The NBA season will be back in time for Christmas.
The NBA board of governors and the National Basketball Players Association have each agreed to play a reduced 72-game season starting on Dec. 22, an unprecedented short turnaround that the league hopes will help it recoup a steep dive in revenue and sync back with its traditional calendar schedule.
The agreement was first reported by The Athletic, following a vote by the league’s union representatives on Thursday evening. A source confirmed the majority agreement to Southern California News Group, which was later officially announced by the NBPA.
Teams are expected to report to training camp by Dec. 1, which will be mere weeks following free agency which has yet to set a start date. ESPN reported the NBA and NBPA will discuss moving up the start of free agency as soon as possible. The early start will give the NBA an estimated extra $500 million to $1 billion in revenue compared to several later dates in January that were considered.
Under the proposal, the season would finish no later than July 22, one day before the Tokyo Olympics and well ahead of football season – two heavyweight television competitors.
The urgency of beginning a new season has picked up in recent weeks, bolstered by the grim understanding that the league stands to lose even more revenue than the estimated $1.5 billion it lost last season, hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and frayed relations with China, a key source of international viewership. The NBA hopes the loss of fans in arenas – which accounts for as much as 40 percent of the league’s revenue – will be partially offset by a push to play as many games as possible for the 2020-21 season.
NBA players will feel a hit in their paychecks from that financial slide: The league is expected to hold as much as 20 percent of player salaries in escrow for the next two seasons to account for the dip in revenue, a figure that the NBPA executive committee will settle.
The Athletic reported that the league hopes to have 25 to 50 percent of arena suites filled with fans to start the season (depending on local regulations), with the aspiration that more fans could be brought in later in the season, as access to either rapid testing or a potential COVID-19 vaccine improves.
Many important questions about the season remain unresolved, including the logistics of travel in a COVID-19 environment, what circumstances would allow teams to begin bringing in more fans, and how games could be affected by positive coronavirus test results. The conclusion to the 2019-20 season was played inside the bubble at Disney World, which led to no positive tests among on-campus residents, but which the NBA quickly determined would be unfeasible to replicate for an entire regular season.
The NBPA also agreed to a proposal from its executive committee to grow the salary cap and luxury tax by a minimum of two percent, artificially inflating figures that are traditionally determined by annual revenue. The NBPA’s executive committee and the NBA still will hammer out final details, particularly in finances.
It’s unclear if the NBA will be more lenient with teams that choose to rest their stars, especially those with shortened offseasons. The Lakers and the Miami Heat have the shortest breaks of all teams, just 72 days after spending 95 in the bubble while finishing the season.
Several Lakers, including team NBPA representative Danny Green, publicly said they expected veterans on the team to play lighter minutes or even miss games. On an episode of his show The Shop that aired last week, LeBron James himself joked with former president Barack Obama: “I’m cherry-picking the whole first half of the season.” It’s unclear how those comments could reflect on how the Lakers actually embrace load management strategies, given that they had one of the oldest rosters in the NBA last season and James will turn 36 in December.
The quick turnaround could add stress to existing injury management strategies: Clippers star Kawhi Leonard sat out half of all 10 of the team’s back-to-back sets of games last season in order to care for what was described as a case of left knee patellar tendinopathy. During his introduction last month, head coach Tyronn Lue suggested that approach could continue.
The Clippers’ offseason will amount to 98 days, still shorter than usual. But while introducing the newly promoted Lue, team owner Steve Ballmer indicated that he was interested in putting his squad back on the court after a second-round exit in September.
“I’m itching, actually, to have the season get going again,” he said last month.
As the defending champions, the Lakers would likely play on opening night at Staples Center and receive their championship rings.