With the Los Angeles Lakers opening up their practice facility today, and other teams either having already done so or in the process of gaining approval to re-open, the writing appears to be on the wall: The NBA season is as likely to resume as its ever been since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic shut the league down several months ago.
But even before now, anyone who follows Lakers veteran Jared Dudley on social media knows that he’s been optimistic that the season will continue long before it seemed as much like a certainty as it does today. During a televised interview with Allie Clifton of Spectrum SportsNet, he spoke at length about why he thinks the league is going to resume by July:
“Let’s just be honest, they say that a vaccine isn’t going to come out for about 18 months, so no matter what, next year, during the NBA season — whether it starts on time or in December — there is going to be no vaccine. So not having that, safety-wise, you’re going to be fan-less if you have a season.
“Can you play and be safe enough to guarantee people of not potentially dying or getting sick? The NBA believes, with the amount of testing they can do in a month or two, when it becomes more available to not only everybody in society, but their players, that the data will show that the ages between 19 and 35 of players, the mortality rate for players is 0.00001%, and even less for professional athletes.
“So if they come with this bubble in Orlando, which is most certainly going to happen because Disney is a No. 1 partner of the NBA... and (Las) Vegas obviously being a huge partner with the summer league, to be able to have that and put it in the bubble, have the cleaning crew from the hotel to the arena, your percentages go down dramatically, so I believe there will be a season, I believe that it will be announced in three to four weeks, and I believe that we’ll be playing games by the second week of July.”
There are several caveats here, potentially the largest among them being that there is still a lot we don’t know about the effects of the coronavirus, which does seem to be having more adverse effects on young people than previously thought.
That noted, those issues do appear to be few and far between, and as of now the reporting is that every NBA player to get the virus recovered relatively quickly and with few complications. Dudley is also confident that because the NBA was the first league to shut down (society soon followed), it will put safety first in all of its plans to return:
“We would not do it if we felt that it would jeopardize player safety, and we feel that we can be safe enough that no one will have any tragic stories and that we can get tested. Testing will happen for players 10 times more than they have now. It will happen before every game, if you have a positive test, you have to be quarantined for 14 days even if you’re asymptomatic.”
The NBA being cautious is undoubtedly a good thing, but if that’s the case, they’ll likely have also seen that the rapid-response tests that would be necessary for the plan Dudley mentions aren’t considered foolproof by the FDA just yet. Like everything else with this virus, there are still a lot of things to be worked out, even if it’s possible (and maybe even likely) that such tests will be improved by July.
Another potential concern, however, is that while we can concede that — based on what we know now — most NBA players will likely be okay even if they catch the coronavirus, that may not be the case for everyone involved.
Looking no further than the Lakers’ roster, center JaVale McGee has asthma, which experts agree increases the risk for complications from the coronavirus. There is also the reality that the majority of the people involved in this plan — from hotel workers, to arena staffers, and especially the older demographics within the league’s coaching staffs and front offices — are statistically at higher risk for complications from coronavirus this than most NBA players. Even if literally everyone involved with this plan, including the cleaning crews and other non-NBA workers, are isolated in the so-called bubble, there is still a level of risk here that may be significant for those that aren’t athletes in peak physical condition.
Still, Dudley says that star players like his teammates, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, that were on a conference call last week to come to an agreement that they want to finish the season, are asking the right questions of the league. Dudley says those leaders have been “selfless” throughout the whole process while trying to look out for everyone’s safety, including that of players’ families, some of whom Dudley says have older relatives living with them:
“Do you think that LeBron or AD are going to jeopardize their safety and health just to win a championship when it comes to people potentially dying? No, that’s not the case. We will follow them, because they’re asking the appropriate questions.”
Dudley also spoke about how the players and league know that it would be good for society to have the escape of watching sports right now, but we should also note that the NBA coming back is far from a purely altruistic endeavor.
He didn’t say it exactly like this, but we all have to know at this point that while NBA players and ownership groups are more financially fortunate than most of us can ever dream of being, they still don’t want to lose money. No business does, and the NBA is no different. The possibility of just how much money could be lost — and how much that could affect players’ salaries beyond this season — is something Dudley says he’s tried to stress to players around the league who don’t want to come back because their teams have nothing to play for:
“I’ve talked to more of the non-superstars, the guys that are on young, bad teams because I played with a lot of them. A good percentage of them are like ‘Jared, why should we come back? I can’t make the playoffs, we have nothing to play for,’ and this is what I tell them: You’re right. We might go straight to playoffs, so for you to come there for two to three weeks and practice, we’re on stay-at-home orders anyway, you’ll be able to get out of the house, come hang out, get that camaraderie, which is good.’
“But the second thing is this. If we do not play, and there is no season, that means the TV money from Disney, ESPN, they don’t have to pay that money. That money then gets taken away from the BRI (Basketball Related Income), which sets the cap number. So if that money is not in there, the following season with no vaccine, and that money not being in there, that cap of being able to pay $120 million (in players salaries)... goes down almost in half, if not 40%.
“So that 120 goes down to what, $70 million? So now you have to form a Lakers team, a Bulls team, a Suns team under that $70 million where everyone’s salary gets cut in half. So my thing is this: If they say for safety reasons we can’t play this season, I’m 100% on board, I’ll be the first one to understand it. But then what’s the difference next season? There is no vaccine coming guys, so we have to be able to do safety now, the same way we will next year.”
He makes some good points, but there are still a lot of questions left to be asked, even if it’s also probably safe to assume that the league is more than aware of all the aforementioned risk factors and more, and trying to act responsibly about them. No matter how much money is on the line, we have to believe that no one wants people to die, because as much as it would financially harm the league to cancel the season, it might hurt it even more if they rushed back too early and put people at risk, to say nothing of the fraught ethical concerns that come with someone dying because something as nonessential — no matter how much we love them — as sports rushed back.
Still, the NBA and its constituencies are in a more fortunate position than most in that they can afford to take their time, sit back and survey the landscape before rushing back to play. Hopefully they’re able use what they’ve learned during this period to make this seemingly inevitable resumption in play as safe and smooth as possible.