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The NBA’s return: Looking into a Double Bubble Proposal and more

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Despite the NBA’s claim that safety is a major concern, as it stands now, their return-to-play plan heavily prioritizes profit. Is there a way to find a balance?

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone’s long heard the news by now. The NBA’s Board of Governors and the NBAPA have both approved a plan that would see the 2019-20 NBA season make its long-awaited return on July 30.

But for all of those people who’ve already started the countdown clock because the NBA is officially back, just go ahead and pump those brakes. If you bothered to read the NBA’s press release, or even the first few sentences, you’d know that this is only “the first formal step among many required to resume the season.”

Even if this proposal continues to receive all the necessary thumbs up, and even if a deal is officially struck between the NBA and Disney, there’s still plenty of time between now and July 30 for things go completely haywire. Especially when we’re dealing with something as elusive and unpredictable as COVID-19.

In other words, everything is very much tentative. The training camp start date. The season start date. The playoffs start date. The playoffs end date. Nothing is set in stone. Everything is still way up in the air. Heck, the season itself is tentative. There’s still a very good chance that the 2020 season never resumes. That’s why it’s called a “proposal” and not “this is what’s 100 percent happening.” I’ll believe it when I see the first jump ball and not a millisecond sooner.

So all of this planning, including this story, could be for naught. But for the sake of argument, let’s say everything does go right and the season does resume in July. Let’s take a closer look at the proposal.

In summary, the NBA proposed a 22-team return, which will take place at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The format will include the 16 current playoff teams, plus the six teams that are six games or fewer behind the 8th seed in each conference. Each team will play eight “seeding” games with possible play-in games to decide the 8th seed. (By the way, can everyone please stop calling them play-in tournaments. They’re play-in games.)

Although I understand the reasons behind the NBA’s 22-team proposal, most of which are financial related, I disagree with it wholeheartedly. The NBA, the players, the national broadcast partners and local broadcasters all stand to make lots of money off the league returning to action. This is how the business works — but not if it means risking the safety of all those involved.

Every single decision that Adam Silver and the NBA make right now should be about prioritizing the health and safety of its players, the players’ families, team staff, the refs, media, hotel staff, food service staff and so on. That means preventing the contraction and spread of COVID-19 as much as possible. So far, it’s been about profit over safety.

There are still a million and one questions and concerns that the league has yet to fully address. Which makes the NBAPA agreeing to the return plan before knowing the full safety protocols even more odd. We’re already hearing rumblings that some players are hesitant to resume playing, including Carmelo Anthony.

As it stands now, the priority needle is swinging heavily towards the profit side. And that’s not how it should be. Not at a time like this. So what plan should the NBA have proposed to shift the priority needle towards safety?

The No Proposal Proposal

If health was a truly a priority for the NBA, which they say it is, then a plan that invites 22 teams and coaches and family members and support staff and refs and media and hotel staff and food service staff and on and on, wouldn’t even have been proposed in the first place.

The NBA would’ve just flat out canceled the season. Thank you. It’s been swell. See you next season (maybe). Cue the GIF of Vince Carter motioning it’s over at the 2000 Slam Dunk contest. I can’t even eat at a restaurant or get a haircut, but somehow they’re going to play professional basketball in closed quarters for close to three months? This isn’t golf or tennis or NASCAR. It’s 48 minutes of bumping and grinding indoors on a 94x50 rectangle.

What are we doing here? Silver originally shut down the league when a single player tested positive — and he was right to do so — so why with the pandemic still in full swing, especially in Florida, would the conditions be any better for a return?

Sure, a more controlled environment with daily testing and safety protocols could reduce the risk of contracting and spreading the virus. Or it could not. We’re counting on a lot of people to adhere to these protocols. Either way, there’s still a huge risk involved.

Not to mention a higher risk to those people who have been deemed more susceptible to the virus, including older coaches like Gregg Popovich, Mike D’Antoni and Alvin Gentry and players with certain pre-existing medical conditions. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski recently reported that some players are hesitant to enter the bubble for health reasons. He stated that “If a player has a medical issue that might be cause for him to be excused from the Orlando restart, he would be allowed to undergo an independent examination process.”

Perhaps the single biggest question left to be fully answered by the league is: what happens if a player tests positive for COVID-19 after play begins? Because it will happen.

Nothing is official yet, but as of now, the NBA plans to just quarantine that player and continue on playing. Ummm, yeah. It’s not that simple. Not with everything we know about the virus and how easily it can spread. Unless they can get instantaneous test results for everyone who came in contact with that player, you’d think they’d have to shut down for at least a day or two while results came in.

I know it doesn’t sound like it, but I want the NBA to return just as much as anyone. Maybe even more. There are so many tantalizing plotlines and highly-anticipated matchups that I’m desperate to see play out. A possible all-LA West Finals. Daryl Morey and his Houston Rockets possibly crashing and burning with their one-dimensional small ball strategy. The perpetual underdog Toronto Raptors climbing to third best in the league despite a never-ending rash of injuries while defending their title without the 2019 Finals MVP.

But is the NBA really going to risk the lives of so many people just to make some money and crown a champion? We should be talking about the Larry O’Brien, not the obits.

Larry O’Asterisk

Speaking of the championships, what are the players playing for here, really? (Besides money, of course.) If the NBA does return and a champion is crowned, will players, media and fans alike really take this title seriously? Maybe some will. But many likely won’t — me among them.

Unlike those ignoramuses who believe the Raptors’ 2019 title should have an asterisk, the 2020 title should absolutely have a mark on it. No matter which team wins, even if it’s the Raptors, I feel that the product will be so compromised that the team cannot be considered a true champion. Here are just some reasons why I believe this is the case.

1.) With the season being cut short and the schedules being unbalanced, it’s likely going to produce different playoff matchups than if the season ran its natural course. And different matchups could lead to different results. This can’t be fixed by a handful of seeding games.

This scenario is far different from the 1999 and 2012 NBA titles, which many have wrongfully attached asterisks to due to the shortened seasons. These were reduced schedules, yes. But they were fully completed schedules. All 30 teams played the same number of games and had the same chances to win the title.

2.) There’ll be no fans and no home court advantage. Ask any player how much an advantage it is to play at home, especially for a Game 7. Teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Raptors and L.A. Lakers worked hard to stay atop the NBA standings all year in order to secure home court. And now every team will be playing on neutral ground.

3.) Not every player has had access to workout equipment or a basketball court. So players across the league will be returning in very different shape. (Some in better shape.)

4.) What if a player contracts the virus and has to be removed from play? What if it’s a star player like LeBron James or Giannis? What if it’s multiple players from the same team? This could change the trajectory of the entire playoffs. I’ve heard the argument that, “Well, it’s just like a player getting hurt. Injuries happen.” Well, no. This isn’t Kevin Durant tearing his Achilles. Can you pass an Achilles tear onto a teammate? Can a wrist injury spread through a locker room? Can a pulled groin threaten the lives of a player and his family members?

Also, if a player sprains an ankle, he can still play through it or take a few games off to recover. But if a player tests positive for COVID-19, he’s not coming back for a while. And if it happens during the later rounds, he’s probably not coming back at all.

5.) Wojnarowski reported that players with certain pre-existing medical conditions may choose to bow out — as they should. He also reported other reasons why players are hesitant to play in the bubble, including family concerns and the current climate of social injustice. These are massive issues in their own right, but it also means some teams may not be playing with their full squad.

6.) Will older head coaches choose to enter the bubble? Will they coach from a remote location? This could easily sway the outcome of the games.

7.) Will teams be able to practice between games and work on new strategies? There are only three courts, all of which will be in use most of the time.

8.) If the NBA only allows 35 people per team, will the advanced scouts get cut? Advanced scouting is also something that could define a series.

I have no doubt that an asterisk will practically be carved into the Larry O’Brien trophy. So why is the NBA taking a huge risk just to crown an asterisk champion? Ultimately, it’s a business. And businesses want to make money. As do the players and broadcast partners. For these reasons, no NBA return was never a realistic option.

The 16-Team Proposal

The question that almost everyone is asking right now, and with good reason, is why 22 teams? Why in the holy hell is the NBA including the 24-40 Washington Wizards and the 26-39 Phoenix Suns? The Wizards are 5.5 games back of 8th while the Suns are six games back with the Spurs, Sacramento Kings, New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers all in their way.

It’s not rocket surgery! More teams equals more people equals more risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19. But the NBA is considering a very different equation: more teams equals more games equals more revenue — and in a case like Zion Williamson, more marketable stars.

Having two less teams there may not sound like much of a difference. Except that it is. We’re not just talking about 30 players here. There’s all the coaching staff, support staff, hotel staff, food service staff, etc.

But do you know what’s even better than two less teams? How about six less teams. Only the 16 teams currently holding playoff spots should’ve been invited to play.

Yeah, yeah. I get it. It’s not that simple just to take these 16 teams and jump right into the playoffs. I understand that eight regular season games need to be played in order to fulfill local TV contracts and for players to get paid. (Players don’t get paid their normal salaries during the playoffs.) After all, it’s the players who are taking the most risk here, so they should get as much money as they can. If I was laid off because of the pandemic then asked to risk my health to work on some high-pressure projects, but I wouldn’t get paid my salary for it, I’d also say no thanks, along with some expletives.

Plus, having competitive games prior to the playoffs is a really good idea, both for seeding purposes and for getting back into playing shape. It could be dangerous for players to suddenly jump into high-pressure, high-octane, high-stake playoff games after a five-month hiatus. If the season was to resume on July 30, the gap in time between games would actually be larger than this past offseason. Crazy.

That’s all fine and dandy. But the NBA still could’ve easily instituted these eight seeding games with 16 teams instead of 22.

It’s clear there’s no way to satisfy every party. No doubt some organizations would feel that this 16-team format was unfair, namely the four teams in striking distance of a playoff spot — the Spurs, Kings, Pelicans and Blazers. (Notice the absence of the Suns.)

And they would be absolutely right. It isn’t fair.

These teams had a good chance of overtaking the Memphis Grizzlies had the season gone 82 games. Heck, there was an outside chance that the Raptors could’ve caught the Bucks for first place had the season continued. At the time, Giannis was on the shelf and the Raptors were on a roll. A lot of things could’ve happened. But they didn’t. That’s because a global pandemic happened. This is about health, not what’s fair.

Anyway, do these borderline playoff teams really want to jump through all these hoops (i.e. quarantining, getting tested daily, adhering to strict safety protocols, being away from family, playing eight seeding games, etc.) just for the opportunity to get destroyed by the Lakers or Bucks? I’m not an NBA player, but the juice definitely does not seem worth the squeeze to me.

In the end, a 16-team format would’ve swung the priority needle closer to the safety side while still satisfying the revenue side. There would be six less teams living in the bubble and the NBA, the local broadcasters and the players would still get their money from the seeding games.

The Double Bubble Proposal

There’s a solution out there that hasn’t been talked about enough or at all really. And it’s probably the best way to balance both safety and profit.

I call it the “Double Bubble Proposal.” That’s right — not one, but two bubbles. (There’s also a perfect sponsorship here if Double Bubble wants to pony up some money.)

Under this format, the NBA could still have its 22 teams, but they’d be split up between two campuses, thus reducing the number of people at one campus. (Though I’d still go with just 16 teams.)

The teams would be divided by conference with the nine East teams playing at one campus and the 13 West teams playing at another campus. In this case, the eight seeding games would only take place between teams in the same conference so there’s no travel involved. Only one team would have to travel to the Disney bubble where the NBA Finals would be held.

There was initial talk about using the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. But that might be out of the question — now that, for some unknown reason, Vegas appears to have reopened its doors. Although a Pacific Time location for the West teams would help with some scheduling issues. Still, there are several benefits of splitting the teams between two campuses.

1.) As previously mentioned, two locales will significantly lower the number of teams in one place. And not just the number of players and coaches, but also the number of hotel staff and food service staff that would be needed.

2.) A second campus would mean another two or three courts, which will allow more games to be played per day. This, in turn, will speed up the process and allow for more games in less time.

Under the current plan, there are 22 teams and just three courts. If everything goes right and there are no delays, and that’s a humongous if, the NBA Finals would end no later than October 13. That’s two and half months playing in this bubble. That’s way too long. The more time spent in the bubble, the more chances there are for an outbreak to occur.

Imagine how much faster it would be with five or six courts instead of just three. And if the season ends earlier, there’ll be more time for the offseason and free agency period.

3.) With two campuses, there will always be games going on. If, for instance, there are positive tests in the East bubble and the NBA is forced to postpone the games, the West games would continue on unaffected. In other words, a couple of positive tests won’t shut down the entire league unless it happens simultaneously at both campuses.

Overall, a two-campus proposal offers the best of both worlds — revenue and safety. The NBA and players get to reap the financial rewards of a 22-team format while the number of people in one bubble gets significantly reduced. Win-win.

If the NBA insists on finishing out the season despite all the tremendous risks involved, this absolutely should have been the way to go.