The NBA has proposed starting the 2020-21 regular season in late December. This announcement has been met with cheers from hoops junkies and some muttering from players. Starting in the third week of December would mean a shortened off-season. The Los Angeles Lakers captured the title two weeks ago; training camps would begin four weeks from now. Is this fair? Is it even doable? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I’m excited that the new season might start at Christmas and I’m surprised to hear the players aren’t. What do you think of starting early? These guys get paid millions to play a game. Ask me to come in a few weeks early for that kind of money and I’m there ready to go, no matter what.
First, we have to get over this “they get paid millions of dollars” thing. For the most part, for compensation “x” and list of duties “y”, accepting a professional position boils down to the simple equation:
x = y
That’s what both parties agreed to. Those are the terms.
Companies can certainly change “y”. Most positions evolve. In general, though, what happens on one side of the equation must be balanced on the other, else the equation is no longer true.
The formula is valid no matter what values we substitute in for “x” and “y”. Yes, having a large salary usually means allowing for more wiggle room on the “y” side. Earning several million dollars per year usually comes with extra responsibility and some expectation of flexibility in schedule. That’s the obligation for the perks; it’s presumed to be part of the equation. As soon as “y” drifts beyond mere flexibility into radical change—even at a high salary—the employee has the right to reassess and/or negotiate.
Most of us have trouble contemplating why someone making millions per year won’t change their entire life to fit their job. We would do anything to make that much, or so we think. What we really mean is that we would do anything in our own professional frame of reference. We’re told our work is worth “x” dollars. The idea of making 90x would be thrilling. We’d do plenty to make that happen, were the opportunity available. It would mean a whole new life for us.
The story would be different if our employer came to us and said, “We’re still going to pay you exactly what you’ve agreed to, but now you have to do radically different things.” That isn’t a whole new life, it’s an impingement on our old one. We wouldn’t be thrilled, but suspicious and annoyed.
NBA players aren’t being offered 90x to change their schedules. They’re being asked to change while still getting the exact same “x”, maybe less if revenue doesn’t pick up. Even if we acknowledged that we were well-compensated for our work, you and I would have the same reaction in those circumstances.
That’s why I’m usually on the side of the players in this kind of dispute. We don’t walk in their shoes. We can’t presume to make decisions for them. We need to find more trust in what they say, viewing them less as highly-paid objects than real human beings.
This time, though, I do think there’s some wiggle room. Initially, I was shocked when the league proposed starting the season so quickly. Upon reflection, it makes sense.
Injuries are the biggest objective issue here. Wear and tear on bodies is no joke. Every time NBA players participate in summer tournaments like the Olympics or World Championships, we hear stories about what a struggle the following year is for them. “Load Management” has become a regular part of the basketball lexicon even when they don’t play year-round. Finishing the Finals, then turning around and starting training camp less that two months after is pretty scary.
In reality, though, most NBA teams were out by the end of August. All but four were done in mid-September. The league might be able to compensate by giving the four 2020 Conference Finals participants easier schedules in the first weeks of the new season. Everybody else should have a long enough down period to compensate, albeit with inconvenience.
The point is underlined when you consider that nobody played between March and July of 2020. NBA players had more time away from competition this year than at any time in history. The restart (and re-stop) might have put unusual physical demands on them, but seven total months off has to be better than just four.
Obviously players didn’t get to fulfill vacation plans during that down time. They’ll also be inconvenienced by the quick restart. All of us are experiencing that sense of uncertainty and limitation, though. That’s just reality in the time of COVID.
Here’s another reality: the league has to get back on schedule somehow. It’s easy to say, “Just start in February!” When does the season end, then? Are we back into August? September? What about the 2021-22 season?
More than tradition is at stake. Arenas and sponsors need to know, at least in general, when games will occur and how many there will be. Unless the NBA wants to make a permanent change to a Christmas-through-summer season, they need to jolt back into their customary time frame. Making the leap now, during COVID, allows them to resume a normal schedule next year, or at the earliest opportunity possible. It’s better to compensate for the unusual circumstances now rather than going incremental, then spending the next few years compensating for their compensation.
Even with all of that, we still haven’t gotten to the one, major question on which the players might make a stand: how exactly will this new season be played?
The Orlando Bubble worked marvelously. There’s a huge difference between asking players to quarantine for a couple months and asking them to do so for 72 games, plus playoffs. That’s an incredible change to the “y” of their positions, something they definitely did not sign up for. I don’t see them agreeing to isolate themselves from family—or even move their families into a new bubble—for seven months out of the year.
If they’re going to travel, though, how do they protect themselves and their loved ones? The NFL, MLB, and NHL have all tried and failed. COVID still has the potential to derail lives, franchises, and the season. How do you play a mid-March game when everybody on one side is quarantined for being exposed?
For that reason, the how of the 2020-21 season still remains the primary question more than the when. Starting a few weeks earlier probably won’t change the world any more than it already has been. Playing out the year in the midst of a pandemic might.
Update: In the 48 hours since I wrote this piece, it’s been reported that the Blazers prefer a mid-January start. If the swing is only three weeks one way or the other, I’m pretty agnostic as to which option they take. Like I said above, if it were me, I’d consider something like starting the formal season the first week in January, but not starting the Conference Finals teams in earnest until a week or two later, maybe giving them two games a week during the first two weeks.
Keep sending those Mailbag questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do our best to answer!
—Dave (email@example.com / @DaveDeckard / @blazersedge)