Bursting the Bubble: The NBA’s Next Steps
By: Nathan Coffing
As the Los Angeles Lakers hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy into the air on October 11th, after defeating the Miami Heat in six games to clinch the storied franchise’s 17th title, the NBA’s unprecedented experiment came to a close. Beginning in July, the NBA teamed-up with the Walt Disney corporation to host 22 teams at the ESPN Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, to finish one of the most memorable seasons in recent history.
At the height of “the bubble,” more than 1500 NBA players, coaches, staff members, and employees all lived together in a controlled, COVID-free Orlando environment . Before teams arrived, the NBA released a safety plan made up of over 100 detailed pages, covering anything and everything you could think of – COVID-19 tests would be administered daily, masks would be worn at all times off a basketball court, playing cards would be disposed of after each use, and doubles ping-pong would not be allowed .
While some of the measures may have seemed extreme at first glance, the results were undeniable – not a single person tested positive for COVID-19 while in the bubble . 107 days, more than 1500 people, 172 games played, and zero positive tests .
While the NBA bubble was unquestionably a massive success, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver likely didn’t spend a long time celebrating. After months of careful consideration and execution of the NBA’s grand experiment, the work has only just begun. As the purple and gold confetti fell last week, the league had only one date set for its next season – the draft. On November 18th, 60 basketball players will hear their names called and see their childhood dreams of being drafted into the NBA come true. What happens after that, no one knows.
When will the free agency period begin? Will the NBA or National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) terminate the collective bargaining agreement (CBA)? What will the salary cap be for next year? Will teams be playing at their home arenas or will they be in another bubble environment? Will fans be allowed in the arenas? And the question that has been on every fans mind since the clock ran to zero and the Lakers began their championship celebration – when will next season begin?
On May 11th, the NBA and NBPA agreed to extend, until September, a 60-day window that preserves the league’s right to terminate the CBA . This was done initially to delay the possibility of the league enacting its force majeure provision, terminating the CBA and effectively cancelling the remainder of the 2019-2020 season .
As the league resumed play in late July, there was still no agreement on whether the CBA should be terminated, and the NBA and its players association have agreed twice more to extend the deadline . The deadline is now October 30th for the two sides to agree on any modifications to the CBA . It is now considered only a remote possibility that the CBA will be terminated entirely .
One main subject for negotiations is where the salary cap will be set for next season. The 2019-2020 season had a salary cap of $109.1 million with the luxury tax starting after $132.6 million . Before the league agreed to complete the season, there were worries that the salary cap would have to be reduced going into next season as a result of the pandemic . However, NBPA executive director Michelle Roberts recently stated she thinks the cap will be set at just under $115 million, which would be a huge accomplishment for the league given how their season was interrupted .
CBA negotiations have progressed significantly, but there is increasing pressure from teams to speed up the process . Teams are asking that the salary cap be set approximately 10-14 days before draft night so they can adequately plan for their offseason, giving front office executives enough time to evaluate their rosters, target free agents, and explore trades before the draft . While it is true that the salary cap typically isn’t set for the next season until about a week after the draft, teams feel it is necessary for the cap to be determined before draft night this year due to all of the added uncertainty going into the offseason . Regarding when the free agency period might begin, Ms. Roberts said she’s hoping the two sides can agree on a December 1st date .
Mr. Silver has frequently said that it is the NBA’s priority to have fans back in arenas for the coming season, as game-night receipts account for about 40% of league revenue . However, given the current ominous trajectory of the pandemic, the NBA is abandoning previous plans of a mid-January start date with fans in attendance and is pursuing a potential opening night before Christmas day, to be held in empty arenas . Additionally, the NBA is no longer pursuing a full 82-game schedule and is instead looking at a moderately reduced regular season schedule of 72 games . The most recent proposal does not include an All-Star game or All-Star weekend in Indianapolis as planned, but does include a two-week break in the middle of the season . The shorter 72-game schedule would allow the NBA to hold another play-in tournament for the final spots of the playoffs, similar to the tournament held this past season in the bubble .
Another factor that may be influencing the earlier than anticipated start date is the delayed 2020 Olympic Games. The NBPA has repeatedly stressed their desire to have the 2020-2021 NBA season finish before the Tokyo Olympics begin, allowing all interested players the chance to participate . Assuming the season does begin before Christmas day and the regular season contains only a 72-game schedule, the NBA finals would conclude shortly before the Olympics are scheduled to begin . Previous plans of a mid-January start date with a full 82-game schedule would have only allowed for players whose teams missed out on the NBA playoffs to participate in the Olympic Games .
The NBA has achieved enormous success in its efforts to keep employees safe while continuing the game of basketball. Drafting, negotiating, and agreeing to terms for the 2020 bubble was no small task, and executing these protocols to near perfection is a significant accomplishment. The league has navigated these unprecedented times masterfully, and the world has taken notice. Now that the league has succeeded in its grand experiment, one question remains – what next?
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