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3 Unanswered Questions About the NBA Restart

The NBA will likely resume play this summer.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Utah Jazz Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

All signs point toward NBA basketball returning in July, probably at the Disney compound in Orlando. Obviously, resuming play during a pandemic is an unprecedented situation for the league. Fans, players, and media have accordingly been asking questions about what the remainder of the 2019-20 season will look like.

Everything from player/staff safety to salary cap fallout to whether or not to pump fan noise into the arena has been discussed. With that said, here are three additional questions that haven’t gained as much traction, but will need to be considered:

What will happen if several players from one team test positive for COVID-19?

The league has said that comprehensive COVID-19 testing for everyone within their “bubble” will be a pre-requisite for resuming play. Unlike when Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive in March, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has made it clear that one player or staff member testing positive will not shut down the entire league. The NBA is apparently content that they can implement procedures to prevent outbreaks within their inner circle.

Comprehensive screening, however, does not negate the possibility that multiple players from the same team will test positive simultaneously for the novel coronavirus. The disease is virulent enough that it’s possible five or six teammates could be infected, even with testing in place. How will the NBA respond if that does happen?

Presumably players who are testing positive will not be allowed to play. If just one player tests positive that strategy will work. The player can be put on the inactive list for the short term. But that strategy — treating COVID-19 like a “regular” injury — breaks down if many players are simultaneously affected. Given that the bulk of the games played will be in some kind of playoff format, the implications for this hypothetical problem could be massive.

Ideally, the league will institute a policy to account for the worst case scenario of a team being essentially eliminated by illness.

Will teams be granted additional roster spots for players who choose not to participate?

Some players have publicly announced trepidation about returning to play, citing health concerns. Larry Nance Jr., for example, takes medication which reduces his immune response. Joe Ingles has voiced concern about accidentally infecting his immunocompromised son. It seems very likely that at least one NBA player in a high-risk situation will take the prophylactic step of asking to sit out the remainder of the season.

Teams with players who wish to sit out will be at a competitive disadvantage — they’re essentially losing a roster spot but can’t replace that player unless they cut him. Silver may need to hear out arguments about allowing special roster exceptions to replace players who are not playing due to COVID-19 health concerns.

Adding players to rosters would open up another can of worms with regard to the salary cap and luxury tax, of course, but teams may view it as a worthwhile complication if they believe losing a roster spot would affect their ability to compete.

What will the league do about seeding and lottery position?

Teams have played an unequal number of games and the most recent rumors indicate that it’s unlikely all 30 teams will return to play. If that happens, the NBA will need to resolve several consequent standings inequities.

These standings problems have the potential to impact both draft lottery and playoff seeding. Most notable, for the purposes of this blog, is the Blazers/Pelicans/Spurs/Kings cluster in the bottom half of the Western Conference (screenshot from ESPN):

If the league decides to resume play with the current top eight from each conference, the Blazers will end up with the No. 14 lottery position based on win percentage. This despite having lost more games than the Pelicans, Kings, and Spurs. One presumes that Blazers general manager Neil Olshey would not be pleased with that.

Conversely, if there is some kind of play-in tournament or pool play, the Pelicans — who beat the Blazers four times, have fewer losses, and have an identical record through 64 games to Portland — would likely argue that the Blazers should not be immediately granted the 9-seed.

Short of equalizing the lottery entirely, it’s unclear how the NBA will resolve this mess in the standings when it’s time to assign lottery odds or play-in seedings.