NBA’s biggest questions before return

Tom Haberstroh
NBC Sports Philadelphia

The NBA is back. Well, sort of.

No Stephen Curry, Draymond Green or Klay Thompson.

No Trae Young, Karl-Anthony Towns or D'Angelo Russell. Teams in large markets like the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks will be watching from home. Charlotte, Detroit and Cleveland: back to the big board.

But for everyone else, NBA games are upon us. 

For weeks, the league office, the board of governors and the National Basketball Players Association have gone back-and-forth on a variety of ideas with the explicit goal of resuming the NBA season in some form. Everyone wanted to play basketball. That was never in doubt. But not everyone wanted to play basketball if it meant a substantial risk of getting infected with coronavirus or suffering a major injury due to the extreme circumstances.

Following Thursday's board of governors vote, the NBA believes it has a plan to account for both of those risks. But as they say, the devil is in the details. 

As much as we'd like to believe we have all the answers and everything is wrapped with a bow, the world does not work that way. There's still plenty of uncertainty in this plan.

Here are seven lingering questions as the NBA proceeds towards July 31.

Is it, you know, safe?

"It's about the data, not the date." Commissioner Adam Silver said those words on a conference call with the media in late April while addressing the NBA's eventual return-to-play plans.

Well, it's early June and we have a date. The data? That's another story.

The league and the players union have insisted that health comes first and there are signs that they're taking that side of the plan very seriously. For one, they've planned to convene at one central site. Secondly, according to an ESPN report, there are plans for daily testing, which would be an enormous undertaking financially, logistically and politically. 

In my discussions with epidemiologists and infectious-disease experts, those were critical elements of a safe return-to-play plan, but there are still finer details that need to be addressed. Who's allowed in the bubble? What kind of tests will those people receive? Does the league have the requisite supplies? What about hotel, food and maintenance staff testing? 

Above all, the NBA would be wise to have a concrete plan in the case that one or multiple people inside the bubble test positive. How many positive tests are acceptable? One? One per team? Does a positive test in August have different implications than one in October presumably in the Finals? 

In talks with teams around the league, this is one of the thornier issues that team executives need the league to address. A strictly-enforced guideline on how to handle positive tests would do a lot to strip away the emotions that can get in the way of making sound decisions and help the league protect its employees -- players, coaches, execs or team staffers -- from harm.

Not every team is in the same position. Take the New Orleans Pelicans, whose head coach, Alvin Gentry, is 65 years old. His top assistant, Jeff Bzdelik, is 67 years old. The CDC states that people 65 years or older are considered a high risk for severe illness from COVID-19. If a positive test pops up on their team, does the NBA need to take stronger action than other teams? What if they played a team with a positive test? 

Should Gentry and Bzdelik have to wear a mask on the sidelines? Should they be on the sidelines? These are thorny questions that don't appear to have answers at the moment. 

And that's just one coaching staff. What about referees? The NBA's longest-tenured referee, Ken Mauer, is 65 years old. So is longtime NBA referee Michael Smith. If Gentry and Bzdelik have to wear masks, do Mauer and Smith have to wear masks as well? Can you officiate that way? And would the NBA let them officiate games of teams if they officiated a team with a recent positive test?

It feels a bit like we're putting the cart before the horse. We've already planned a return date when one of its teams, the Spurs, haven't deemed it safe to reopen their own practice facility because of coronavirus concerns

All these questions are tricky because there is still so much we don't know about the novel coronavirus. But teams are hoping the league addresses them clearly in a league-issued document.

Will NBA players take a knee?

As the league plots a return to the court, NBA players, the vast majority of whom identify as black or African-American, are facing more than a deadly pandemic. Perhaps no one put it more clearly than former NBA All-Star Caron Butler, who said Wednesday night on the NBA's official platform: "We've been dealing with two viruses: COVID-19 and racism."

When it comes to social issues and civil rights, NBA stars have been some of the most outspoken in all of American sports. These days have been no different. LeBron James, who in 2017 called the President a "bum" for his response to Stephen Curry's White House rebuff, recently blasted Drew Brees on Twitter after the Saints quarterback reiterated that kneeling during the anthem is disrespectful to the military.  

Players like Curry, Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown and Towns have marched or attended rallies in recent days to protest systemic racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd's murder at the hands of law enforcement. One of the most vocal activists in the country has been Floyd's friend, Stephen Jackson, a 14-year NBA veteran.

While the NHL has plans for a return and MLB is negotiating for one, there's no doubt that the NBA will be the main draw in town. As such, the NBA megaphone may be louder than ever. 

However, some players already feel a restart may be taking away from the larger societal conversation.

Los Angeles Clippers point guard Patrick Beverley is known as one of the fiercest competitors in the league, but he strongly disagreed with the renewed focus on basketball.

Beverley wasn't alone. When news broke Wednesday of the imminent agreement on return-to-play, Brooklyn Nets forward Wilson Chandler tweeted: "Government can't wait until the NBA start the season back. Need a distraction from the bulls*** that's going on. Always in need of a distraction." Miami Heat guard Andre Iguodala, Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma, San Antonio Spurs forward Trey Lyles each retweeted Chandler's sentiment with supportive comments.

On Wednesday night, Kuzma went further, tweeting a photo of Brees kneeling with teammates with the caption: "This shows you that there are a lot of people & companies out there right now that will say they stand with us but only do it so they dont get bashed not because they mean it."

League insiders have been supportive of NBA players protesting in the streets of America. But what happens if they take those protests to the basketball court? Or the national anthem itself? 

If NBA players decide to kneel during the anthem like Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players did, it will be in violation of NBA rules. In the Player/Team Conduct and Dress section of the Official NBA Rule Book, Rule 2 states: "Players, coaches and trainers are to stand and lineup in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line during the playing of the National Anthem."

In 2017, the commissioner said he expects players to stand and follow the rules. The players did fall in line, choosing instead to stand with interlocked arms during the anthem for several games. 

NBA players might choose a different demonstration this time around. Kneeling during the anthem is officially against NBA rules, but it remains to be seen what the official punishment would be if NBA players decided to protest in that manner. One thing's for sure: The world will be watching.

Is the scheduling fair?

The NBA landed on a compromise. They could have played the rest of the regular season or gone straight to the playoffs. Playing the rest of the regular season would mean teams would have to play 17 games on average. The NBA decided to split the difference and play eight.

Fair enough. But who would those 22 teams play in those eight games? One idea is to pick up where they left off before the league shutdown on March 11 and play the next eight games on the schedule. Seems fair, right?

That doesn't work in a league where eight teams are no longer playing. For example, the Spurs' next eight opponents were, in order: Denver, Minnesota, Memphis, New Orleans, Chicago, Utah, Utah again and finally a repeat date with Minnesota. Minnesota and Chicago aren't going to be in Orlando. 

So what do you do? If you take those three games out and move up the next three opponents in line, the Spurs would then play Denver, Golden State and Sacramento. Uh, oh. Golden State won't be there either. If you take Golden State out and look to their next scheduled game … you find Golden State, again. The next opponent would be New Orleans. To just get to eight games, the Spurs would have to look at their next 15 games.

But that sprouts two more problems. First, the Spurs just replaced non-playoff teams opponents with playoff-aspiring teams. Is that fair? By pure luck, the Grizzlies have already played 15 of their 16 scheduled games against the eight non-bubble teams, going 11-4 against the league's doormat clubs. On the other hand, the Spurs just got five of their easier games erased and replaced them with harder opponents. Yikes.

And that brings the second issue. The Spurs' eighth game against New Orleans? The Pelicans would be long done by then. 

To solve this issue, the league could just scrap the regular-season schedule and play a new set of games with fairer distribution of games.

You might say, "Who cares? Just play the games." Try telling that to New Orleans, Portland, San Antonio and Sacramento, four small-market teams that are all but dead-locked in the standings and fighting for that final playoff spot. Every detail matters. 

Of course, there's nothing fair about a pandemic. But there are things that the NBA can control. This is one of them, and it could have long-lasting ripple effects, especially for small market teams.

Given the huge moats surrounding the No. 8 seeds (Magic have a 5.5-game lead on the Wizards and Grizzlies have a 3.5-game lead on three teams), schedule equity could be a moot point anyway. The play-in game (it's not a tournament) only comes into play if the ninth seed is within four games or fewer of the eighth seed at the end of the eight games. Even then, the No. 9 seed would have to win twice against the No. 8 seed to punch their ticket. Not to throw a wet blanket on the bubble teams, but if you're not in the eighth seed by now, you're basically Lloyd Christmas talking to Mary Swanson.

Will players be physically ready?

This is not like the 2011 lockout. This is a pandemic, not a work stoppage. In previous lockouts, the players regularly played pick-up games, sometimes for charity in front of crowds, to stay in shape. This time around, NBA players haven't been allowed to play five-on-five in months. 

Early on in the process, the NBA presented a plan in which all 30 teams would return under the bubble environment, but that idea was met with considerable resistance, according to league sources. Multiple players and teams expressed disagreement with that idea and would rather not play than risk injury and infection. Portland was the lone team that dissented during Thursday's vote and its star player, Damian Lillard, went on the record in late May to say he would sit out unless the Blazers could fight for the playoffs. Lillard told Yahoo Sports he was just coming off a groin injury and that factored into his calculus: "I'll be putting myself at risk for injury and reinjure myself." 

The Blazers were given that chance to make the playoffs and still the team voted against. While it's unclear how much of a role Lillard's comments played into the Blazers' position, it's telling that even a superstar with five years guaranteed after this season is still iffy about risking it. According to reports, the Blazers preferred other formats and listened to their players before making the call.

Imagine being a free agent on a bubble team this summer and getting your body ready to play potentially only eight games. Is it worth it? If Washington Wizards sharpshooting forward and unrestricted-free-agent-to-be Davis Bertans felt the risk wasn't worth the reward, I wouldn't blame him for sitting out these games to protect what might be the biggest payday of his career.

Athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches and medical staffs will be hard-pressed to get their players ready in time for the July 31 kickoff. Three months of no basketball will disrupt the kinetic chain of joints, muscles and ligaments that make NBA players so thrilling to watch. 

On that note, prepare for some bad basketball as players work themselves back into shape. According to Basketball Reference tracking, the two biggest drops in year-to-year offensive efficiency in NBA history came during lockout seasons in 2011-12 (minus-2.7) and 1998-99 (minus-2.8). With a denser schedule and accelerated training camps, teams coughed up the ball at higher rates and shooting percentages bottomed out. Expect more of the same in the coming months. Basketball is back … ish.

What about the other eight teams?

The NBA's 22-team return-to-play plan means we won't see the Golden State Warriors in action until December. Here's a crazy thought: Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will go 18 months without playing in real games together. Life comes at you fast in the NBA. 

I hope the other eight teams will be able to participate in some sort of charity tournament or other competition between now and whenever the 2020-21 season starts (Curry vs. Thompson showdown, anyone!?). Nine months without playing basketball is a long time -- especially for teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves who remade their roster at the trade deadline and had almost no time to build on-court chemistry. D'Angelo Russell and Karl-Anthony Towns played in one game together in the 2019-20 season.

There's also the issue of the draft and the draft lottery. For the teams that make the playoffs, draft order will be based on their regular-season record, including their eight "seeded" games. But for the lottery teams, the lottery odds are locked in as of their record on March 11. 

That eliminates the incentive for the Wizards to tank the eight-game slate in epic fashion, go 0-and-8 and leap the Charlotte Hornets and Chicago Bulls in the draft order odds. As my astute colleague Dan Feldman points out, that would raise the Wizards' odds of a top-three pick from six percent to 15 percent. 

My hope is that the Wizards wouldn't do that for the spirit of the competition, but the fact that the NBA pre-empted such an egregious tank job by freezing draft odds on March 11 is a tacit admission that teams are incentivized to throw games. We should just abolish the draft all together and let prospects choose their destination like we do for NBA free agents already. But that's a discussion for another day.

Charlotte and Chicago have to be happy the league stepped in. If there's a silver lining for the Delete Eight, as John Hollinger brilliantly dubbed them, it's that they can finally move forward with clarity. The draft is tentatively set for Oct. 15 and the Bulls, who have picked seventh in the last two drafts, have the seventh-best odds in the draft lottery. At least there's some semblance of normalcy in all this.

How weird is this going to be?

Super weird, at first. Are we going to have ads covering up the seats? Are we going to pipe in crowd noise? How much will that taint the viewer experience? 

We'll probably get used to that, just like we're used to laugh tracks on sitcoms. We better get used to it. Believe me, the NBA or the players' union won't allow raw audio from the court to be heard at home. That screams PR disaster. 

Even if they could offer an "uncensored" feed for a nominal fee to scrape together some extra dough, I'm guessing the unsavory stuff would trickle out onto the internet in no time. There are better ways for the NBA to have fans feel more engaged and closer to the action. Referee cams? Alternate broadcaster teams? NBA Jam-like flames when a player hits consecutive shots? Let's get weird.

What does this mean for the NBA beyond 2020?

Even before this pandemic hit, I've argued that the NBA should kick off the regular season on Christmas Day. It's time to make it a permanent change. Most fans don't tune into the NBA until Christmas anyway (the league office programs its national TV schedule accordingly). The NBA has owned that day on the sports calendar. Just make it official already.

Although the NBA says that it will "likely" begin the 2020-21 season on Dec. 1, I wouldn't be surprised if they buy some more time to raise the chances that they can get at least some fans in the seats. The commissioner has told players recently that ticket revenue typically makes up 40 percent of the league's income, according to a report from Shams Charania. That's an enormous pile of cash to leave behind in 2020-21. 

It'd be difficult to slowly re-integrate fans into the stands without shutting down for a period of time, allowing arena staff to reset protocols and observe new health guidelines. Perhaps the NBA can gradually fill seats on the fly without a pause in the schedule, but finding a sensible and healthy way to recoup ticket revenues should be a top priority for 2020-21.

From a fatigue standpoint, a Dec. 1 start for next season seems to be pushing it. The Finals will end sometime in early October and training camp would be slated for Nov. 10. Do we really want the league's best players and teams to be coming into training camp ragged for 2020-21? After an injury-marred season from Curry and Williamson, I'd imagine the league will be looking to ensure every possibility that its top draws are as healthy as possible.

It seems the dates for 2020-21 are moving targets, according to reports from ESPN. My educated guess is that the league settles on Christmas Day as the 2020-21 season opener, pending any major coronavirus developments. A lot can change between now and then.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

NBAs biggest questions before return originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

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