What we learned from the NBA bubble and what it means for the 2020-21 season

SALT LAKE CITY — The NBA’s Orlando bubble has, so far, been a huge success, especially when you consider the circumstances and skepticism amid which planning for the massive undertaking began.

After Rudy Gobert’s positive coronavirus test and the suspension of the NBA season, multiple players and NBA staffers tested positive. While other professional and collegiate leagues struggled to keep the virus from impacting their plans, the NBA created the most isolated and restrictive plan among them, and it’s worked.

To date not a single player has contracted COVID-19 while in the NBA’s isolated campus on the Walt Disney World Resort grounds, the league hasn’t seen an increase in injuries, and there’s some great basketball being played. All of the successes of the season restart beg the question, what have we learned from the NBA bubble? And what will the 2020-21 season look like?

When Utah Jazz executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey spoke with reporters last week, he said that overwhelmingly the biggest takeaway from the NBA bubble was the impact that reduced travel had on the players.

“The league, teams, and specifically the health performance group has gotten a lot of feedback from the players,” he said. “The reduced travel, (the players) physically feel better.”

There are a lot of things at play when discussing what the NBA will look like next season. For one, there’s no definitive start date, just memos to teams saying that the 2020-21 season will begin no sooner than Dec. 25, and even that is a hopeful date, with many league sources saying that a start date in the 2021 calendar year is more likely.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated in August, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said that with a price tag of roughly $170 million, the bubble in Orlando, while hugely successful, is not something that would be sustainable.

“It is so costly to do what we’re doing in Orlando,” he said. “It’s not a sustainable model, but we also recognize that this virus will end and that at some point we will return to more of a normal business operation with fans in seats.”

Silver went on to say that the NBA’s highest priority is getting fans back into arenas and if that means pushing back the season even more, the league office is willing to wait.

Even so, it is highly unlikely that arenas will be fully open and back to normal for the start of the 2021 season, and with a start date coming so much later than the normal mid-October beginning of an NBA season, there will have to be concessions made and scheduling changes.

With all of that in mind, Lindsey suggested that the NBA could look to how Major League Baseball schedules games, playing a full season series against a team in the span of a few days in a single market, to not only cut down on travel but also play more games in a shortened period.

“If we can ever get to a situation, like baseball, where you play a team more than one time in the market,” he said. “Obviously there’s some business concerns there, but I do think the product is more compelling because of that. The players feel better and frankly we need to listen to the players at every turn.”

The idea of regional bubbles, where multiple teams meet in a market and play a large slate of games, has also been floated and discussed among the league’s top brass as a way to reduce travel not only for the health of the players on the court, but also to reduce risk of contracting and transmitting the coronavirus.

Additionally, Silver told Sports Illustrated that the league is in constant communication with researchers along with testing and vaccine developers with hopes that discoveries and developments could lead to a more normal NBA schedule with more fans being able to attend games.

“We’re continuing to look at all the different testing methods,” Silver said. “We are current on vaccine developments and antivirals and other protocols around the possibility of bringing people together in arenas. We’re studying what colleges are doing as they look to bring thousands of students back on campus.”

While Silver and the rest of the league are continually planning and making multiple contingency plans for the upcoming NBA season and holding off on setting anything in stone, they realize that they won’t be able to wait forever.

“We’re going to try to find the right balance between waiting as long as possible — so we have the best possible information at the time we’re making the decision — and recognizing that, at some point, we have to begin to lock in plans,” Silver told Sports Illustrated. “We would like to find a way to play in front of fans, but it’s just too early to know how realistic this is.”

So we know that reduced travel will be a high priority for both COVID-19 related reasons and performance reasons. We know that the NBA is going to do everything in its power to create an environment in which fans can begin to get back into arenas.

But we’re still left with a lot of questions about the 2020-21 season. When will it start? What will the schedule look like? Will there be fewer than 82 games? Will games be played regionally, or will there be normal travel?

The NBA is not so different than most things in 2020. Even when we find answers and gain knowledge, we’re left with more questions than we began with.

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