When it comes to the big four professional sports leagues in the US, the NBA arguably had the most successful return to play program. The bubble at the Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida served as the guiding example for other organizations, especially when it came to logistics and the safety of the athletes involved.
Then again, it can be argued that the NBA had the easiest job, as team rosters are nowhere near as big as they are in other sports. Still, the feat was impressive. Despite this accomplishment, the 2020-21 season was always the true test of the league’s organizational capabilities.
So, what has the NBA come up with to ensure that everything is safe and functional? A lot of things, actually. Let’s take a look at some of the key points surrounding the return of NBA basketball in this strange, strange year.
What will the season look like?
December 22 has been selected as the start date for the 2020-21 NBA season. The end is scheduled for May 16, but this is a tentative estimate and it’s very possible that things will change in case of unexpected developments, such as new COVID-19 outbreaks, issues with vaccines, and pretty much anything else.
In total, teams will be playing 72 regular-season games instead of the usual 82. The 10-game reduction is due to the late start, which was caused by the Orlando Bubble taking place from July to October.
When it comes to scheduling, only the First Half of the season has been determined, with games set to run between Dec. 22 and March 4. This incomplete format is due to literally nobody knowing how the pandemic will be developed. Each team will play teams within their conference three times, and others two times.
It’s also worth mentioning that another reason for having a shortened regular season due to the Olympic Games being rescheduled for 2021. Both the US and many other countries have high aspirations when it comes to the basketball part of the competition, and nobody wanted to see a scenario where weakened teams would take the stage in Tokyo.
Even though there will be a small window before the Games, it’s still unknown how this will affect the national team commitments of players who will make deep playoff runs.
Will fans be present at games?
The NBA allowed the teams to decide this for themselves. Different states have different rules and have been hit by the pandemic with various levels of severity, so letting each organization abide by the decision of the state’s Governor seemed perfectly logical.
As of December 22, most teams have already decided that they will not be allowing fans at home games, while a small minority still hasn’t published a public statement. It is believed that they are hoping to get a green light from the authorities, especially if the ongoing vaccinations turn out to be successful.
Some teams, however, have decided to jump the gun and allow their home arenas to be filled at a limited capacity.
In the preseason, for example, the Memphis Grizzlies did have a small number of spectators, but they were mostly friends and family members of the players. The Grizz haven’t issued a formal statement of this, but social media posts from people close to Ja Morant all but confirmed this.
The Cleveland Cavaliers took a particularly cautious route, deciding to allow only 300 fans per game. In Dallas, the Mavericks have created a set of elaborate seating charts as a means of allowing as many spectators as possible, while still adhering to the social distancing rules in place.
Teams in Florida have taken the riskiest approach, with the Magic and the Raptors (more on their situation in a bit) deciding to let 3,000-4,000 fans into their arenas. You can see the full list of every team’s policy here, as well as keep up with future developments and updates.
What about the Toronto Raptors?
As the only Canadian team in the NBA, the Raptors were in a bit of a pickle from the get-go. Travelling between countries has been restricted since the pandemic began, so many were unsure how Toronto would handle hosting games and having the Raptors travel abroad for every road game.
There were even rumours that they might not participate in the 2020-21 NBA season, but they were quickly dispelled. Ultimately, it was decided that the team would have Tampa’s Amalie Arena for the time being.
Has the salary cap been affected?
The NBA, the NBPA, and the Board of Governors have agreed to an amendment to the existing CBA on Nov. 9. Since there were no issues such as those plaguing the upcoming NHL season, things were quickly sorted out.
109.14 million was the cap last season and will remain the same in 2020-21, as well. The tax level is $132.6 million. To cope with the financial hit of fans not being present at games, teams will have their tax payment reduced in proportion to their reported losses.
How will the playoffs look like? When will they take place?
From May 18 to May 21, the Play-In Tournament will take place. In it, teams with the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th best winning percentage in each conference will face off against each other. This was a novelty introduced in the bubble, and the NBA decided to keep the format, as it turned out to be exciting.
It’s interesting that the Play-In Tournament ranks teams according to their winning percentages, and not their win-loss record. This is probably because the NBA is preparing for games potentially being cancelled.
Once the Tournament is done, the playoffs will take place from May 22 to July 22. Again, this is all tentative scheduling, and the dates might end up changed depending on future developments.
What weird things can we expect?
Well, for starters, you can expect a lot of players to be rusty. Some of them haven’t stepped foot on an NBA court since March, so you shouldn’t overreact to a couple of disappointing performances.
It will also be an interesting challenge for the rookies, many of whom haven’t played organized basketball in almost a year. Without a proper training camp and a longer preseason, they will be thrust into the fire immediately. Many analysts predict that most of the top pics will underperform, as they will be making their NBA debuts in an unprecedented situation.
Adam Silver noted that the league will ‘wait its turn for vaccinations’, but that isolated cases wouldn’t result in the cancellation of the season again. However, you should expect to see a few games cancelled, especially if a large majority of a team’s roster gets infected.
Even wilder scenarios have floated around, such as teams switching to another state if things get unsafe where they currently are.
Some experts believe that such an outcome would be a great way for the NBA to gouge the feasibility of moving to new markets, as well as returning to old ones. San Diego, Las Vegas, Seattle, and Louisville have been suggested as the most realistic option.
This is in line with commissioner Adam Silver recently saying that the league has ‘dusted off some of the analyses on the economic and competitive impacts of expansion.’
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