The NBA's ability to complete the 2019-20 season in the Orlando bubble was a resounding success. Zero cases of COVID-19 were found in the bubble, the Lakers were crowned champions after an exciting playoffs (excepting the East's first round), lucrative TV contracts were fulfilled, and the league's innovations paid off. Those included a play-in tournament for the postseason, which may become a permanent fixture of the NBA schedule.
The honeymoon didn't last long. The league's front office concluded that it wasn't feasible to delay the start of the 2020-21 season in hopes of getting fans into arenas. Instead, they've proposed a Dec. 22 start with a 72-game season, but that's run into opposition from the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA). Most players seem to favor a start in mid-January even if it erodes salaries, which are tied to the number of games played. The NBA is forecasting a loss of at least $500 million in league-wide revenue if games don't begin in December, which seems less likely by the day. During a call with the league's GMs on Monday, commissioner Adam Silver said that "time is running out" for an agreement between the NBA and NBPA.
There are many intertwining threads to this story:
The NBPA is discussing numerous "financial amendments" which must be made to the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement.
The NBA doesn't want the 2020-21 season to extend into July for a few reasons. Perhaps most important, the league fears overlapping with the Tokyo Olympics (July 23-Aug 8). Players on the national team need sufficient time before and after Tokyo, and the NBA also fears plummeting TV ratings if they're counter-programmed vs. the Olympics. The NBPA is also pushing for players to get their usual summers off.
The league is projecting that 40% of total revenue could be lost without fans in arenas. The play-in tournament (below) is one way to add games, and therefore revenue, and the NBA is also hoping to "expand guidelines on sports betting, hard alcohol and casinos."
The league is developing a permanent 'play-in' tournament, wherein seeds 7-10 would compete for two playoff spots. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski sums it up, writing, "The tournament would begin with No. 7 hosting No. 8, and the winner locking into the No. 7 spot. Meanwhile, No. 9 would face No. 10, with the winner advancing to play the loser of the 7-versus-8 matchup for the No. 8 seed. That setup gives the teams who finish the regular season seventh and eighth two chances to secure a postseason berth. The Nos. 9 and 10 teams would have to win twice -- without losing."
China's decision not to televise NBA games, following then-Rockets-GM Daryl Morey's support for protests in Hong Kong, reportedly cost the league hundreds of millions of dollars in 2019-20. That exacerbated financial losses caused by the pandemic, but there may be daylight -- China aired Game 5 of the Finals and may be softening their stance.
Even if a Dec. 22 start is agreed upon, it's possible that some players might not suit up until January. On a recent podcast, Danny Green said, "To have that quick of a restart, I wouldn’t expect to see [LeBron James] there. I wouldn’t expect to see him probably for the first month of the season. He’ll probably be working out with us … but I just don’t expect guys to want to be there, or show up willingly." That's particularly true for the Lakers, considering they'd have 10-11 weeks off between Game 6 of the Finals and opening night.
For fantasy managers, the scheduling uncertainty is loaded with risk and opportunity. Whether play begins in December or January, fantasy leagues will draft and begin in a condensed timeframe. Veteran players are likely to get even more DNP-Rest than they've had in recent years -- those who played in the bubble and especially those who made a playoff run. I'm therefore leery of drafting veterans on good teams with postseason aspirations, even if they come at a discount in drafts. Guys already prone to DNPs also face exaggerated risk (Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid, Zion Williamson, LaMarcus Aldridge, Draymond Green, etc.).
When it comes to injuries, I'm steering clear. There's always a risk/reward equation in fantasy drafts, which sometimes compels me to take a gamble -- maybe Marvin Bagley's growing injury history has been just a streak of bad luck, and he'll find his footing as a top-50 fantasy option. That type of gamble seem less appealing to me in a shortened season, especially one that features a play-in tournament - teams might rest key guys more often during the regular season, knowing they can still vie for a playoff spot as the No. 10 seed. Recovering players I'm unlikely to draft include Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Jaren Jackson Jr., Will Barton, John Wall (of course), etc.
Speaking of injuries, I'll conclude today's news roundup with a look at two guys I could have easily listed above -- Kristaps Porzingis and Kemba Walker. In general, injury updates have been few and far between since the season ended. Beat writers' access to teams and players has been curtailed by the pandemic, which puts a premium on actionable information in fantasy leagues. There will be a flood of injury updates over the next 4-6 weeks, but for now it's slim pickings.
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On Oct. 9, Kristaps Porzingis had surgery to repair his right knee's lateral meniscus. The Mavs' official press statement concluded, "Porzingis will begin rehab immediately and there is no timetable set at this time." He got hurt in Game 1 vs. the Clippers on Aug. 17, so the surgery didn't happen until more than seven weeks later. Presumably, the Mavs wanted to give KP's knee a chance to heal on its own without surgery. When that didn't happen, they went to the operating table. Unfortunately, with the potential for a very quick turnaround (if the season does start in December) that long delay could threaten his status for opening night.
According to ESPN's Tim MacMahon, "[T]he Mavs are optimistic that Porzingis will be able to participate in training camp." The caveat here is that the Mavs' quote came prior to the league officially targeting Dec. 22 for opening night. If training camp begins in late November, for instance, Porzingis may be only six weeks removed from knee surgery. For a guy with a growing list of knee ailments in his brief pro career, whom the Mavs view as a long-term franchise pillar next to Luka Doncic, I'd expect an extremely cautious approach to his return. From a fantasy perspective, I'm very wary of him. He was fantastic in the month prior to the league's shutdown, averaging 23.4 points, 11.3 rebounds, 3.2 dimes, 3.1 triples and a whopping 3.0 blocks. If you want to chase those stats in the second round, I understand the impulse. But in a shortened season with all the risk stated above, I'm not eager to roster KP.
If he does miss extended time, the primary beneficiary would be Dwight Powell...assuming his ruptured right Achilles is fully healed. Otherwise, it'll be a platoon with Maxi Kleber, a dash of Boban Marjanovic, and plenty of small-ball with a guy like Dorian Finney-Smith getting minutes at center. It remains to be seen whether Willie Cauley-Stein will opt into his $2.2 million player option or test his value as a free agent. In the 18 games Porzingis missed last season, only Luka Doncic averaged more minutes than Finney-Smith (31.3 minutes) and Kleber (29.7).
Shifting our attention East, Kemba Walker's left knee will not require surgery -- or at least that's what to Celtics president Danny Ainge said in early October. “I don’t know the offseason answers yet," Ainge said. "Probably over the next week to two weeks we will have a full plan for Kemba in the offseason, regardless of what the medical tests come back and everything else. There’s no surgery needed or anything else that I’m aware of at this time." We've yet to hear about a comprehensive plan for his recovery, but let this be a warning to fantasy managers. If you draft Kemba next season, be prepared for limited minutes and precautionary rest days.
The Celtics have multiple guys who can handle the ball and direct the offense, especially with Gordon Hayward likely to opt into his deal for 2020-21. Still, when Kemba is limited or resting the biggest winner should be Marcus Smart. After him comes Brad Wanamaker, who likely did enough to convince Boston to retain him as a backup PG. He's a restricted free agent, and he earns a hefty offer from another team he could leave -- no matter where he's playing, though, he'll merely be a situational DFS/streaming play.
For more perspectives on the season ahead, check out the Rotoworld hoops podcast! Matt Stroup and Steve Alexander recently discussed which older players can or can't be trusted, as well as the impact of 'load management' and rest days on particular players.