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Return-to-play in ‘bubble’, late start to next season on table

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Brooklyn Nets All-Access Practice Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

May 1 was supposed to be a critical date for the NBA. Three weeks ago, Adam Silver said that he didn’t expect any decision on a return-to-play until then. Now, the date has arrived and although the league continues to look at possibilities including playing games without fans at a neutral site, nothing is settled.

As Adrian Wojnarowski writes Friday...

Across the league, an overwhelming majority of high-level officials remain encouraged and optimistic that basketball will return this season. Still, the pathway remains cluttered. If Silver has learned anything about the coronavirus’ impact on his league, it’s how the pandemic is forcing leaders to probe contingencies on top of contingencies, rethinking everything and reevaluating it all again.

The most likely scenario is a return-to-play at a so-called “bubble” site (or two), with players and staff confined to hotels, gyms and arenas in close proximity to one another. There’d be constant testing for the coronavirus and extensive monitoring for symptoms .

Las Vegas and Walt Disney World are the two sites most mentioned and Woj notes that the MGM Grand has been pitching a plan to host the league — and perhaps the WNBA, too — within three adjacent hotels. Orlando’s theme park has gained momentum, both Woj and Shams Charania report. WDW, with its one owner, Disney, and a closed environment, would be more easily managed than Vegas, officials believe.

There’s also been discussion of postponing the opening of next season from October to December, after an anticipated second wave of the virus, but the league’s determination to crown a champion this season remains paramount.

As Woj writes, so far, the NBA’s first moves in getting back on the court has been confused at best.

As the NBA finalized with health agencies and experts on the precautions and processes needed for teams to reopen practice facilities in markets loosening stay-at-home restrictions, officials shared the broad strokes of a plan in a memo to about half the league’s owners on Saturday afternoon. Within a few hours, ESPN reported the news. Almost immediately, the league office felt blowback from teams. General managers spent Saturday and Sunday on the phone with each other and the league, trying to understand the purpose, the timing, the safety issues — as well as alternatives for teams outside of those selected markets.

By Monday, following further conversations with teams, the NBA had pushed the date to May 8 and furnished teams with a 16-page memo on procedures required to bring back players into facilities.

Among those procedures is a ban on teams testing players without symptoms. The Nets received criticism in mid-March for getting all their players and staff tested when at that point, test kits were at such a premium even hospitals treating COVID-19 patients couldn’t get them. Four Nets did test positive.

With only 400,000 Americans being tested daily —well below an estimated need for five million— the league doesn’t want to tap into the national stockpile. Woj reports that a return-to-play would require “in the neighborhood of 15,000 tests.” The league, he said, has been assured manufacturers could supply those tests, but “can’t guarantee the American public will have its needs met” before the NBA would require them.

The games themselves, if held, would look a lot different. Woj writes...

Amid the pandemic, sources say, fan-less games could rely on robotic cameras with closer, innovative angles of the action. Television play-by-play and game analysts could call the games from remote locations. Discussions have included teams keeping essential personnel in the range of 30 to 35 — including players — on site.

Calling games from remote locations is nothing new. Chris Carrino and Tim Capstraw called Olympic games for NBC Sports from cubicles set up at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York rather than the site of the games.

Still, there is no unanimity among league officials about a return-to-play this season, as Jabari Young of CNBC wrote Thursday.

NBA team executives and players’ agents spoke to CNBC in recent weeks about the challenges in resuming play. They said team owners are concerned with liability issues and are conflicted about whether or not to give up on the current season.

Young said some team executives believe the cost of returning would outweigh the benefits. He also noted that some owners, including several prominent ones, have lost enormous amounts of money in their core businesses because of the virus and don’t want to lose more on their sports properties. Micky Arison of the Heat and Tillman Fertitta of the Rockets among others have all seen their net worth slashed dramatically. (Joe Tsai, heavily invested in e-commerce in Asia, has seen his net worth jump in recent weeks as China gets back on track economically.)

There are other issues that could affect the start of next season, Young writes.

Team executives said the league office hasn’t considered more ideas about next season, especially since some local and state governments are threatening to ban live events until 2021. Some large companies such as Facebook and Microsoft have canceled plans to hold large, in-person events until as late as July 2021.

Finally, there’s getting players ready for a return-to-play whenever that is. Chris Paul, president of the players union, has said “at least” three or four weeks would be needed for players to prepare. And as The Athletic’s Sam Amick and Joe Vardon report Friday, not every player will likely have an equal chance to get ready.

When it comes to the facility reopening that some see as a crucial first step in this unprecedented process, there is a significant catch. Fifteen of the league’s 30 teams, including the top two in the West (Lakers, Clippers) and top four in the East (Bucks, Raptors, Celtics, Heat) are in locales that will still be under shelter-in-place orders at the end of next week.

Those teams couldn’t come back to work next Friday even if they wanted to, creating at least some competitive advantage for the teams that will have access to training sites. Or so it would seem.

Amick and Vardon quoted an NBA player on the Nets specific problem ... being at the epicenter of the virus’s rampage.

“The thing I keep hearing is the whole competitive advantage idea,” said one player on a team that could resume individual workouts next week. “If we open up half the teams’ facilities when it’s safe, what’s a team like Brooklyn going to do? That’s a question because I certainly have no idea what that looks like.”

As Woj noted, “sooner than later, the hard choices are coming for the commissioner.” Just don’t expect them today.