The NBA announced on Wednesday that it had its second straight week without a positive test in the Disney bubble, once again indicating that their testing quarantine protocols for those entering the bubble have been successful. While there is still a ways to go, it’s a good start, but given the problems facing Major League Baseball with the Miami Marlins outbreak, it is hard to see a path to a normal sports season until a vaccine is available nationwide.
As such, this week marked the first time that a prominent figure publicly noted the potential need for a bubble for the 2020-21 season, even if just for the start. NBPA executive director Michele Roberts noted on Tuesday that, if things remain as they are now, she doesn’t see a path towards a 2020-21 season that isn’t in a bubble of some sort. That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone paying attention, but it is notable in that it indicates the league and players association recognize that fact, which is not always a given considering how other leagues are operating.
While there’s hope for a vaccine to arrive in late 2020 or early 2021, the plan cannot be to start a season in December with the expectation of a widely available vaccine that would allow fans in arenas (or even travel from city to city) to be safe. It’s possible the league could push their season start back in hopes of a vaccine, but if starting in December is what they insist upon, alternative plans must be discussed. As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski elaborated on Wednesday, all options are on the table (which, again, not a surprise) including the potential for regional pod bubbles.
NBA’s priority remains to get fans into arenas next season. Regional pods for extended periods are among brainstorms, but preference would be that those are finite in length, sources said. For example: A month or two inside, a month out. Early in planning; everything's on table. https://t.co/fkuSyy1TwG
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) July 29, 2020
This is a concept that I’ve put a reasonable amount of thought into over the past few weeks as I’ve failed to see a path to a regular season outside of bubbles until a vaccine is available. As such, I want to lay out how I think this plan may work, with the disclaimer that this is purely my personal concept. There are a couple paths the league could take with regards to the size of their bubbles, from two 15-team bubbles for each conference to six divisional bubbles to break things down even further, with pros and cons for each.
Two conference bubbles would allow for more diversity in games played, as teams would be able to matchup with all 14 other teams in their conference, but it would require more rooms, court space, and a larger bubble to make it work — and, likely, a longer stay. A smaller bubble may allow for families to join thanks to needing fewer rooms in each location for players and staff (which, if schools end up shifting to online learning, might be something players would be interested in) and would boost player morale, but would limit the options for teams to play just those other four or five teams.
If the NBA is hoping for fans in arenas at some point, then the smaller bubbles might be their choice in an effort to provide flexibility and also an opportunity for more family time for players. As Woj notes, the possibility of giving players some time off from the bubbles is something that could happen, and that timeline would work better with a smaller bubble. If families are not able to be in the bubble — which again, is dependent largely on outside factors like what schools do — this would possibly be the compromise for players not looking to deal with a long-term bubble that would keep them from their families.
Let’s take the six divisional pods as an example. It’s possible they could plan on two months inside a pod, playing 16 games in 32 days, with a 10-day quarantine period and a two-week training camp prior to the start of the season, and then give players two weeks to go home and be with family.
If players leave for bubbles right after the week after Thanksgiving, have a 10-day quarantine once in the bubble and then a two-week camp, that’d put the season start right before Christmas. If they play all four divisional teams four times in 32-day window, similar to what the league is doing now with its Orlando bubble, then players are home by February for two weeks (right around when the league already takes its week-long All-Star break). It’s reasonably possible that by that time a vaccine is available and they could pivot to a regular season finish, with 16 games already in hand, in late February or early March, pushing the league calendar back two months (or shortening the season to 70 games) but that seems likely no matter what. As an aside, it’ll be fascinating to see how the NBA handles the Olympics in late July no matter what the plan is.
If that’s not the case and the pandemic still remains a threat to playing in home arenas, then they could shuffle the deck and give teams four new opponents, by sending them to various bubbles for another two months with the same schedule. That, obviously, is far from ideal and the league desperately wants to have fans in arenas next season, but the small bubbles and planned time in between allows them to kick the can down the road while still playing basketball and keeping an almost normal schedule pace, which might have to be the approach given uncertainty about when a vaccine will be approved and widely distributed.
The league and NBPA will have plenty to discuss over the coming months and will have to monitor the national and local responses in markets around the country to determine what makes the most sense. One of the chief questions will be how important is it to the league and players to try and maintain the current NBA calendar in the future, or if they are willing to shift that permanently. Ideally, I think the league would like to remain in as little conflict with the NFL schedule (and CFB to a lesser extent) as possible, particularly with its postseason, which means waiting out a vaccine for a February start and an October end date might not be something they (or their broadcast partners) are very interested in.
That might make the regional bubbles more enticing, as it would keep them on pace for an August finish, allowing them to start the 2021-22 season closer to normal time. There are, of course, serious financial ramifications for playing 16 or 32 (or all) of your regular season games without fans and in bubbles, which the league knows firsthand now how expensive they are to maintain. All of these factors must be discussed and the most frustrating part of all of this is that the league has no choice but to have ideas for a Plan A, B, C, and D, because this is an issue well out of their control. It does not help that no one at a federal level seems willing to even try and take the reins on to make planning the future in a concrete way possible.
As such, expect bubble discussions for next season to ramp up in the coming months, and the league will be constantly monitoring the news regarding vaccine approval and the scale of its production and distribution to determine their best course of action. The players will want to find some kind of work-life balance, particularly those coming out of the current bubble situation where family is not yet allowed in, and the smaller bubbles seem like the best bet to allow for that, either in bringing families in with players or, at minimum, allowing for breaks in between to go home and have family time.