The NBA’s bubble experiment was a rousing success. Although the games were played without fans, they also were played without COVID-19 health issues. Over the course of three months in Orlando, no players or team staffers tested positive for the virus, and team and league officials were pleased with the restart.
All along, though, there was an obvious sense that the setup was temporary. Even before the Lakers stormed to the NBA title, members of the Board of Governors and executives from the Players Association had begun discussing what will likely be an even greater challenge: next season.
The NBA draft is currently scheduled for Nov. 18, but it could be moved, and beyond that, just about nothing has been figured out for next year. Here are the major issues that must be resolved in the coming weeks:
The salary cap
The salary cap is based on projected revenues, and it was initially expected to be about $115 million next season, with a luxury-tax threshold of $139 million. Now, of course, revenues will likely crater next year.
But setting a low cap for a single season would essentially set off a roller-coaster ride, with more tax-paying teams this year and lower salaries for players who sign this offseason. So the more likely scenario involves keeping the cap at last season’s number, $109 million.
To mitigate the financial losses to teams, the Players Association would likely agree to keep a larger percentage of salaries in escrow. Currently, that figure is 10 percent.
Players ultimately receive 49-51 percent of the league’s basketball-related income, so with a larger amount of salaries in escrow, maybe 50 percent, players would essentially take one-year pay cuts in hopes of returning to normalcy the following year.
The draft and free agency
The draft is set for Nov. 18, although it could be pushed back if the NBA and the Players Association are unable to come to agreement on amending the collective bargaining agreement by early November. Celtics executives have been studying film of draft prospects and eventually will be permitted to visit some prospects in person, although it’s unclear whether they will do that. A date for the start of free agency has not been set, but it will follow the draft.
While the bubble was a success, there is little desire to attempt to repeat the feat during the regular season. The summer bubble worked in large part because it was so temporary. Eight teams did not take part, and another 14 were there for just a few weeks.
But the pandemic continues to rage across the country, and as other pro sports leagues have shown, playing a regular season under these conditions can be complicated.
The start date for next season will likely be pushed back as much as possible to allow fans to attend games, even if only in a limited capacity. But unlike baseball and football, there are no outdoor basketball arenas, so rapid coronavirus testing likely will be an essential part of the operation.
If some teams allow fans and others do not, that difference will have to be accounted for as the league considers restructuring revenue sharing in this unusual environment.
Also, depending on the start date, the league will likely have to play a shortened regular season, especially with the prospect of the Olympics being held in Tokyo next summer.
The 'other’ basketball
The NBA summer league, a two-week event in Las Vegas featuring rookies and other young players hoping to latch onto final rosters or G League teams, obviously was not held in the summer, and almost certainly will not be held at all.
Also, the fate of the G League this season is up in the air. One possibility could be to essentially mesh the two at some point after the draft in a shortened bubble environment. It would be a good evaluation period, and it would put basketball on television as fans await the real thing. But the logistics and costs might not be worth it.