Optimism growing for NBA’s return, but myriad options abound and impediments remain

(Rich Pedroncelli | AP file photo) Fans leave the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Calif., after the NBA basketball game between the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings on March 11, 2020, was postponed at the last minute over an "abundance of caution" after a player for the Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus.

Each day, more details emerge that paint a picture of momentum building toward the imminent return of the NBA, toward concluding the 2019-20 NBA campaign, which has been on hiatus since March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

NBA spokesman Mike Bass announced Saturday that the league “is engaged in exploratory conversations” with the Walt Disney Co. to potentially use Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Fla., as the bubble site for playing games.

Meanwhile, Shams Charania of The Athletic reported that NBA Commissioner Adam Silver held a conference call with team general managers on Thursday, and then sent out a survey to them on Friday, both of which were meant to assess options for a potential return to play.

What do those options look like, though?

While expectations mount that Silver and the league will reveal details officially in early June, there is apparently nothing set in stone as of yet. Per reports from The Athletic and ESPN, myriad potential scenarios for a return format remain in play.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the league’s step-by-step plan to ramp back up to playing games is thought to include “an initial two-week recall of players into team marketplaces for a period of quarantine, one to two weeks of individual workouts at team facilities, and a two-to-three-week formal training camp.”

For what it’s worth, there have been some rumblings of concern from various teams about such a plan. Some teams, in areas still considered coronavirus hot spots, have expressed a preference for skipping the reconvening in their local markets portion and proceeding directly to the bubble site. Others, meanwhile, have suggested that the time allotted for workouts and training camps is insufficient. Indeed, the 2019-20 EuroLeague and EuroCup were officially canceled Monday, with the league expressing concern that a truncated training camp would “would cause an increased injury risk for players,” according to Reuters.

Still, presuming the NBA adopts such a plan, Charania wrote that the league now is primarily considering four season format options:

Resume regular season: Though it seems unlikely that every team will complete the outstanding balance of its regular 82-game schedule, there is some support for the idea of settling upon some lesser, though still uniform, number of games. For instance, each team getting to the 72- or 76-game mark.

Regular season plus play-in: There is some thought that, even once everyone reaches a prescribed uniform number of games, having games cut from the 82-game schedule hurts the chances of teams chasing one of the final playoff spots. The solution would be to play the regular-season games, then follow with a mini-tournament for teams to compete for, say, the Nos. 7 and 8 seeds in each conference.

Advance directly to playoffs: The regular-season standings would remain frozen as they were on March 12, no more regular-season games would be played, and the 16 teams that were in playoff position at that moment would advance to a traditional postseason tournament of four rounds of best-of-seven series.

“Playoffs Plus” model: This admittedly somewhat nebulous concept would entail bringing back anywhere between 18 and 24 teams, and either using the play-in format or replacing the traditional first round of the playoffs with some sort of group-stage scenario.

Charania added that multiple other logistical considerations remain as well, such as potentially increasing roster sizes and making two-way players eligible; selecting from a range of dates between Labor Day and Nov. 1 to serve as the latest possible finish; and, most interestingly, possibly eschewing the typical Eastern/Western Conference alignments for the playoffs and instead lumping together all the qualifying teams and seeing them in a 1 through 16 format.

For instance, in the usual format, the West’s top team, the Lakers, would take on the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, while the Utah Jazz would be the West’s No. 4 seed and would face the West’s No. 5 team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. In the 1-16 format, though, the Lakers would be seeded second overall (behind the Milwaukee Bucks) and would take on the No. 15 seed, the Brooklyn Nets. In this scenario, the Jazz would be the 7 seed and earn a matchup with the 10-seeded Houston Rockets.

“I still think the stumbling block is the fact that you’d need the East owners to [sign off on it]. But if you’re ever going to do it, and you could convince them to sign off on a one-off situation, it would be in this moment,” ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said Monday on the “Get Up” program. “… The more people I talk to, the more people in the league think that it’s going to end up being a playoffs-only scenario. And to spice it up, I think this is something that Adam Silver is going to bring to the table.”

In the meantime, despite the growing optimism about a return to action, many observes have made it a point to discuss the significant logistical impediments still in play.

Windhorst mentioned on “SportsCenter” the fact that myriad players, including several superstars, currently remain in Europe and would require a 14-day quarantine upon returning to the United States. That, in combination with several states’ existing stay-at-home orders, has the potential to throw off the timing of a return.

Among the other logistical challenges, as laid out by Windhorst and Tim Bontemps in an ESPN.com article: securing sufficient COVID-19 tests to use them at least weekly, if not daily; assessing whether players’ family members should be allowed within the bubble; determining the minimum number of “essential personnel” bubble habitants — including players, coaches, assistants, trainers, strength coaches, equipment managers, logistics coordinators, front-office representatives, public relations officials, and security.

And that only represents the team personnel in play. There would also be game operations staff such as clock and scoreboard operators, stat screws, and public-address announcers; referees; ball boys; camera operators; television broadcast production teams; emergency medical personnel; and hotel support staff.

Still, some resolution is expected soon. Both Charania and multiple ESPN personnel have noted that Silver has scheduled another conference call with the league’s Board of Governors on Friday, and that many of these questions will perhaps be answered at that point.

“Barring an unforeseen turn of events, many NBA owners, executives and NBPA elders believe Silver will greenlight the return to play in June — with games expected to resume sometime before the end of July,” sources told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.