Why the NBA Calendar Might Change Forever

For essentially my entire lifetime, the NBA calendar has had a familiar drumbeat: a season starts in October or early November, the playoffs start in April and end in June, followed by the draft a week or two later in June and free agency to start July. The time of year goes so hand in hand with an NBA season that I know I've used June as a synonym for "the Finals" on this site before.

So, it's been a bit surreal the past month to have NBA playoff games on opposite NFL games and baseball playoff contests. Of course, it's 2020, so normal must be thrown out the window at 90 mph.

In fact, from a historical perspective, the most normal thing about the 2019-20 NBA season that took just short of a full calendar year to complete was that the Lakers were the champions and the Celtics were a couple wins away from joining them in the Finals. I wasn't sure LeBron James could win another championship, but I wouldn't have dreamed 18 months ago that it would be on a team with a dominant defense. You can probably count the number of days I've cheered for the Lakers in my life on two hands, but it was fitting in a number of ways for them to win this title.

Congratulations are also in order for the NBA as a league for finishing this season out and being a rare model of American safety amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While it was clear after the pause for social justice in late August that there would be a conclusion to the season, not having a single positive test in the bubble after mid-July was beyond anyone's wildest expectations.

Now that the league's grand bubble experiment is at an end, where do we go from here?

There's one thing scheduled on the NBA calendar: the draft, which is still about a month away on Nov. 18. We don't know when free agency will be, what the salary cap will be, or when the next season will start.

Right now, the league wants to play a full 82-game schedule next season with fans in arenas (despite the ongoing pandemic and its indoor dangers) and the players want the salary cap to stay relatively stable (despite the revenue lost to the pandemic and China/Daryl Morey fallout).

Let's work backwards an indulge in a best-case scenario.

The pandemic starts to dissipate after multiple reliable vaccines begin distribution in early 2021. Next season begins around or on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. An 82-game schedule is played in home arenas and virus impacts are relatively minimal on coaches, staff and players, leading to an NBA Finals completed in August with sold-out crowds. An abbreviated offseason runs from Labor Day to Thanksgiving, and the calendar more or less reverts to what we're all used to for the 2021-22 season. Players miss the Tokyo Olympics, but everyone pretty much gets what they want.

If you think a "best case" is seriously in play given the last seven months of American life, I admire your optimism.

So, the next season probably isn't beginning until February or March — and who knows what the virus situation might allow with fans. I suspect that — much like the NFL right now — some states and localities won't allow fans at all while some will allow a limited number as the season goes on.

But think about the timeline of a February start, when an 82-game season and playoffs take a little under eight months to complete under "normal" circumstances. We're right back to ending the 2021 season in October. I doubt the NBA wants to go head-to-head with football again.

Condense the season, right? Good luck selling a full schedule with six fewer weeks to the players given everyone's desire to play as few back-to-backs as possible.

At some point, the league might have to make the decision between fewer games and playing into the fall. I can't say what the decision will be but, no matter what, it's going to mean less revenue coming in than even projections at the start of the pandemic forecasted.

And that could change the course of the league for the next several years or longer.

Some think the salary cap could inevitably fall by as much as $30 million. That probably won't happen when the owners and players negotiate things for this coming season in the hopes of revenues recovering in years to come, but the knock-on effects include every team possibly having to chop a third or more of their salaries — or be forced into a luxury tax threshold. Who knows how that could go down; there are no great ways to do it from a labor perspective. It could even produce a lockout or strike.

A couple months ago, I brought up the prospect that future NBA bubbles could occur. That doesn't look too likely now, because owners want revenue from fans coming back in. But that may well mean we have to get used to a new NBA calendar in the future.

Comments and Conversation

November 3, 2020

Antony Silva:

The NBA has already “said” several times that it is very likely that the games of these mini-tournaments will be read as regular season games. in fact, they will introduce additional signs simply) as I understood Silver from his last big interview, because it is impossible to understand anything from this particular news)

Leave a Comment

Featured Site