into the playoffs, let alone a shortened playoffs that is missing the first round. In this case, I would recommend taking a page out of the book of the Korean Baseball Organization. Teams in the Korean major baseball league played upwards of a month’s worth of inter-squad scrimmages in preparation for the regular season, that is now set to begin on May 5th. A gradual roll-out where teams play inter-squad games against themselves can provide them the opportunity to play themselves back into shape, and if done for a significant length of time, I think it could prove effective. The goal then would be to gradually let these teams play against themselves while they wait for all the remaining teams to become available. From their, the last team(s) allowed to begin operations will be given three weeks in order to get into form.
However, this plan is admittedly not fool-proof. One concern at this point would be California. Home of the two best teams in the Western Conference, Governor Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order is indefinite, unlike many other states. In contrast to Wisconsin, whose order is set to expire as of May 26th, its hard to even speculate on when the Lakers and Clippers would be capable to begin practicing. One other wrench is the Toronto Raptors, who are under the domain of an entirely different country. Lastly, while Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman is pushing to re-open, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak doesn’t think the state is near ready. Knowing when our neutral playoff site will be ready is problematic.
Nevada’s stay-at-home order is scheduled to expire on April 30th. Let’s assume that gets extended one more time to May 31st. Let’s then say they will need two weeks to prepare for the arrival of NBA personnel. We will start slow. Come June 15th, if any combination of the Lakers, Clippers and Raptors (or whoever else for that matter) are unable to begin practice in their home states, they can entire the Las Vegas NBA bubble and begin their three week inter-squad preparation period.
Throughout that three weeks, the other qualifying teams will gradually begin to enter the bubble and get acclimated to their new surroundings. That preparation period will be capped off with each team getting to play one exhibition game against an opponent from the other conference on Tuesday July 7th. On the 9th, the playoffs will begin.
From there, things are a bit simplified. For games only one court will be needed and naturally, there will be no fans allowed. I do think that if there is some way for the home team to control artificial crowd noise, that would do well to help the atmosphere. Perhaps the NBA can contact the New Orleans Saints…
Moving on, since so few teams are being used, games can be played in prime-time each night and as few as two referee teams could be necessary. That first night of July 9th would begin with a 7:30 PM Eastern tip off between the Miami Heat and the Milwaukee Bucks, and would be followed by the 10:30 tip off of the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers. The next night the Celtics play the Raptors and the Nuggets play the Clippers in the same time slots. From there, the match-ups can alternate back and forth. There’s no need for travel days and likely no need to have an extra off day to avoid a bad ratings night. When you consider the number of sports-starved eyeballs have consumed The Last Dance and the NFL Draft this week its hard to see how such a set-up for actual games wouldn’t be a huge hit even on the most inopportune of nights.
Factor in an extra day off at the conclusion of each playoff series and you are looking at the Conference Finals beginning on July 24th at the latest. From there, the conferences can just alternate nights and have prime-time to themselves. Perhaps 7 PM and 9:30 PM Eastern time starts would be in order.
By August 7th we would be staring the NBA Finals in the face and would have a champion crowned by August 19th, setting the league calendar back about 2 months, but leading to a reasonable Christmas Day start to the 2020-2021 NBA season.
Allowing for the other thousand variables that could possibly go wrong between now and then, of course…