All eyes in the basketball world - from Michael Jordan to LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Doc Rivers - turned over the weekend to the nationwide protests that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who has spent months plotting the league’s course in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, told staffers in an internal memo that he was watching, too.
“Just as we are fighting a pandemic, which is impacting communities and people of color more than anyone else, we are being reminded that there are wounds in our country that have never healed,” Silver wrote Sunday. “Racism, police brutality and racial injustice remain part of everyday life in America and cannot be ignored.”
There is chaos across the nation, with cities burning and protesters clashing with police. For Silver, who held calls last week with the NBA’s general managers and governors to talk through return-to-play scenarios, an impossible job just got that much more difficult.
His central task in recent months has been to craft a workable framework to resume play, turning the NBA’s financial machine back on while doing what he can to protect the league’s coaches, players and staffers from exposure to a deadly virus. Now, Silver must plunge forward in a climate where many of those same people are voicing outrage and anxiety about their safety and place in society.
Silver nodded to those circumstances in his memo, noting that they require “greater introspection from those of us, including me, who may never know the full pain and fear many of our colleagues and players experience every day.”
The safest path forward would be to cancel the balance of the 2019-20 season and the 2020 playoffs - a step that would cost billions of dollars in revenue and one that players have said, via internal polling, they want to avoid. So Silver and the owners have settled on playing games at a single-site campus near Orlando beginning in late July. Eliminating travel, playing without crowds and restricting outside contact with players are important and logical health measures.
Other key specifics - the date that games would begin, how many teams would be invited and how many games and rounds would be played - remained unresolved after last week’s calls. Multiple league executives said they do not expect all 30 teams to be invited to the campus, despite Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s recent call for an inclusive play-in tournament. Instead, Silver continues to weigh scenarios involving 16, 20 and 22 teams.
The 16-team plan has the benefit of simplicity. Taking the top eight teams from each conference would mimic the playoffs in a normal year, and it would take the least amount of time to unfold. Leaving 14 teams at home would protect nearly half the league from the coronavirus and reduce the campus’ footprint for the playoff teams. If Silver wants the easiest path to conventionally crown a champion, this would be it.
But the NBA has real motivation to expand the bracket: By taking 20 or 22 teams, Silver could add Zion Williamson to the mix to juice buzz and television ratings. The New Orleans Pelicans rookie’s debut drew nearly 3 million viewers in January, and his presence would add real interest after a four-month shutdown.
In the 20-team setup, the West’s top four bubble teams - the Portland Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs - would be invited. In the 22-team setup, the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards would join the mix. ESPN first reported the specifics of these proposals.
One could argue that this year’s postseason doesn’t need to conform to history, given the coronavirus’s extraordinary intervention. If the eventual champion might inevitably face talk of an asterisk, why not experiment with a format that could lean on Williamson, Damian Lillard and possibly Bradley Beal to generate increased interest? Lillard, for his part, has made it clear that he wants the Blazers, who were 3½ games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the West’s final spot when the season ended, to have a “true opportunity” to make the playoffs.
While those potential benefits are compelling, expanding the bracket would further strain the NBA’s comeback attempt. More teams would naturally lead to the need for more testing, increase the risk of an outbreak and extend the length of the playoffs. Remember, the champions are likely to be confined to the campus for upward of two months - which is no small ask.
There is also concern that this approach could wind up being penny wise and pound foolish. Imagine if a superstar contracted the virus during the early stages of play. Who cares about seeing the Kings or Suns if one the NBA’s biggest names isn’t available for the conference finals or NBA Finals?
Of course, there’s a far bigger concern than television revenue. African Americans are, according to a Johns Hopkins study, “experiencing more serious illness and death due to COVID-19 than white people.” NBA players are predominantly African American, and all five of the players who were publicly identified after testing positive for the coronavirus before the shutdown were people of color. Many in the league’s coaching ranks also face multiple risks.
Silver’s default setting is deliberate and collaborative, but no amount of time or conversation will make his current predicament any easier. In truth, the NBA is up against a wall when it comes to the calendar. Players’ union head Michele Roberts said that “it’s time” for “some level of certainty” last week, given that her constituents need weeks to train and quarantine before playing. There’s backside pressure, too, given that any additional hesitation would further complicate next season, which will likely need to be delayed until December to accommodate a July return.
After months of rigorous assessment and a weekend of thick tension, Silver and the NBA have arrived at their moment of truth.