When COVID-19 emerged in the U.S., it was the NBA that showed America, beyond sports, how swiftly institutions could disappear. The day Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the league came to an eerie halt. After renegotiating the season, the NBA and NHL, with strict bubbles, were the most successful. The NBA recently wrapped up a successful six-game Finals. So what comes next?
The complications that threw the 2020 NBA season into disarray
COVID-19 stopped the NBA season in its tracks on March 11, 2020. Commissioner Adam Silver quickly met with owners and players to hammer out details for a return. In contrast to Rob Manfred’s loose plans for MLB, Silver was determined to create an environment with little chance for disruptions.
That, according to NBA.com, led to an unprecedented July 30 restart in the NBA bubble. The isolated space carved out for the NBA at Disney World in Orlando is by now something sports fans know well. Less attention went to Silver’s care with the format of the return. Rather than picking up where the season left off, seeding games were scheduled to protect the integrity of the playoffs.
Looking to MLB as a contrast, that league used the unprecedented season to experiment with everything from extra innings to pinch-hitting rules. Most notably, turned the Wild Card round into a first-to-two pressure cooker phase for every playoff team. Silver, instead, sought to make adjustments to the regular season play, transitioning to a successful playoff format identical to seasons’ past.
Will COVID-19 continue to affect the NBA in 2021?
Now that the NBA Finals are over, it’s clear that the bubble season was a success. There is little pushback on whether this was a “real” season, that crowned a “real” champion. Still, the disruptions triggered by the global pandemic will continue to be a challenge.
The NBA season would normally start, well, right now. No matter how successful the bubble season was, it still played out far later in the year than normal. Even if the pandemic was fully under control, at least one more season would be out of phase on the calendar.
Unfortunately, the pandemic is not under control in the United States. The New York Times reports that lax quarantine efforts and hasty restarts may have set the stage for the worst period of infections yet. With NFL teams like the Tennessee Titans regularly missing games, it’s likely that 2021 will continue to be disrupted by the prevalence of COVID-19.
The NBA’s tentative plans for next season
There still isn’t a solid start date for the 2021 NBA season. All we know for sure is that it won’t start this year. After initially targeting a December start date, Silver told CNN that January through March would be far more realistic.
ESPN‘s report on key NBA dates notes that the rescheduled draft should happen on November 18th. The Summer League, which would’ve happened at the same time as the bubble restart, has been scrapped entirely. There are no plans to make up for the missed opportunity, which could affect younger players’ development.
As for the bubble, it’s currently not in the cards. Silver wants to return to arenas, with virus precautions in place. At the moment, that seems untenable, but no one can say for sure what 2021 will bring.