What we know and don’t know as the NBA playoffs restart

After three days off, the 2020 NBA playoffs resume Saturday when the Milwaukee Bucks face the Orlando Magic. These games were scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday but were postponed after the Bucks chose not to play Wednesday afternoon in the wake of the police shooting of Jacob Blake, with teams across the sports world following suit.

Where does everything stand in the league now? And what’s the latest on what will come next — both for this season and beyond?

Here’s everything we know and don’t know as games are set to start again.

How did we get here?

After suspending the season due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 11, the NBA spent months finalizing its return to play. The plan included bringing 22 teams to the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, in early July for training camp, eight seeding games and a standard four rounds of playoffs. The league has successfully made it deep into the first round of the postseason while keeping positive COVID-19 tests to zero.

Following instances of police brutality against Black Americans and increased conversations surrounding racial inequality, the players and the league agreed to make social justice a key component of the restart. During the national anthem, players kneeled on courts with Black Lives Matter written on the hardwood and regularly used their media availability to advocate for racial justice.

Things hit a breaking point after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, seven times on Sunday, leaving him paralyzed. Led by Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, some players began talking about the possibility of not playing in games, while others lamented their inability to protest effectively from inside the NBA bubble.

But it was still a surprise when the Bucks chose to not take the court before Game 5 of their playoff series against the Orlando Magic on Wednesday. The players from the teams in the other two games that day — the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers — quickly joined the Bucks’ movement.

Players and coaches inside the bubble met late Wednesday night and then agreed to resume the playoffs during a second meeting Thursday morning. There was a separate meeting Thursday afternoon featuring players and coaches from all 13 teams remaining in the bubble, as well as owners, including the Charlotte HornetsMichael Jordan, the chairman of the NBA’s Labor Relations Committee.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver and National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts then released a joint statement early Friday afternoon announcing a return to play, as well as a series of new initiatives.

What has the response been from the league and owners?

As part of Friday’s announcement, the NBA and the players agreed to partner on several ventures that players have been vocal about for months: voting rights, social justice, racial equality and police reform.

Those initiatives included the immediate establishment of a social justice coalition featuring representatives among players, coaches and team owners that will work on increased voting access, promoting civic engagement and advocating for “meaningful police and criminal justice reform.” It called for every owner who owns and controls their arena property to work with local officials to turn those arenas into voting locations for the 2020 general election — or to be a place to register voters and receive ballots if the first item isn’t possible.

The league also agreed to work with both the players and its broadcast partners to create advertising that will appear during each NBA playoff game to promote greater civic engagement in national and local elections, and to raise awareness around voting access.

What’s going on in the playoffs?

When play resumes Saturday, five first-round series will still need to be completed. Both top seeds, the Bucks and Lakers, can advance to the second round with victories. Sunday will also see the Boston Celtics face the Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series — the first second-round series slated to begin.

Though the first round in the East hasn’t been particularly competitive — including three sweeps — the next round looks fascinating. Both Celtics-Raptors and Bucks-Heat (assuming Milwaukee advances) are great matchups that could extend to six or seven games.

In the West, while the Lakers are all but certain to advance after Blazers guard Damian Lillard exited the bubble because of a knee injury, the other three series — Thunder-Rockets, Clippers-Mavericks and Nuggets-Jazz — have been wild affairs that could all go seven games. The Clippers and Nuggets lead their series 3-2, and OKC-Houston is tied at 2-2.

What’s up with the teams that have been eliminated?

The teams not playing in Orlando have a range of things to do, from offseason workouts, draft interviews and transaction preparation.

On Tuesday, the NBA issued a memo to teams not participating in the playoffs outlining the offseason rules relating to practice sessions and workouts. Here is a breakdown:

  • A maximum of four players at one time allowed on the court, each limited to one basketball.

  • No more than four coaches allowed in the practice facility, with only one per basket.

  • No players from other teams allowed in a facility.

  • Players are not allowed to be reimbursed for expenses unless they don’t live in the team’s city and are a minimum player with three years of service or less, a rookie under contract or a two-way player.

  • Coronavirus testing is not required.

The offseason coaching carousel also is in full swing.

There are five teams — the Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, New Orleans Pelicans and Philadelphia 76ers — in the process of researching, interviewing and eventually hiring their next head coach. The Houston Rockets could be added to the mix once their season is over, with current head coach Mike D’Antoni in the last year of his contract.

For the teams that did not play in Orlando, the NBA and the union issued a set of restart rules on Aug.18 to incorporate group workouts. The sessions are broken up into two phases:

Teams will continue with voluntary workouts, but each player and staff member participating with group workouts that begin on Sept. 21 must participate in daily COVID testing.

The second phase allows head coaches their first opportunities to work with their teams in full this offseason. They are allowed to conduct group training activities that can include skill or conditioning sessions as well as intrasquad scrimmages.

Along with players under contract, teams are allowed to invite up to five players who signed a G League contract during the 2019-20 season. For safety reasons, individual daily COVID-19 testing will continue and each team must create a campus-like environment for players and staff. This would be a scaled-down version of the campus in Orlando.

What’s the latest on the league’s financial state?

As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Tuesday, the league and players association agreed to push back its 60-day window to terminate the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which was originally set to expire on Sept. 10. The new Oct. 15 deadline allows both sides to negotiate the future economics of the league, including the salary cap and luxury tax numbers for upcoming seasons.

Although projections have the league losing billions in revenue this year and next without fans in arenas due to the coronavirus pandemic, there is hope that an artificial placeholder — comparable to the $109.1 million salary cap and $132.7 million luxury tax numbers from this season — can be used for the next two seasons. That would allow teams to plan for the future without facing harsh and unexpected roster crunches.

To help offset the lost revenue and even out the agreed upon 51-49 percentage revenue split, players probably will see their 10% escrow withholdings increase to at least 20% of their annual salaries. For the 2019-20 season, there is $380 million in player escrow that will be returned to teams to balance out overall revenue.

Players also continue to see a 25% reduction in their bi-weekly paychecks. The reduction started on May 15 and currently has around $290 million sitting in escrow accounts held by each team. The final league audit of basketball-related income will determine how much money, if any, is returned to players.

What’s the latest on the 2020 draft and free agency?

For now, the draft is still technically scheduled for Oct. 16, with free agency set to follow at 6 p.m. ET on Oct. 18. However, because the league and the union are likely to wait until the end of the playoffs to better gauge league finances, both events probably will get pushed back several weeks.

Team front offices have been insistent that future cap and tax figures must be set before either event occurs — something that is unlikely to happen if both sides do not begin to negotiate the economics of the CBA until October. These numbers are essential to teams navigating the trade market on draft night and all kinds of transactions in free agency. Given all the complicating factors involved, it probably would have been impossible for the Lakers and Pelicans to finalize last year’s Anthony Davis trade with this amount of unknowns.

That means that many draft prospects who haven’t played competitive games in months will have to wait even longer before fully participating with NBA teams.

If the league does push back free agency from the original Oct. 18 date, expect a new set of transition rules when it comes to player and team options, non-guaranteed dates, expiration of trade exceptions and deadline to submit a qualifying offer.

The $17.2 million Golden State trade exception that expires on Oct. 24 will not get adjusted to a later date.

What’s the latest on next season?

The commissioner told Rachel Nichols on the night of the draft lottery that the originally proposed Dec. 1 start date is now “feeling a little bit early to me.”

“I think our No. 1 goal is to get fans back in our arenas,” Silver said. “So my sense is, in working with the players’ association, if we could push back even a little longer and increase the likelihood of having fans in arenas, that’s what we would be targeting.”

Pushing back a Dec. 1 start to the regular season would also give the NBA a longer runway when it comes to adjusting the date of the draft and start of free agency. Several league sources believe that the season could start some time in 2021, as the league wants as many games as possible with fans in the stands to generate maximum revenue.

Given how much money has already been lost this season because of the pandemic, there is a sense of urgency around the league to limit those damages for next season. There’s some hope that therapeutic treatments for the disease, potential vaccines and quicker testing procedures allow for more opportunities to have fans attend — and pay for — games.

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