2020/21 season
(Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

This year has been a strange one – you may have heard – and like all of us, the NBA has to create solutions on the fly. In Orlando’s restart bubble, the NBA offered up perhaps the most ambitious fix to the issue of playing professional sports in a pandemic. To the league’s credit, the plan worked. So with the news of the NBA’s proposed 2020/21 season structure coming to light, Commissioner Adam Silver has options on the board. Still, some will benefit from the planned new season structure, and others that could claim a disadvantage.

While it’s important to stress that nothing is set in stone, the outlets reporting these potential tent poles are generally reliable. So with that in mind, lets set out some of the specifics:

  • The league is targeting a December 22nd start
  • At this stage, no formal pre-season games
  • Expect a 72 season regular season
  • Just as in Orlando, the playoff structure remains unchanged
  • The All-Star weekend will take a hiatus
  • The season will close before the 2021 Olympics

It had been reported that the NBA was targeting a Martin Luther King Jr Day restart for the 2020/21 season, with either a shorter season (likely a 58 game season, with each team playing every team other home and away) or a later finish. Moving the season start forward a month is a significant shift. It will be interesting to see if these proposed changes are agreed to by the Players Association.

Let’s run through some of the potential winners and losers from this proposal.


The fans

Under an MLK day restart, we would have been without NBA basketball for virtually three months. Fans of those teams not fortunate enough to make it to Orlando haven’t seen their teams hit the hardwood since March – that’s a 10-month break. Though to be fair, if you had been subjected to Knicks basketball, that might be seen as a welcome respite. Still, bringing the restart forward a month is a boon for hoop heads everywhere.

The continued downside for supporters is not able to see their teams in the flesh. Unfortunately, fans in stadiums are a non-starter, no matter when Adam Silver and his team choose to start the season. The hope is that by finishing the season at the usual mid-year mark, fans will be able to re-enter the stands – some fans, at least – by the November start of the 2021/22 season.

Teams with stable rosters

The stop/start nature of the 2019/20 season and the truncated preseason that we’re now seemingly almost halfway through naturally lends itself to teams with a certain ingrained familiarity.

The NBA draft is set to take place on November 18, assuming that we get a December 22 restart, giving teams a total of 34 days to draft, sign free agents, make subsequent trades, and hold their training camps.

Any front office worth its salt will have its plan in place, as well as a series of counters, should things not pan out. That said, 34 days doesn’t exactly give a general manager time to enact a salvage operation in the case of an injury or a coveted free agent not joining them.

The teams that have to make the least amount of changes will, or at least should, be able to ride out the shortened preseason with less commotion.

NBA coffers

The longer a period the teams are not on the floor, the larger the NBA’s financial losses. One of the primary reasons cited for restarting the NBA season in the bubble was revenue – the owners were bleeding money, not just from their NBA teams, but through the business ventures that allowed them to buy an NBA franchise in the first place.

It’s often mentioned that the owners are losing money through the pandemic. Any loss in revenue directly impacts the salary cap and, in turn, the players. So don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s not just the ‘greedy’ owners or the league itself that needs to get back on the floor. The players are just as keen.

Without game day income, teams will continue to lose a large part of their revenue. That makes broadcast deals, both inside and outside the US, vitally crucial for the 2020/21 season. The equation is simple: more games equals more money. This plan will reportedly give the league another 210 games to sell over the 58 game schedule that had been mentioned.

Those dollars – and by extension those games – matter.


Front Offices

In fairness, this doesn’t apply to every front office. As discussed above, some general managers will be working a lot harder than others over this short offseason. No matter what situation your squad is in, if you’re a GM, the intensity of this period will be crushing.

Even teams that have enjoyed relative stability, like the Heat, Celtics, Nuggets, or Raptors (even the Warriors, if you think about it) have to deal with resigning free agents, making moves to try to catch and pass the all-conquering Lakers. That’s hard enough in a regular offseason.

Think of the frenzy that is whipped up every year when free agency opens; now imagine all of that happening in half the time. It’s going to be madness. The one saving grace is that the 2020 free agency class is one of the weakest in recent memory, so many of the moves that do happen will be B and C grade in terms of league impact.

Teams that made long playoff runs

By their very nature, successful teams are usually veteran teams. Veterans, though often better conditioned – battle-hardened, if you like – than younger players, need more time to get themselves recuperated for the next grueling campaign.

With the compacted calendar in Orlando, the teams that made deeper runs are naturally going to need longer to get their legs back. Anthony Davis aside, the Lakers are a team built around veterans. The Heat, though containing younger contributors, are led by a 31-year-old (+ Thibs tax) Jimmy Butler and a 35-year-old Goran Dragic. Also, they’re dealing with injures to Dragic and their other star in Bam Adebayo.

The other conference finalists in Boston and Denver are younger across the board but will still be impacted by their Orlando exertions.

Teams that didn’t make it to Orlando

While the conference finalists will have a much shorter period of recovery than usual, the Delete Eight (tip o’ the cap to John Hollinger) will, as mentioned earlier, have not played competitive ball since March. This begs the question: when does rest become rust?

It’s an impossible question. Each team – each player, in truth – reacts differently to different rest periods. The upcoming 2020/21 season will provide us with a living, breathing case study on the effects of an extended, non-injury enforced absence. The results of which will be intriguing.

Free Agents

The pressure is on front offices to make sense of the offseason while attempting to enact well thought out, multi-faceted plans; spare a thought for the free agents. Suddenly players have to rush their decisions on where to sign and then acclimatize to a new city, new teammates, and new system in under a month.

Free agency is currently anticipated to start on December 1, leaving – at best – 21 days for a player to sign with a new team, move their life to a new city (while amid a pandemic, of course). That also includes getting to know new teammates, learning a new system, and being ready to hit the ground running with all the expectations that come with being the team’s fresh face.

This whirlwind break before the 2020/21 season is not going to be easy. For anyone.