The games have been halted, but the NBA’s work continues — on laptops from home offices and on kitchen tables and anywhere else the league office types can find to pursue preparation for so many great unknowns.
Once you get beyond Priority 1, the very human concerns of safety and doing the right things for loved ones and society during this pandemic, the business of the NBA these days is mainly about contingencies. There are plans to be made based on any number of possible scenarios and consequences — both intended and not — to consider.
And because nothing exists in a vacuum, we’re essentially talking about a multi-billion-dollar game of Jenga here.
If there are any more games at all this season — and every indication is still that, in some form or format, there will be — the league’s calendar is almost certain to undergo some type of surgery, whether minor or major.
The issue then becomes how what happens now affects what follows. For example, it would be hard to open 2020-21 training camps at the start of October if The Finals had just run into late August.
This may clear the way for quicker consideration of a proposal championed by Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin and gaining interest among other owners — that the NBA shift its “year” two months later, with the regular season beginning sometime around Christmas and the draft just after the playoffs and a week or so prior to Labor Day. Summer league would still technically take place in that season, though, based on the original July 10-20 plan for this year, the September session could push to the edge of autumn.
The Koonin concept is based on taking regular season telecasts away from NFL- and college football-dominated months of October and November and extending the playoffs into July and August, where baseball — not nearly the same national TV presence as football — is trying desperately to maintain its audience.
At present, the NBA owns much of late June and July with its draft and free agent speculation and trades, but while that works out very well for studio shows, it doesn’t translate directly to rights fees for games — and television/electronic media is the largest piece of the league’s revenue stream.
It follows that if the NBA could deliver games in times of greater interest, the rights would be worth more. And the sides in this equation know this.
While spending much of the 2011 fall in New York covering the NBA lockout, I was asked repeatedly by Herald editors, readers and friends when it would all be over and the games would be back. The answer was simple: while sources were telling me some owners were prepared to bleed the players and sacrifice larger parts of the season to get a sweet CBA deal, I was confident there would be dribbling by Christmas. It’s become the NBA’s showcase day and de facto start to the season in the minds of many who’ve been buried in the NFL’s 17-week barrage of games until then.
And, voila, the 2011-12 curtain was raised with five games on Dec. 25 (the Celtics got outscored by 10 in the last quarter to lose by two in New York) and 12 more the next day.
Discussions regarding the league’s calendar have been taking place for quite a while, but the COVID-19 crisis and its effect on the season has opened the door to sooner possibilities. Instead of waiting for a new collective bargaining agreement or media rights deal, necessity may give birth to a quicker alteration.
To execute changes would require side letters to the CBA between the owners and players, largely pertaining to contracts and free agency that are based on the league’s “year” ending on June 30. But such letters have been executed in the past to deal with changing circumstances.
And speaking of the past, the NBA calendar wasn’t always as we know it.
Tommy Heinsohn went for 37 points and 23 rebounds as the Celts knocked off the St. Louis Hawks in Game 7 to win their first NBA title — and he did it on April 13 of 1957. Two years later, the C’s wrapped up a four-game Finals sweep of the Minneapolis Lakers on April 9.
Expansion and more playoff teams caused the ’68 Finals (Celtics over the now-LA Lakers in six) to go all the way to May 2. It wasn’t until the Celts beat Phoenix in 1976 that The Finals ran into June (the 6th), Four years later, the league was back to mid-May endings, and things didn’t regularly end in June and stay there until 1984. By ’87, The Finals were more traditionally starting in June. They’ve ended as late as June 20 in a non-lockout season).
So if the NBA winds up rotating its calendar to a conclusion two months later, it wouldn’t be the first time.