2021 All-Star

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver envisions 2021-22 season on 'regular' schedule

Expecting the league's business to 'continue apace' as pandemic recovery unfolds, Adam Silver held court during his annual All-Star news conference.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver speaks with the media ahead of the 2021 NBA All-Star Game.

Halfway through the league’s second pandemic-challenged season, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Saturday he can see a 2021-22 that looks, feels and plays a lot more like normal.

No guarantees, mind you. But based on developments in dealing with COVID-19 in this country, as well as strides already taken by professional sports leagues — including the NBA’s decision to stage its 70th All-Star Game Sunday in Atlanta — things appear to be trending up.

“Maybe for the first time in the past year,” Silver said, in a virtual news conference, “I’m fairly optimistic that as we see fans returning to our arenas, as we see public health officials across the country begin to open up sporting events, theaters, restaurants, other forms of entertainment, I feel pretty good that we’re going to continue apace.”

That Silver was addressing media via a Web link, the way all NBA coverage has been transacted this season, with reporters socially distanced by hundreds of miles from him and each other was an obvious reminder of where league protocols are at the moment. But as the present gives way to the future, the rate at which restrictions are loosening and immunity is being achieved suggests an NBA that will resemble what we all knew prior to March 2020.

“By the time we reach the playoffs in mid-May, things will even be considerably better than they are now,” Silver said. “Also, obviously here in the United States, we’ve been making excellent progress in terms of vaccinations. That will be very helpful in getting people back in the arenas.”

A playoff bubble similar to what we saw in Orlando last summer at the Disney World campus? Nothing like that planned this time. The Tokyo Olympics? Full rings ahead, both for Team USA and all the other national teams that lean on NBA players as their cornerstones.

An undeniable source of Silver’s optimism for what’s coming is the success of this first half of 2020-21. Given all that might have gone wrong, the wellness of the personnel involved and the quality of competition has been remarkable. Many involved talk about the grind and isolation they’ve endured in what the NBA terms “work quarantine,” but the results are hard to deny.

“We ended up playing 95% of our games,” Silver said. “We knew we were going to get positive cases for players and staff members operating out of the bubble. I felt our protocols held up as well as we could have hoped.

“I credit the schedule makers who had the foresight to divide the season in two parts. We were able to have the flexibility to push games into the second half of the season. Obviously, we won’t have that same flexibility in the second half. Something we’re watching for closely.”

The ongoing rollout of COVID vaccinations similarly will be tracked closely. The commissioner said the NBA will encourage its personnel to trust the vaccines, but will not mandate 100 percent compliance.

“I don’t think that every player certainly needs to be vaccinated for fans to come back. I mean, that’s not anything that the health authorities have suggested to us,” Silver said.

He added: “No more do I think the fact that every fan won’t be vaccinated is an impediment of fans coming back to the arena. I think it’s with a combination of vaccines, antibodies, herd immunity in communities, proper safety and cleanliness protocols, we’ll be able to return to something that looks a lot closer to normal beginning next season.”

Silver did point out that getting vaccinated would open up what has been a pretty cloistered life so far for players and staff. “They’ll be able to do more in their communities,” he said. “My sense is most will ultimately decide that it’s in their interest to get vaccinated.”

The calendar could play the biggest role in resuming the Las Vegas Summer League or some variation of it this offseason. He said the league is considering an abbreviated version or mini-camps held by teams, among other options.

As for the international games that have been a big part the NBA’s basketball missionary work in past preseasons and regular season, well, that sounds like a 2022-23 thing for now.

Silver discussed a number of other topics, including:

Recent concerns about opportunities for black head coaching candidates, triggered by Minnesota’s quick employment of Chris Finch as Ryan Saunders’ replacement, have fueled ongoing discussions at NBA headquarters. “There’s no coach that I know who wants to get hired based on his skin color, but they want a fair opportunity,” the commissioner said. “Part of that is ensuring that we’re developing coaches appropriately in the pipeline, that they’re getting the right opportunities to interview, the right opportunities to network as other coaches have historically done … I don’t think there’s any doubt there’s more work to be done.”

Silver did point to the demographics of teams’ coaching staffs overall, including assistants and player-development aides. Minorities and even women are more broadly represented in those jobs than even a few years ago. “I don’t want to create a process in which people are checking the boxes,” he said. “It requires real engagement.”

The announcement this week of the Overtime Elite League, in which high school-aged players (16 to 18) would get paid to play basketball and skip the traditional amateur routes revived talk about the NBA’s approach to preps-to-pros talent. Silver noted the discussions he and National Basketball Players Association chief Michele Roberts have had and will continue to have in anticipation of the next collective bargaining agreement.

“It’s one where I think we’re both on both sides of the issue sometimes in terms of what it will mean for the league having younger players,” Silver said.

Commissioner Adam Silver addresses the potential lowering the NBA's age requirement.

The next CBA might dial back the NBA age requirement from 19 to 18, which enabled stars like Bryant, Garnett, LeBron James and others to skip college entirely. Silver noted that many of the NBA’s international players turned pro as early as age 14.

But it sounded as if the commissioner likes the mix available to US prospects, which includes a year or more of NCAA participation, a gap year in the G League prior to the NBA or maybe even the Overtime Elite idea.

“Optionality is good,” Silver said, while adding: “For us right now, the NBA, we don’t want to be in the business of paying minors.”

Some quick ejections and regrettable mistakes, highlighted by eagerly awaited but impotent last-2-minute reports issued the day after, have put the quality of this half season’s officiating in the spotlight. Silver said the data shows “nothing aberrational happening, whether in terms of accuracy of calls or number of technicals on the floor.”

But on the life-is-tough-all-round page, he said, leave room for the refs.

“One of the things we’ve learned over the last year is that the mental stress [in the pandemic NBA] is incredibly tough on everyone involved,” Silver said. “In some cases you have some younger officials, too, who maybe are still trying to calibrate their relationships with players.”

Another simple factor: Empty or near-empty arenas might have made some harsh comments directed at an official easier for them to hear.

Despite a burst of energy in recent weeks about alternative silhouettes for the NBA’s official logo, including the late Kobe Bryant, Silver made it sound as if the league’s avatar will continue as is for the foreseeable future: an outline of Lakers HOFer Jerry West in full dribble, though its identity never has been confirmed. Same with baseball (Harmon Killebrew), by the way.

Commissioner Adam Silver discusses the NBA logo and its design.

“It doesn’t feel to me that this is the appropriate moment to be changing the logo,” Silver said.

Kevin Garnett, 2020 Hall of Fame inductee for his work mostly with the Timberwolves and Celtics, vented in an Instagram post this week about being snubbed in his desire to buy the Minnesota team from owner Glen Taylor. Taylor has flirted with selling the franchise for years, but invariably has maintained his majority position.

Garnett and a group of investors were among several suitors in Taylor’s most recent call for bids. But their fractured relationship took another turn south with the post.

Said Silver: “Obviously, Kevin sounded frustrated. Glen said he never heard directly from him. Yes, that is an opportunity for me to get directly involved, and I will.”

Silver said that the push for this year’s All-Star Game should be judged once it’s over, rather than anticipating possible problems. He explained the league’s rationale, too, as something beyond a one-night programming nod to broadcast partner TNT.

“It has more to do with the larger brand value of the NBA,” he said. “Because we went forward with All-Star, not only did roughly 100 million people vote for the All-Stars on a global basis, but based on past ratings, well over 100 million people will watch the game and the ancillary competitions. We’ll have over a billion social media views and engagements. … It’s sort of what we do. For me, it would have been a bigger deal not to have it.”

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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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