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Gary Washburn | On basketball

Planning for NBA’s return will pose a stern test for Adam Silver

NBA commissioner informed players a return to action will include calculated risks

NBA commissioner Adam Silver must weigh and measure the risks involved in proceeding with -- or canceling -- the NBA 2019-20 season if the coronavirus pandemic does not subside.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver must weigh and measure the risks involved in proceeding with -- or canceling -- the NBA 2019-20 season if the coronavirus pandemic does not subside.Stacy Revere/Getty

It seems NBA commissioner Adam Silver is waiting for that confirming word, that golden Evite invitation that will clear his conscience about restarting the NBA season and moving forward with the business of basketball without an ounce of guilt.

That word is likely never to come. The NBA is receiving subtle hints that it’s OK to move meticulously forward on a comeback but that approval for a full clearance from the government or health experts may never come.

Silver admitted in his conference call with players on Friday that returning could include some calculated risk, that it is going to be impossible to guarantee that none of his players, team officials, arena workers or hotel employees will stay free of COVID-19 by the end of the summer.

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Admirably, Silver wants to do this the right way. He wants to wait his turn in line for the necessary number of tests instead of using the league’s money and power to get tests ahead of those who need them more.

What will Adam Silver do?
What will Adam Silver do?Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

For the NBA to return, every player, team official and arena worker is going to need to be tested, and tested regularly. The games are going to have to be limited to one central location where those players and perhaps their families will reside for several weeks.

There will be no fans at these games. No state has been cleared for any mass gatherings and that likely won’t happen before August.

Silver wants to do the right thing but finally admitted Friday that there will be no consensus decision on nearly anything with this situation. If he cancels the season, the owners and many players will take issue, imploring that there could have been a way to conduct the season safely.

If he resumes the season, there will be those who claim Silver did not take into account the safety of his players — his most important commodity — and this was simply a money grab.

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For the first time in his six-year tenure, Silver likely will not come out of this unscathed. He will make his share of adversaries, have his detractors and irk those who believe the NBA is only returning for the sake of avoiding catastrophic losses.

There is no consensus here. Even some former NBA players such as Shaquille O’Neal are suggesting Silver cancel the season. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, whose team has the worst record in the league, has little interest of throwing his team back on the floor for meaningless games.

There is going to be pushback on any Silver decision. But if it is safe and other sports can potentially set the model for a return, Silver should put all his efforts into resuming the season, acquiring the adequate number of tests and also purchasing twice that amount perhaps to donate to COVID-19 hot spots where those in need would be helped.

NBA players and owners could generate a fund to not only help those arena workers who haven’t had their jobs for two months but for other unemployed workers in those disadvantaged areas. If the government is going to pass the buck with responsibility, and the NBA is a flourishing league that wants to return at a time where most of America is suffering, then it can make sure to make efforts to reduce that suffering in anyway it can.

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Will we continue to see empty arenas around the NBA?
Will we continue to see empty arenas around the NBA?Stephen M. Dowell/Associated Press

That’s the best solution for a return. This is one of those situations where Silver is not going to make everybody happy or be universally praised for his actions. He’s in a difficult situation but has enough resources to pull this off. The NBA could resume at Disney Wide World of Sports in Orlando, a location that has 151 hotels in the surrounding area and sports facilities that usually house various youth sporting events.

Teams could begin training camp in June at their own facilities, take a chartered plane to Orlando in July and resume the season in various facilities with an abbreviated regular-season schedule, a potential playoff play-in tournament and close to a full playoff schedule.

This NBA season is going to historic, for dubious reasons, but there’s time for Silver to make the best of a dreadful situation. If the situation with COVID-19 does not improve or even gets worse, it may be the best call to cancel the remainder of the season and prepare for 2020-21. But as America slowly takes steps forward toward normalcy and sports such as auto racing, baseball and others begin resumption, the NBA could again become the shining example and resume in the most prepared and sensitive fashion.

And even if Silver were to devise a perfect plan for a return, not everybody is going to agree with his blueprint and Silver has to accept that. There is no clear-cut answer here and Silver was hoping to have one two months after Rudy Gobert was diagnosed with COVID-19.

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But the road is still muddy and there are no clear solutions on May 11. So it’s up to Silver and the NBA Players Association to combine on an acceptable solution for a late-summer return. There is going to be sacrifice and unpopular decisions made but from his previous track record, Silver will make the best judgment possible, even if that means his approval ratings will take a dip.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.