The 2020 NBA season isn’t technically over yet, but the reformatted NBA inside of the Orlando Bubble at Walt Disney World’s Wide World of Sports resort has bumped up against the time the 2020-21 season would typically be starting. And, complicating matters, eight teams that did not make the bubble actually haven’t played organized basketball since March. So as soon as an NBA Champion is crowned, the question will immediately shift to when the next season will get going.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had initially said that a start on Christmas Day 2020 was being eyed, but he walked back that timeline in September. Silver said that he believes a January 2021 start is more likely.
There are a lot of factors beyond just when the season starts, too. The ultimate goal, Silver said, is for the NBA to be playing in home arenas, eventually in front of fans, next season. The league has done an excellent job managing in the bubble during the pandemic with zero reported cases. But the NFL, MLB, and NCAA football have all dealt with cases and outbreaks among teams while playing in non-bubble settings. Those outbreaks mean schedule changes and complications.
The NBA also needs to fit in a draft and free agency. The NBA Draft is currently scheduled for November 18. The league has yet to announce a schedule, salary cap, and other information for next season, which all has to be done before free agency begins. Silver has also said, even with a delayed start, the intention is to play a full 82-game season next year. That has Olympic implications – the season would run into the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and without a stoppage in play, that would mean NBA players would be unlikely to participate in the Olympics.
The Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Detroit Pistons, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, and Golden State Warriors have not played since the league suspended play in March, and the Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans, Washington Wizards, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies, and Sacramento Kings have all not played since August after missing the playoffs. A January start to the season is a dramatically long layoff for those teams, and potentially puts them – already struggling franchises – at a bigger competitive disadvantage than teams who have participated in the playoffs in the bubble.
Even with a plan starting to formulate for next season, the impact that COVID-19 has had on the NBA schedule will likely continue until the league is able to return to its regular calendar.