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The lingering concerns regarding the NBA restart

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Unlike a bubble, the league’s Orlando plan has some holes.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Sacramento Kings Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

When the NBA and the Players Association agreed to a proposal to resume play for the 2019-20 season, many of us — myself included — were under the belief that this meant basketball was definitely back.

What has become clear over the past few days, and something the NHL has done well to specify in its Return to Play, is that the players merely approved the scheduling format for the rest of the season. They did not approve of the campus set-up or testing protocol or several other details that remain unresolved as the potential start date approaches.

As it turns out, players have several concerns about coming back to play in Orlando. But before we get to those, let’s outline the basics of the NBA’s plan to finish the season.

Practice facilities have been open for about a month for most teams (the Kings re-opened theirs on May 11), and workouts have been limited to four players at a time, with each player at his own individual basket with one assistant coach. Starting today, players can work out with two coaches at a time, and head coaches can join on June 23.

Players who have traveled outside the United States should be back by June 15, and those who remained in the country are asked to return to their team’s markets by June 22 so that there is sufficient time to quarantine and test before heading to Florida between July 7 and 9. Training camp will take place from July 9 to 29, and teams can conduct intrasquad scrimmages during the last eight days of camp before the season resumes on July 30.

The rest of the season schedule is as follows:

As alluded to earlier, the players have several concerns about the arrangement. One of them is that there is a gap of 50 plus days in between when they arrive and when their families can join them. Consider NBA players whose kids are in school — this cuts out a huge chunk of their family time. Even for those who don’t have families who will join them, living in a bubble for several weeks is a real sacrifice. It limits personal freedoms.

Then, there’s the overarching concern that everyone in the world is dealing with: the coronavirus. The NBA can institute as many safety protocols as possible for its own personnel, but there is inherent risk in playing the game of basketball indoors when athletes breathe heavily and there is so much contact between players. Furthermore, the league can’t control the procedures Disney uses for its employees at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. It was reported that Disney workers, including hotel staff, will not be restricted to the league’s bubble. They will still be subject to rigorous regulations, but that introduces another layer of unpredictability.

In addition, the recent surge of activism after the death of George Floyd has led some players to wonder if playing sends the wrong message, per Chris Haynes of Yahoo:

Because of the George Floyd tragedy and the powerful movement for racial justice that’s sweeping the nation, some players believe it’s bad optics for a league comprised predominantly of black men to be sequestered in one location for up to three months merely to entertain the masses and ease the league’s economic burden, sources said.

According to that report, Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets is leading a call today of up to 200 players to discuss if canceling the season altogether is the best choice.

The league has discussed an opt-out clause for players who are uncomfortable returning to play, but that would require forfeiting their salary for the remaining games. That brings us to another serious issue at play for both the players and the NBA — money.

It is widely acknowledged that the league’s motivation for returning to play is financial. Individual teams have not completed their regional television contracts, and the league stands to earn nearly $1 billion in national TV revenue from the playoffs. Garrett Temple, a VP of the Players Association, made the economic argument that the players should return to play to help build up their own wealth and reinvest it in Black communities. The NBA would be leaving a lot of money on the table by ending the season now, but the players might suffer more.

If the players voted to cancel the season, the league could terminate the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Both sides would have to negotiate a new deal, and the current economic climate means that the terms might not be so favorable for the players. Local television stations could try to renegotiate their deals and could reasonably lowball NBA teams considering the lost revenue from this past season. That could result in lower overall league revenue and smaller contracts for players. There is already a great deal of ambiguity in the NBA’s future, but ripping up the CBA would compound that to the nth degree.

The NBA’s argument is that the Orlando plan preserves as much normalcy as possible. But the players are living in a moment when the status quo isn’t all that appealing.

Despite the recent optimism regarding the NBA’s return, it appears that only one piece of the puzzle was in place. Much of the plan is still in flux, and the players are coming together to use their voices and to ensure that their interests are spoken for as those details get sorted out. The best bet is that the 2019-20 season will resume, but there is less certainty in that matter than the league would like.