The NBA season ended just under two weeks ago with uncertainty around when the 2020-21 season would begin. On Friday, ESPN reported that the league’s Board of Governors is pursuing a pre-Christmas Day start and a reduced regular season schedule. The move would mean that the break between the end of the 2019-20 season and beginning of the 2020-21 game schedule would be around 10 weeks, about half the typical amount of time.
Among other changes being discussed: a regular season with fewer than 82 games, not waiting for fans to be permitted in all league arenas, as well as tournament and play-in scenarios.
Our NBA experts weighed in with first impressions of the proposal and what its effects could be, as well as what other changes they’d like to see.
1. What was your first reaction to the report that the board of governors is considering moving up the season’s target start date?
Kevin Pelton: I’m surprised the league is thinking that aggressively given the timetable for the draft and NBA free agency, which probably can’t start any earlier than Nov. 23. Starting a month later before Christmas would mean abbreviated training camps similar to the post-lockout versions in 1999 and 2011.
Bobby Marks: Not surprised. The goal for the NBA has been to avoid playing playoff basketball in September and October. If the league adopts a pre-Christmas start and plays a 72-game season, that goal would be accomplished. Even if the standard 82-game schedule is played, the regular season should end in mid-June with the Finals ending in late August.
Kirk Goldsberry: Surprise. It seems everything is either being pushed back or canceled these days, and most people I spoke to around the NBA had been expecting a start date between January and March, so to hear the news that it might start as soon as December was a legitimate surprise.
Tim Bontemps: That this is going to be very difficult for the league to pull off. Free agency is expected to begin around Dec. 1 so there is little time to turn things around without massive complications. That said, money talks. Avoiding competing with the NFL during the NBA playoffs and taking advantage of the massive Christmas Day audience will allow the NBA to make more money.
Eric Woodyard: Honestly, at this point in 2020, I wasn’t surprised. While I was expecting the season to start close to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Christmas is a prime date so it certainly makes sense. But with the quick turnaround, it will be interesting to see the reaction from players, who would have to approve any such proposal.
2. Who would be helped most by that decision?
Bontemps: Teams that are keeping the status quo. In a world where there already is so much uncertainty because of the pandemic, throwing in a truncated training camp and free agents coming in along the way will make trying to get the new season started a huge challenge for many teams. So groups that are likely to return with minimal changes — such as the Boston Celtics, Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat — will be at a big advantage.
Pelton: Teams with continuity would likely benefit. When I studied the value of continuity last season, I found it didn’t generally seem to help teams start faster. That was different after the 2011 lockout, when teams with high continuity played noticeably better over the first 10 games compared to the rest of the season.
Marks: The teams not invited to Orlando (especially the Golden State Warriors). While the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets were battling it out for a trip to the NBA Finals in late September and the LA Clippers were firing head coach Doc Rivers in early October, the Warriors have been sitting back since mid-March. There will certainly be some bubble playoff fatigue that Western Conference teams will endure at the start of the season and Golden State should be ready to capitalize.
Woodyard: The NBA. It’s a smart business move to play games as soon as possible. Let’s not forget that the NBA is a business.
Goldsberry: People who love to watch basketball. We expect to see hoops all winter and the playoffs in the spring. A pre-Christmas start date sets us up nicely for a potential return to normalcy on the calendar.
3. Who would be hurt most by that decision?
Goldsberry: A lot of folks would groan about this, but as a former front-office guy, I can’t imagine trying to pull off a draft, a free-agency period and training camp between now and Christmas. Normally, the time between the playoffs and summer league is the wildest time of year for a front office — this year, it could be bonkers. If we race into a pre-Christmas start, front offices will be scrambling.
Pelton: Teams that want to dramatically overhaul their rosters via trade this offseason might have to think twice about doing that with little time for their new lineups to practice together. An accelerated training camp also seems to work against players returning from serious injuries — most notably Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.
Marks: The players. Agents are bracing for the possibility of up to 40% of the escrow being withheld from players, sources told ESPN. That money would offset losses incurred with a lack of revenue coming in from home games. And from a health standpoint, 22 teams just endured a grueling stretch of basketball, both physically and mentally. I would think that players who finished the playoffs in September or October will not be happy that training camp is now weeks instead of months away.
Woodyard: Teams who made a deep playoff run in the Orlando bubble, because it doesn’t allow much time for recovery after competing on such a high level. The Lakers and Heat, in particular, would have to jump right back into action after fighting for a title.
Bontemps: Free agents, as they would all but certainly have a slow start to the 2020-21 season because of their ongoing contractual situations — particularly for players who aren’t signed immediately.
4. What would you change about the play-in scenario?
Bontemps: Having been in the bubble for the seeding games, I thought the play-in game was a success. I’d potentially have some interest in expanding it to, say, teams 7-10 in each conference, but that would require more thought, as that would take several days to play out.
Marks: The restart games sold me on the play-in scenario, something that I was highly skeptical of. For a normal regular season (82 games or shortened), I would like to see teams that are two games behind in the standings eligible for a play-in game. Leaving the four-game benchmark that we witnessed this summer would certainly dilute the regular season.
Pelton: Compared to what we saw last season, I like the idea of having more than just the 8-seed up for grabs. I would maintain the angle we saw where challengers had to be within a certain number of games to trigger the play-in possibility.
Goldsberry: Single-elimination games only. None of this 9-seed has to beat 8-seed twice stuff. Just make it simple.
Woodyard: The NBA playoff play-in scenario was a great idea, but it worked for the bubble setting. If a team takes care of business during the regular season, it shouldn’t have to participate in a play-in for a spot it has already earned.
5. What other formats or tweaks would you like to see the NBA experiment with?
Pelton: Besides the play-in tournament, I think the seeding games also showed the value of locking in draft standings at a certain point so teams don’t have to worry about hurting their chances with a late run. That worked well this season because the bottom eight teams didn’t know beforehand the season would end on March 11. Randomizing the date on which the standings freeze would make for a better lottery system.
Marks: A heavy dose of conference games and only playing East vs. West one time. If the goal is to get out of the bubble setting and back into the home market of teams, the normal travel of a typical NBA season will need to be scaled back. I am also in favor of playing a baseball-type schedule where a team like Philadelphia would play in Chicago on three out of four nights.
Woodyard: I would like to see the NBA experiment with a condensed schedule, possibly shortening the season between 56 and 62 games. That format would keep players fresh and give fans a much better product because guys won’t have to worry so much about load management.
Bontemps: I’ve long been a proponent of a midseason tournament of some kind, along the lines of what takes place in European soccer and basketball. I know this would take everyone from fans to teams to players time to buy into, but long term it could be a really good thing for the sport, as it would give teams another thing to shoot for. In a time where finances are an issue, it also would give the league something else to sell.
Goldsberry: I would love a meaningful single-elimination midseason tournament. Basketball is at its best when single games can make or break a team’s chances. That’s why March Madness can be so exciting. Imagine filling out a bracket for a leaguewide single-elimination tournament — that would be awesome. In addition, it’s time to eliminate conferences and put the best 16 teams in the playoffs, even if it means tweaking the schedule. I’m in favor of a 58-game regular season where you play every opponent twice, a midseason winner-take-all tourney and a straight-seeded playoff bracket where conferences are irrelevant.
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