NBA commissioner ‘optimistic’ about schedule, return of fans

As the NBA approaches the first anniversary of its March 11 shutdown, Commissioner Adam Silver expressed confidence that the worst of his league’s pandemic-related challenges, which included a four-month stoppage in play and billions in lost revenue, are in the past.

During his annual midseason news conference—conducted virtually Saturday from Atlanta, where the NBA is hosting a scaled-down All-Star Weekend—Silver repeatedly struck an optimistic tone, pointing to progress with the coronavirus vaccine and the league’s ability to function this season despite the significant health and safety challenges.

“The long-term health of the league is very solid,” Silver said. “Between last year and this year, we’re looking at considerable [financial] losses. I think when we all step back, we feel very fortunate to be working under these circumstances. My sense is the players feel the same way.”

Despite postponing more than 30 games because of positive tests among players or contact tracing efforts, Silver said the league’s schedule remains on track: The 2021 playoffs should be completed by mid-July, NBA players should be able to compete in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics in July and the 2021-22 season should return to the normal calendar in which games begin in October. There are no plans to return to a single-site bubble for the upcoming playoffs after the league utilized a restricted Disney World campus near Orlando, Florida, for the 2020 restart.

“I’m fairly optimistic at this point that we will be able to start [the 2021-22 season] on time and that we have roughly half of our teams have fans in their arenas right now,” Silver said. “If vaccines continue on the pace they are, and they continue to be as effective as they have been against the virus and its variants, we’re hopeful that we’ll have relatively full arenas next season as well.”

While the big-picture calendar items remain on track, smaller issues remain. The fate of the annual Las Vegas summer league, which typically takes place in mid-July, remains up in the air, and the NBA won’t travel internationally to play games until at least the 2022-23 season.

Yet Silver’s mood was clearly lifted by developments on the national health landscape: new COVID-19 case rates are down sharply from their mid-January peak levels, and vaccination efforts have ramped up and surpassed initial expectations. Silver said he wasn’t aware of any players who had been vaccinated but said coaches and other league staffers who were eligible for the vaccine in their home states have received the shots.

Looking ahead, the NBA will not mandate that players receive a vaccine, but doing so could exempt them from some elements of the league’s tightened health and safety protocols, which Silver conceded are “incredible burdensome.” For example, Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant has been sidelined for a week on two separate occasions this season as part of contact tracing efforts, even though he didn’t test positive either of those times.

“The CDC has already announced when you get vaccinated, you don’t need to quarantine as a close contact,” Silver said. “As you know, many of our players have had to sit out not because they tested positive but because they were required to quarantine because of a close contact. In addition, right now as we operate under this so-called work quarantine protocol, where players are largely only going between their homes and the arenas, once they get vaccinated they’ll be able to do more in their communities. … There will be some real advantages and benefits to getting vaccinated for the players.”

Frustration with the protocols and wider health concerns led a number of players, including Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James, to criticize the NBA’s resurrected All-Star Game in Atlanta, which replaced previous plans for a full weekend celebration in Indianapolis. The league will host its annual showcase game along with the Skills Challenge, Three-Point Contest and Slam Dunk Contest at State Farm Arena on Sunday, in a slimmed-down, made-for-television product.

Silver acknowledged that a number of teams expressed their support for players who preferred skipping this year’s event in favor of additional rest. The league pushed ahead with its plans, he said, because he felt it was “my job to look out for the overall interest of the league” from a financial standpoint, even if that meant absorbing internal and external criticism.

“It’s a bit lonely as the commissioner,” Silver said, noting that “well over 100 million people” will watch the All-Star Game globally and that he anticipates the event will generate more than 1 billion online views. “I haven’t made it a secret out of the fact that economic interests are a factor. It’s less to do with the economics of one Sunday night on TNT in the United States. It has more to do with the larger brand value of the NBA. This is our number one fan engagement event of the year. … It’s sort of what we do. For me, it would have been a bigger deal not to have it.”

No plans to change logo: Nets star Kyrie Irving said recently the NBA should change its logo, which depicts Hall of Fame guard Jerry West, to honor Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who died last year in a helicopter crash. However, the NBA has no plans to change its logo, which has been in use since 1969.

“The logo is iconic,” Silver said, noting Bryant would be “on the list” of candidates if the NBA ever pursued a change and that the All-Star Game MVP trophy has been named in his honor. “As you know, we’re distributed globally. Even changing the logo, purely even from a legal standpoint, isn’t an easy exercise. Not that that should be the impediment. … It doesn’t feel to me that this is the appropriate moment.”

Addressing coaching diversity: The Minnesota Timberwolves’ recent hiring of Chris Finch, without a traditional coaching search, prompted renewed questions about lack of diversity in the coaching ranks. Only seven of the 30 head coaches are Black, while nearly three-quarters of the players are Black. Silver cited “human nature”—the desire by executives to hire “people who they know best and they’re most familiar with”—to explain that disparity.

“In certain cases you have a network of relationships that go back many years,” the commissioner said. “To the extent that people aren’t part of those networks, they’re clearly at a disadvantage in the process. One of the things the league can do in working with our teams, therefore, is focus on a better process that ensures that everyone has an equal opportunity to sort of join the fraternity, so to speak. You’re not going to get to be a head coach in this league unless you serve, most likely, as an assistant coach first or you’ve been a top player in the league.”

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