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As the 2020-21 season approaches, dealing with Covid remains a very real challenge for the NBA. The Cloudbet Blog takes a look at the bubble success at the end of last season, the changes that have been made, and explores some of the challenges that may lie ahead.

Also be sure to check out our preview: Lakers favoured to repeat; Bucks to challenge.

Bubble success

The creation of the Disney World bubble in Orlando, Florida marked the NBA’s full late-July comeback plan in an environment never seen before. The $190 million investment at the Disney campus included ~1500 staffers, three fully reserved hotels, three venues to host games behind closed doors and 22 teams in playoff contention.

All the suggested medical protocols at the time had to be followed to ensure the risk of transmission was minimised. Masks worn in common spaces, self-isolation, no contact with family, friends or anyone else outside the resort, regular PCR tests and quarantining for those who tested positive became the new normal for everyone inside the bubble. Fans spectated virtually, watching huge screens set up on court. The NBA’s adopted motto, a - “Whole New Game” - was entirely on point.

So far as finishing the season and getting through the playoffs was concerned, it was a resounding success.

In contrast, outside the bubble, mass rallies were taking place all across the US following the tragic deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd - though the far reaching implications directly touched many players inside the bubble who supported the Black Lives Matter movement from the front - the Milwaukee Bucks even boycotting a playoff game against the Orlando Magic in a move that was not only widely respected, but supported.

This bold experiment proved to be a huge success. From a simple sporting perspective, the season was salvaged and the playoffs were as dramatic as ever. From a financial viewpoint, while the initiative cost around $150 million to pull together, an estimated $1.5 billion was generated in revenue.

In contrast, the Euroleague, Europe’s most prestigious and competitive basketball league, never returned to action for the 2019-20 season.

An outstanding precedent

The fact that in over three months not a single positive Covid case was found in the bubble and all 172 games scheduled were played, is remarkable - and with it goes due credit to the Association and all its staffers for the preparations, measures and actions taken. Keeping everyone safe while maintaining the game at its highest level was a huge accomplishment.

It also set a great example for future cases if need be, as the virus persists and circumstances have yet to improve in a country that’s been hit hard - so far the US has seen almost 17 million reported cases and over 300,000 deaths due to the virus. Daily reported cases peaked recently on December 11 at over 280,000.

National teams’ qualifiers have already followed the bubble example, with all games being played in selected locations. Leagues of corresponding size and audience like the NFL and NHL have had lots of positive cases leading to games suspension, putting both player and staff health at risk. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver took some brave steps and has every right to feel justified by his decisions.

Lessons learned - new and “old” rules

Running the 2020-21 season poses new challenges given the lack of the luxury of a bubble. Now, the league must control 30 teams travelling all around the country for months. Alignment with all local authorities is considered crucial.

The rules and regs laid out in the 134-page “Health and Safety Protocols” memo are unsurprisingly quite similar to those successfully used in the bubble, but with obvious differences to accommodate the non-bubble environment.

Road trips will be limited to a 45-person group (“Tier 1”), including both players (maximum 17) and staff, who must always wear masks (except when players are on court), can visit only specific areas (selected restaurants, venues) and must keep their distance from prohibited areas and event (bars, lounges, large social gatherings etc.).

Processes followed will not differ regarding tests, meaning that in case a player is positive and asymptomatic, 10 days of isolation will have to pass until a medical review which should determine if he can return to training. Two more days working out alone would then let him rejoin team activities. In cases where symptoms are shown, he must wait for them to disappear and then spend 10 days in quarantine before further evaluation. In practice, this means at least two weeks out of action either way.

Acting responsibly

Teams are well aware of what it would mean to lose key players for such periods of time, making things rather unpredictable in the long run. Going from underdog to favourite could well become a common occurrence for any team this year, should last-minute positive tests be announced.

Every rostered player should be ready to step up and take on a bigger role immediately. The recent example of the Denver Broncos losing all three quarterbacks to Covid before a regular season game proved this. It is going to take an effort both mentally and physically for the players to act responsively off the court and stay out of trouble - a moment of carelessness may have dire immediate consequences.

From a straight-up results perspective, another thing worth taking into consideration is match-ups between teams that entered the bubble and those that didn't. For some, that means they last played in October, while for others they won’t have played a competitive game for nine months. Fatigue and chemistry could be interesting factors early on.

Fatigue and chemistry could be interesting factors early on.

In an effort to minimise risk, a different approach will be taken to road games as well, with teams now playing back-to-back games against the same opponent over the span of a few days.

Coping with Covid has gotten off to an iffy start for some franchises already, with the Toronto Raptors relocating to Tampa, Florida indefinitely due to virus restrictions set in Canada and the Portland Trail Blazers shutting down their facilities temporarily after three cases. The preseason should be a good sign of how things work in action.

The league is trying to tackle instances of numerous positives within the same team, something that would most probably lead to game rescheduling and reduced days off. So far, this effort has hit the rocks, with 48 out of 546 players testing positive in an initial testing phase in late November, but an improved eight positives out of 541 announced in early December.

Players have found it tough to keep it together throughout 2020 so far; Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves revealed he’s lost six people close to him, family and friends, to the virus - including his mother earlier this year. Paul George of the LA Clippers said he was mentally off in the bubble, dealing with anxiety and depression. Kyrie Irving of the Brooklyn Nets was the most famous bubble absentee, openly disagreeing with the rules set and choosing to keep his focus on social issues instead.

Schedule adjustments

The regular season schedule has also been adjusted, with fewer games to be played (72 instead of 82) and teams from the same Conference facing each other three times.

Financially, this is a serious red flag, especially considering the added costs of hospitalisation for anyone in need and empty, or near-empty, arenas for the foreseeable future. A few teams, including the Golden State Warriors and Memphis Grizzlies, have planned area attendance but only at a small percentage of capacity.

Additionally, the All-Star Game will not take place this year.

Escalation and vaccines

Should for some reason circumstances escalate, there has been no mention yet of creating a new bubble (or bubbles) so far, and the NBA has declined to make a clear statement on what circumstances may trigger a season suspension. In fairness, that seems perfectly understandable, though given the NBA’s responses so far, it would seem highly unlikely that behind the scenes people haven’t been seriously looking into various scenario analysis.

Regarding the long-awaited vaccine, Commissioner Silver is currently in advanced talks on deploying a league-wide vaccination policy, including not only players but also team staff. League protocols have been updated, now including vaccine provisions.

There is a growing belief that most players would agree to take a vaccine once ready, although how this would play out is unsurprisingly still unclear. Lakers centre Marc Gasol, for example, has questioned whether players would need it immediately since there are other age groups and professionals that would require quicker and more deserved access.

Whatever the challenges this pandemic poses, one thing's for sure. The season opens on December 22 and there are an awful lot of fans ready and waiting for the action.

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Dec 16, 2020

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