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March 16, 2020

If coronavirus forces NBA into extended hiatus, they should cancel the season

The postponement or cancellation of every major sports league in America, pro and amateur, has already begun to drive some people crazy. Most fans just want to know the answer to one question: when are sports coming back?

In the case of the NBA, it sounds as though it will be a while. According to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, the NBA is now preparing for a "best-case scenario" that has the league return beginning in, "mid-to-late June," a time normally reserved for the NBA Draft.

There are more details we will get to in a moment, but here's the biggest component of the scoop from Woj:

Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, NBA owners and executives are bracing for the possibility of mid-to-late June as a best-case scenario for the league's return, sources told ESPN on Sunday. 

Fears exist of a season completely lost, especially based on the slow response of the United States to flatten the curve of the coronavirus and make testing available on a widespread basis. The CDC issued a recommendation on Sunday night that no events or gatherings should include more than 50 people for the next eight weeks. [ESPN]

Calling anything a disastrous scenario right now is stating the obvious, so it's mostly about comparing the options available as best we can. According to Woj, three different options have been laid out as follows:

The NBA likely will provide projections on three primary scenarios: the financial costs of shutting down the season, restarting with no fans in the arena, or playing playoff games with fans. Those losses will be reflected in next year's salary cap and the players' share of basketball-related income. 

For now, there's a working plan that games would return without fans, and teams have been told to search out arena dates well into August for the playoffs, sources said. Teams have been directed to give the league office potential dates at smaller nearby game venues, including team practice facilities, that could spare the use of empty, cavernous arenas and possibly provide backdrops to unique television viewing lines.  [ESPN]

From a financial standpoint, canceling the season outright is the worst-case scenario, one that teams and players alike would like to avoid. The ramifications to revenue — and thus salaries, the cap, and the overall health of the league — would be significant. Strictly through the lens of dollars and cents, there's no argument to make for cancellation.

But if we're talking about the reason people actually care about the league, from local pride to the arc of beloved (and hated) players to a baseline appreciation for the sport, bringing the league back from a three-month hiatus only to jump right into the high-stakes game of the playoffs (that's all their timeline would really allow for) would be a hollow imitation of what makes the NBA compelling to begin with. And I think there's a more compelling argument to cancel it than there is to carry on months down the road.

Though many fans check out during the regular season, that 82-game adventure matters. Coaches tinker with rotations, young players rise and fall, injuries alter trajectories, trades change the landscape, and when we end up at the mid-April finish line, rhythms and identities have been established. Players have been going to work alongside one another for six months plus preseason and training camp, and prepare for the possibility of three more together. 

Many around the league will tell you that you don't really know who teams are until after the All-Star break — just look at the post-break surges from the dueling stars in L.A., Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James, as proof of the gear up for the final sprint. Learning to navigate that 82-game schedule and hit your stride as the playoffs begin is part of the transformation process for young talent, and helps to set up age-old battles between youth and experience, energy vs. savvy. When a winner emerges in a series, it was never an accident and always earned.

That, to me, is part of why the NBA is so compelling to begin with, and part of what separates it from the other major American sports. A hot goaltender can't carry you to the Finals, a Wild Card darling never really emerges, and single-game elimination doesn't allow for a whole lot of weirdness. The winner at the end of that grind has earned their way to the top, and its why we place so much significance on championship rings and performances when it's time to take stock of a player's career. 

With teams currently banned indefinitely from practicing together, the playoffs would ultimately be decided by the answer to, "Who stayed in the best shape without leaving their homes?" rather than, "Which team earned the title with their work over eight months?" Declaring the winner at the end of that run would be judging the winner of an entirely different race than the one we see every year.

Some will point out that canceling the season would rob certain athletes of precious moments in their careers, and that's an argument I'm sympathetic to. The Toronto Raptors will never have another chance to defend last year's NBA title, as they have done valiantly so far without Leonard. LeBron only has so many miles left on his legs, and tossing away one of his final shots at a title would rob us (and him, most notably) of a chance to see if he can climb the mountain one more time.

But if anything, canceling the season uplifts the accomplishments, past and future, of the athletes that play this game. Rather than returning for a half-baked playoff so somebody is holding a trophy for continuity's sake, you would be telling your fans, your players, and your partners that these moments matter and aren't just a function of capitalism. Titles only carry the weight we allow them to have, and by refusing to give out a trophy in a year that has been compromised beyond belief, you'd be doubling down on the significance the playoffs are meant to have. 

All of this is without bringing the fan component into the discussion. Transitioning to closed-door games is suitable enough as a temporary, regular-season measure with a focus on the worldwide health crisis we're dealing with. But there's no way to have a postseason that matters in empty, silent arenas. We count rings and banners because it means the guys who earned them did so when the lights were brightest, delivering in the face from pressure at home and on the road. The title is the same in theory, but the environment around it would be so different as to be unrecognizable. 

Besides, sports are a communal activity not meant to be enjoyed in isolation. When you find yourself in an unfamiliar place, you make new acquaintances by finding people who wear the same team colors as you. When you go to your favorite bar to watch a big game, you pound shots with strangers either in miserable solidarity or jubilation after a big game. The games fade over time, but details of the days still hit home. 

My most vivid memory from the Eagles winning the Super Bowl was not from the game, but watching a man climb the steps of the Berks stop of the L, Radio Raheem-sized boom box in his hand, "Dreams and Nightmares" bellowing from the speakers as a thousand strangers swayed and scream-rapped together on the platform. We like to think sports are only about what happens between the lines, but that's half of the story. Imagine how hollow it would feel for a team to win the title and celebrate in an empty arena, winners of the world's most televised pickup game. 

If the league waits long enough for the public to be allowed back, the product is compromised. If a return is swift, the focus on health and/or the involvement of the people who give the games juice has been compromised. A middle ground that works on all fronts is going to be damn hard to pull off, if it's even possible. 

A return of sports in any fashion will be enough to get most people fired up, and I am more of an all-or-nothing guy than most — not to mention that my job would be a lot harder with no more basketball. If the situation improves enough to get things moving within a reasonable timeframe, let's talk about it. But I want no parts of a bastardized NBA playoffs so far down the line that you might as well start a new season.

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