The conclusion of an NBA season would normally signal the beginning of summer, the start of a well-structured offseason with dates that act as mile markers on the road to next season. But as we all know, this NBA season has been anything but normal and that’s true of what’s to come as well.
The NBA pulled off a feat that seemed nearly impossible when it was proposed a few months ago. The Los Angeles Lakers won the 2020 NBA championship in the bubble, the culmination of 172 games played in isolation. There were thousands of people in the bubble — players, staff, team personnel, family, media members and Disney World employees — and there were zero positive COVID-19 tests. That’s a successful metric by any standard.
Now that the NBA’s experiment in Orlando is over, the league has to answer the question that everyone is asking: What happens next?
The short answer is, we don’t know.
The normal NBA offseason has a rhythm that kicks off with the draft, followed by the opening of free agency, summer league play, rookie camps, a release of the upcoming schedule and the beginning of training camp, which leads into preseason and the next regular season.
The league has scheduled the 2020 NBA draft for Nov. 18, but beyond that there is an abundance of uncertainty.
After the longest NBA season in the league’s history, which ran for almost an entire year, nothing can be planned for next season until the league and players association are given proper projections on the 2020-21 season salary cap and are able to negotiate how to plan for the loss of revenue that will impact the cap not only next season but potentially for seasons to come.
New contract and player option dates, which were passed when the season calendar shifted, need to be updated and agreed upon, and teams need a good amount of time to make offseason plans with the new cap numbers.
We’re very likely looking at a snowy offseason in which free agency opens in December. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said he doesn’t expect the 2020-21 season to begin before the 2021 calendar year and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts, along with multiple league sources, has said that February is probably a better estimate.
There are going to be major implications because of the revised NBA calendar. It could end up taking years for the league to get back on a normal schedule and that could mean players aren’t available for international play or the Olympics for a long time. It could lead to big changes for summer league and G League play. It could mean that summertime no longer signals the end of a season but is rather a part of it.
Even after all the logistics of the dates and finances are ironed out for the 2020-21 season, the NBA still has to figure out what an NBA game will look like.
Fan attendance is a high priority for the league and with the success of the NBA bubble in Orlando it’s hard to see them allowing large numbers of fans in arenas right out of the gate.
In order to reduce travel and shave some time off the total number of days it takes to complete an NBA season, the next couple years of scheduling might include multiple regional series and the fan experience will be affected. It might include another bubble for next year’s playoffs.
What about the things we learned from the bubble experience? How much did reduced travel help the players and quality of play? Will the NBA increase out-of-bounds areas to help protect the players, fans, photographers, etc? Is there something to the sight lines being different? Can the NBA replicate any of the beneficial elements of the bubble into the normal arenas? Will the league’s schedule be permanently changed?
There are so many things that could end up happening as a result of what we’ve learned, and there’s a lot more that the NBA could learn during the course of planning the 2020-21 season.
Make no mistake, basketball will not return to “normal” any time soon, and what we knew as “normal” is a thing of the past.