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Silver, NBA players seek 'new normal' in return to play amid pandemic

Commissioner calls protests against police brutality 'a wake-up call for the country'

The excitement and anticipation across the basketball community were palpable Thursday as the NBA announced the format by which its 2019-20 season will resume this summer. But commissioner Adam Silver, admitting a mixed sporting metaphor, heeded caution.

“We’re in the equivalent of the first inning,” Silver said during his remote appearance on a special edition of TNT’s “Inside The NBA”.

The league went dark on March 11 due to fears of the coronavirus pandemic that was accelerating though regions of the country. About 15 percent of the regular season remained. At this point, two top contenders would normally be in the midst of the NBA Finals, but the balls haven’t bounced in nearly three months.

“We’ve always been looking for a very appropriate and safe way we can resume playing basketball,” Silver said, “knowing we will be living with this virus for a while. … We’re exploring with the players whether there can be a ‘new normal’ here.”

Silver also talked at length about the protests against police brutality playing out across the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by the Minneapolis Police Department on May 25. As the four officers involved were terminated and subsequently arrested, citizens have risen together, exposing raw emotions and challenging the public and political leadership.

As a league filled with powerful, highly visible African-American athletes, NBA voices have been at the forefront of these ongoing cultural conversations.

“There are no doubt law enforcement issues,” Silver said. “But ultimately it’s about race and race in America. We are such a unique institution … that ultimately may be in position to have more of an impact on this issue than almost any other organization in the world.”

Earlier Thursday, the league’s Board of Governors approved the format in which the 2019-20 season likely will resume, with a tentative start date of July 31. All games are expected to be played at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, with limited persons in attendance to maintain COVID-19 pandemic precautions.

What the NBA settled on is a pool of 22 teams – the 16 teams that were in position for playoff berths when the season paused on March 11, plus six more that were within six games of the eighth seed in their respective conferences.

In taking the clubs with the 22 best records, the group that will resume play will include five extra Western Conference teams (Portland, New Orleans, Sacramento, San Antonio and Phoenix) and one from the East (Washington).

All teams will play eight “seeding games” in a span of 16 days, with the possibility of a play-in tournament for the final playoff spot in each conference. If the No. 8 team is more than four games ahead of the No. 9 team, it advances directly to the playoffs with the conference’s top seven. If the gap is four games or fewer, a play-in mechanism will trigger: the No. 8 team would have to beat No. 9 once, or No. 9 would need to win twice.

The tentative calendar discussed Thursday looks like this: On June 30, teams that have been dormant for more than three months will open training camps at their local facilities. They will travel to the ESPN World Wide of Sports complex in Orlando on or around July 7.

All 22 teams will be headquartered at Disney for the duration of its participation. The playoffs will proceed as usual – four rounds of best-of-seven series – with a possible Game 7 in the Finals played on Oct. 12.

Silver credited NBA legend and current Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan with pushing for a traditional playoff bracket. “He felt it was very important that after we established the 16 teams that we not get gimmicky,” the commissioner said. “There’s so much chaos in the world right now, let’s come as close to normal as we can.”

Other notable NBA dates have been shifted as well: The annual Draft Lottery will take place on Aug. 25, the NBA Draft will be Oct. 15 and free agency will open on Oct. 18.

Dates for the opening of the 2020-21 season also are suggestions for now: Training camps would open Nov. 10, with a targeted Opening Night of Dec. 1.

Silver referred to the approval of the restart format as a “necessary step,” but hardly the only one. Financial considerations are driving the return, but the health and safety of players, coaches, staff and others in the league’s extended family is essential.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic presents formidable challenges,” the commissioner said in a statement, “we are hopeful of finishing the season in a safe and responsible manner based on strict protocols now being finalized with public health officials and medical experts.”

Still to be determined: testing details and procedures for if or when a player tests positive for the coronavirus.

A report in The Athletic identified the Portland Trail Blazers as the only team that voted against the 22-team format. The Blazers – who at 29-37 sit three games behind No. 8 Memphis and thus are included – reportedly preferred an alternative format.

The National Basketball Players Association is scheduled to vote on the plan Friday, according to the Associated Press.

Logistics of broadcast coverage, including game announcers, and media coverage by print and Internet outlets still are not known.

Silver said the first hour of the Board of Governors meeting was spent talking about the Floyd incident and its aftermath. He called on players, coaches, former players and the owners – quoting NBPA executive director Michele Roberts, with whom he spoke Thursday – to go above and beyond joint statements now in trying to find some solutions.

“Let’s collectively put our heads together,” Silver said. “This is a moment in time.”

He added: “When I think about who we are, the resources we have available to us, the footprint of this league, the list of [players and others] … I think we can have an enormous impact on society.

“We’re not a political organization, but we’re an organization steeped in values.”

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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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