The highlights of the NBA season are often the moments before the Finals begin. The anticipation is peaking, history is ready to be made, the world is watching.
What lies beyond is the league’s seemingly endless dessert tray, with something for everyone: The fast approaching draft, the drama of free agency, nerding out in Summer League and training camps not all that far beyond that.
But as the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers were about to tip off in Game 1 of a Finals matchup that could hardly have been scripted better, NBA commissioner Adam Silver gave his traditional state of the league address and brought into focus everything that has happened in what has been the longest season in NBA history.
“This is a season where I lost my mentor, and one of my closest friends [long-time NBA commissioner] David Stern, of course, tragically Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and their friends. And then the pandemic,” Silver said.
He talked about the desperate search to find a way to resume the season amid rising COVID-19 case rates and while social justice issues were simultaneously coming to a boil.
“Being here,” Silver said, referring to the ‘bubble’ on campus at the Walt Disney World Resort that the NBA has occupied for nearly 12 weeks, “has taken extraordinary sacrifices by everyone involved.”
But even while celebrating what it has taken to get the 2019-20 season to its climax — Silver likened the behind-the-scenes contributions that made it possible to complete the season to watching the credits role after a movie — he was sounding a note of caution:
As of now there are no promises that some version of what we’ve seen this year — games without fans, players quarantining and even potentially more bubble life — won’t be part of the recipe when next season arrives, likely no sooner than January of 2020.
What will the near future look like?
“I don’t know,” Silver said.
He was optimistic that advances in rapid testing — the NBA has been partners with Yale University on research into technology that could return testing results in minutes rather than days — may increase the likelihood of having fans at games and teams playing in their own building and living in their home markets, but didn’t rule out the possibility of more bubble life.
“Will we need to operate in some sort of bubble or campus?” He said. “And if we did … how reasonably long — now that people have experienced it — can people really continue and thrive in this environment?”
To that end he said the league will be paying close attention to MLB, the NFL and various soccer leagues around the world, where teams have been able to continue training and competing at home, although with varying restrictions.
Will the postponement of this Sunday’s NFL game between the Tennessee Titans and the Pittsburgh Steelers because of a virus outbreak be a rare event? Or would playing outside of a bubble prove to be too daunting?
As for future of the Toronto Raptors and what challenges the United States-Canada border could provide if it remains largely closed?
“Obviously it’s one of those things that’s going to be outside of our control,” said Silver, while praising the way Canada seems to have found a balance between public safety and economic considerations. “I know [Raptors owner and chairman of the NBA board of governors Larry Tanenbaum] has had ongoing conversations as has [Raptors president Masai Ujiri] with government officials in Canada, to see how they’re going to be looking at things this Fall but it’s just too early to know … we’re obviously have to work with whatever rules were presented with there.”
Silver acknowledged that with the recent firings of Doc Rivers by the Los Angeles Clippers and Alvin Gentry by the New Orleans Pelicans the number of Black coaches in the league — there are now only four in a league where three-quarters of the players are Black — is too low, but stopped short of pledging to create a solution through policy.
“The answer is ultimately ‘yes’ to should the teams be able to hire who they want. I don’t see a way to operate a league where the league office, the Commissioner is dictating to a team who they should or shouldn’t hire or who she should or shouldn’t fire, frankly,” said Silver. “…Having said that, I know we can do better. We have six openings right now. We’re in discussions with all of those teams about making sure there’s a diverse slate of candidates.
“… There is a certain natural ebb and flow to the hiring and firing, frankly, of coaches, but the number is too low right now. … Let’s talk again after we fill these six positions and see where we are, because I know we can do better, and I think we will do better.”
After the longest, most difficult season in NBA history, that’s the overwhelming hope: things will get better.
But there were no guarantees.