The optimism has never waned.
Week by week, through all the White House coronavirus briefings and the Dr. Fauci updates and the NBA’s monitoring of the all-powerful curve, Commissioner Adam Silver and his most trusted associates have been trying to find a way to save this ill-fated season that was suspended on March 11. They have listened to the medical experts, fielded calls from city officials who so badly want the league’s basketball business to come their way, and consulted with the players, general managers and agents whose voices will always play a pivotal part. The confidence in the league’s ability to find a workable solution has been there all the way through.
Some observers mistook the NBA’s sensitivity for this situation as inaction, but it was most certainly not. And with Silver telling owners on Tuesday’s Board of Governors call that he wants to make a decision on what comes next within a month, we’re about to see if the league can make it through one of the most daunting challenges it has ever faced.
Magic Johnson’s contraction of HIV in 1991 might be the closest comparison to this COVID-19 challenge, at least when it comes to the fear factor, which was so omnipresent during that time when the science was so misunderstood. The cocaine era of the 1970s and ’80s, the Tim Donaghy scandal, the “Malice at the Palace” brawl and the Donald Sterling saga demanded the right combination of leadership and damage control, to be sure, but lives weren’t imminently on the line quite like this.
It’s a delicate balancing act for Silver, this unenviable task of planning for a possible end to the season while showing the proper sensitivity for this situation that is so much bigger than basketball. Sources say this difficult dynamic has been top of mind for all of the league’s top officials throughout the process.
To wit: On the day when Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert’s positive test changed everything for the NBA, there were approximately 1,000 COVID-19 cases and 31 related deaths in the U.S. Now, 65 days later, the case total is nearing 1.4 million and the number of related American deaths now stands at a staggering 83,497 and counting. As Silver knows as well as anyone, all the precautions in the world can’t protect the NBA from adding to those numbers. But damn if they’re not going to try.
Balancing safety and economics
At its base, the prospect of finishing the 2019-20 campaign is a choice that is driven almost entirely by economics and which would inevitably increase the risk to players, coaches and staff members who could otherwise remain safe in their respective homes. There is a billion-dollar-plus cost to taking that approach, with a significant ripple effect on nearly everyone affiliated with the league from there.
The lost national television revenue from these playoffs alone would be approximately $900 million, according to a source who gleaned the figure from one of the many conference calls with Silver recently. If the NBA can’t find a way to play regular-season games, sources say teams will also lose out on regional sports network revenues that require them to air at least 70 games to achieve the financial threshold that is so routinely discussed in league circles.
But it shouldn’t be forgotten that playing the waiting game is still an option, however disastrous that might be monetarily.
Yet if the NBA goes ahead with planning, this goal of creating a “campus-like” environment, as Silver reportedly described it on the latest owners call, requires the creation of a sports environment the likes of which has never before existed. Whether it’s in Las Vegas, Orlando, some other city or a combination therein, the fan-less games could help retain money that might otherwise be lost by way of the nine-year, $24 billion ESPN/TNT television contract that was signed in 2014.
This strategy is an artificial way of speeding up the timeline for a return, a circumvention of the governmental roadblocks and travel risks that preclude all 30 teams from resuming play in NBA venues all over the country (and Toronto). There would likely be daily testing, temperature checks and restrictions to movement that would be tough to monitor.
“We can get mass testing,” one general manager said. “But they don’t want to do that right now because there are parts of the country that still can’t get it.”
The plan comes with one overarching rule that simply can’t be forgotten here: The coronavirus is in charge — not the almighty dollar.
“No one wants a body bag,” one agent with knowledge of the league’s internal discussions said. “They’re trying to figure it out medically.”
Location, location, location
By all accounts, Las Vegas and Orlando remain the most likely locations to land the playoffs, if they occur. But other cities could still make their way into this race, and there is a distinct possibility that the league would use two cities in a potential East-West type format (although that approach would conceivably make it impossible to play regular-season games).
First, the Vegas pitch.
The potential challenge of creating a controlled environment inside the chaotic “Sin City” landscape was daunting enough on its own, but it grew even tougher when Las Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman chose to share her discombobulated views with CNN’s Anderson Cooper during an April 22 interview that went viral. The 81-year-old was roundly criticized for her push to re-open, which so many viewed as reckless, with Cooper challenging her all the way through their 25-minute segment.
In truth, Goodman has no oversight over the Las Vegas strip because it is outside the city’s limits. Still, some damage was done when it came to these dynamics.
The NBA is extremely sensitive to public perception at the moment, and sources say the interview caused concern within the league office. As time has passed, however, the sting of that segment has waned and it’s clear that Vegas still has a very real chance at being selected as the host.
The familiarity factor is huge here, as the league has held its summer league at UNLV since 2004 and began hosting its G League Showcase at the MGM Grand last year. The WNBA’s Las Vegas Aces, who play at the Mandalay Bay Events Center and are coached by Detroit Pistons legend Bill Laimbeer, have been there since 2018. There was the 2007 All-Star game in Vegas too — disastrous though it might have been.
The existence of all those pre-existing relationships and knowledge of the landscape would seemingly make this plan seamless. And the necessary venues, even more importantly, are in abundance. There are two arenas at UNLV (Thomas & Mack Center, Cox Pavilion), as well as the T-Mobile Arena and the Orleans Arena. There is plenty of hotel space, with the Wynn, MGM, New York New York, and the Palms typically housing NBA teams in the past.
But is Sin City the right place for a basketball safe haven? It depends on who you ask. Some players with families would surely prefer a place with more open spaces and less glitz and glamour. Players who are single, quite naturally, would be just fine in that setting. It also depends on what sort of condition Vegas might be in by the time they arrived.
Nevada governor Steve Sisolak launched a phased reopening plan that began on Friday, but casinos are not part of Phase I. The Nevada Gaming Control Board will reportedly have the final say on when casinos reopen.
In terms of the coronavirus presence in that part of the country, Nevada is currently 36th among U.S. states in cases (6,405, per the CDC) and 29th in deaths (342). But Clark County, where Las Vegas resides, accounts for 77 percent of the cases (5,045), 80 percent of the deaths (275 of 342 state-wide) and is third in the state in terms of “cases per 1,000” people (223).
As for Orlando, its candidacy has everything to do with the synergy between the NBA and Disney, which owns the league’s main media partner, ESPN. As Keith Smith of Yahoo! Sports laid out so well in mid-April, Disney World has the hotel space and basketball-ready venues necessary to get this job done. The fact that it’s private property could make it easier to control the outside element, which is a major bonus when it comes to limiting interactions between NBA personnel and the public.
On Thursday, an agreement was reached between Walt Disney World and its workers’ unions on “safeguards to protect its employees from coronavirus” — a hurdle that needed to be cleared before an eventual reopening of the park. Some shops and restaurants are expected to open on May 20.
Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger, who has strong relationships with Silver and National Basketball Players Association president Chris Paul, attended the remote Board of Governors meeting on April 17.
“It’s about the data, not the date (of a return),” he reportedly told the owners that day.
So, what is the data?
In Florida, where the WWE was deemed an “essential” business in mid-April and the state has been partially reopened since May 4, there have been 42,402 cases in all (ninth in the U.S.) and 1,827 deaths (11th). Yet in Orange County, where Orlando resides, the cases have been kept mostly under control: They have 3.6 percent of the state’s total cases (1,577) and 1.9 percent of the deaths (36).
“All these professional sports are going to be welcome in Florida,” Governor Ron DeSantis said on Wednesday. “That may not be the case in every other state in this country, as we’ve seen. And so what I would tell commissioners of leagues is, if you have a team in an area where they just won’t let them operate, we’ll find a place for ya here in the state of Florida because we think it’s important and we know that it can be done safely.”
The harsh truth, of course, is that no one knows if this will work.
How’s this for an indication about the fluidity of this situation? By one team executive’s count, there have been 46 league memos sent that person’s way since the season was suspended. Whether they were updates relating to the situation, amendments to previous rules and regulations or simple statements, the mere existence of all those communications underscores the fact that this is an unpredictable landscape for all involved to navigate.
Translation: There is no NBA playbook for a pandemic.
Yet barring a spike in coronavirus cases that would certainly change things yet again, all signs point to the playoffs being increasingly possible. The players clearly want to play, with stars like LeBron James, Giannis Antetokoummpo, Kevin Durant, Paul and others aligning on a Monday conference call that was first reported by Yahoo! Sports.
In terms of the training component, one source with knowledge of the league’s latest talking points said the time estimates for a training camp have been shortened in recent weeks. Whereas the early discussions involved the possible prospect of needing four or five weeks for camps, the goal now appears to be closer to two or three. The sense, at least as of now, is that the family members of players would likely be allowed to join them in whichever city they wind up so long as they agree to certain regulations.
It remains unclear whether all 30 teams would be involved in the resumption of play, but Silver’s call with general managers on Wednesday might have provided a clue. Per sources, he implored teams that are out of playoff contention to take a holistic view on the matter and remain willing to assist for the greater good, so to speak. While Silver didn’t reference Steve Kerr specifically, participants on the call believed it was a reference to the Golden State coach’s recent comments about the Warriors’ season being unofficially over.
Meanwhile, sources say Silver’s focus remains fixated on the medical component of this quandary.
“It’s all based on medical,” one source with knowledge of Silver’s thinking said.
From the logistics surrounding testing to possible treatment if and when there is a positive test to the local landscape in terms of hospitals, every aspect is being explored. A player testing positive is not expected to bring the playoffs to a halt, but that player would be quarantined and — barring an outbreak — the games would resume. Thus far, sources say every NBA player who has tested positive and experienced symptoms has recovered in short order while avoiding hospitalization.
When it comes to older staff members, coaches and referees, their increased susceptibility causes an entirely different kind of concern. What about people like Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, the 69-year-old who is reportedly ready and willing to coach in these conditions? Doc Rivers, 58, recently expressed his own concerns to David Aldridge and Wosny Lambre on The Athletic’s “Hoops, Adjacent” podcast.
Considering the league informed teams more than two months ago that coaches who are 60-plus years old should stay away from their team’s players, it’s clear that the NBA is well aware of the dangers here. But how far will it ultimately go to mitigate them?
The final phase — What needs to happen?
The last thing Silver wants is to go down in the history books as insensitive, let alone irresponsible. Yet for the NBA’s PR purposes, it would help a great deal if the headlines surrounding U.S. testing would improve in these next few weeks.
As of Wednesday, when CNN published a report indicating America was 30th worldwide in per-capita testing, that was not the case. Still, the sheer volume of U.S. testing has increased greatly of late and is likely to continue at the kind of pace that should aid the cause. The overall optics here, quite clearly, are key.
“We know we need large-scale testing,” Silver said during his last group media session on April 17. “(But) we have to ensure that frontline healthcare workers are taken care of before we begin talking about NBA players, or sports (are considered). And so, as I said, we’re not in a position to know more at this point.”
But as Silver made clear both then and now, the season is still capable of being saved. So long as the coronavirus cooperates.
“Everything is on the table,” he said. “It’s clear that if we were to resume play, we’re looking at going significantly later than June, which is historically when our season and draft would have been completed.
“The direction that the league office has received from our teams is that all rules are off at this point, given the situation we find ourselves in, that the country is in… If there is an opportunity to resume play, even if it looks different than what we’ve done historically, then we should be modeling it.”[/QUOTE]