Adam Silver succeeds navigating ‘bubble’ but uncertainty ahead

So now that they’ve gotten pretty good at it, there’s zero chance any of them wants to repeat it for the 2020-21 season.

Which is entirely beside the point. The NBA and everyone involved with it might have no choice but to yield and react all over again to COVID-19.

Already, the “2020” signage on next season can be removed, with whatever schedule gets played likely to fit entirely in 2021. A January start seems to be the earliest fans again will see games that matter. With a bunch of unknowns from there.

Teams in their cities? Fans in the arenas? Multiple bubbles rather than one? Eighty-two games or maybe fewer? Legit questions all, in search of answers.

“Nothing has really changed in this virus, as far as I know,” Silver said. “In fact, I think the majority of states right now, cases are ticking back up again. There’s predictions of a combination of flu and coronavirus season, what that will mean. People are moving back indoors. In some cases, people have COVID fatigue and aren’t following the same protocols.

“So in many ways we’re looking at a lot of the same factors we looked at determining what to do this season.”

Wait, there’s more: Any changes in terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the teams and the players would require negotiations, at a point when the patience of so many principals has worn thin. Sequestering on the Disney campus one time for one, two or three months is one thing; signing up for another full season would be quite another.

Commissioner Adam Silver has thus far successfully navigated ‘the bubble’ but uncertainty lies ahead.

Gaining access to better, quicker testing could help contain the virus’ spread by identifying carriers immediately. It also would allow for attendance at arenas, not 19,000 strong necessarily but several thousand spectators, properly distanced.

“Based on everything I’ve read, there’s almost no chance that there will be a vaccine, at least that is widely distributed before we start the next season,” Silver said. “So I do not see the development of a vaccine as a prerequisite.”

As for the league’s internal business – particularly establishing the salary cap and luxury tax threshold for next season – operations have been gummed up by so many variables.

The NBA still was calculating the financial hit from splintered relations with China – estimated as a $200 million loss or more this year, after the political controversy of last fall – when the virus shutdown began. Silver has estimated the portion of revenue derived from fan attendance at games at approximately 40 percent, worth hundreds of millions more.

The Draft, rescheduled from June, has been pegged for now to Nov. 18. But there is no date yet for the start of free agency, and without cap and tax numbers, the roster-building work of salary structures and possible transactions can’t get done.

The best-case scenario might be that the league works a second season with the 2019-20 limits — $109.14 million for the cap, $132.6 million to enter the luxury tax. That would kick the can of a financial reckoning down the road for a year or longer, hopeful that some glimmer of the old normal NBA might see a rebound in revenues.

Coming together to confront big problems isn’t going to end anytime soon, then, no matter how soon this bubble pops.


The NBA’s deep dive into social and racial issues was a component of what made the bubble successful, Silver said. “To me, certainly it began with what’s important to our players is important to us.

“But it wasn’t just our players. The players know and the NBA community knows there’s a long history in this league of fighting for social justice, for racial equality.”

Silver understood the view of many fans, weary of nonstop big issues in a virus-riddled election year, “who look to sports as a respite.”

“My response is that, again, I’m listening,” he said. “But these are unique times. … I still firmly believe it was and is the right thing to do.”

The league’s weekly release of coronavirus test results stopped when the cases did, Silver said. There was no news, so no reports. That, in fact, might be the biggest takeaway of the Orlando bubble, even after the 2020 NBA champion is crowned.

The worst-case scenario of a seriously ill player, coach or staff member simply never happened.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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