By Michael Kinney
On March 11, the Oklahoma City Thunder rang the Coronavirus alarm in the sports world. That night a visiting member of the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19 and forced the game to be canceled.
From that moment on the NBA has been at a standstill. The season was suspended as the world dealt with the pandemic.
But that didn’t mean officials and owners weren’t looking for toward the point where they could restart the 2019-20 campaign and finish off the season in some manner.
“I just think it’s incumbent on the teams to really follow the lead of the league leadership in this situation because there’s not going to be a perfect solution.” Oklahoma City Vice President/General Manager Sam Presti said. “In the event we are in a position to play again, obviously the health and wellness of staff, players, fans, everybody involved, that’s a decision that needs to be made way above anyone at a team level.”
Some of the options that have been talked about include playing in empty arenas without fans or shipping playoff teams off to Disney World to play a month-long tournament. It would be like their own bubble, with no contact from the outside world.
“Relative to coming back, whatever they provide to us, I know from our point of view, we’ll work with whatever it is as long as it’s been vetted by the league medical folks and everybody is working with the same schedule,” Presti said. “I can’t give you a perfect answer because I just don’t know. We’re in uncharted territory.”
Several of the league’s biggest stars have come out in recent weeks proclaiming they want to finish the season. They have included the likes of the Lakers’ LeBron James and Thunder guard Chris Paul.
“Saw some reports about execs and agents wanting to cancel season??? That’s absolutely not true,” James stated on his social media account. “Nobody I know saying anything like that. As soon as it’s safe we would like to finish our season. I’m ready and our team is ready. Nobody should be canceling anything.”
Publicly, everyone involved seems to be saying they want to play out the year. Right now, it’s the logistics, along with the safety, that has NBA officials stymied.
“We’re just not ready to set a date yet in terms of how long we can wait before we no longer would be able to continue this season,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said. “I would just say everything is on the table, including potentially delaying the start of next season. We just need more information.”
When the season was shut down, there were still 259 regular season games left on the schedule. And while most playoff teams seemed to be set, there were still chances for franchises to fall out of contention. (Oklahoma City (40-24) is currently in fifth place in the Western Conference and just two and a half games out of third place.)
So, if the league decide whether to just restart the season in the playoffs, or allow the teams several games to prepare for the postseason.
None of these questions have been answered publicly yet. Or even if they will for sure finish the season. It’s still up in the air.
However, last week the NBA took a step closer when it announced that teams would be able to start opening its facilities for players to work out and shoot around. That is scheduled to begin May 8.
Oklahoma has been one of the more aggressive states in relaxing its shelter at home guidelines. THe state has already allowed gyms to reopen under certain restrictions.
That could be seen as an advantage for the Thunder in being able to get their players back on the practice court sooner.
Presti doesn’t necessarily see it that way.
“I don’t know that there are any advantages in this situation, and I don’t mean from a basketball standpoint; I just mean in general. And a big part of that is just because of the amount of uncertainty that everybody is working with,” Presti said. “I just — I don’t know that there’s an advantage. You can make the argument that coming back too soon is a disadvantage; know what I mean?”
Regardless, Presti doesn’t want to have to make any decisions on whether to start allowing his players back into the practice facilities until he is positive that they will be safe from contracting the COVID-19. And that may not come until after May 8.
“With respect to the May 8 date, what I can say is that the league has stated it’s a target date, and we’re still a week or so away from that before we even can get there,” Presti said. “And I think what we’ve all seen and lived through this experience is that things are changing like literally day by day. We’re evaluating that. I wouldn’t say that we’re committed to doing that. We have to work through that a little bit. We’re going to continue to speak with our players about that whole entire concept of coming back, but the league has given some flexibility, obviously, to the teams to determine what is best for them. And for us, we’re operating on the assumption that the league wouldn’t be permitting players and staff members back into facilities unless they felt it was absolutely safe.”