Recent developments with the nationwide battle against COVID-19 have put the NBA in a very interesting predicament. The league is currently set to restart its season on July 30, with 22 teams in playoff contention gathering at a trio of Disney resorts in Orlando, Fla. in the coming weeks. Florida is currently experiencing the worst of the virus, with nearly 9,000 new cases announced today. Orange County is a particular hotspot, calling into question the NBA’s decision to make it the home for its “bubble,” which it hopes will mitigate the spread of the coronavirus as the league attempts to close out its 2019-20 season.
Today, the league formally announced its restart plan, citing both the obvious health concerns that exist with holding any kind of sporting event right now, as well as social justice concerns raised by some players like Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving. "We have worked together with the Players Association to establish a restart plan that prioritizes health and safety, preserves competitive fairness and provides a platform to address social justice issues," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a release about the upcoming restart. "We are grateful to our longtime collaborator Disney for its role in playing host and making this return to play possible, and we also thank the public health officials and infectious disease specialists who helped guide the creation of comprehensive medical protocols and protection."
"It is very exciting to officially announce the restart of the 2019-2020 season," NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts added, in the statement. "It has taken true collaboration between the League and the Union—special kudos to our Executive Committee and several other team reps—along with the continued support and assistance from medical experts, public health officials, and many others. Additionally, our platform in Orlando presents a unique opportunity to extend the ongoing fight against systemic racism and police brutality in this country. We will continue to work with out players and the League to develop specific plans in Orlando as well as long-term initiatives to bring about real change on these issues."
Earlier today, it was announced that 16 of the 302 players tested this week were positive for COVID-19. That is obviously a concern, but Adam Silver says that the league is prepared for some positive tests if they’re isolated, and a larger outbreak doesn’t occur at Disney. “We are left with no choice but to learn to live with this virus,” he said, per Howard Beck of Bleacher Report. “No options are risk-free right now.”
"We have developed a safe and responsible plan" Silver added. He and other NBA officials believe that the league is safer at Disney than it would be in other situations.
This, of course, begs the question: is the risk of a large outbreak worth restarting any sport right now? Based on how the various leagues have responded to the crisis, they all seem to believe so. “We’re coming back because sports matter in our society,” Silver said, according to Beck. “They bring people together when they need it the most."
More isolated sports, like the PGA, NASCAR, and horse racing have held some of their biggest annual events without fans in the stands. The PGA has had golfers and caddies test positive just before and during recent tournaments, and have moved forward after pulling them from competition.
Team sports present considerably more of a challenge, especially those where contact and close proximity to other players is unavoidable, like basketball. Silver may be confident in the plan, but right now he admits that there is no set line for number of cases that will be tolerated before they have to shut things down again.
"We’re not saying 'full steam ahead no matter what happens,'" Silver admitted, per Beck. "But we feel very comfortable right now with where we are."
The NBA has been tangled in the national COVID-19 story from the start. Most credit the moment that the league shut down, after it was announced that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had contracted the highly contagious virus in early March, as the time when the pandemic hit crisis levels in the United States. The NBA suspended the season on March 11, while some games were still in action, as Gobert tested positive just ahead of a game at the Oklahoma City Thunder. The next day, college basketball followed suit, cancelling the NCAA Tournament, after individual conferences had done the same for their league tournaments, many of which were in the middle of play. The MLB, which was weeks away from Opening Day, and the NHL, which plays on a similar calendar to the NBA, followed suit, as did major soccer leagues overseas.
The NBA will be an interesting test case ahead of the fall, when football is scheduled to roll back around. The NFL has released its schedule, and while there is a contingency built in if the season needs to be postponed, there are no indications that they intend to go any further than that if they can avoid it. College football is also planning to play, but with outbreaks in Florida, Texas, and across the Southeast—the biggest hotbed for the sport—there is a renewed pessimism in things kicking off in September.
In the NBA's plan, each of the 22 teams invited will play in eight final regular season games, which will act as warm-ups for the NBA Playoffs, and decide the final playoff spots. Nine teams from the Eastern Conference and 13 from the Western Conference have been invited. If the ninth-seeded team in either conference is within four games of the eighth seed at the end of the regular season, the two will play in a short series of up to three games. The eighth-seed will need to win just one game, while the ninth-seed will need to win two.
The 22 NBA teams are set to begin traveling to Orlando from July 7-9, with training camp beginning on July 11. The NBA Playoffs will start on Aug. 17, with the Finals set to run from Sept. 30 to a final possible date of Oct. 13.
We all want sports back this summer, and having this condensed NBA season and playoff format will be very exciting, but it is hard not to wonder whether or not it is really worth it, given the situation in Florida, and all of the risks present.