Profound questions haunt re-opening the NBA

A long way from normal

BY HENRY ABBOTT

We look forward to seeing the NBA up and running again. But recent conversations with people involved in those decisions make clear just how incredibly difficult Adam Silver’s task is. The issues are profound and like nothing from the league’s history. Here are just some of the questions to be answered between here and normalcy: 

What if someone dies?
A front office executive told me this is what he’s worried about. This is a deadly virus, anecdotally quite a few people in and around the NBA have had it. In some cases, the symptoms have been serious. (NBA agent Brandon Grier told us he had a fever for eleven days, it sounded awful.) I heard about a recently retired player who had it worse. The NBA has its scientists and best practices, but there will be no perfect system to ensure that nobody in the league will get the virus at work. 

While this is a question with morals at its heart, it also has a chewy outer crust of business concerns: What happens if some player, coach, or staffer dies of the coronavirus? Can the league, then, keep sending people to work? Will people even go? 

The league was rocked by the headlines and outrage over 58 tests in Oklahoma City, or the Lakers’ brief dalliance with federal stimulus. That blowback will seem quaint if someone dies from going to work in the NBA. Conceivably, there would be questions to answer before Congress. Presumably the league would shut down again, and not re-open until things were incredibly safe. Who knows when that would be, and what the state of the league would be.

Who’s a free agent?
Barcelona’s Nikola Mirotic is one of dozens of NBA-quality players outside the NBA. If the NBA returns to finish this season and the playoffs, but Barcelona’s ACB and Euroleague do not … is he eligible to the NBA? FIBA forces its member leagues to honor each other’s contracts, but what if his contract is on ice?

Corollary: If the NBA is shut down and the Chinese league is going gangbusters … can LeBron play in China?

Will there be a WNBA season?
The NBA has billions in TV money at stake; it may make business sense to invest mightily in some scheme to keep all the players in a bubble, or to play before empty arenas, with teams arriving in sanitized private jets. The WNBA, though, doesn’t drive those kinds of revenues. 

A major win of the WNBA’s new collective bargaining agreement: economy plus instead of the cheapest possible seats on the commercial jets the league uses to get around. It’s a bold business that requires employees to crisscross the country flying commercial in a pandemic. 

I don’t know the WNBA’s finances, but if it tends to lose money … with cash scarce, will there be an appetite to resume quickly?

The WNBA season was originally scheduled to open next week. In a recent Press-Telegram story on the L.A. Sparks, Mirjam Swanson notes there is “no clear sense of when or how the league might resume action.”

Will there be a G-League season?
All that talk about the WNBA applies to the G-League, too. It has no bubble, no private jets, no lucrative national TV arrangement. This is a league of commercial flights and ticket-purchasing, in-arena fans. Does the NBA have the appetite to support it?

How many injuries will result from the inertia?
During the NBA lockout there was not a ton of high-level basketball, because players were worried that an injury might have profound effects on their careers and income. (Remember the amnesty provision?) It’s the best analogy we have. And there’s some evidence that injuries were up after the lockout.

There’s another wrinkle too: The best training for next week is different from the best training for a year from now. If the answer is they’ll play again in December, now might be the perfect time to completely relearn how to land like Kyle Korver did. It might even be smart to—in the spirit of the research in David Epstein’s “Range”—try swimming, golf, soccer, or surfing.

On the other hand, if competition is imminent, your body will need rigorous basketball-like preparation. 

Really hard workouts depress the immune system, which is questionable in a pandemic. So, are they worth it now? Depends when the season is starting. BRING IT IN guest Christie Aschwanden—an elite athlete and science writer—suggested in March, in the absence of better information, that athletes set up a schedule to peak at a mythical date in the future, maybe two months out. That will at least let them follow some program, and take some easier days.

Is a bubble realistic?
Agent Brandon Grier told us about his client Ekpe Udoh, who recently returned to China where he plays for the Beijing Ducks with Jeremy Lin. When Ekpe landed, after many hours of screening, he commenced two weeks’ mandated quarantine in what Grier says was essentially a “dorm room.” There’s a camera on the outside of his door, he gets in trouble if he leaves for any reason. Grier spent a lot of time checking in on Udoh. It’s not hard to notice this is essentially a prison.

That’s awful, of course. A kind of prison. That’s also exactly how you truly make sure people don’t bring COVID-19 in. 

Let’s assume that the NBA—a league largely run by rich white men—can’t stomach the PR misfortune of actually incarcerating a large number of young, mostly black men. Let’s assume there will be some gentler, more trusting method of assuring that healthy people enter locker rooms, team offices, and the like.

Will that gentler method work? If Ekpe didn’t have the government snooping on his hallway, would he have really and truly stayed locked inside alone for two weeks?

Or, if the league has the kinds of draconian rules that would really prevent the spread of the virus … are they legal? Are they enforceable? What are the penalties? What if someone wants to leave to see the birth of their child? What if someone just decides they want to leave? Some of those freedoms are the basic kind that come from the Constitution.

Can, and will, the league get enough tests?
Reopening the league, in any way, will require many thousands of tests. One problem is whether they’re available. Another is whether or not the league is willing to court a second round of bad PR around them. The league’s communications with teams have been alarmingly sensitive on this point: The league does NOT want teams to test players who don’t have symptoms. Restarting will mean testing like crazy, which will either mean solving the nation’s testing crisis, or grand scale cutting in line.

While scientists still recommend social isolation—is it OK to ask any older or vulnerable employees to leave their homes?
Gregg Popovich is 71. Alvin Gentry is 65. Mike D’Antoni is 68. Pistons assistant Tim Grgurich is 77. Warriors assistant Ron Adams is 72. Lakers assistant Lionel Hollins is 66. Suns assistant Randy Ayers is 64. And while we’re at it: Marv Albert is 78. 

What is the state of ventilation in NBA arenas? Is now the time to upgrade?
It may well be that a critical step in ever having safe indoor group activities will be air filtration that approaches that of an ICU. If that’s where we’re headed, now would be a wonderful time to start the upgrades. 

How will player pay cuts happen? What will next year’s salary be?
In the normal formula, the salary cap is calculated from basketball-related income from the prior year. That clearly won’t work. This year was a normal half a season, followed by a canceled second half and maybe canceled playoffs. Next year will be an altered season played entirely in a pandemic. There are already proposals under discussion, for instance, to make next year’s salary cap a new number like $70 million. Makes a certain amount of sense but do we want the Warriors to field a whole team? Just four Warriors—Stephen Curry ($43M), Klay Thompson ($37M), Andrew Wiggins ($32M), and Draymond Green ($24M)—are set to make $136 million. Does the league intend to force huge pay cuts on them? If yes, will that prompt lawsuits? If no, can the rest of the league afford to keep up?

Which teams will be sold?
The rebuilding-the-business phase might mean investment-spending and patience. Not every team has the pockets or appetite. The parlor game is who out of the Rockets’ Tilman Fertitta, Heat’s Micky Arison, Grizzlies’ Robert Pera, or Pelicans’ Gayle Benson might sell first.

What happens if a player isn’t 100 percent after infection?

“Based on what we have seen from SARS, MERS and H1N1 influenza, we expect that at least some COVID-19 patients will have some residual disease,” says Ali Gholamrezanezhad, a radiologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He and coauthors review lessons from SARS and MERS in the May American Journal of Roentgenology. Some survivors, he says, will have “some residual fibrosis, scars and their lung function and their lung anatomy doesn’t go back to normal.”

David Cox, writing in Science News

Damian Lillard, praise the heavens, appears on social media to be 100 percent healthy. But let’s use him as a hypothetical, as he’s the player with the most money guaranteed—he’s owed more than a quarter-billion dollars, going into 2025. 

What would happen if his lungs lost a little capacity and he became a lesser player? NBA teams generally carry insurance to reduce the economic effect of injuries. Top players’ contracts are mostly insured by teams. Will those policies cover COVID-19-related issues? The assumption is that the answer is yes, if the player has to retire. 

But what if he’s diminished, and still playing? This is brutal math, and of course there are bigger concerns than the bottom line. But teams have to worry about it all the same. It’s not a lock that a franchise can afford to swallow a lost quarter billion dollars.

What’s alarming: this is just one of many questions that flirts with the general stability of the league. It’s a new way of thinking, that NBA dollars are finite.


Please check out BRING IT IN. Today: incredible sportswriter Jane McManus, director of Marist’s Sports Communication program. (You may know her from her roller derby days, when she went by Lesley E. Visserate.)