Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 4, 2020

Adam Silver Has A Plan

Michael Jordan will have to be content with big ratings for “The Last Dance,” ESPN’s fawning documentary of his final title run with the Chicago Bulls. Of course, neither he nor we will ever know how many of the nearly seven million viewers the ten-part series on Chicago’s 1997-98 season averaged in April and May were sports fans stuck at home with nothing else to do. Whether or not COVID-19 is partly responsible for the success of ESPN’s hagiography, Jordan now knows that the pandemic is entirely to blame for ending the season of the Charlotte Hornets, the NBA franchise he now owns.

Thursday, the day once set aside for Game 1 of this season’s NBA Finals, the league’s owners, including Jordan, voted 29-1 in favor of a plan to restart play at the end of July at Disney World. But in lieu of playing out the remainder of the regular schedule with all thirty franchises before proceeding to the playoffs, the plan will have just twenty-two teams decamping from their home arenas to the bubble of the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex inside Mickey Mouse’s Orlando home. Invitations went to the eight teams in each division that were in playoff position when the season was suspended in March, plus all other franchises within six games of the eighth spot. Seven games adrift of the eighth-place Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference, Jordan’s Hornets were the first team left in the parking lot, looking through a proverbial chain link fence at the cool kids who get to play on.

Thirteen Western Conference teams and eight from the East are now scheduled to begin practices in their home cities later this month before flying into quarantine in Florida on July 7. After some further practice sessions, the squads will each play eight games over a two-week period starting on the last day of July to determine the playoff seeding in each conference, and to give the six teams currently lower than eighth place a chance to make one final run. Recognizing that 88 games among a select group of teams won’t truly substitute for the 259 regular season contests that remained to be played on the original schedule, the plan also envisions a possible play-in series between the eighth and ninth place teams if the two are within four games of each other once the abbreviated regular season wrap-up has concluded.

That possibility, along with the fact that standings and seedings will still be conference based, left many pundits voicing far more concern for the unlucky fate of the Memphis Grizzlies than for the Hornets, or any of the seven other franchises that saw their seasons officially end. A young team that seemingly every NBA analyst has now decided has enormous potential, Memphis is currently in eighth place in the West. But at a game under .500, the Grizzlies’ 32-33 record is well south of seventh place Dallas. With virtually no chance of improving its position, Memphis must instead fend off five challengers. To make matters worse, four of those teams will restart already close enough to force a play-in round.

Despite appearances this complicated plan was not hatched by Adam Silver because the NBA commissioner has it in for Robert Pera, the boy billionaire who owns the Memphis franchise. Rather the motivating factor, to which Pera can surely relate, is money. By expanding the initial group of teams in Orlando beyond the sixteen playoff squads based on current standings and adding some regular season contests, the NBA allows those franchises to collect on their local TV deals. An extra 88 games also increases pay for each of the players, a move that reflects the close relationship Silver has cultivated with Players Association president Chris Paul and executive director Michelle Roberts. In sharp contrast to MLB’s Rob Manfred, Silver has gone out of his way to keep players informed of the league’s thinking throughout the shutdown. That’s the main reason this plan, though it still needs the concurrence of the players, is being treated as final.

Things could still go awry, and the NBA has gotten to this point only by abandoning or softening some of its earlier positions on the conditions needed for a restart. This is, after all, the league that suspended play when a single player, Utah’s Rudy Gobert, tested positive for COVID-19 in March. Shortly after that Silver said the league would not play again until testing was available on a “large scale.” Now the NBA is content with testing being available for frontline health workers and is formulating protocols to continue play if one or more players or team personnel in the Orlando bubble contracts the virus.

Still hardcourt faithful are certainly cheering the news and even the most casual of basketball fans will hope for the best at the 220-acre athletic complex just south of the Magic Kingdom. The NBA’s plan has virtually no margin for error. If at least one series in each playoff round goes the distance, the league will crown a champion on October 12, little more than a week before the 2020-21 season would normally start. Already there is talk of pushing the beginning of next season to December, and the NBPA’s Roberts has suggested even that gives players too little time to recover. If the NBA manages to pull off Silver’s plan and crown a champion that fans acknowledge as worthy of the name while keeping everyone healthy, this season will merit its own documentary. Just don’t look for Michael Jordan in that one.

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