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NBA Return: An Experiment of Uncertainty

The NBA is testing the waters, but what are the depths?

Miami Heat v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

With the league set to return on July 31st and officially formatted after Thursday’s Board of Governor’s meeting, there is a guaranteed reanimation to the 2020 NBA season. However, the stability brought this week in regards to the season’s completion has developed even more questions about the future of the league at-large.

The conclusion of this season coupled with 2021 figures to be the most pivotal 18 months the modern NBA has seen. I aim to create no illusion; The league isn’t bankrupt, it’s not on the verge of another lockout, nor is it crippled by a widespread drug crisis. But, the league faces a metastasizing amount of questions creating a quandary that will not be easily surmounted.

Player Health/Fatigue Concerns

Speaking strictly on COVID-19, the odds of a player contracting the virus rather than not are monumental. Look, I’m a very pessimistic person, I’m not trying to blow things out of proportion, but it can’t be overlooked that there is not a definite answer to whether or not there are long-term health impacts from the virus. I understand that regaining some sense of normality in life via the NBA could be great as an escape for society at large, but I find it difficult to not posit the potential issues looming in Orlando. Often times, things that can go wrong will go wrong.

Eschewing the thoughts on COVID; let’s use the 1999 and 2011 lockouts to draw comparisons. While there is no conclusive evidence that the lockout condensed seasons led to a higher injury rate, it was and has been a general debate that the added strain of more games in a shorter time frame had a negative effect.

In both of those league years, the off-season was longer than usual allowing for more rest and recovery from the prior year. This undoubtedly hurt some players in the long run (Shawn Kemp chief among them) as it disrupted the regular league routine.

Our current scenario is similar, but it could be more threatening to player health. Rather than transitioning from the playoffs to a lengthy layoff, there was an abrupt disruption mid-season with nearly three months of uncertainty of return. Compile that with the inability to train and practice normally.

Yes, players are going to have a decent chunk of time dedicated to getting into game shape and regaining playing form, but to go from a stand still to playing playoff games in less than two months is a significant feat. Without any sort of cooldown at the break and a brief warmup, I genuinely question how this might impact players’ physical ability and bodies.

That’s not to discredit the immense ability of NBA players, but you have to remember that they’re humans like you or me. They undergo intense amounts of strain over the course of an entire season. To throw the body out of wack the way it has been and then go back into the fire suddenly is certainly unprecedented as well as risky.

When thinking long-term, the potential for injuries leaks into next year. Perhaps smaller injuries or fatigue related issues are heightened by this shock period and then are exacerbated next season?

As of now, there will only be 22 days off for the two teams that meet in the finals (see above tweet). For reference, the final date of the last game of the 2019 finals was June 13th. Players reported to training camp for this season on September 28th (6 teams in Global Games) and October 1st. 107 and 110 day off-seasons respectively.

So teams are potentially faced with an off-season that’s 20% of the usual length, a significant decrease in the amount of time given to rest and recover. Obviously not every team is making the finals, but all 22 teams participating in the Orlando bubble will be subject to a shortened off-season.

It can’t be stated one way or another how fatigue and injuries are impacted by this crazy set of circumstances; I’d bank on it being negative.

There are so many variables and questions that arise.

  • Do team’s put starters on minutes limits?
  • Are deeper rotations used this season and the next?
  • Do we see an even higher injury rate next year?
  • Does resting on back-backs becoming more normalized?
  • Will we hear even more stories from old players/coaches about “back in my day...” and how they played 43 minutes a night and ate scrap metal for breakfast

League Financials & Salary Cap Impact

The league has taken a massive hit in revenue this season due to league stoppage, with the league potentially looking at a loss of $1 Billion in revenue. What are the ramifications?

The league is all but guaranteed to see a significant drop in the salary cap; the steepness of the drop remains to be seen.

In what seems like a decade ago, the spark between China and the NBA was spawning a financial loss that was damning in it’s own right.

The financial losses due to Coronavirus in congruence with the losses from the Chinese market present a sense of malaise when thinking about the league’s financials.

This doesn’t crush the NBA by any means, but there are factors that were in play at the beginning of the season that are much less certain now.

There has been talk in recent years of potential expansion. I’m not an economist, but with less financial stability league-wide, adding in two start up teams seems extremely risky.

  • How significant will the cap hit be?
  • How long will it take for the cap to stabilize?
  • Does expansion somehow make sense? It’s been proposed that perhaps adding new markets could help with balancing out some of the financial loss, but I’m skeptical.
  • Does the cap hit impact player movement? Will players take short deals to

Declining Viewership

The NBA has suffered declining viewership in recent years and quite notably this year.

I’ve spoken prior on podcasts and in writing about why viewership is perhaps down, but there isn’t a definitive answer, rather a conglomeration of issues.

This area of concern while not the most important, will be extremely interesting to analyze in the coming year. The NBA regular season tends to suffer viewership early on due to sharing the the screen with the NFL and college football.

Although the NHL will be the first major sports league back in the US, the NBA will have a chance to really get some play this summer & fall and can hopefully capitalize off of mass viewership due to large parts of the population still at home. However, the real potential lie in next season.

For the first time in modern league history, the NBA will be starting a full regular season in December. Thus, the regular season will largely be played outside of the NFL calendar year. Will the restructured season and dates expand league viewership? Will it stay stagnant? Will it drop? I obviously have no ability to answer those questions! But, they are going to be essential questions for the league moving forward.

These are unprecedented times. The uncertainty is palpable. How the league responds and performs will set the tone for years to come.