What you need to know about NBA’s return-to-play plan to this point

Follow The Money reacts to the latest NBA news that Orlando's Disney World is a clearcut frontrunner as an NBA bubble site for a return to action.

The NBA and NBPA are engaging in exploratory conversations about a likely resumption of play at Walt Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex as a singular bubble site for games, practices and housing.

There’s been a lot of information regarding this all week in the lead up to the NBA’s announcement Saturday afternoon and still a lot of questions to be answered, but for the time being, it certainly looks like the NBA is on track to make a return in the summer.

Here’s a look at what we know so far about the NBA’s potential return and possible next steps that will need to be figured out before it can become reality.

Multiple play formats in play

As Shams Charania of The Athletic reported Saturday, in order for the NBA to return to play, the league is weighing “a lot of bad options” to do so.

These include the following:

• Straight-up resuming the regular season with all 30 teams and then heading into the playoffs.

• Playing directly into the playoffs with the standings as they were as of March 12.

• A “playoffs-plus” idea that would give more teams a chance to compete for a final playoff seed.

The first two are very self-explanatory, but the “playoffs-plus” concept is worth a little more clarification.

This is the most radical idea, but also seems like the one that could most likely be the one to stick because the idea behind this format, which appears to have gained the most steam, would be to do so with a limited number of teams.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the NBA’s preference isn’t to have every team resume the season, and in Charania’s report about this proposed “playoffs-plus” format between 18-24 teams were floated as the number of teams that would be involved.

The logic behind limiting the number of teams returning to play seems sound enough. The fewer people at the bubble site the safer, obviously. Not to mention, it doesn’t seem worth it for teams that are very much out of the playoff picture, like the Golden State Warriors, to ramp up and go through the rigmarole of preparing just to play what amounts to just a handful of games and risk injury to key players – or even their lottery positions.

Additionally, according to Wojnarowski, should this “playoffs-plus” format get opened up to the entire league, the idea of rewarding some of the league’s bottom-feeders with a chance in the post-season was met with much skepticism.

The reason for this is because the driving idea behind the “playoffs-plus” option, according to Charania, is it could involve a play-in-style tournament for either the No. 8 seed, or 7 and 8 seeds.

Additionally, another way it could work is that the first round of the playoffs would be replaced with an international-competition-style, round-robin group stage with each team playing two games against their group opponent and the top two teams from each group advancing to the second round.

Either way, rewarding the league’s worst teams with a chance to pull a George Mason-like run in the NBA playoffs doesn’t seem to be appealing to many.

Why Disney World?

In the lead-up to the NBA’s announcement, there were reports that the NBA was debating between Disney World in central Florida and Las Vegas as its preferred bubble destinations.

By all appearances, it would seem as if Mickey Mouse has won this particular battle, and the rationale behind it is quite apparent.

First off, the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex is a massive, 255-acre campus with multiple arenas that could host many different games and practices simultaneously, and has already done so for the NBA as the host of the Jr. NBA World Championship in recent years.

Secondly, Walt Disney World is a gigantic 40-square mile plot of private land with about 24,000 hotel rooms to house players and coaches as well as other team and event staff.

And lastly, you can’t discount the relationship between the NBA and broadcast partner ESPN, which is primarily owned by Disney.

It doesn’t take much to connect the dots that it would likely please ESPN to go to a location with its own name in the facility’s title, and with the amount of money at stake for the NBA, pleasing a key broadcast partner is just the smart thing to do.

According to Sam Amick of The Athletic, the NBA is slated to lose about $900 million in television revenue should the 2020 post-season fail to happen, so prioritizing broadcast partners seems like the right call from the NBA’s perspective.

Extensive testing to come

Should the NBA decide to continue with a plan to play at Disney World in July, getting set up there is but one gargantuan task that will then lead to another, perhaps even bigger one: Maintaining the bubble.

The NBA, of course, is aware of this and, according to a Charania video report from Thursday, the league is looking into an extensive COVID-19 testing program.

Charania reports that NBA commissioner Adam Silver expects to have daily COVID-19 testing when the league returns and, most notably, no stoppage in play necessary should someone test positive, as that person would then go into self-isolation in their hotel room as the team continues on.

There are, of course, complications.

While daily testing would be vital for the league to run, where and how the NBA gets its tests is of the utmost importance. The league came under fire when the Utah Jazz used Oklahoma state’s tests, and when the Brooklyn Nets bought private tests it was viewed as big business using its affluence to jump the line ahead of the public in the midst of a global pandemic.

The perception of the NBA has reportedly been front of mind for Silver and any return-to-play plans would have to take into consideration the public’s supply of tests.

And to those ends, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor reported that the NBA has begun research into “group testing,” a procedure that could see many more get tested with fewer tests needed.

Here’s O’Connor’s explanation of what “group testing” is:

“Group testing is simple: Several samples from multiple individuals are taken and “grouped” together into the same lab test—this could be done randomly, or by mixing samples from members on the same team. Between five to 20 samples are usually mixed into the same test, which reduces the amount of tests needed, saving time, money, and resources. If the test is positive, those people’s samples would be separately retested to locate which individual sample(s) are responsible for the positive test in the group.”

This method of testing seems like a good solution to the NBA’s problems and according to research teams in Germany, Israel and the United States, grouped samples are able to detect the novel coronavirus.

The other problem the NBA will have to tackle if they do test daily is what happens when someone tests positive, especially a star player.

It’s well and good to say that play won’t stop and a player has to go into isolation if they test positive, but let’s say, for example, the Los Angles Lakers are facing the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Finals and LeBron James tests positive the night before Game 1, that would likely leave the Lakers without their most important player for the championship series. What does that do for the so-called legitimacy of the 2020 Finals?

It’s not difficult to envision a scenario where key players on multiple teams are forced out of the lineup because of a positive test and thus throwing the entire competition’s balance out of whack.

Wins and losses may seem like a small thing, ultimately, in the face of a public health crisis, but for the reputation of a professional sports league, this is a potentially huge problem.

Next steps that need to be sorted out

Lastly, here’s a very quick rundown of possible next steps that the NBA will have to get figured out before the season resumes.

• For non-American players, such as Dallas Mavericks all-star Luka Doncic, who may have decided to quarantine abroad, or even for members of the Toronto Raptors who stayed in Toronto and are working out at OVO Athletic Centre, the guidelines need to be clarified.

Do players need to be quarantined before they can start doing any work with their team in the bubble site? And if so, for how long?

• How long will the post-pause training camp last? And how many, if any, exhibition games will teams be allowed to play?

• If there are regular-season games that will be played, how many more will the NBA look to complete? According to Charania, getting the total number of 72 or 76 has been floated.

• What will the playoff format look like? Will it be the usual East vs. West? Or will all the teams just be re-seeded? With such strange times in the league’s history, the idea of taking just the best teams into the playoffs that many have wanted for years could actually happen this year.

• Charania also reported that some of the latest possible dates for the season to finish are Sept. 7 (Labour Day), Sept. 15, Oct. 1, Oct. 15 and Nov. 1. This is important to figure out as it impacts when the league’s draft could be held, when free agency would open and when the next season could be started.

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