Barring another force majeure, the NBA is moving forward with plans to resume the 2019-20 season in late July, likely at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, all as the coronavirus death toll exceeds 100,000 nationwide. Nothing is set in stone, but commissioner Adam Silver is expected to present a plan to the National Basketball Players Association next week, following conference calls with the league’s general managers on Thursday and its Board of Governors on Friday.
We have spent recent weeks detailing the NBA’s shift from abject safety to reduced risk in the face of a stark financial landscape, as well as the many additional risk factors created by a condensed schedule and the freedom of players to leave and reenter a single-site location. The plan to allow family members to join players on campus raises further questions, but momentum continues to build toward a return.
What better time, then, to detail who benefits most and least from the NBA’s expedited resumption.
Who benefits the most from an NBA return?
The Board of Governors
There can be little doubt that the league’s likely return in late July is financially motivated, and nobody benefits from an influx of revenue more than the owners. The absence of fans is a blow to their bottom line, but the NBA’s national TV deal is worth an average of $2.7 billion annually, to say nothing of regional sports network contracts, and recouping as much of that remaining money for this season as possible is of high import.
The NBA may be better equipped to test for and respond to an outbreak of coronavirus at a single location than it was with players traveling freely between cities in March, but there is still considerable risk to anyone entering a campus-like environment that will reportedly still allow players to leave and reenter the bubble.
Silver reportedly acknowledged to players earlier this month that the decision to resume comes down to “a series of bad options” and “no decision we make will be risk-free.” You know who is taking the least risk? Owners who do not need to attend the actual games and presumably would be protected from being held liable for the potential spread of coronavirus to employees and their families.
ESPN and Turner Sports did not bid $24 billion for the rights to broadcast NBA games out of the goodness of their hearts. They did so with the intention of leveraging those rights into advertising and other profitable revenue streams, most of which were contracted well before the season was put on ice. No network benefits more than ESPN, who in addition to receiving its share of a full playoff schedule would also play host to hundreds of people at a Wide World of Sports complex that would otherwise go empty for months.
There is zero risk to fans, who will not attend games this season but are starved for live action while heavy restrictions remain in place around the country. Playoff basketball would be a welcome distraction from the monotony of isolation, even if the communal aspect of fandom might still be lacking come mid-summer.
All players have been assessed 25 percent pay cuts since mid-May, so there is an incentive for every one of them to resume this season, but maximum-salaried players obviously benefit most. NBPA president Chris Paul’s biweekly paycheck is an estimated $370,255 lighter per cycle. Each of the superstars on the May 11 conference call who established a united front to resume the season is making in excess of $25 million.
Legacies are built on playoff performance, and removing one season of a superstar’s prime could have a serious impact primarily on his position in the NBA’s pantheon and to a lesser degree his marketability. Nobody has more riding on this season than James, who at 35 years old has few prime seasons left to add rings in pursuit of the legendary champions ahead of him. When the NBA hit pause on this season, his Los Angeles Lakers owned the Western Conference’s top playoff seed and ranked among the title favorites.
This may represent James’ last best shot at a ring. There is no guarantee the Lakers find the same balance of production and chemistry next season, when he will be one year older and a handful of key contributors have the option to leave in free agency, and there is no guarantee other teams will not be better in 2020-21.
Los Angeles Clippers
On the flip side, the Lakers fought hard to earn home-court advantage throughout the West playoffs, and a neutral site nixes that effort. The advantage was even greater against the Clippers, who share the Staples Center in a city that overwhelmingly favors the Lakers. The Clips pose the greatest threat to the Lakers, whose fans still would have filled at least half the arena in so-called road games. Removing crowds puts them on an even playing field throughout a series, and no one wants to give Kawhi Leonard an added edge.
San Antonio Spurs
The most likely scenario for a return to play this season features some sort of play-in scenario for West teams within arm’s reach of the final playoff seed. The conference’s field could be expanded to 12 teams under multiple scenarios, and the last team on that list would be the Spurs, who trailed the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies by four games with 18 to play when the league went on hiatus. They were in jeopardy of snapping a 22-year playoff streak that dates back to coach Gregg Popovich’s first full season at the helm.
Now? They are a veteran team well-versed in a legendary coach’s proven system that would have inherent advantages in must-win scenarios against untested young teams like the Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings suddenly thrust into a playoff atmosphere in an even more unfamiliar location. Same goes for the Portland Trail Blazers, who are riding a six-year playoff streak of their own and will presumably be adding injured starters Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back into the rotation if and when play resumes.
The Sixers started the season with championship aspirations. They certainly have the talent, but the pairing of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons — along with Tobias Harris, Al Horford and Josh Richardson — failed to meet expectations. The chemistry on and off the court led to in-fighting and finger-pointing. They owned a 10-24 road record and too often played to the level of their opponents, saved only by solid performances at home and against elite competition. It all led to a sixth-place standing during the regular-season stretch run.
When the season hit the skids, Embiid had just returned from a shoulder injury, and Simmons was shelved at least another three weeks with a back issue. Both should be rested, and months away from each other might offer perspective on where things went wrong from a commitment to the collective. If there is a team that needed a restart button to the season, it was the Sixers. They can absolutely catch lightning in a bottle for a two-month stretch when offenses could be rusty and a great defense might just dictate a champion.
Most veterans have carefully crafted routines to ensure they are at peak performance when the playoffs come around, but a four-month interruption right at the point where they were rounding into top shape can put a wrench into a finely tuned machine. There can be little doubt that young players are better prepared to meet the demands of game conditioning during a condensed playoff schedule after an extended absence.
The Rockets, Bucks and Lakers are the NBA’s three oldest rosters on average, which makes sense, since aspiring champions often fill rosters with playoff experienced veterans. Andre Iguodala is a prime example of the issues facing battle-tested teams. He sat out the first half of the season in Memphis, biding his time for a trade to a contender, ultimately landing in Miami, where he played just 14 games to mixed results before the hiatus. Forced into another long break from the game, he will be expected to return playoff-ready.
On the flip side, the Boston Celtics are the NBA’s third-youngest roster and the youngest of any contender by a fairly wide margin. A lower-seeded team like the Grizzlies could also be a surprise out of the gate. Headlined by Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant, they own the league’s youngest average age (23.6 years old), and both Jaren Jackson and Brandon Clarke were nursing injuries when play was suspended. That trio has the potential to put a scare into a top seed if conditioning becomes a factor in the early going.
Who benefits the least from an NBA return?
The Bucks were in the midst of a dream season, on pace to win 70 games for much of the year. Their momentum toward the franchise’s first Finals appearance since 1971 was halted, and their grip on home-court advantage throughout the playoffs is gone. Granted, Giannis Antetokounmpo was nursing a knee injury entering the hiatus, and his healthy return may mean more than any other factor, but he was expected to be playoff-ready regardless. Will the rest of the team meet his readiness if play resumes?
Take someone like George Hill, for example. He was shooting 48 percent from 3-point range this season, a career high by a mile after shooting 28 percent in Milwaukee a year ago. There was no telling whether he could continue apace then, and it is even more of a question now. The Bucks led all teams in effective field-goal percentage, and a four-month break in action resets the NBA’s shooting percentages.
Late lottery teams
All indications entering Friday were that the NBA will leave some teams home if and when play resumes, both as a precautionary and productivity measure. It appears there will be some sort of play-in tournament, likely expanding the 16-team playoff field to 20 teams. While one or two of the teams currently on the outside looking in could leap into a playoff spot, there will be at least two or three teams that take all the risk of contracting a potentially lethal virus and go home with nothing to show for it — or even worse.
The NBA is reportedly weighing how the lottery will look without all teams playing the same number of games. There is also the possibility a team currently in the playoff picture gets bounced in the play-in stage. Do they then get the pingpong balls as a result? The most logical solution is to lock every team invited to campus this summer into draft positions (likely 11-30) and limit the lottery to the teams staying at home.
However, say you are the Spurs, owners of the 11th-worst record and a team that has not drafted in the lottery since selecting Tim Duncan No. 1 overall in 1997. They could go from a franchise that benefits most from the break to one that benefits the least if they fail to make the playoff field and lose their lottery odds.
The Suns are the league’s second-youngest team, but they may never get to take advantage of their youth. If play resumes with the teams that own the NBA’s top-20 records, Phoenix would be the last team eliminated. Currently 13th in the Western Conference, the Suns trail the ninth-place Portland Trail Blazers by just two losses, one of which came when the two teams played each other on the eve of the shutdown. Sure, they were not likely to make the playoffs if the regular season were played in full, but their absence from a potential play-in tournament would come down to a matter of when the schedule was suspended.
The EuroLeague canceled the remainder of its season due in part to “an increased injury risk for players” resulting from “a reduced training camp schedule,” and yet the NBA is moving forward in the face of that same risk. That is a difficult reality for 2020 free agents, who will be assuming additional financial risk on top of the fact that the hiatus is expected to have a sizable short-term impact on next year’s salary cap.
Danilo Gallinari is a 32-year-old in line for his last big contract, playing on an Oklahoma City Thunder team that will compete in any playoff scenario without a realistic shot at winning a ring. If the hastened schedule results in an injury, he could lose a heck of a lot more than the 25 percent pay cut he is currently taking.
NBA training and medical personnel have been increasingly well compensated in recent years, as teams place more emphasis on sports science. They still make a fraction of what players and coaches earn, and yet they may be at the greatest risk once play returns. There is a chance teams share personnel in an effort to limit the number of people inside the bubble. Those who do get invited would presumably be responsible for treating players infected with COVID-19 in addition to the possibility of an increased workload created by a sped-up schedule, which in turn only creates more opportunities for them to contract coronavirus.
General managers reportedly voted heavily in favor of expanding rosters for the condensed season. How the NBA and its players’ union negotiates salaries for two-way players will be awfully interesting. Two-way players earn salaries prorated for days split between the NBA and G League. For every day spent in the association up to 45 days, they earn the corresponding amount based on the $898,310 rookie minimum. Their salary drops considerably in the G League, prorated by day based on a $77,350 salary. Two-way players traditionally are not eligible for the playoffs but can practice with their team on the inactive list.
There are several financial and moral questions at play here. You can bet any date spent on hiatus was based on a G League salary, and there are obvious incentives for two-way players to be around their teams once play resumes, if only to further prove their value for a potential roster spot in 2020-21. But how will they be compensated? Will teams be given additional roster spots to convert two-way players to rookie minimum deals for the remainder of the season and playoffs, regardless of salary-cap implications?
There is a chance to make more money here, for sure, but while the difference in salary for minimum and maximum contracts is still the same 25 percent, players on rookie minimum contracts are currently missing $8,638 per biweekly paycheck compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars superstars are losing. If resuming play is financially motivated, not all players are being compensated equally for assuming the risk.
NBA practice facilities are open to all but a handful of teams in states that have not yet opened doors to nonessential workers or made exceptions for professional sports. The Celtics are the only team with a realistic shot to make the Finals whose facility isn’t open, which puts them behind the eight ball as teams prepare for a restart.
Sure, the league is still restricting workouts to individuals and limiting the number of players at practice facilities to four, and they must remain 12 feet apart but there is an added benefit to working directly with a staff member rather than remotely. It is also difficult to tell how strictly the league can enforce its rules, as there is no set guideline for disciplinary measures. For example, Lakers and Clippers players have reportedly been holding group workouts at private facilities during the break and in violation of league rules.
The league is reportedly considering flipping the draft and free agency this season, but either way there will be a condensed window for both between the end of this season and the beginning of next. That means a ton of intelligence gathering must be done in a short amount of time, even for the most prepared of front offices. There is a chance restrictions could still be in place for working out potential draft picks, and group settings where back-room deals between agents and GMs are made may be fewer and farther between.
On the other hand, hotels at the Wide World of Sports complex could be petri dishes for tampering. It would be quite the power move for Miami Heat president Pat Riley to knock on Antetokounmpo’s hotel room door the night of a shocking upset of the Bucks, all while Golden State Warriors GM Bob Myers is stuck at home. What’s stopping Lakers GM Rob Pelinka from saddling up to the hotel bar six feet from a prospective free agent? Here is to the league broadcasting live feeds of all the hotel lobbies on NBA TV.
Few businesses are being hit harder by the epidemic than restaurants and bars, and those around NBA arenas rely heavily on the crowds that pack them before and after regular-season and playoff games. Many may still be closed, only offering takeout or operating at limited capacity when this season resumes, all while patrons are being encouraged to avoid gatherings nearby, much less in the business districts most arenas operate. So, consider hitting them up for your playoff game-night take-out spreads.
– – – – – – –
More from Yahoo Sports: