Whether it’s in Las Vegas or Orlando or somewhere else, the NBA eventually is going to get back to playing. It’s not something that should happen quickly, and a lot still has to be worked out, including how to protect high-risk individuals in the league, before there’s another game.
But there will be NBA basketball again, and when there is, it’s almost certainly going to be a made-for-TV production with no fans in attendance. Among many challenges, this unprecedented scenario also presents an opportunity for innovation, like playing games with the Elam Ending that was so popular in the All-Star Game in order to avoid overtimes, keeping the schedule moving and the players as fresh as possible in what’s going to be a grind to the finish.
Whenever the NBA returns, it will have been a long time since the last time anyone played a competitive basketball game. Ramping back up quickly opens the door to players getting hurt, not to mention the possibility that there may be immunocompromised players who don’t feel it’s safe to go back to playing. There may be players who need to deal with family emergencies amid an ongoing pandemic, and there’s no way, even in as good of a system as the NBA and a host city can design, to ensure that nobody will contract coronavirus and be forced to stop playing.
But there’s also no need for the 2019-20 Atlanta Hawks, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks, or many other horrendous teams to play another game. It’s not like they’re going to be selling any tickets, and only the die-hardest of diehards would be watching those teams’ last 15-18 games on local television.
The solution to these dual problems is to address them both at the same time, with another made-for-TV event: a fantasy draft to end all fantasy drafts.
How could it work?
The NBA’s playoff picture was clear enough when play was suspended. The Orlando Magic were five and a half games clear of the Washington Wizards for the No. 8 seed in the East, while the Memphis Grizzlies held the last playoff spot in the West, leading the Portland Trail Blazers by three and a half games. It’s clear which 16 teams should be playing in an NBA “summer tournament,” and which 14 should not.
But just because Golden State was the only team mathematically eliminated from playoff contention back in March, does it mean Steph Curry shouldn’t get to play again until November? Is a restarted NBA better off without All-Stars Brandon Ingram, Damian Lillard, and Trae Young? Wouldn’t you want to see Zion Williamson some more?
This is a unique situation and the unique solution would be a short-term loan of players from non-playoff teams to the teams that would be playing summer ball.
To avoid some extreme weirdness of players suiting up for rival teams, a draft could be restricted to players from the opposite conference. So, no Draymond Green on the Lakers, but maybe DeMar DeRozan gets to suit up with the Raptors again and J.J. Redick could bring his 3-point prowess back to the 76ers.
The non-playoff teams would have some reasonable concerns here about the potential for their players to get hurt while playing for other teams, as well as what basically amounts to programmatic enhanced tampering. The answer there is to compensate those teams, both with an enhanced share of television and marketing revenue, and with extra draft picks and salary cap exemptions moving forward, to help those teams actually be good and qualify for future playoffs.
There’s also an aspect of this that could help the teams that aren’t part of the restarted NBA’s on-court mix. Say De’Aaron Fox winds up on the Milwaukee Bucks for the summer. Well, the Sacramento Kings might not be too happy about their young star wearing another team’s jersey. Well, we already know from the WNBA that fans will accept basketball jerseys where the primary non-numerical element is a corporate logo. If Fox dressed in Bucks colors, but with a Blue Diamond Almonds logo on his jersey and a Kings logo on his shoulder, and the Kings could benefit financially from the arrangement, they’d probably be good with that — not to mention the value to Sacramento of Fox getting early-career experience playing for an elite team.
This is — we all hope, anyway — a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. The NBA returning from an interrupted season is going to be, whenever it happens, unlike anything we’ve ever seen. It’s bizarre, after an amount of time nearly as long as a standard offseason, to expect to feel like there’s any connection to the season that was going on in March.
The basketball that gets played will be a standalone event, made for television at a time when the audience can use something special. A draft of players from non-playoff teams to the title contenders would protect the NBA from having teams get stretched by injury and circumstance beyond the capability to play on at an unpredictable time, while also allowing for assemblages of talent on rosters like nothing the league has ever seen before.