The NBA is conducting business on the fly as it begins its season in the midst of a pandemic. There were hopes that by winter COVID-19 concerns would have dissipated and fans would be allowed into every arena.
The Celtics opened at TD Garden with no fans, and even brought eight of their 17 championship banners down to the floor level to serve as a backdrop behind each basket. Boston’s mayor, Marty Walsh, left open the possibility that fans could be allowed back into the Garden by March or April, but for now, 24 of the NBA’s 30 teams are playing in empty arenas.
But the show will go on.
“It’s a huge priority to get fans back in the arenas, but we want to be realistic about it,” commissioner Adam Silver said. “Six of our teams will be beginning the season at least with some fans, and it’s my sense that we’re going to learn a lot once we have regular-season games with fans there. There are lots of issues around how fans will move in and out of the arenas, how our protocols, newly put-in-place protocols, in terms of physical distancing of fans and mask wearing, will fans be able to eat and drink while in the arenas, as well.
“There’s all these very new issues for us. I think that as we get our sea legs, with some teams bringing in fans, other markets see the success, we hope, of bringing in at least an acceptable number of fans early in the season, that it’ll mean that we can begin having more fans in our buildings.”
Silver insisted the NBA will not try to jump the line to get COVID-19 vaccines to players and officials prior to the proper time. The league is hoping the widespread distribution of vaccines can open the doors for fans in the second half of the season and the playoffs.
“I recognize that until there’s mass distribution of the vaccine, it’s unlikely that we’re going to return to a point where we have full arenas,” Silver said. “It’s part of the NBA experience. I mean, everybody who’s followed this sport ever since they were a kid is aware of the so-called sixth man, the home-court advantage, fans that come to scream and yell and sometimes boo, but to really participate in the game.”
Games in the bubble were without fans, but the venues were considerably smaller with little upper-deck seating. NBA games now are in 20,000-plus-seat arenas where teams are scrambling for ideas of how to cover the empty seats and create a game atmosphere for the players.
When the Celtics’ Jayson Tatum banked in a go-ahead 3-pointer with 0.4 seconds left in the season-opening win against the Bucks, there was no natural fan noise, only piped-in sound. Tatum celebrated with his teammates in a rather eerie environment.
“Even when you talk to our players, when we were all down in Orlando, I mean, they desperately missed [the fans]” Silver said. “I think everybody is accepting that this is the best we can do under the circumstances. To me, maybe this is true of all big-time sports, but I think I know for me particularly with the NBA, when I go to a game, the crowd is an integral part of the experience. I think we’re anxious to find ways as soon as we can safely do so to get fans back in our arenas.”
Olympics would be quick turnaround
The NBA has scheduled a condensed 72-game season to end in July, prior to the beginning of the Tokyo Olympics on July 23. But that does not mean the league is going to encourage its stars to participate or serve as an aid for FIBA, basketball’s world governing body, or USA Basketball in helping build more competitive or attractive rosters.
In other words, the NBA has cleared the time for players to participate in Tokyo, but the decision will be solely on the players.
“I don’t see it as our role to try to get our players to participate,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “USA Basketball is an independent organization, which oversees our national team and our Olympic competition, and of course the vast majority of our players who participate in the Olympics play for countries other than the United States.”
Michele Roberts, executive director of the NBA Players Association, told the Globe last spring that the union would not actively encourage players to participate in the Olympics.
“But I see that very much as an individual decision,” Silver said. “Clearly in the case of the United States, we have a deeper pool of talent than other countries. So I think it’s less likely — although it will impact the US team, it affects them not as dramatically as it will some of these other teams, where if a particular player or two doesn’t participate, it could decimate a team.
“I’m sure if I were in the shoes of a player or if I were advising a player, I’m sure they will be paying a lot of attention to where the virus is by mid-July, the conditions under which they would be playing in Japan, of course, where the Olympics will be taking place, and also the wear and tear on their body.”
Which teams reach the postseason could have an impact on which players decide to play for Team USA. As Silver pointed out, nearly half the league will no longer be playing when the playoffs commence on May 22, perhaps giving those players more of an opportunity and incentive to play in Tokyo.
“For those players, they will have an opportunity for far more rest than a player who hypothetically could be playing literally days before the Olympics are scheduled to start,” Silver said. “You could imagine a player in that situation saying that it’s just too much wear and tear on their body to go forward into the Olympics.
“I’d also say it’s my expectation that our federation, FIBA, together with the IOC, will also work with us on potential accommodations, even in terms of when rosters would otherwise need to be submitted, recognizing that they’re going to need to be more flexible and work with us this season, given how much uncertainty there is around the virus.”
Expansion now seen as possibility
Commissioner Adam Silver has adjusted his “absolutely not” stance on NBA expansion, saying this past week the league is pondering the possibility of perhaps two additional teams. Nothing is imminent, but for cities such as Seattle, Las Vegas, Louisville, and Kansas City, it offers hope that the league could be coming in the next decade or so.
“I think I’ve always said that it’s sort of the manifest destiny of the league that you expand at some point,” Silver said. “I’d say it’s caused us to maybe dust off some of the analyses on the economic and competitive impacts of expansion. We’ve been putting a little bit more time into it than we were pre-pandemic. But certainly not to the point that expansion is on the front burner.”
There’s a difference between “don’t even think about it” and “not on the front burner,” and it’s an indication that league owners, who were reluctant to split their revenue pot more than 30 ways, are open to the financial windfall two additional teams would bring.
“We’re very appreciative of the markets that have indicated an interest in having an NBA team,” Silver said. “One of the issues for the league office, and this comes up all the time in terms of competitiveness, it’s not a secret that we don’t have 30 competitive teams at any given time right now when you go into the season, measured by likelihood of ability to win a championship.
“One of our focuses as the league office is always on how do you create better competition. So that’s one of the things that we continue to think about as we consider expansion. It’s an economic issue and it’s a competitive issue for us. So it’s one that we’ll continue to study, but we’re spending a little bit more time on it than we were pre-pandemic.”
Full explanation of Bucks’ penalty
The Bucks were docked a second-round pick and fined for their participation in an apparent sign-and-trade agreement deal with then-Kings guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, who then pulled out of the agreement and eventually signed with the Hawks. The Bucks apparently were not fined for tampering and the Kings weren’t fined at all, causing many Bucks faithful to wonder why they were levied any penalty.
NBA chief compliance officer Rick Buchanan explained in detail why the Bucks were the lone party to be sanctioned.
“The rule at issue here is a rule that requires all teams to start having conversations about free agent contracts at the same time,” Buchanan said. “Loosely defined as gun jumping, the idea that the flag for free agency goes down at the same time and everybody should start having those conversations at the same time for reasons of competitive fairness.”
It’s confusing, but the Bucks were not fined for tampering.
“This is not about tampering,” Buchanan said. “Tampering is the rule where you’re having impermissible contracts with a player who is under contract to another team. This is a very important rule that all the teams begin the free agency process at the same time. It was a rule that in the summer of 2019 was called out by our teams as something that was being broken more often than teams were comfortable with, and they felt like there needed to be more strict enforcement of this rule to ensure that teams that weren’t breaking it weren’t falling behind competitively. We committed to doing that.
“And so here the violation was that the team had conversations about a free agent contract with the representative for this player prior to the time when the CBA permitted them to do that, and as a result they were penalized.”
Makings of a dynamic duo
Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum combined for 63 points in the Celtics’ opening win over the Bucks. Tatum was an All-Star and third-team All-NBA last season, while Brown is a potential All-Star.
ESPN/ABC analyst Jalen Rose lauded their potential to eventually become the best tandem in the NBA.
“Those guys have been so good so fast and so young,” Rose said. “And for me, when you get Tatum, basically in theory, the Markelle Fultz move, and he’s playing the way he’s playing as a rookie in the playoffs, and then you look at the Philadelphia bench and Fultz is getting DNPs, like you really scored if you’re Danny Ainge.”
Perhaps the most encouraging sign is the close relationship between Brown and Tatum. They genuinely root for each other, realizing the other’s importance to the team, and their own success.
“To put him with Jaylen Brown, who has All-NBA defensive potential every year, improved his shooting, Tatum improved his isolation game, and so now you have two of the best players at their positions in the league,” Rose said. “And so being able to get shots off the dribble and compete on a nightly basis.”
Rose, like many other NBA analysts, believe the Celtics need another piece. They acquired Tristan Thompson in the offseason to help defend imposing centers, but is that enough? The team also has the $28.5 million trade exception from the Gordon Hayward deal that will most certainly be invested on an impact player before the trade deadline.
“One of the things that I would have liked the Celtics to do at some point when they were gathering those assets, and obviously Danny Ainge is an amazing front office person, is what would have happened if they would have been able to cash in some of those assets for a big man that could grow with those guys?” Rose said. “Like those two guys and Marcus Smart, I feel like they’re the heartbeat of that team, and it seems like later in games what ends up happening is Tatum ends up guarding players that are just bigger than him. Basketball is still a physical, tall man’s game, and that’s how it looked like Bam [Adebayo of the Heat] was playing against them, a lot of times when they were playing against Giannis [Antetokounmpo], and also when Philadelphia comes to town and you have Ben Simmons and you have Joel Embiid.
“So that’s the theme for the Celtics to me is to give those guys some support up front physically. I know they added Tristan Thompson, as well. That’s another basketball topic because he’s not going to necessarily spread the floor, even though he’s really good defensively. But either way, that’s what I would like to see from the Celtics, but those two guys, during the season I called them the East Coast version of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.”
When Hayward signed with the Hornets, it was because he wanted the expanded role that he wasn’t going to receive with the Celtics. Hayward played 36 minutes in the Hornets’ season-opening loss to the Cavaliers and scored 28 points on 18 shots. But with Hayward’s presence, someone was going to lose playing time, and it appears to be third-year forward Miles Bridges, who came off the bench for Charlotte in the opener and played just 22 minutes. Bridges started 64 of his 65 appearances last season and averaged 30.7 minutes. He has been considered a potential cornerstone, but unfortunately he plays the same position as Hayward. The Hornets will now have to scramble with starting center Cody Zeller breaking his hand in the opener. He is expected to miss six weeks. The issue with the Hornets in the early going is going to be rebounding. They were pounded on the boards, 50-32, in the opener with Andre Drummond, Larry Nance, and JaVale McGee amassing more rebounds than the entire Charlotte team … Speaking of the Cavaliers, they are the biggest team in the NBA with Drummond, Nance, and McGee in the middle. Meanwhile, Isaac Okoro may be a candidate for an All-Rookie slot as he has become a starter at small forward. Look out for Cleveland. The Cavaliers are very young but athletic, and they will be a difficult opponent for teams that take them lightly … Commissioner Adam Silver said the NBA will still select All-Stars and leave open the possibility of an All-Star Game, depending on the status of the pandemic. The league only released its schedule through March 4 to potentially plan for a midseason game … A stunning contract was the Clippers giving $64 million over four years to Luke Kennard (acquired in the offseason from the Pistons), despite his injury history and never having played a game with the team. Kennard showed flashes of potential in Detroit but could never stay healthy. Meanwhile, Kyle Kuzma, who helped the Lakers win a title, signed a three-year, $40 million extension to stay in Los Angeles. He has long been the subject of trade rumors.