When the NBA and NHL each returned to action in the summer of 2020 after postponements of their regular seasons due to COVID-19, they were initially met with skepticism about their planned “bubble” formats.
A few months later, the two leagues had the whole whole wondering one thing: Why isn’t every league doing this?
Both leagues saw no cases of COVID-19 throughout the thousands of tests administered to players, coaches and staff over the course of the summer, and both leagues were able to crown champions for their 2019-2020 seasons as a result.
Now, like Bill Belichick’s mindset whenever the New England Patriots lose (or even win) a football game, all eyes have turned to the next one. In this case, it’s time for the NBA and NHL to look ahead to their respective regular seasons, each likely starting in 2021.
While the bubble was a great idea for the few months that teams occupied it during the NBA’s summer in Orlando, fatigue was an obvious concern and downside throughout. Players were, in many cases, trapped on a single campus without their families, left to focus completely on their team’s play-in games or playoff series.
For guys like LeBron James, who was in the bubble for the Lakers from its start all the way until its final moments, it was one of the most taxing experiences they’ve ever been through in their careers.
“It’s probably been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as far as a professional, as far as committing to something and actually making it through,” James said during the NBA Finals. “But I knew when I was coming what we were coming here for. I would be lying if I sat up here and knew that everything inside the bubble, the toll that it would take on your mind and your body and everything else, because it’s been extremely tough.”
There were even reports that James nearly left the bubble in August, mainly because of the issues related to social justice and racial equality that were prevalent at the time.
So, how do you convince NBA players to move into a single bubble for three or four months of regular season games, and potentially three more months of postseason play, especially when a star like James discussed the struggles that come with the process?
At the same time, how can you justify letting each of the NBA’s 30 teams to travel around the country on the usual schedule like everything is normal, when COVID-19 cases are increasing around the country (again) and the NFL struggles to contain outbreaks across the league?
It’s a difficult puzzle for Commissioner Adam Silver and the NBA to solve, but we have a plan that can be considered as the league gets to work to plan out the upcoming regular season.
Sticking with the idea of the bubble, our schedule for the “2020”-2021 season features the use of three bubbles, located in three different cities. For this exercise, we’ll utilize three cities with lots of hotels and convention space: Las Vegas, Nevada; Orlando, Florida; and Uncasville, Connecticut.
Each bubble would house 10 NBA teams, and the schedule would include each franchise playing two games against each of the nine remaining teams in its respective bubble.
It would turn into a similar scenario as the “play-in” games that started the NBA’s tenure in the Orlando bubble in the summer of 2020, and would total 18 games for each team.
After each bubble’s first stretch is complete, every NBA team would get two weeks off to travel back to its home state, practice at its home facility, and return to their families in a similar setting as an NFL’s “bye week.”
From there, teams would travel back into their second bubble, playing two games each against nine more teams. It may be impossible to get teams to play every other squad in the league, but you could have teams play more games against divisional/conference opponents for a natural balance.
Two more weeks off follow that second bubble, followed by one final stretch of the regular season in a team’s third bubble to round out a 54-game regular season.
If you figure that each bubble would total 18 games, the league could commit about a month to each stretch of the season to factor in off days. Cancel the All-Star Weekend and add in the two separate off periods back in each team’s home city, and this plan would span about four months.
If the regular season starts on or around January 1, each team could potentially finish out a 54-game schedule by early-to-mid May, flowing right into the postseason.
From there, the league could either consolidate into a single, 16-team bubble in Orlando, similar to what it did in 2020, or it could follow a similar approach as the NHL did in 2020, and set up bubbles in two separate cities for each conference’s bracket.
One bubble would allow the NBA to follow the exact format it did in 2020 with six less teams to worry about, while the other would allow for more space for each team to work with, allowing the opportunity for players’ or coaches’ family members to accompany them.
You can add a week or two of a “buffer” to get teams into the bubble(s) for the postseason, factoring in the lack of travel days that teams would usually have to plan for under normal circumstances.
Add in similar COVID-19 testing as the NBA implemented for the 2020 bubble in Orlando, and the league could be on top of any potential risks to players, coaches and staff members throughout the season.
Follow a similar timeline as the 2020 NBA Playoffs, and the league could be done in early July, inherently resetting the league’s calendar to as close to the norm as it could.
This idea and regular-season schedule attempts to create a compromise for the league and its players, serving as an attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 while also giving players the opportunity to spend extended time with their familieis.
The league would have to sacrifice the revenue that comes with a full, 82-game regular season slate and having fans in attendance for those games, unless they were able to host fans in arenas in the respective bubbles with appropriate social distancing and separation from players and coaches.
Players would have to withstand the bubble format once more and sacrifice the time with their families that generally comes when they have homestands, and would instead get two weeks straight to spend time with their families at two different points in the middle of the season.
But, it gives both sides something they want. The league gets its revenue for TV deals, and could potentially find a way to allow fans in arenas/convention spaces to generate some revenue during the regular season.
Players get a season to continue to earn their paychecks and battle for a championship, and they wouldn’t have to worry about travel or increased exposure when going on road trips to different parts of the country.
Both sides would avoid running into a similar situation as the NFL, which has been under fire for the first five weeks of its regular season in 2020 due to multiple COVID-19 outbreaks across the league.
Playoff teams would spend less time in the postseason bubble than they did in 2020, hopefully decreasing any fatigue that comes with such a situation. Family members would potentially be able to join them earlier on in the bracket, depending on the format the league selects, which would hopefully mitigate any homesickness.
Finally, it would allow for some sort of return to normal for the 2021-2022 season, essentially letting the league hit the reset button come July of 2021 if things have improved as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It may not be ideal for both sides, but it’s tough to find anything that is “ideal” in 2020. Everyone has to make sacrifices as a result of COVID-19, and the NBA knows that all too well.
But, if the league is able to push through for one more season with extenuating circumstances, it may find itself as one of the few leagues in the United States that is fully prepared to tackle any new normal that the pandemic creates in the future.
For that to happen, the NBA will have to think outside of the box, and potentially adapt a similar format as the one described here to even make it to that point in the future.