The 2020 NBA playoffs, under normal circumstances, would begin this weekend with a slate of first-round games Saturday and Sunday.
But with these being anything but normal circumstances, due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has shut down sports, the economy and much of society, the prospect of resuming in some form what’s left of the regular season still is among the league’s options.
“Everything is on the table,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a conference call with media Friday afternoon, after the annual spring Board of Governors meeting was held via video conference earlier in the day.
“The direction that the league office has received from our teams is that all rules are off at this point,” Silver said. “If there is an opportunity to resume play, even if it looks different from what we’ve done historically, we should be modeling it.”
Any restart will push the completion of this 2019-20 season past the traditional end date in mid-to-late June. It’s even possible the NBA would bump the start of next season deeper into the calendar to accommodate what’s left of this one.
One incentive in playing at least some regular-season games is that it would turn the league’s lights back on in all 30 markets, restoring some semblance of normalcy for itself and entertainment for its fans after this harrowing period. The traditional playoff format of 16 teams would leave nearly half the franchises dark until 2020-21.
Silver stressed multiple times, however, that none of them -- the teams, the players, NBA headquarters -- can control, for now, whatever comes next.
“We don’t have a good enough understanding of exactly what those standards are that we need to meet in order to move forward,” he said. “The experts don’t necessarily either.”
As models for the coronavirus’ spread and impact change from day to day, as U.S. governors face re-opening decisions based on uncertain (in the absence of widespread testing) infection and recovery rates, Silver said the NBA is left to balance the health of its employees and fans with the economic realities faced by its teams and what he estimated as 55,000 jobs dependent on the league.
Last week in a #NBATogether interview with “Inside the NBA” host Ernie Johnson streamed on Twitter, Silver said decisions about the business of basketball would be on hold at least through April.
Any timeline update Friday? “It’s about the data and not the date,” the commissioner said, crediting those words to Disney chairman Bob Iger, a guest on Friday’s conference with the owners.
Silver added: “We are not in a position to make any decisions and it’s unclear when we will be.”
Asked to describe the tone of Friday’s tech-style meeting, Silver spoke of the “roll-up-your-sleeve, can-do attitude” of the successful businessmen and entrepreneurs who own sports franchise. But he acknowledged “a fair amount of angst” and frustration too, given what anyone actually can do about the virus’ spread and impact.
Silver spoke of the symbolism attached to sports, and how the NBA – which led most sports enterprises and much of the culture in taking the extreme precaution of suspending play on March 11 – would like to play a lead role in the eventual comeback.
Toward the end of the media session, however, some of the harsh realities faced in this country over the past five weeks, into an undetermined future, demanded comment. That included the NBA, a $7 billion industry that ground to a halt.
“Our revenue in essence has dropped to zero,” Silver said. “That's having a huge financial impact on the team business and the arena business.
“While this virus is of course a dire public health issue, so of course is shutting down the economy. I think it's why the league sees it as our obligation, to the extent we can resume play in a safe way, to look at every potential way of doing so. That’s what we’re doing now.”
Earlier Friday, the league and the National Basketball Players Association agreed on a plan to withhold 25 percent of each player’s paycheck beginning on May 15.
The gradual reduction in player salaries would anticipate or adjust for the cancellation of regular-season or playoff games. Withholding a portion of players’ pay in advance would avoid a situation where players go without paychecks for entire pay periods, for weeks or months to come.
Typically, NBA players are paid on the 1st and 15th of each month, with salary payments since the league’s March 11 shutdown through May 1 made in full. Each game, per the collective bargaining agreement, represents about 1.08 percent of a player’s salary.
Withholding a portion of pay also would eliminate the need for teams to seek reimbursement from players for salaries paid beyond the number of games already completed this season. If, for example, no more regular-season or playoff games are played, a typical player would lose approximately 22 percent of his salary.
The cancellation of games would trigger the “force majeure” clause in the collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the players’ union. This “act of God” provision covers catastrophic circumstances, including a pandemic such as the coronavirus crisis, and stipulates that league can reduce player compensation. (It also allows the NBA to cancel the CBA, though that is not in the plan as of Friday.)
The deal ratified by the NBA and the NBPA helped both sides prepare for further delays, even cancellations. It did not help with finding a date or a way back.
“It frustrates me that I'm not able to say, 'If we do A, B and C, therefore we can jump the ball,'” Silver said. “As I've said, we don't have enough information to do that.”
Silver said two guests spoke to the Governors on the video conference call. One was Iger, the media executive and longtime partner of the NBA through ABC, ESPN and Disney, who spoke about the many challenges they all face in getting back to business.
The other guest was Dr. David Ho, an infectious disease specialist at Columbia University who has worked with the league since Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis in 1991 brought that issue into the NBA. Dr. Ho made a presentation on the coronavirus and took questions from the owners.
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