There had been rumors that the league was looking at Martin Luther King Day or possibly later as a start date to maximize the chances of having a COVID-19 vaccine that would allow large gatherings to resume. Hollinger believes the NBA is now considering the 2020/21 season a “sunk cost” and is focusing on having a normal timetable for 2021/22.
To make that happen, the league needs to fit in a shortened 72-game season in roughly four months — from late December through the end of April. That would leave time for a play-in tournament that’s also included in the league’s plans, followed by two months of playoffs that would finish by early July.
Hollinger notes that a precedent of sorts was set in the 2011/12 season when labor strife forced the league to adopt a 66-game schedule that ran from Christmas Day to April 26. He envisions something similar this year, but without teams being asked to play on three straight nights. Hollinger suggests that non-conference games might be eliminated, cutting down travel significantly, and leaving each team with eight games against each division rival and four games against each conference opponent from outside the division.
All-Star Weekend might be canceled this year, not only for the scheduling benefits but to eliminate the risks of bringing together players from all parts of the country and then sending them back to their teams. The league may also skip the preseason because of the tight window to get ready for games that count.
Hollinger addresses a few other topics the league will have to consider:
- There’s virtually no desire to recreate a “bubble” atmosphere like the one in Orlando. It could be done in an emergency to preserve the playoffs or the NBA Finals, but the sentiment throughout the league is that teams should play in their own markets. The one exception may be the Raptors if travel into Canada remains limited. Hollinger suggests KeyBank Center in Buffalo or the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, as possible temporary homes.
- The 72-game schedule is enough to for teams to satisfy their regional sports network contracts — most of which call for 65 to 70 televised games — and ensure that stream of revenue won’t be affected. There are also plenty of national television opportunities without stretching the playoffs past Independence Day and risking low ratings again.
- Free agency will be more condensed than usual, with November 23, the Monday after the draft, appearing to be a likely starting point. That leaves about a week and a half before the expected opening of training camps.
- The proposed changes give NBA players a much better chance of participating in the Olympics if they are able to be held. The Olympic basketball tournament is scheduled to begin July 24, which is at least two weeks after the end of the NBA Finals. Nations seeking the remaining four spots, such as Canada, Lithuania, Serbia, Greece, Croatia and Slovenia, stand a better chance of having their NBA players available when the qualifying tournaments get under way in late June.