2020 NBA Finals | Lakers vs. Heat

Adam Silver succeeds navigating 'bubble' but uncertainty ahead

No reported COVID-19 cases among NBA players and personnel, details on 2020-21 season still TBD

Although figuratively known as the “bubble,” the site of the NBA’s ambitious and unprecedented restart of its 2019-20 season has been, in fact, on a campus — the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort outside of Orlando.

Sticking with campus culture, then, it’s fair to say that even with its Finals just beginning Thursday, the league already has aced most of its exams in bringing back basketball in a pandemic.

Not that anyone wants to come back for sophomore year.

“I’m most proud that we collectively came together as a community and pulled this off,” said commissioner Adam Silver, before Game 1 of The Finals between the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers. “By that I mean all of the stakeholders. The players, the team governors, 30 teams — not just 22 teams — [and] the support we received from our fans.”

Silver added: “Especially, frankly given all the division in our country right now, the fact that people could set their minds to something, come together, make enormous sacrifices, compromise.”

This was not a victory lap — not yet, not with two teams and another week or two to go. But it was a moment of appreciation and gratitude, with some pride folded in.

“The pride of the sense that we’ve accomplished this against many obstacles,” Siver said, “and at a time also when I think people needed to see this.”

Silver met with reporters Thursday evening, an annual tradition at the start of his league’s championship series. But the media reps were both nearby and remote, a limited number in the room and many more scattered across the country and around the globe, checking in via Zoom.

And of course, when the commissioner finished, he carefully donned a mask before stepping from the podium.

That’s the new yet odd NBA normal, life as the league has come to live it. The Heat and the Lakers will blow by the three-month mark this week for time spent in the bubble. Their mental and physical endurance, their focus, their sense of purpose has been topped only by the time, effort, manpower, expense and defiance of a determined and dangerous virus that the NBA has logged.

With the help of literally thousands.

Silver pegged the number at 6,500 who made the bubble possible, from the players, coaches and staffs to so many support workers from the Orlando community assisting at the arenas and the hotels.

“I analogize it a bit to when you go to a movie and you see the actors on the screen and then the credits start rolling at the end, and they keep rolling and they keep rolling,” Silver said. “That’s the 6,500 people.

“And it’s the essential workers, the people who do our testing every day, take our temperatures, clean our rooms, maintain these facilities. It’s the bus drivers. … It’s everyone who’s been involved down here. A huge ‘thank you’ to the people of Orange County, Florida, who have taken such good care of us over our time here.”

We’ve accomplished this against many obstacles. And at a time also when I think people needed to see this.”

— NBA Commissioner Adam Silver

So now that they’ve gotten pretty good at it, there’s zero chance any of them wants to repeat it for the 2020-21 season.

Which is entirely beside the point. The NBA and everyone involved with it might have no choice but to yield and react all over again to COVID-19.

Already, the “2020” signage on next season can be removed, with whatever schedule gets played likely to fit entirely in 2021. A January start seems to be the earliest fans again will see games that matter. With a bunch of unknowns from there.

Teams in their cities? Fans in the arenas? Multiple bubbles rather than one? Eighty-two games or maybe fewer? Legit questions all, in search of answers.

“Nothing has really changed in this virus, as far as I know,” Silver said. “In fact, I think the majority of states right now, cases are ticking back up again. There’s predictions of a combination of flu and coronavirus season, what that will mean. People are moving back indoors. In some cases, people have COVID fatigue and aren’t following the same protocols.

“So in many ways we’re looking at a lot of the same factors we looked at determining what to do this season.”

Wait, there’s more: Any changes in terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the teams and the players would require negotiations, at a point when the patience of so many principals has worn thin. Sequestering on the Disney campus one time for one, two or three months is one thing; signing up for another full season would be quite another.

Gaining access to better, quicker testing could help contain the virus’ spread by identifying carriers immediately. It also would allow for attendance at arenas, not 19,000 strong necessarily but several thousand spectators, properly distanced.

“Based on everything I’ve read, there’s almost no chance that there will be a vaccine, at least that is widely distributed before we start the next season,” Silver said. “So I do not see the development of a vaccine as a prerequisite.”

As for the league’s internal business – particularly establishing the salary cap and luxury tax threshold for next season – operations have been gummed up by so many variables.

The NBA still was calculating the financial hit from splintered relations with China – estimated as a $200 million loss or more this year, after the political controversy of last fall – when the virus shutdown began. Silver has estimated the portion of revenue derived from fan attendance at games at approximately 40 percent, worth hundreds of millions more.

The Draft, rescheduled from June, has been pegged for now to Nov. 18. But there is no date yet for the start of free agency, and without cap and tax numbers, the roster-building work of salary structures and possible transactions can’t get done.

The best-case scenario might be that the league works a second season with the 2019-20 limits — $109.14 million for the cap, $132.6 million to enter the luxury tax. That would kick the can of a financial reckoning down the road for a year or longer, hopeful that some glimmer of the old normal NBA might see a rebound in revenues.

Coming together to confront big problems isn’t going to end anytime soon, then, no matter how soon this bubble pops.


The NBA’s deep dive into social and racial issues was a component of what made the bubble successful, Silver said. “To me, certainly it began with what’s important to our players is important to us.

“But it wasn’t just our players. The players know and the NBA community knows there’s a long history in this league of fighting for social justice, for racial equality.”

Silver understood the view of many fans, weary of nonstop big issues in a virus-riddled election year, “who look to sports as a respite.”

“My response is that, again, I’m listening,” he said. “But these are unique times. … I still firmly believe it was and is the right thing to do.”

The league’s weekly release of coronavirus test results stopped when the cases did, Silver said. There was no news, so no reports. That, in fact, might be the biggest takeaway of the Orlando bubble, even after the 2020 NBA champion is crowned.

The worst-case scenario of a seriously ill player, coach or staff member simply never happened.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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