On March 11, the NBA suspended the 2019-20 season due to the COVID-19 outbreak immediately after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus.
HoopsHype checked in with four NBA agents to find out how they’re handling the NBA stoppage, what they’re hearing from the league office and Players’ Association, what they’re telling their players and more. The agents spoke on the condition of anonymity since they shared sensitive information.
THIS IS BIGGER THAN BASKETBALL
Each NBA agent stressed that while their life typically revolves around basketball, there are much more important things to worry about while navigating this situation.
AGENT 1: “You have people who are dying. There are some players whose family members are really sick. It’s awful. This is so much bigger than basketball. Dave Edwards, who was an underrated point guard and a great guy, passed away at 48 years old. You see stories of people who are in their 30s or 40s and they were really healthy, but now they’re dead or on a ventilator. People are fighting for their lives. That’s all I can think about when I’m asked about whether I’m upset that the season is suspended or anything basketball-related. I love basketball. I love what I do. But seeing people pass away, this is so much bigger than basketball. Do you think Karl-Anthony Towns cares about the basketball implications right now? No. When the draft process starts or free agency starts, I’ll be prepared. But right now? I’m not going to worry much about that. I just want my guys and their families to stay healthy.”
AGENT 2: “First and foremost, we’re trying to make sure that everyone stays safe. I think everybody is concerned. My mother is in her 70s, so I’m nervous like everyone else. When you start seeing players and people you were somewhat connected to testing positive, so much is unknown with this so you immediately start to think, ‘Who else is infected? Am I infected?’ There’s no question that I travel a lot, so it was scary; no doubt. For players, they are young and tend to think they’re invincible. But I think the unknown makes this scarier, even for them.”
AGENT 1: “One of my relatives is a doctor and he contracted the coronavirus. He’s in his 50s and he’s doing okay right now, but it’s very, very serious. Very serious. I’m not judging anybody when I say this, but anybody who is worried about the Collective Bargaining Agreement or free agency or anything like that right now, their priorities are messed up. We just need to stay patient and stay safe for now. There’s nothing else we can do.”
AGENT 3: “At this point, there’s no work to be done. It’s very disingenuous for an agent to reach out to a business or an outlet and try to create an opportunity in the middle of a pandemic when many people aren’t even able to go to work. What, are you going to call ESPN and try to get your guy on TV when there’s nothing NBA-related to talk about? And if you’re a player, you have to be careful about putting yourself out there at this time because you don’t want to be discussing this when you have no idea what you’re talking about. As for business, there’s no marketing budget floating around. Who’s going to market anything at this particular time? People are just trying to stay safe. Sometimes you just have to understand that there’s nothing to be done. That may seem scary for agencies, but it’s the truth.”
AGENT 4: “There are people’s lives on the line right now, so there are things greater than basketball to focus on. We just all have to be informed and be smart moving forward.”
AGENT 3: “Some people have said that this allows players to focus on other businesses and off-court endeavors, but I don’t know what they can do right now. It’s not like you can have meetings or business calls at this time. Who the hell are you talking to? If you want to be the guy who sees a pandemic as an opportunity, well, be careful with that. People are dying and you’re trying to find business opportunities? I think guys should just focus on staying healthy and being with their loved ones. There’s no business to be done right now; most companies are stuck in a holding pattern. I think the best thing that you can do is reach out to people you want to work with and say, ‘When this is all over, I hope we can reconvene and work together.’ But until then, just stay safe.”
WHAT AGENTS ARE TELLING THEIR PLAYERS
Many players have had questions about how this situation could play out. Even though everything is up in the air and nobody is sure what the future holds, agents are doing their best to go over possible outcomes with their players and address any of their concerns.
AGENT 4: “We got in touch with all of our players. We didn’t want anyone to panic, but we definitely wanted to take precautions and just make sure everyone is informed. We’ve had a lot of conversations with our players since this is getting crazy. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I think we’re all pretty hopeful that the season will come back. We’re just making sure that everybody is taking the necessary precautions, staying safe and staying in shape.”
AGENT 1: “We’re telling our players to follow the rules. Listen to your body and pay attention to what’s going on around you. A number of my guys were tested – all were negative – and all of my guys self-quarantined for at least 14 days. More than anything, we want to make sure that they’re following their team’s rules and paying attention to their body. The main questions that I’ve gotten from my players is about getting back to playing. They want to get back on the court. But, again, this situation that we’re faced with is way more important than basketball.”
AGENT 2: “Players have asked me about working out. I have one player who is back at home and his parents’ house has a gym in the garage – not a basketball court, an actual gym – so he’s been able to work out there. For some players, teams are sending them workout equipment to make sure that they have what they need to stay in shape. But, man, it’s a tough thing. Some players are in areas that are in full lockdown, but other players are in areas that aren’t in full lockdown – although the NBA is encouraging social distancing and that seems like the norm at this point. But it’s tough. The questions that are coming from players aren’t the typical questions because we aren’t in a typical environment.”
AGENT 1: “I’ve told my players that they should try to get some cardio in. Don’t just sit around and get fat. You don’t know when the season will pick back up, so you have to keep yourself in some kind of shape. A lot of guys are just doing a lot of cardio at their home. Some NBA teams have given players an exercise bike or treadmill for them to use at home, so some teams are ahead of the curve and trying to help their guys stay in shape.”
AGENT 3: “I think players are struggling. When have NBA players not been able to get in a gym? Maybe never, right? That’s very tricky.”
Many players have asked their agent whether they’ll continue to be paid in full. On a recent hour-long call with NBA agents, Michelle Roberts and other NBPA executives warned that players may have a portion of their salary withheld. For players who received most of their salary up-front, they could actually be forced to give back a requested amount.
One agent explained that the NBA holds 10 percent of players’ paychecks annually in an escrow account to see if the league’s revenue meets its projections for the year. The NBA holds 20 percent of each paycheck during the first six months of the year and then 0 percent for the final six months (to get to 10 percent for the year). This agent speculated that the NBA could continue holding 20 percent of players’ paychecks in an escrow account for the final six months of the year too.
AGENT 2: “Is it possible that the league and NBPA come together and decide to continue the 20-percent escrow payments in the event that league revenue is down 20 percent and players have to sacrifice 20 percent of their income? I’d say that’s possible. If I had to bet, I’d say that’s more than possible, but it’s total speculation on my part.”
(UPDATE: The NBA and NBPA announced that they have reached agreement on the method for reducing player compensation in the event of a permanent cancellation of 2019-20 regular season or playoff games due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Through this agreement, and in order to provide players with a more gradual salary reduction schedule, partial reductions of 25 percent will begin with the players’ twice-a-month payment due on May 15.)
In addition to keeping in touch with their players, many agents are regularly speaking with individuals from the league office and the Players’ Association to check for updates.
AGENT 1: “I’m having a lot of different conversations with the league and the Players’ Union, just trying to keep my finger on the pulse as far as what the next move will be. Everything is up in the air right now – nobody knows anything for certain. But I’ve been staying in touch with those guys to see what they think is going to happen and see if there are any updates. There really haven’t been many updates, but I’ve just stayed in contact so that I’ll know if anything changes.”
AGENT 2: “The league office and the people with the Players’ Union don’t know what the outcome is going to be. The virus is unpredictable and, unfortunately, the numbers continue to climb around the country (especially in a few areas that are being hit really hard). That’s tough to predict.”
AGENT 3: “My days haven’t changed a whole lot, other than the fact that I’m not traveling. I’m still making a bunch of phone calls from home, talking to my players. I’m still talking to the league and talking to the Players’ Association. I’m still doing some pseudo-recruiting with seniors and players who are declaring for the draft – the guys whom I’ve had a relationship with or talked to earlier. I’m just trying to stay in touch with everyone. I think as agents, we’re doing what we’ve always done (minus the travel). The phone doesn’t stop ringing, the questions don’t stop coming and we still have to guide our players. But as far as the basketball end of it, we can’t control any of it.”
AGENT 2: “The whole basketball world is on hold. Everyone is stuck at home, but I continue to work. I continue to talk with potential recruits and to my guys around the league. We’re trying to do what we can. Usually, I can turn to the CBA or the league office and find an answer to just about any question, but now we’re dealing with so many unknowns and so much uncertainty. It’s a different world. A lot of things are just in a holding pattern.”
HOW THIS IMPACTS THE DRAFT AND FREE AGENCY
The 2020 NBA draft is scheduled for June 25, 2020, but most agents expect the event to be postponed. Still, it’s very possible that this will be a very unique pre-draft process – with no workouts, combine and no face-to-face interviews (similar to what the NFL is experiencing right now).
AGENT 1: “I can’t go into too much detail, but we have put together a COVID-19 contingency plan and we’ve been sharing that with these draft prospects and their families. Basically, it’s so they know some of the things that we’re going to do while we’re going through this pre-draft process.”
AGENT 2: “For young players who are trying to go through the draft process, this is very difficult. Training facilities aren’t open since the health department and federal government is advising against that. It’s been tough and there’s a lot of stuff that’s moving slower than usual. The draft is scheduled for June 25; if I had to bet, I’d say that the draft isn’t going to happen on June 25. Actually, now that I think through it, there’s probably a 0 percent chance that the draft happens on June 25. There are usually a lot of trades during the draft, but teams aren’t going to be trading players in June if the season is continuing at some point after that. Playoff teams wouldn’t want to make any trades because they want to make a run when the season resumes. I think the draft happening on June 25 is toast. That means that the draft probably happens in August at the earliest. The bottom line is that this throws a lot of things off.”
AGENT 4: “It just sucks that these collegiate players don’t get to finish their season, and they don’t get to compete in the combine or other pre-draft workouts. That’s going to hurt certain guys’ draft stock since they can’t showcase their game.”
AGENT 2: “Some players who were hoping to help their stock with workouts and interviews may return to school just so they can go through a normal pre-draft process next year. I think that’s probably going to be the case for some guys, but it’s tough because age is such a huge factor in the draft. Also, there’s no ‘testing the waters’ this year because there’s potentially no workouts or combine. For the players who are declaring or strongly considering it, maybe there isn’t as much urgency to declare simply because the deadlines are all up in the air.”
How will the NBA’s free-agency period be impacted by the NBA stoppage? Will the drop in league revenue cause the salary cap to drastically decrease?
AGENT 2: “Free agents have a lot of questions. There’s a 99 percent chance that free agency doesn’t happen on July 1, so nobody knows when that will happen. I’m used to my job revolving around the draft and free agency, so it’s strange for those things to be up in the air.”
One agent believes that the NBA will try to avoid having the salary cap drastically drop this summer because they don’t want another situation where the cap rapidly spikes next offseason when things (hopefully) return to normal. After all, the league likely doesn’t want a repeat of the 2016 offseason when the cap drastically increased due to the NBA’s new TV deal.
AGENT 1: “I think what’s most likely is that the cap will go down some when the league and the Union get together to determine that number, but they’ll try to mitigate any possible spike that would occur in 2021. I think there will be a somewhat muted impact, but nobody really knows. Cap smoothing is a possibility, but I think both sides will just make an effort to avoid the cap radically dropping and then radically increasing going forward.”
At this point, these are just everyone’s best guesses, as the league hasn’t made any decisions about the season, paychecks, the draft or free agency. Agents are trying their best to stay informed and play out every scenario to see how it would affect their clients and their business.