How do you reflect on your time in the NBA bubble last season, and should the league go back? Damian Lillard: I enjoyed the bubble for what it was. The NBA put us in a safe environment that allowed us to compete for a championship, and do what we love to do. That came at the expense of our family and being away from home. Right now, I think I would say no to going back to the bubble. What we need to do is challenge each team and each organization to be more disciplined, and the players to be more disciplined, and understand that if one person decides to step outside the protocol and what they’re asking, how it can impact and affect other players, and not just those players, but their families and whoever they take it home to.
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Damian Lillard: So, that’s what the challenge is, and just let them know, we need to create a bubble within our team, within our organization. The people in our facility and a bubble in our household, that way we’re protecting each other to the best of our abilities. But I wouldn’t say go back to a bubble because there’s so much more season to be played, people have families, and at least we’re forming a bubble in our homes, in our own beds and get to do it that way.
Malone’s Nuggets were inside the bubble until the Western Conference finals were over. He argued publicly for coaches to be able to welcome families — a luxury the players enjoyed far, far earlier than coaches. There is no bubble now because the isolation was too much for everybody involved. League officials resist even the idea of a shutdown or pause right now. They want to plow ahead and get this season over, so the next one (with fans allowed in) can start on time. But to hear Malone warm to the idea of a bubble is an indicator of just how difficult it is navigating a season outside of one in this pandemic.
Duane Rankin: “I hope not.” Pacers guard Victor Oladipo when asked about the possibility of returning to a bubble environment this 2020-21 #NBA season amid COVID-19 pandemic. “Hopefully it doesn’t end up being another bubble, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to do what’s safest for us.” pic.twitter.com/EA9Hh4nrLc
Roberts is entering her final season as Executive Director of the Players’ Association, and the owners and players still have numerous unresolved issues relating to next season — where games will be played, whether fans will be allowed inside, when the season will start and how the money will be divided. All of these remain open issues. “Even the assumptions that we can collectively agree on are controversial, such as what local markets will allow us to do. And I haven’t even mentioned the virus yet,” Roberts said. “Europe is in trouble, and we seem to be following in Europe’s footsteps. How we can start, and when we can start? And if we start, what does it look like? Are we back in a bubble? Are we now? Is it bubble-like? What about travel? How many games? These are probably the most difficult questions that the game has faced, particularly because there are so many variables that we can’t control,” Roberts said.
A proposal for a 72-game season starting before Christmas has been presented to the union, but it is still being studied. Marc Stein of the New York Times reported that there could be a 50-game season if it begins in January. Naturally, the progression of the coronavirus pandemic will impact everything. “There’s some elements of what the league is proposing that in our view are not controversial, perhaps. Some things needed to have been verified, and some things are going to be hard,” Roberts admitted.
“But we’ll get there. We have to. We’re going to have another season. We’re not going to stop playing basketball. And so we’ll get there. These are decisions that have to be made together, but in the face of so many uncertainties, it just makes it a little more difficult.”
Brad Townsend: NBA team execs I communicated with over the weekend were shocked by last week’s news that league targeting a Christmas start. Said one: “NBA season with no bubble will be a car with no brakes but hopefully all works out.”
The NBA leaves the bubble behind, the experience a major success. The league has finished its season, helping satisfy its obligations to television partners. It has finished its season, crowning a champion without losing a single game to a COVID-19 outbreak. And it’s provided players the opportunity to try to better the world by speaking out about injustice. So if the pandemic continues to cause problems, if safety cannot be guaranteed anywhere else, the league could end up back here sometime in the future, right? “No way,” one NBA veteran said.
Silver has said multiple times, including as recently as during the Finals, that the league wants to have a full 82-game season with fans in arenas. It might not be at full capacity in many places and it’s possible it won’t be in all 28 NBA cities at the start. Arena-based revenue makes up 40% of the league’s income. Every game most teams play without it, even with local and national television revenue, could be a money-loser. Some contingency plans have been discussed — such as reforming a bubble or multiple bubbles, sources said — but that is not the first option at the moment.
Arena-based revenue makes up 40% of the league’s income. Every game most teams play without it, even with local and national television revenue, could be a money-loser. Some contingency plans have been discussed — such as reforming a bubble or multiple bubbles, sources said — but that is not the first option at the moment. The league is not currently planning to wait for a COVID-19 vaccine. To instead assure fan safety, there are hopes rapid testing will have enough reliability and availability — while being cost effective. Several NBA owners as well as the league itself have made investments in companies developing these types of tests.
So if the pandemic continues to cause problems, if safety cannot be guaranteed anywhere else, the league could end up back here sometime in the future, right? “No way,” one NBA veteran said. While the NBA hasn’t ruled out the possibility of returning to a bubble environment for the 2020-21 season, it’s an obvious last resort because of the effects it had on players.
It’s a shared sentiment among players here in the bubble — that the experience was too difficult, too disruptive and too isolating to replicate. “It’s probably been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as far as a professional, as far as committing to something and actually making it through,” Lakers star LeBron James said before the NBA Finals. “But I knew when I was coming what we were coming here for. I would be lying if I sat up here and knew that everything inside the bubble, the toll that it would take on your mind and your body and everything else, because it’s been extremely tough.”
January and February are realistic start times for the 2020-21 season: “The latter part of January, February makes sense. If it’s later than that, if we have a terrible winter because the virus decides to reassert herself, that’s fine. The absolute earliest would be January, and that’s doable.” The NBA and NBPA both have shared goals: An 82-game season, in-market play, reduced travel and potentially a set amount of fans.
Rick Bonnell: There are NBA teams preparing for the possibility next season won’t start before February or March. That’s how much the owners want to hold open the possibility of fans attending games.
The NBA continues to monitor what is happening in other major sports leagues to determine how to proceed forward with next season, and plans are subject to change on a daily or even hourly basis depending upon developments around the country as the pandemic continues. One positive test among the two remaining teams could alter the schedule for the NBA Finals, and everyone representing the NBA in the bubble is tested on a regular basis. The irregular and voluntary aspects of worker testing had not been previously disclosed. “We always have to recognize that something could happen. I don’t anticipate it and everything has worked well, but it’s just how vigilant everybody has to continue being on this campus,” Silver said.
It may not be 19,000 people in the building, we’ll see, but with appropriate protocols in terms of social distancing and with advanced testing, the NBA should be able to resume play in front of fans. There’s still some time to figure that all out, and the specifics may depend on the region too. “Many of these decisions we also have to deal with state by state, and in some cases city by city, restrictions on how many people can gather, as well,” Silver said. “Again, I’m hopeful that based on what we’re learning, based on protocols, based on testing, we will be able to have games with fans next season prior to full distribution of a vaccine.”
While Silver said the league is considering beginning next season in some sort of bubble set up, the goal is for games to be played in home arenas with fans. And their attendance wouldn’t depend on a readily available COVID vaccine. “My sense is that with rapid testing, if you — it may not be that we’ll have 19,000 people in the building, we’ll see, but that with appropriate protocols in terms of distancing and with advanced testing, that you will be able to bring fans back into arenas,” he said.
“I think to identify quickly a player who is positive, sort of we’re seeing that in the NFL right now, watching closely what’s happening with that protocol, can they play through it, how will that work, will there be additional spread once they’ve identified a player that has it? So those are all the things we’re looking at. And as you know, in terms of Michele and the players as our partners — because by definition everything that we’re doing exists outside the current collective bargaining agreement — we need to negotiate everything. When training camp starts, when we start, how we’re going to continue operating potentially under reduced BRI (basketball related income), frankly. So those discussions are ongoing.
“My sense is even though we’ve been at it with them for quite some time, given where we are, Game 1 of the Finals, and that roughly two weeks from now we’ll be done, I don’t think those conversations are going to happen in sort of as an intense a fashion as they ultimately will need to probably until we’re finished down here. But I think we all understand the essential parameters. And in some of those conversations that I mentioned earlier that I’m also having with individual players, I think everybody understands just like in the country, there’s public health considerations, the economy is a public health issue, as well, working and trying to strike that right balance. So in this case, part of my job is to study what’s happening in other industries, what other leagues are doing, including international soccer leagues. So all of that’s on the table right now.”
The desire to play in front of fans is key in the minds of owners who have seen ticket and stadium revenue dry up. According to those with knowledge but not authorized to speak, both with the NBA and its players believe another significant amount of time spent in a bubble is a non-starter. “No way we’d ever agree to it,” one veteran player told The Times.
Mark Medina: On CNN, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on when next season might start: “My best guess is that even though it will be the 2020-21 season, that season won’t start until ’21.” He still added the “goal is to play a standard season” a 82-game season in front of fans. All TBD, though
Marc Stein: NBA commissioner Adam Silver tells Bob Costas on @CNN that his “best guess” is that next season will begin in January at the earliest
For next season, the NBA prefers in-market competition with reduced travel and an amount of fans — instead of the bubble environment it is playing in currently, according to sources.
Tim MacMahon: Jazz VP Dennis Lindsey mentioned that lack of travel has led to an improved product in bubble. He suggests the league tries to reduce travel — baseball-style series? — once things go back to normal. “The players feel better, and frankly, we need to listen to the players.”
Alex Schiffer: Garrett Temple, whose an NBPA VP, asked about starting next season in a bubble: “Who knows?” Said there’s a ton uncertain, knows what works and doesn’t and hopes family would be allowed in earlier. Temple’s fiancé is due with their first child in a few weeks.
Silver, speaking ahead of the NBA draft lottery, said the top goal for the league is playing games back in teams’ respective home markets. Doing that by Dec. 1, however, just may not be possible. “Our No. 1 goal is to get fans back in our arenas,” Silver said on ESPN. “My sense is in working with the Players’ Association, if we could push back even a little longer and increase the likelihood of having fans in arenas, that’s what we would do.”
Ava Wallace: Re: Adam Silver’s comments about next season, Tommy Sheppard said start date matters less to him than knowing when he gets players back in the building. “If we know the season’s not going to start in December, ok, fine, but can we get these players here in October, November…”
Rod Beard: #Pistons GM Troy Weaver on NBA starting after Dec. 1: “That’s why it’s important that we have this second (in-market) bubble…we don’t know when the season’s going to start.”
Meanwhile, there is talk of as many as four bubbles next season, according to sources. Given the league’s current success housing 22 teams at the Wide World of Sports Complex, a return to Disney is a given, as is using Las Vegas, the runner-up to Orlando this year. There just isn’t another city that far west (any city in California, right now, is a non-starter, given the explosion of COVID cases there) with the hotel space and big-event experience of Vegas. One source says New York and the Dallas-Fort Worth area are two other potential bubble cities; New York not only has what would be an otherwise empty Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and Barclays Center in Brooklyn as venues, but also Basketball City, the longtime midtown Manhattan venue by the Hudson with numerous courts available, for potential practices.
Or, it could go for a bigger chunk of the season. “Two months, one month off,” is another variant heard around the league.
One owner of a small-revenue team recently was speaking with an executive from a bigger-revenue franchise. The owner told the exec: ‘for a team like yours with a big (local TV) contract, you might be okay with another bubble. For us, unless those guys are gonna take a lot less money, it’s problematic for us.’ “And I’m assuming he’s not alone in that,” the executive said.
Yet, if most or all of next season indeed winds up being played in another bubble, missing 41 home dates will cause every team significant financial pain. But given the current patchwork of remedies nationwide as states take different positions on how best to combat the coronavirus, the chance that enough cities will be confident enough to re-open for the kind of high-volume, close-proximity crowds at NBA games is minute. “I’m not so sure there’s going to be one answer for everywhere,” another team executive said. …”I’ve got to think that there’s a whole lot of things that have got to be open and running before they’re going to be worried about professional sports. …We’ve got to figure out how to get people into schools. We’ve got to figure out how to get people back to work and into offices. We’re nowhere near on those kinds of things, much less getting people back into sporting events.”
The league continues to get high marks for making the environment for everyone safe. But there aren’t enough amenities to counter the strain the extended stays away from home are putting on families and personal relationships, several people said. And that kind of emotional state isn’t optimal – especially as teams, referees and league personnel remain in such proximity to one another, sharing common areas – just as the most emotional time of the year is about to begin.
That phrase has been a constant in conversations with front-office executives on campus and refers to what many believe will be the foundation of the next N.B.A. season: short-term regional bubbles designed to host up to a month’s worth of games. The short-term bubbles would be followed by rest periods and training in teams’ home markets.
No one in league circles seems comfortable projecting when it will be safe to stage games in front of fans again — even with reduced crowds. But confidence in the bubble approach is almost universal at this point. Less clear is when next season will happen, whether that’s in December, January or later. Difficult negotiations between the league and the players’ union are ahead.
Inside the Grand Floridian hotel, out of the soupy Florida heat, a wave of relief washed over Michele Roberts. For months, Roberts, the Executive Director of the NBA’s players association, worked tirelessly with league officials to piece together its return. Medical protocols needed to be worked out. Then, the financials. Yet even when an agreement had been hammered out, Roberts worried: How would players respond to months of isolation?
Not bad, it turns out. “In some ways I didn’t think it would be as forgiving as it has been,” Roberts told SI in an extended interview. There were the expected complaints. Players didn’t enjoy the 48-hour hard quarantine they received upon arrival. “I think had it been longer than that,” Roberts said, “then it may have been more problematic.” Those buzzing Roberts tell her how much they miss friends, family. “The good news is that’s pretty much 99% of what I hear in terms of complaints,” Roberts said. “And at the end of the day, the guys have said, ‘I got to go to work. I’m at work, I’m doing my job.’”
On the scheduling, Roberts has issues. The NBA Finals could stretch as long as mid-October, affording at least two teams little time to recover. “My guess is we’ll probably not start until early 2021,” Roberts said. But months of work on this bubble has convinced Roberts that as long as COVID-19 is still spreading, a bubble is the only way to play.
“Right now I don’t see how sports can be played outside of a bubble concept,” Roberts said. “I don’t see that, given the state of where we are. Given the absence of a vaccine. Because as long as this thing spreads the way it spreads, the only way you can stop the spread from impacting their ability to perform, and this is at any job, is to isolate. Keep people separated and maintain as much distance as possible.”
“Now, having said that, do I think our guys are going to be in a bubble for six or seven months? Hell no. It’s not going to happen. I think what we’re going to have to do is figure out creatively how we can have bubble-like the environments that allow us to play the number of games that we believe we need to play in order to complete the season and crown a champion. If nothing else, we’ve learned that we have to be creative and we have been creative, and that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing right now. It’s something that no one would have thought about or had to think about five months ago.”
No fans, no home-court advantage, but safety was the main priority when deciding to resume the 2019-20 season that had been on hold since March 11. The NBA has achieved that so far, but would the league be willing to start next season in a bubble environment? “I don’t think you can discount nor will I say we have discounted the possibility of continuing this protocol for the next season,” National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts in an Friday interview with SiriusXM NBA Radio.
“Now no one wants to be in the bubble for six straight months, that’s insane. So it may be multiple bubbles, it may be multiple bubbles with a period of time away from the bubble and maybe we won’t have a bubble at all, but for sure, that is the scenario or those are scenarios that are being considered because, again, the virus does dictate what our restrictions will and will not be.”
Suns general manager James Jones told The Arizona Republic he “trust(s) the judgement and decision of the NBA/NBPA’s leadership” when asked about the possibility of playing next season in a bubble. “They’ve done such a good job with giving us protocols and ways to stay safe,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “Nobody’s gotten the virus. So it’s one that I think every sport can duplicate. As it relates to doing it again, I’d be all for it, but I think we got to figure out a way to involve our families.”
Is the Orlando bubble a possible destination for the eight teams left out of the restart to run offseason training camps once the first batch of 22 teams are eliminated? The NBPA has no interest in that idea, sources said. It’s a non-starter. The inevitable solution for the eight teams left out of Orlando: The NBA and NBPA agreeing upon voluntary workouts in the team facilities, sources said. The NBPA won’t agree to mandatory reporting for players on the eight teams outside of the restart but will eventually allow it on a voluntary level, sources said. Several of the teams are frustrated and angry over how far they feel they’re falling behind the teams in the bubble, and are aggressively voicing that to the league office.
We’re a ways off from next season, but league sources have told me that the NBA is looking at options that include creating regional bubbles, should the COVID-19 pandemic still prevent normal business in the fall. Teams would report to a bubble for short stints—around a month—which would be followed by 1-2 weeks off. Ideally, the NBA would like to play an 82-game schedule that starts in December. A December start would allow the league to end the season in late June, putting the NBA back on a normal schedule and, importantly, not compete with the Olympics next summer. The players union is expected to take issue with that, preferring teams, particularly those making deep playoff runs, have more time off.
Adrian Wojnarowski: NBA’s priority remains to get fans into arenas next season. Regional pods for extended periods are among brainstorms, but preference would be that those are finite in length, sources said. For example: A month or two inside, a month out. Early in planning; everything’s on table.
Australian NBA star Joe Ingles is open to playing an entire NBA season inside a bubble if the coronavirus continues to effect sport next year. He even revealed league officials had already spoken to the players about the potential of tutors for their children.
Ingles said NBA officials had spoken to players about how schooling may work for their children if the league was forced to continue in the bubble for a season. “There is a lot that would have to happen, but there have been discussion of bringing in tutors and a little classroom school,” Ingles said. “That is the level that it would have to be at, but the NBA is one of the best businesses in the world, and if anyone was going to pull it off, the NBA could.”
Ingles believes the main challenge of extending the bubble for a full season, which would be a minimum of six months, would be including loved ones. “Guys aren’t going without their families,” he said. “We were talking about this the other night my significant others would be my family. But for one of my teammates it might be his brother or his mum, so finding the balance of how many people and where you do that to have enough accommodation for 30 teams, including 40 staff and players in our group and that was a really small number that the NBA were trying to keep tight so we weren’t having too many people. If you are there all year you have to bring extra people.”
As the NBA prepares to officially restart its season in its bubble inside Walt Disney World Resort on Thursday — and other sports, most notably Major League Baseball, struggle to deal with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said returning to a bubble might be the only feasible way for the NBA to complete next season, as well.
“If tomorrow looks like today, I don’t know how we say we can do it differently,” Roberts told ESPN in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “If tomorrow looks like today, and today we all acknowledge — and this is not Michele talking, this is the league, together with the PA and our respective experts saying, ‘This is the way to do it’ — then that’s going to have to be the way to do it.”
In a call with the players back in May, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said money generated from live game attendance could account for up to 40 percent of the league’s annual revenue. Roberts said the two sides are “beginning some very high-level discussions with respect to what the potential issues are,” and said the laborious process that was necessary for the NBA and the union to hash out how to put the bubble together, and then actually go through the process of doing so, “took just about all of the oxygen out of the room.”
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January 20, 2021 | 9:33 pm EST Update
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