NBA season suspended: Questions, answers and what comes next

Henry Bushnell
·13 min read

The NBA has suspended its 2019-20 season after one of its players, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, tested positive for the coronavirus. The disease, COVID-19, which has been declared a pandemic, has already wreaked havoc on the sports world. But the NBA is the first major American league to self-impose a shutdown. The morning after it did, a second Jazz player, Donovan Mitchell, also tested positive for the virus.

What follows are some key questions and answers about the current situation, the consequences, and what comes next.

Has the NBA season been canceled?

No. It’s been suspended indefinitely. Meaning games will not happen “until further notice.” When those games will eventually happen, or whether they will ever happen at all, is unknown.

How long will the season be suspended?

At least 30 days. That decision was made on an NBA conference call with owners Thursday, a source told Yahoo Sports’ Vince Goodwill. Then the league will reassess. With the virus not contained and spreading, it is possible, if not probable, that the hiatus will be longer.

Will the rest of the season be played at all?

It still could be. But that, too, is up in the air. Unless or until the NBA announces otherwise, all games previously scheduled to occur during the shutdown should be considered postponed. Contingency plans could include rescheduling them, playing a full 82-game regular season and a full playoff. They could include canceling some, rescheduling others, and therefore shortening the regular season, or even concluding it as things stand right now.

The playoffs could begin as scheduled on April 18, or months later. They could be canceled altogether. Everything is on the table – though, given the money at stake, an outright cancellation seems unlikely. (More on the money later.)

Is Rudy Gobert the only NBA player with COVID-19?

No. Mitchell, Gobert’s teammate, was tested late Wednesday night. The test came back positive Thursday morning. His is the second confirmed case.

But that does not mean there aren’t others, or won’t be others. Symptoms often don’t arise until days, or even a week, after the virus has been contracted. Dozens of NBA players could realistically have it. We won’t know until texting has been carried out over the coming days.

Basketball fans leave Chesapeake Energy Arena after it is announced that an NBA basketball game between Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz in Oklahoma City has been postponed, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Kyle Phillips)
Basketball fans leave Chesapeake Energy Arena after the Thunder-Jazz game was postponed. (AP Photo/Kyle Phillips)

Have other players been tested?

Steph Curry was tested last week. (The test came back negative.) If others had been prior to Wednesday night, the tests had not been made public. However, when news of Gobert’s positive test reached the court shortly before tipoff between the Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday, both teams returned to their locker rooms. The game was called off. Jazz players were quarantined, and eventually tested. All other members of the Jazz traveling party were as well.

Per The Athletic, after Gobert’s positive test, 58 other tests were carried out in total. Mitchell’s, the Jazz confirmed, was the only that came back positive.

When and where was Gobert tested?

Gobert was tested on Wednesday morning. He reportedly never went to Chesapeake Energy Arena, where the game was scheduled to take place, instead staying at the hotel. He is currently in Oklahoma City under care of local health officials, according to the Jazz.

Is Gobert seriously ill?

No. In fact, he was going to play on Wednesday night if the test came back negative. He had been listed as questionable on the gameday injury report. The Athletic reported that Gobert was feeling “good, strong and stable,” and that he had been “asymptomatic up until Tuesday night.” Orlando Magic guard and fellow Frenchman Evan Fournier tweeted after the game was called that he had talked to Gobert, who was “doing good.”

But the fact that his symptoms aren’t severe has nothing to do with his ability to spread the virus to others. Which is why such swift and drastic measures were taken.

Where are Jazz players and staff right now?

All Jazz personnel on the road trip had been scheduled to fly back to Utah on Wednesday night. Instead, they were stuck at the arena for hours. Team buses finally left a little after 1 a.m. CT.

The team reportedly stayed the night in Oklahoma and is working on arrangements to fly – or bus – back to Utah.

What about the reporters whose recorders Gobert jokingly touched?

Gobert’s positive test came two days after he appeared to mock those panicking over the virus by touching microphones and tape recorders after a news conference.

Media members who regularly cover the Jazz were also tested late Wednesday night along with team staffers. The Utah Department of Public Health considered the microphone-touching incident “low-risk exposure.” Results of the tests will arrive Thursday at the earliest.

Gobert, according to a report from ESPN, had also been “careless in the locker room touching other players and their belongings.” On Thursday afternoon, he adm he apologized for

Should fans who attended a Jazz game be worried?

Unless they gave Gobert or another player a high-five as he was leaving the court, they don’t need to be worried about contracting the virus from that player. They did, however, put themselves at risk by attending a public event with thousands of others who may or may not have COVID-19.

Are other NBA teams worried?

The Jazz, over the previous 10 days, played against the Toronto Raptors, Detroit Pistons, Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers. Those teams have reportedly been instructed to self-quarantine until further notice. The Raptors, who faced the Jazz on Monday, were given precautionary coronavirus tests, according to The Athletic. And per ESPN, some players from Utah’s other recent opponents sought out testing as well.

Elsewhere, in Sacramento, the Kings and New Orleans Pelicans were set to play the NBA’s final game Wednesday night before the season suspension kicked in. Players, however, realized that one of the game’s referees, Courtney Kirkland, had officiated the Jazz-Raptors game two days earlier. The Pelicans reportedly didn’t want to play, and the game was canceled.

But frankly, the answer to the question is that everyone should take precautions. The Pistons played the Jazz on Saturday. Detroit played the Sixers in Philadelphia on Wednesday. There is every chance they brought the virus with them. Unknowns are rampant.

What will NBA teams do in the meantime?

They’re currently trying to figure that out. There will be self-quarantines. Players will stay at home. Beyond that? ESPN reported that owners and executives have been pestering the league office with all sorts of logistical questions. On Wednesday night, there weren’t many answers. According to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, the league has told teams they can still practice. And to some extent, players will likely try to stay in shape. But basketball readiness seems secondary at the moment.

The NBA board of governors is reportedly scheduled to meet via teleconference at 3:30 p.m. ET Thursday.

Will players still get paid?

That, it would appear, depends on whether the games eventually get played. Because there’s a clause in the NBA-NBPA collective bargaining agreement – Article XXXIX, section 5(b) – that discusses this exact scenario. It defines a “Force Majeure Event” as any number of extraordinary circumstances, including “epidemics,” that bring the league to a halt. And it states:

“If a Force Majeure Event occurs and, as a result, one or more Teams are unable to play one or more games … then, for each missed game during such period (the “Force Majeure Period”) that was not rescheduled and replayed, the Compensation payable to each player who was on the roster of a Team that was unable to play one or more games during the Force Majeure Period shall be reduced by 1/92.6th of the player’s Compensation for the Season(s) covering the Force Majeure Period.”

In practice, this means: If the Thunder and Jazz never make up Wednesday’s game, the $38.5 million the Thunder owe Chris Paul this season becomes $38.1 million. If every remaining Thunder regular season game and the entire NBA playoffs were canceled, it would become $28.7 million. The league’s highest-paid players could stand to lose around $10 million.

Now, some or all contracts may very well have their own clauses that counteract this. Some players may have insurance that protects them. All of this, however, highlights how strong the incentives are, for all sides, to eventually finish this season in one form or another. Because the reason player compensation would be undercut? It’s tied to team revenue, which would diminish with every lost game.

How much money could teams lose?

NBA teams average around $2 million per game in revenue from ticket sales, concessions, in-arena merchandise purchases and parking. That’s according to a Yahoo Sports analysis informed by 2018-19 Forbes data and several sports economists. And for every game shelved, that estimated $2 million is lost. In its entirety. If the rest of the regular season were scrapped, that’s a very rough estimate of $518 million down the drain – or 1/18th of the NBA’s annual $9 billion of revenue.

Then there are the local sponsorship deals, and, of course, both local and national broadcast contracts, all of which are affected. But many of these, experts say, will have their own “Force Majeure” provisions, or insurance that indemnifies the league in these worst-case scenarios. The NBA, sports economist Andrew Zimbalist says, “Probably has cancellation insurance and makes good arrangements with TV networks, so additional losses will be moderated.”

“Of course, the other thing you lose is the emotional impact of the games,” Zimbalist continues. This is the intangible consequence of cancellations. It’s the 10-year-old who goes to a game, then asks for a jersey for his birthday, then becomes a fan for life. “That’s a seminal moment in the formation of their fandom,” Zimbalist says. And if games are canceled, for some time, “that won’t be there anymore.”

So the answer to the question — How much money could teams lose? — is largely unquantifiable. What is known is that the impact, even from one night of canceled games, would be eight figures. The impact from two weeks of canceled games would be nine figures.

And whatever money is lost? It’s money lost for the players as well.

Will this impact next year’s salary cap?

Per the CBA, NBA players must earn 51 percent of the league’s basketball-related income. The salary cap, therefore, is a function revenue. When revenue takes a hit, like it did amid the NBA’s China controversy, cap projections dip. In 2017, the Warriors’ crusade through the playoffs meant several fewer total playoff games and contributed to the cap falling $2 million short of a $101 million projection. The cancellation of weeks of games, not to mention the rest of the season, would have a far more significant impact. It would affect free agency, player earnings, and the competitive future of the league.

The line from 2019-20 revenue to 2020-21 cap is far from direct, though. Cap expert Larry Coon explained in an email to Yahoo Sports: “The cap is set based on projected revenues for that [next] season. Under ordinary circumstances the previous season is the best predictor of that, and they normally set the cap by taking the known values for the national TV money and adding a 4.5% bump to the remaining revenues. But obviously, that doesn’t work under circumstances like these. Since this season’s revenues will be a poor predictor for next season’s revenues, they’ll do something different.

“Following the 2011 lockout they played an abbreviated season, so it was a similar circumstance (revenue-wise) to this one. That year they agreed on an amount to use for the cap and luxury tax for that season, and used that amount as a minimum for the following season’s cap – it could get higher, but it couldn’t get lower. I suspect they’ll do something similar this year.”

So, in summary: Missing games would have an impact on the cap. But perhaps not as drastic an impact as lost revenue numbers might suggest.

Who else will suffer financially?

The class of NBA-adjacent humans harmed most by the suspension of the season, however, isn’t the millionaire players or billionaire owners. “LeBron James is not eating ramen next week if his salary is cut and he's not allowed to play,” sports economist Victor Matheson told Yahoo Sports. “Mark Cuban is not downsizing to a 1989 Corolla because he's losing money.

“It's definitely the hourly workers that are hurt the most, because none of them have any sort of vacation benefits, I can assure you that. And the sort of person that has that job typically does not have deep pockets."

It’s the everyday folks whose names you don’t know, who serve you hot dogs and monitor metal detectors and fuel the NBA’s nightly entertainment machine. “It’s not about the team,” Cuban said when asked what concerned him following news of the suspension. “It’s about the country and life in general. … I’m concerned about, now that we’re not playing games, what about the people that work here on an hourly basis?”

Later, he continued: “I reached out to the folks at the arena and our folks at the Mavs to find out what it would cost to financially support people who aren’t gonna be able to come to work. They get paid by the hour. This is their source of income. So we’ll do some things there. We may ask them to go do some volunteer work in exchange. But we’ve already started the process of having a program in place.”

In the meantime, will there be any other sports to watch?

That, as with so much, remains to be determined. The NCAA men’s basketball tournament, at this time, remains on. But that could change at any moment. You can stay up to date with all the latest news on the coronavirus’ effect on the sports world right here.

Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Eisenberg contributed reporting.

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