Back to Ball
June 12, 2020

With its return plan, the NBA is doing everything right (as usual)

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Harry How

It is not easy for a major sports league to resume an interrupted season after a pandemic, and it's not even easy to make a good plan. This is especially true when it comes to team sports. With golf and tennis, at least you're dealing with smaller units of people who can go home after a tournament and don't have to touch their opponents during competitive play. When it comes to teams with larger roster sizes in physical sports, the only solution (at least in America, where we have not controlled COVID-19 and it seems, in fact, to be resurgent) is to isolate them in a single location, test like crazy, and essentially force them to be away from friends and family as long as it takes to finish the season.

Forget the logistics of such an idea—even slipping that kind of plan past a players' union without getting laughed out of the room is daunting enough. Adam Silver and the NBA managed that, mostly because the league is far less dysfunctional from a labor standpoint than baseball, and they also managed to come up with a plan that is simultaneously entertaining and reasonable (at least considering the circumstances) for the players. Here are the details:

1. Only teams with a realistic shot at the playoffs will head to Orlando for the closing stretch. "Realistic" in this case is defined as being within six games of the final playoff spot in each conference by the current standings. That cuts the number of teams down to 22 right off the bat.

2. The rest of the regular season will consist of eight games per team. After those games, the best seven teams from each conference make the playoffs.

3. If the ninth seed is within four games of the eighth in each conference, there's a "play-in tournament," in which the nine-seed has to win two straight games against the eight in order to advance to the playoffs.

4. After that, the playoffs proceed as usual.

The best part of this plan, from a logistics standpoint, is that 14 of the 22 teams who make the trip will be gone after 53 days, and by 67 days, only four teams will remain. And those are days since arrival, not the resumption of the season, so it includes the short training camp that begins on July 9.

The two teams that make the NBA finals will have to remain until mid-October, which makes for a long three-month stretch away from home and family, but at least there's a big prize at the end. In this case, it seems like an appropriate sacrifice; special times call for special measures.

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It seems safe, too, even though I type those words with some trepidation. With the players more or less isolated at Walt Disney World Resort, and with frequent testing, the exposure to the coronavirus should be minimal. Which doesn't mean it's disaster-proof—if somebody gets it, basketball is the kind of sport where it can spread quickly, and even with all the precautions it's not hard to imagine things going sideways. But considering the inherent danger, the risk doesn't seem overwhelming, especially compared to everyday life.

For the rest of us, it's going to be very entertaining. From the return of Our Beloved Zion to the drama of the play-in games to the endless questions that will be answered—will Giannis and Milwaukee break through? Are the Lakers unbeatable? Will get we an all-L.A. clash in the western conference finals? Is skinny Jokic better than hefty Jokic? Is there a dark horse team here?—it will be a kind of paradise after the sports desert of the pandemic months.

And by the way, I have it on good (or at least decent) authority that the NBA will be pumping in crowd noise, and I don't think it will come from video games. It's the right decision, as the Bundesliga has shown, and that's no surprise—from being among the first organization to suspend the season while others froze to the release of this smart, comprehensive return plan, the NBA has shown yet again that when it comes to tricky situations and outright land mines, they rarely place a foot wrong.