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The truest reply to pretty much any question about the N.B.A.’s hopes for restarting its shuttered 2019-20 season is that none of us have the answers.
Can the league really restart in June if players keep testing positive for the coronavirus? Would teams play a few regular-season games, if we somehow get to that point, or just jump right into the playoffs? Are arenas destined to be closed off to fans when the league does come back? How realistic is it for the season to carry into August or even September? What impact would all that have on the 2020-21 season?
Nobody knows, sadly. Not yet.
“We are trying, and we are motivated to play again when we can,” Bob Myers, Golden State’s president of basketball operations, said in a conference call on Tuesday, six days after the league suspended operations. “We all want to play, but not at the risk of anyone’s health.”
My plan this week had been to try to offer a respite from the more dire real-world questions piling up in the face of the coronavirus crisis. I wanted to explain why the league office has been exploring every avenue to try to address a few of those unknowns and salvage some sort of proper ending to its 74th season.
Then the Nets announced that four of their players had tested positive for the coronavirus, with Kevin Durant telling The Athletic that he was among them. The sporting world, without warning, was reminded yet again how fluid this all is — and perhaps how futile the league’s efforts may prove to be.
As one of the smartest N.B.A. medical people I know told me shortly after the Nets’ bulletin: Assume you are carrying the coronavirus, and take every precaution you can to avoid spreading it.
Yet there are still optimists in this league — even as seven players and counting have tested positive — who cling to the belief that the season can be resurrected as we’re seeing happen now for professional basketball in China, where the virus originated. Among the optimists’ motivations:
The N.B.A. has crowned a champion in each of its 73 previous seasons and wants to avoid the sort of unappealing, unresolved conclusion to a season that Major League Baseball endured in 1994, when a labor impasse halted play in August. League officials want this even if it means returning from a first-of-its-kind extended delay to play in empty arenas and serving up the type of raggedy product that could well result from a lengthy hiatus.
It had already been a brutal season for the league financially before the coronavirus outbreak, stretching back to the China controversy in the preseason started by a tweet from Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey in support of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. During All-Star Weekend in Chicago, N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver estimated the “substantial” financial hit from Morey’s tweet would be in the “hundreds of millions” of dollars. The next bill will surely be steeper in terms of lost revenue, refunds owed to television partners, etc., if March 11 indeed proves to be the final day of the N.B.A.’s 2019-20 campaign.
Some key N.B.A. figures welcome an experiment with radical changes to the schedule, such as contesting the N.B.A. finals in August, pushing free agency into September and starting the 2020-21 season on Christmas Day. It is hardly unanimous, but there is a faction eager to turn the delay forced upon the league by the coronavirus outbreak into an unexpected testing ground.
It’s still way too soon for anyone at Olympic Tower in Manhattan to say the N.B.A. won’t cancel the rest of the season. How could they? The best medical minds around are still getting a handle on how grave the outbreak will be in North America.
Fears persist that, as discussed in our recent piece on Danilo Gallinari of the Oklahoma City Thunder, conditions in the United States could worsen the way they have in Gallinari’s native Italy if Americans don’t get more serious about heeding government directives to practice social distancing in hopes of reducing the spread of the virus.
“For a while, life is not going to be the way it used to be in the United States,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is widely regarded as the nation’s foremost infectious disease expert, told CNN. “We have to just accept that if we want to do what’s best for the American public.”
Yet more energy around the league, at least for now, is being invested in gathering ideas for a comeback as soon as conditions allow rather than in heeding the naysayers who, after hearing the latest on Durant and the Nets, would suggest focusing on ensuring that next season starts on time with minimal disruption.
A drastically reconfigured calendar is indeed generating increased discussion. The league’s 30 teams were directed on Sunday to ramp up their search for dates through the end of August, in N.B.A. G League buildings and team practice facilities as well as their usual arenas, in the event that the N.B.A. gets the chance to see what playoff games actually look like in July and August.
Those who support such an overhaul, like Steve Koonin, the Atlanta Hawks’ team president, believe that a calendar running from September to August with opening day on Christmas, as opposed to the current July-to-June structure with opening day in mid-October, would ultimately put the N.B.A. in more direct competition with baseball rather than with college football and the N.F.L.
The ever-growing status of N.B.A. free agency as a huge July hit has inevitably led some teams to wonder how popular the biggest playoff games could be if staged later in the summer rather than in June, thus pushing the draft/free agency/summer league trifecta all the way into September.
Rest assured there will also be a measure of resistance to such broad changes, which would ultimately have to be collectively bargained with the players. Some teams are skeptical and, even in the short term, bound to question the wisdom of a major shift in policy with little advance planning or a better feel for unintended consequences.
Among the uncertainties: What would be the impact, good and bad, on the W.N.B.A. if the N.B.A. plays more of its season concurrently? Might we see W.N.B.A./N.B.A. doubleheaders, as Terri Jackson of the women’s players’ union recently suggested to USA Today?
What’s clear is that a summer of experimentation would be a silver lining in what has otherwise been a deeply challenging and emotionally draining season for Silver’s league because of the China tensions and the January deaths of Kobe Bryant and David Stern.
Especially after days like Tuesday, when the entire N.B.A. was knocked back anew, it would be quite an uplifting sight if the outbreak, now a pandemic, eases to the point that the N.B.A. would be allowed to stage games in June, July and August — even without fans.
It would mean that the United States, as a nation, rebounded in dramatic fashion.
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at email@example.com. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Q: Shouldn’t Nick Nurse be the clear Coach of the Year Award favorite? Given that the Raptors are in second place in the East without Kawhi Leonard, added to the crazy amount of injuries they’ve had to overcome, Nurse should be rewarded because no one predicted any of this. — Marc Marois (Quebec City, Canada)
Stein: I decided to lead off by answering a basketball question because, well, this is a basketball newsletter. Even in the midst of an international crisis, our presumption here is that you want as much of the “usual” coverage as we can muster.
Nurse certainly has the lead on my mythical ballot. The New York Times does not permit its reporters to cast official votes on year-end awards in any sport, but I agree with the case you laid out. The Raptors won 58 games with Leonard last season. No one pegged them to maintain a 59-win pace after he left and joined the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency and Toronto did not add anyone significant to try to replace him.
Yet as we typically see in the COY field, Nurse will face no shortage of competition when voting takes place — and, yes, I do expect awards voting to eventually go ahead, whether or not the N.B.A. season resumes. Nearly 80 percent of the regular-season schedule was completed.
Just don’t forget that Oklahoma City is on a 51-win pace after trading away Paul George and Russell Westbrook, which has to put Billy Donovan in top-three contention. Ja Morant, the runaway favorite for rookie of the year, gets most of the credit for the Memphis Grizzlies’ wholly unforeseen surge to No. 8 in the West, but Taylor Jenkins, the team’s rookie coach, has to be in the conversation, too.
Ditto for the Lakers’ Frank Vogel. Widely portrayed as a consolation prize after the team’s negotiations with Tyronn Lue collapsed last May, Vogel went into the coronavirus hiatus with the league’s second-best record (49-14) and a 5½-game lead atop the West over Doc Rivers’s Clippers.
The Lakers are ranked fourth in the league in offensive efficiency and third in defensive efficiency. Surprising as it is to see three teams in the top five in both categories — Boston and the Clippers join the Lakers on that short list, and Milwaukee is close (No. 6 on offense, No. 1 on defense) — I’d list Vogel as the strongest threat to Nurse given how well, amid much skepticism, he has acclimated to Lakerland.
Q: The N.B.A. will be hot this year because people are jones-ing for sports after not even a week. — @jeffster_ from Twitter
Stein: This tweet from @jeffster_, in response to the prospect of N.B.A. playoff games taking place in July and August, seemed to suggest that the league should be careful when evaluating television ratings in that scenario.
I can’t dispute the notion that the appetite for live sports would be unusually ravenous by that point, given the current dearth of viewing options. So, yes, maybe ratings in July 2020 would not be an accurate representation of what looms in future Julys. Yet it has to be easier to judge the merits of major upheavals in N.B.A. tradition if the league gets an unexpected opportunity to try them out.
You’ll recall that N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver, in recent months, has said as much in response to resistance to his proposals to adopt an in-season, soccer-style tournament and a play-in tournament to determine the last two qualifiers for the postseason in each conference.
He is convinced that the league can get the answers it needs only by actually experimenting in those areas.
Q: Why no fans if the C.D.C. ban is only until May? — @Cr7aboss from Twitter
Stein: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Sunday that gatherings of 50 or more people in the U.S. should be “canceled or postponed” for the next eight weeks. When I tweeted about the recommendation, this respondent questioned why N.B.A. reporters like me were talking about playing games in empty arenas starting in June when the latest guidelines only stretch to mid-May.
The reality is that it’s way too soon to know what to expect come June. In N.B.A. circles, though, many are bracing for restrictions to be extended beyond their current limits in the C.D.C.’s next round of recommendations.
The N.B.A. was the first major sports league in North America to shutter, setting an example for many other team sports in this part of the world. And Rudy Gobert’s positive test for the coronavirus last Wednesday, followed by the sudden cancellation of Utah’s game in Oklahoma City that night, were indeed the events that made the coronavirus crisis “real” for many sports fans in the U.S.
But the N.B.A., before all that, absorbed some justified criticism for its first major measures against the coronavirus, which included the decision to bar members of the news media from locker rooms while continuing to allow fans into arenas to watch games. That led to widespread denunciation of the league, as laid out most eloquently by my old ESPN colleague Ethan Strauss for The Athletic, for appearing to prioritize the health of its players — and potential profits — over the safety of fans at the games.
From here on, then, I suspect that the N.B.A. will be a leader in caution. Hence the widespread expectation that arenas may have to be empty if we are fortunate enough to see professional basketball again this season.
N.B.A. teams have played an average of 64.7 games this season, ranging from a low of 63 games (Lakers and Spurs) to a high of 67 (Hawks and Mavericks).
There are 259 games left on the N.B.A.’s regular-season schedule. In the league’s two seasons shortened by a labor stoppage, it lost 464 (2011-12) and 240 (1998-99) games.
Detroit’s Christian Wood, who was the third N.B.A. player known to test positive for the coronavirus, had emerged as one of the league’s stronger candidates for this season’s Most Improved Player Award. Wood has averaged 21.6 points and 9.1 rebounds since Feb. 1 and has the league’s 16th-best player efficiency rating at 23.2., according to Basketball Reference. Of the 15 players who ranked ahead of Wood, 11 are All-Stars this season.
After returning to the college ranks to take the Iona job, Rick Pitino told @NYTSports on Saturday that he still intends to coach the Greek national team at an Olympic last-chance qualifying tournament in June — provided, of course, that Olympic events are not canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak. The qualifying tournament is scheduled to consist of four six-team groups, with the winner of each group advancing to the 12-team Olympic men’s basketball field. Pitino is one of four Americans who serves as a head coach for another country in the field. The others are Toronto Raptors Coach Nick Nurse (Canada), Mike Taylor (Poland) and Will Voigt (Angola).
Of the eight countries that have already secured berths in the Olympic men’s basketball tournament scheduled for July 25-Aug. 9, four have head coaches who also coach in the N.B.A. They are:
Australia: Sixers Coach Brett Brown
Nigeria: Mike Brown, a Warriors assistant
Spain: Sergio Scariolo, a Raptors assistant
United States: San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich
In addition, Serbia is one of four host countries in the qualifying tournament (along with Canada, Croatia and Lithuania) and has hired the Sacramento Kings’ assistant Igor Kokoskov as its head coach, with Denver Nuggets Coach Mike Malone expected to serve as Kokoskov’s assistant on the Serbian bench.