The NBA’s plans for 2021 look grimmer with each failed test

The NBA is nearing the completion of its monumental campus idea. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The NBA is nearing the completion of its monumental campus idea. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The NBA’s bubble experiment is coming to a close. But the world outside is still dealing with the virus, making 2021 season’s future look grim.

The NBA’s idea to sequester themselves inside a bubble — along with the separate decisions from the NHL and WNBA — was met with some derision. This monumental task and undertaking seemed so unlikely to succeed when the league first proposed it.

They have to find a place to do it all — finally settling on Disney — and then they had to set up strict protocols to keep the virus out and choke off any chance of it to spread.

The idea was a gamble. It was laughed at. How would the league enforce these copious guidelines? How would players stay sane while stuck inside the campus?

There were a ton of questions as to whether this thing would work. But the NBA saw its finish line. It needed the cash that would come from completing its postseason. And it dove into all the details to try to create something that could work.

Dr. Anthony Fauci praised the NBA’s thoroughness in its plans. But still, there were plenty of doubts.

Four months into this project, the league has had zero positive tests inside the bubble. The social distancing and mask requirements and daily testing have effectively stamped out any potential spread. Even with family members joining players, the bubble has stayed intact.

The same thing happened for the NHL, NWSL and the WNBA with their respective bubbles. After some entry issues, the MLS’s bubble for the MLS is Back Tournament survived to its end.

A new bubble?

But a bubble is not feasible for every league. It is not feasible for an entire season — although a smaller league like the WNBA proved otherwise. It would be asking a lot to have the NBA players commit again to months at a time without their families sequestered from the world.

And the NBA’s bubble is getting set to end. The world on the outside is a lot messier, even with the best of intentions and the best of plans.

As the NBA Finals get set to end, they are looking toward a future they cannot foresee. They do not know when basketball is going to resume. A new bubble is not something they can do again.

How does the NBA proceed?

MLB and the NFL could not ask their players to go into a full-season bubble. MLS did not ask that of its players — deciding to go for a monthlong World Cup-style tournament before resuming their season at home sites. A full season locked away is unsustainable.

The NBA players agreed to this bubble idea perhaps not fully knowing the toll it would take. Just go back and listen to the Magic’s postgame press conferences near the end. The toll of being on the inside was mentally draining.

But the outside world has not gotten the virus under much further control.

Experience from other leagues

Other sports leagues who have tried to operate close to normal with teams traveling to play a normal schedule have run into their own problems — even without fans in attendance. There are still flare-ups and problems keeping the virus out of sports leagues and getting them to go off as scheduled.

MLB had some issues early on as players got used to the new conditions, requiring games be moved around — the Miami Marlins, who were at the center of a major cluster of positive tests, had to play on 24 consecutive days to make up for all the lost time.

The NFL is experiencing positive tests with several teams, including a complete outbreak with the Tennessee Titans, that has put its season in flux. For now, the league does not believe its season is in jeopardy. But they are still only a quarter of the way through.

MLS has experienced some game postponements after positive tests throughout. But it hit closer to home when Orlando City reported a player on its first team had tested positive — he was isolated and the team reported other players had returned consecutive negative tests.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

They were set to play Sunday until the league postponed the game because members of the Columbus Crew’s traveling party also tested positive. The game will be rescheduled to a later date.

College football has had some minor flare-ups within teams and had to cancel a few games. But they largely go on.

Although the site of some stadiums packing thousands of fans in is still a bit disquieting — as is Florida Gators coach Dan Mullen, frustrated with the nearly 20,000 fans at Kyle Field at Texas A&M on Saturday, saying he would like to see Ben Hill Griffin Stadium filled to capacity with 90,000 fans for their game against LSU now that Governor Ron DeSantis has lifted all venue restrictions as part of Phase 3 of the state’s recovery.

Fortunately, Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin said the University of Florida has no intention of changing its stadium guidelines.

The Orlando Magic’s sister team, the Orlando Solar Bears, announced it will open its season in December with the hope of having select fans inside the Amway Center.

Teams are eager to get moving and get back to their normal business. But the NBA is certainly watching all this and growing concerned about how they move forward. It is clearly not easy to pull this off.

Not as perfectly as the league pulled off its bubble.

People are certainly tired of all the restrictions. They have required a lot of sacrifices and personal responsibility. Sports have always served as a welcome distraction and a place for some normalcy. They have done that.

But these are still human beings, playing a physically demanding sport (for a large salary, yes) and asked to sacrifice many of the guidelines to stop the spread of the pandemic in order to do so.

Outside of the reckless situation with the Titans in the NFL, no league has experienced a complete outbreak. There are positive tests here and there, but not enough to disrupt league business.

Is this acceptable risk to conduct a season? Is the reality that leagues have to face is that there will be positive tests to play their season? How much is too much?

Keeping control

These are the questions the NBA is asking itself as it plans its 2021 season.

Now the NBA is the one with time. Now, the NBA is the league that has the ability to plan out its next move and figure out how to conduct a season with travel and in home stadiums without the pressure of delivering the end of the season quickly and effectively.

They can watch how conditions in the country change and plan accordingly. And there is no time to waste if they plan to start in January.

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The NBA’s plan for the campus was detailed and thorough. But it was largely something they could control. It was something they could plan for each step of the process and control the conditions and where players went.

The problem other leagues have run into is where players go when they are outside of their team facilities and away from the team. The NBA did not a lot of hand-wringing over Disney employees who would interact with the players inside the bubble. But at least they knew where that point of contact would take place.

The world outside of the NBA’s bubble has been messy and uncertain. And that has made it tough for every league to operate — even if they eventually found their footing and accepted some measure of risk and loss.

The reality is that without the United States doing a better job to stop the virus and prevent its further spread, there is no 100-percent safe way to conduct sports leagues. Even if there are well-intention and best-laid plans and procedures to do so.

The NBA is not going to sit on its hands and wait for January to see where the virus is at. The league is already thinking about how it will conduct its season in 2021. They are seemingly hopeful they will be able to have some fans in their building but health experts are skeptical an indoor league will be able to do so.

The NBA is still figuring out its future. But the way the NFL, MLB and MLS struggled to get through its season without any positive tests or disruption to their schedule is certainly disquieting and concerning to the league.

The question was always how much risk the league is willing to take. And, more importantly, the amount of risk players are willing to accept.

The NBA’s bubble experiment has been a rousing success. But now it is nearing its end. The Finals will close and the league will look forward to an uncertain future.

Next. Orlando Magic must not repeat same mistakes. dark

So enjoy the basketball while we can. The 2021 season might be further off than we know as the league and the nation still come to grips with this pandemic.