Will NBA games be canceled soon?

An update from day one of the 2020 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference


The 2020 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference is happening, which is pretty bold. So many similar conferences have been called off. The news is filled with quotes from one epidemiologist after another, saying to avoid mass gatherings and close contact. The host university has banned large gatherings. (Experts also say to use a lot of hand sanitizer, which of course you can’t find on the shelves in Boston.) The tweet above, from Thursday evening, had a lot of people wondering if this event would take place at all. But through some loophole or another, it’s on—not at the MIT campus, but at the Boston Convention Center across town. 

Some people here are packing wipes and consumed with fear. It’s the talk of the hallways. Others, like the guy I saw emerging from the bathroom, foregoing the hand wash and going straight to eating a bagel? Not so much. The hand sanitizer stations are pretty busy, but not overwhelmed. I saw a convention center staffer wiping off the push-bar of a busy door—maybe not something that happened in the middle of the conference in other years. There is a lot of elbow bumping, but also no shortage of hand-shaking and hugging. 

Coronavirus hangs over the conference in other more interesting ways—mostly in how conspicuously it has not been mentioned from the stage. Two people who moderated panels told me afterward that they had been told by organizers not to mention coronavirus. I haven’t heard even a little reference to the virus, other than a comment from a student volunteer, who said “don’t worry, I’m marinating in sanitizer” while handing a microphone to someone with a question.

There has been a lot of theorizing about this oddity, variations on the theme that it might not be taken well in China if Daryl Morey’s conference is seen as making a big deal about a virus that originated in Wuhan. The last thing Morey needs is to do anything else to rock that particular boat.

I don’t know if that even makes sense, but something is definitely up. There’s a panel on the opioid epidemic, but not the pandemic? The conference announced this morning that much of it would be viewable for free, live on YouTube, owing to “unusual circumstances.” No mention of COVID-19? It’s almost surreal how the programming exists as if coronavirus didn’t exist. The sign on the mirror in the bathroom warns people to wash their hands to keep their families safe from the flu.

We might not have a functioning NBA in a month, but on the basketball analytics panel it’s all about the same stuff as five years ago, like how many 3-pointers might be too many (60-65 percent, by the way, according to Mavericks executive Haralabos Voulgaris) or when to rest players so they peak in the playoffs (depends on the player). 

Of course the way this will affect the NBA, potentially, is scheduling. (If the league still had a team in Seattle, they might have already canceled games.) That’s not an interesting topic to most people, but here at this conference, people care a lot about the data and the decision-making. 

There is a panel about the NBA schedule, with a star-studded lineup of this strange small world: the NBA executive who oversees the schedule (Evan Wasch), a Hawks business executive (Steve Koonin), a Timberwolves front office executive (Gersson Rosas), and recently retired player/current Heat executive Shane Battier. It would be a cinch to discuss when, how, and if the league might consider canceling games, or playing before empty arenas. But instead, they’re talking about re-imagining the 82-game schedule. 

The panel is a highlight of the conference for me. It sounds like the league is very open to big changes (Wasch: “nothing is sacrosanct … we will have a proposal to fundamentally change the season”), including a play-in tournament, one free throw instead of two or three, and shifting the season later in the year. New and exciting: an amazing idea called “the octopus,” where the season would be broken into eight “legs.”

So we’re talking about the octopus, but what about the elephant in the room?

After the panel, Wasch said he had no comment.

In some ways this conference is where Silicon Valley meets sports. In the actual Silicon Valley on Thursday, the county government took a bold step, recommending some sweeping measures, including:

The reason this matters: Two sources say that this Santa Clara announcement was one of many that the NBA league office emailed this morning to all 30 NBA teams, as part of its ongoing internal communications about coronavirus. What do teams make of these communications? Should we expect cancelled games? Or games played in front of empty arenas? 

There isn’t an NBA stadium in the county of Santa Clara, or at MIT, or in Seattle. But there are arenas a short drive from all those places. Local authorities have recommended canceling mass gatherings in many places, including locations exceedingly close to NBA arenas. When it’s in one of the NBA’s 30 markets, which seems inevitable, would the NBA comply? Immediately?

Nobody knows. Both team executives I talked to about it take the league’s ongoing communications as designed to keep teams informed and ready for anything, including extreme measures. One source says he doesn’t read too much into it other than the league is keeping teams up to speed in case hard decisions have to be made. Another speculated that games could be canceled “very soon.”

UPDATE: Shortly after this was published, the city of San Francisco recommended canceling large gatherings. A press release from the mayor’s office included:

“The virus needs people to spread. It jumps from person to person, so by reducing the opportunity for that to happen, we can effectively slow the spread,” said Dr. Grant Colfax, Director of Health. “Our chief concern is for vulnerable populations who are most at risk of getting very sick, or dying, if they get COVID-19. That is why we are recommending that people over 60, or with certain underlying health conditions, stay home as much as possible. For the general public, reducing the opportunity for exposure to the virus is the top priority. That means cutting back on the time you spend in groups and washing your hands consistently. Together, San Franciscans can unite in this effort and decrease the impact COVID-19 has on our community.”

“Protecting the health and safety of San Franciscans is our most important responsibility, and cancelling large gatherings will reduce the spread of COVID-19 and protect the most vulnerable in our community. Seniors and people with chronic illness and underlying medical conditions are protected when normally healthy people are not contributing to the spread of the virus,” said Mary Ellen Carroll, Executive Director, San Francisco Department of Emergency Management.

Today’s recommendations will cause changes in behavior for systems and individuals. They are meant to disrupt normal social behavior, because the virus thrives under normal circumstances. Functions that are essential to an individual or their family, such as getting food, traveling to work, or providing for a sick family member, can be continued. This is an evolving situation and these recommendations are expected to change.

Not long afterward, the Warriors announced that Saturday’s game against the 76ers would not be cancelled.