The league wants to give fans (and players) their summers back. Starting the new season before Christmas would probably enable N.B.A. players to participate in the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021. And several of the league’s top international players, such as Italy’s Danilo Gallinari, Marco Belinelli and Nicolo Melli and France’s Evan Fournier and Rudy Gobert, have said in recent weeks how important it is to them.
These are the three main reasons a December start, after the longest N.B.A. season, suddenly became the target: This is what the league’s television partners want. Throughout the N.B.A.’s three-month stay at Walt Disney World, all signs pointed to the 2020-21 season beginning in 2021. League insiders frequently cited mid-January as the earliest possible start date, and several said they would not be surprised to see the wait extended until February or March. Playing the long game, it was often suggested, would enhance the chances of fan attendance for at least a portion of the regular season.
Of course, over the two-plus weeks since the season ended, daunting projections about the spread of the coronavirus this winter have led to rising pessimism about the league’s ability to admit even small crowds anytime soon. Multiple teams thus began to whisper last week that momentum was building to start the new season around Dec. 25 to preserve the ability to broadcast five games on Christmas Day.
Disney, which owns ESPN and has been described by Silver as the league’s biggest partner, badly wants to continue that Christmas tradition and have five games to televise on either ABC or ESPN. Turner, the N.B.A.’s other primary broadcast partner, would get its traditional opening night doubleheader on a Tuesday if the union agrees to the Dec. 22 proposal. The league, for its part, has informed the union that it projects a difference of $500 million in revenue if it can start the season in December rather than mid-January. All of those factors resonate pretty loudly after the season that the N.B.A. just endured.
The league wants to make that happen, if possible, which would also prevent high-profile N.B.A. playoff games from clashing with the Summer Games. But the bigger motivation for preventing the playoffs from straying too far into July is to avoid playing throughout the summer for a second successive season, while also restoring free agency as the centerpiece of the N.B.A.’s summer calendar.
League officials have publicly downplayed concerns about the recent ratings decline, pointing to the N.B.A.’s mammoth social media following as a source of optimism about its broader appeal. Vocal critics — with little to no evidence — increasingly attribute the plunge to a leaguewide embrace of social justice causes, but the dip has had an impact even if there is no clear-cut explanation. Long-held fears among N.B.A. traditionalists that the viewing audience will inevitably shrink after July appear to have been validated.
Making this move sets up the N.B.A. for something resembling normalcy in 2021-22. The sudden shift to a December start, even if it is accepted by the players, would create chaos across the league. [...] But making sure the 2020-21 season ends in July at the latest would increase the N.B.A.’s readiness for a traditional October-through-June run in 2021-22, which appears to be its next real opportunity to regain access to the crowds, sponsors and ancillary arena income that, as Silver said in May, typically accounts for 40 percent of the league’s annual revenue.
Shams Charania: The NBA has sent its 30 teams the game presentation protocols for 2020-21 in conditions of limited/no fans: - Enhanced theatrical lighting - Crowd from arena noises/NBA 2K/prerecorded chants - Possibility of team arena entertainers
The news reported by our Shams Charania that the NBA is targeting a 72-game season that begins on Dec. 22 has everyone scrambling, because it’s a dramatic reversal of a trend in which the target date for starting 2020-21 steadily slipped backward. Until this week, the working assumption from league insiders was that the season might not begin play until mid-January or even later. Under that model, the 2020-21 season could drag deep into summer before declaring a champion.
I should note that the Players Association would have to agree with the NBA on any proposed season format. But, as always, the winner in any negotiation between the two parties is usually the almighty dollar, and it appears it will be here as well.
The unspoken piece is that having buildings full of fans is likely a pipe dream. The league is adjusting to the reality that the pandemic is nowhere close to under control in the U.S., and it may in fact be worse by the time the league tries to tip off. With basketball being an indoor sport, it may not even be able to have the few fans that the NFL, MLS and MLB have let into some stadiums.
The initial thinking was to push the start of the season back to allow a potential vaccine to permit a 2020-21 season with full arenas. As that hope becomes more distant, the logic has shifted. At this point, 2020-21 is a bit of a sunk cost. The league is unlikely to get much from it in terms of ticket revenue regardless of when games start, so it might as well bang it out quickly in the time frame that is most conducive to TV audiences.
The bubble is fine for fans and TV, but none of the participants are anxious to repeat it anytime soon. Certainly, it is a total non-starter for the regular season, plus the league now has the experience of in-market games in Major League Baseball, MLS and the NFL to learn from.
The NBA could always change course and move to a bubble format to ensure the integrity of the playoffs — and the Finals in particular — but doing so would be a last resort and it doesn’t need to make that call for several months. As for the regular season, the league-wide expectation is that teams will complete games in market, with the exception of Toronto.
No decisions have been finalized on next season and talks with the National Basketball Players Association remain ongoing on many matters, including the financial parameters for the coming year. Those talks, especially on the money issue, would have to be concluded before any real decisions about next season are made. The NBPA has not made any final decisions on how it wants to see the league proceed, either. But this plan, starting in December and ending in June, would get the 2021-22 season — virus-permitting — back to normal, with 82-game slates starting in October.
Shams Charania: NBA league office informed Board of Governors of projected value for teams and players with Dec. 22 start versus later: More than $500 million, sources tell @The Athletic @Stadium.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA is proposing several changes to next season that includes a 72-game regular season, a play-in tournament and the likelihood of no All-Star Game and All-Star Weekend in Indianapolis, sources said. The league is considering a two-week break at the midway point of the season, sources said.
Around the league, there's support to be playing again by Christmas, but a realization that it's going to become a chaotic challenge coming out of a Nov. 18 draft, free agency and training camps that would need to be open shortly after Thanksgiving. Without a bubble environment, the NBA will be facing positive coronavirus tests for players and staff.
Josh Lewenberg: The Raptors remain hopeful they’ll be able to host games in Toronto next season, I'm told. Several contingency options have been discussed internally, in case thats not possible, but nothing's imminent. Much is still unknown. Louisville was never on the table for the organization
Chris Mannix: A concern several team executives have expressed to @SInow about a late December start: Free agency. With training camps needing to open in early December, free agency would have to be crammed into a couple of weeks.
Chris Mannix: Something league officials are wary of: There have been predictions from health officials of significant COVID spikes over the holidays, specifically Thanksgiving. Coming back in a non-bubble environment may not be feasible in some parts of the country.
This would mean a return close to the NBA’s normal schedule, significant financial ramifications to start early, a potential finish before the 2021 Summer Olympics, and allow a window for stars to play in the Olympics, sources said. The NBA wants to continue to incorporate the play-in tournament that was utilized in the Orlando restart to determine the eighth seed in the Eastern and Western Conference playoffs, according to sources. ESPN first reported that a Christmas start and playing fewer than 82 games would be discussed on Friday’s call.
The National Basketball Players Association would need to sign off on any plan to start the season on Dec. 22. Around the NBA, league governors and executives — as well as star players — have become aware of the league aiming toward a start around Christmas Day, which is quicker than expected following an Oct. 11. end to the season. An increasing amount of those people also have warmed to the possibility due to the fact that it is in the best interest of returning to the NBA’s typical schedule, generating revenue.
“It may be too quick, but it also makes too much sense,” one high-ranking team official told The Athletic. The NBA suspended its season on March 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic, restarted on July 30 and crowned the 2019-20 champion this month. The league had no players test positive for the coronavirus during the four-month resumption.
USA Basketball has begun reaching out to star players to gauge their interest in the Olympics, should the end date of the 2020-21 season provide ample time to prepare for the Games, sources said. The NBA continues to prefer in-market play for the 2020-21 season — instead of a bubble or multiple bubbles. The league is also looking into ways to reduce travel during the season, including possibly playing a team multiple times.
Shams Charania: The NBA is targeting Dec. 22 for the start of the 2020-21 season and a 72-game campaign that finishes before the ‘21 Olympics, sources tell @TheAthleticNBA @Stadium.
Marc Stein: The league had never taken a Christmas Day start off the table, but all signs coming out of the Bubble pointed to next season being pushed into 2021 Christmas is obviously a huge day for the NBA and its broadcast partners ... but MUCH must happen quickly quickly to preserve it
There has been some discussion among owners about starting as soon as Christmas Day to take advantage of that historically prime NBA showcase, sources said. Though numerous teams contacted by ESPN over the last several days weren't sure such a timeline was feasible. Others have been pushing for a start around Martin Luther King Day weekend in mid-January, sources said.
As with so much during the current COVID-19 pandemic, such plans are constantly in flux. That course could ultimately be still followed, but in recent days some governors have pivoted and begun considering the quicker timeline. Others continue to want to hold out for fans to be permitted into more arenas.
The league also continues to discuss tournament and play-in scenarios. The NBA has long-planned to use this upcoming 75th anniversary season to experiment with new revenue-generating formats.
Any agreement between the governors on a course for next season would have to be taken to the National Basketball Players Association for approval. The two sides have met several times since the conclusion of the Finals to discuss the financial and scheduling challenges ahead. Oct. 30 is setting up to be a key date. The NBA and NBPA agreed that day would be the deadline to complete ongoing discussions on modifications to the collective bargaining agreement for the 2020-21 season, a date that requires the league or union to provide 45 days notice if either decides to terminate the CBA -- a scenario that sources continue to believe is a remote possibility.
It would also mark roughly eight weeks until Christmas. Silver has told the union that there would be at least eight weeks between an agreement and the formal starting of next season. Talks between the NBA and union have been productive on making the necessary financial allowances on 2020-2021 salary cap and luxury tax thresholds to account for the massive losses in revenues from the pandemic, sources said.
Ongoing talks are centering on increased escrow taken from players' salaries, sources said. The league and union are still awaiting full audits on the Basketball Related Income that accounts for the league's 51-49 revenue split with players. The NBA and NBPA are working on resetting of the 2020-21 salary-cap and luxury-tax numbers based upon those audits and financial projections for the next year. This allows for teams, agents and players to have more time to prepare for the financial realities of the pandemic's impact on the league. As the NBA Draft approaches on Nov. 18 -- and free agency expected to start soon after -- teams are anxious for the league to reach an agreement with the union and deliver them more certainty on the cap and tax bills.
November 25, 2020 | 3:06 pm EST Update
Shams Charania: Former Warriors guard Ky Bowman has agreed to a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers, sources tell @The Athletic @Stadium. Bowman will compete for a roster spot in training camp.
Andrew Greif: 6-1 guard Ky Bowman is finalizing a deal to join the Clippers, a source confirmed. It is expected to be for the minimum. Bowman averaged 7.4 ppg last season with Golden State. @Shams Charania first.
Josh Lewenberg: Baynes on his beard: “The mrs told me one day, she said you gotta grow a beard out. I pick my battles and that wasn’t one I cared to fight about. I only know that I’ve had it since my son was born and I don’t see it coming off anytime soon, at least I won’t get the permission” pic.twitter.com/wqA4LFMa1D
Duane Rankin: Phoenix Suns Charities, Phoenix Fire Department and #Suns center Deandre Ayton collaborated in delivering Thanksgiving meals and essentials to families in the valley amid COVID-19. Ayton supported the initiative by providing autographed jerseys and gift cards to Arizona families. pic.twitter.com/yvijkNAfq1
November 25, 2020 | 2:00 pm EST Update
Josh Lewenberg: Marc Gasol on choosing the Lakers over Raptors: “It was tough. It was very hard. The first couple days were tough for me but once you kind of decide what you want to do next or how you want to go about your next challenge, I thought the right thing to do was go with the Lakers”