Coronavirus: All of the unanswered questions for Adam Silver, NBA amid the COVID-19 shutdown

Hospitals in the United States and around the world are desperate for more ventilators, and if the spread of the coronavirus cannot be contained by social distancing, if the curve is not flattened, there will not be nearly enough critical-care beds for patients who need them … so, uh, let’s talk about basketball. 

No NBA games have been played since Wednesday, March 11, the day that Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. In a column the next day, the Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur called the Utah Jazz center an accidental hero and quoted a sports executive saying, “Honestly, Rudy Gobert saved America.” That is hyperbolic, but his positive test did force commissioner Adam Silver to suspend the 2019-20 season, which undeniably contributed to the public starting to have a better understanding of the pandemic and the importance of washing your hands and limiting person-to-person contact. 

“My sense was, especially among young people in the United States, people were not taking these protocols all that seriously until the NBA did what it did,” Silver said in an interview with Rachel Nichols on ESPN on Wednesday. 

Ideally, people would have already been taking the coronavirus seriously, the league would have already been mandated to stop allowing thousands of people to gather in arenas and the country would have been more prepared for everything that is happening now. Anyway, basketball! Here are 11 questions about the NBA’s hiatus:

Has the 2019-20 season been canceled? 

No. Not yet. But even last Thursday, the day that, pre-Gobert, the NBA expected to start playing games in empty arenas rather than pressing pause, Silver acknowledged the possibility that the league will not be able to press play in time to salvage the season. In his interview with Nichols, Silver called himself “optimistic by nature” and said he wants to believe that at least some portion of the season will be played. 

When might games be played again?

Team higher-ups are looking at mid-June as a best-case scenario, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, but fear that this is it. On Tuesday, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy spoke to owners on a conference call, giving them “facts and sobering details” about the coronavirus, as The Athletic’s Shams Charania put it, but allowing for the possibility that the season restart before July, per Woj. 

On a related note, Murthy said this in an interview with NPR a couple of days before that call: 

There are three key areas where our health care system is vulnerable in crises like this. No. 1, we can run out of beds. No. 2, we can run out of equipment. No. 3, we can run out of people – specifically, health care workers, who we need to take care of patients.

And we’re already seeing this play out in other countries, particularly in Italy, where the hospital system has been utterly overwhelmed, and clinicians are having to make the kind of decisions that you see in war, where they’re – they have two patients who desperately need care, but there’s only a bed for one of them. And they’re having to make decisions that no clinician ever wants to make about which one has a better chance of surviving, even if they know that both deserve treatment.

We don’t want to be in that situation. But what we are seeing is a rapid rise in cases. And while we have some ability to expand our capacity in terms of ICU beds and ventilators here in the United States, we will far outstrip that limited extra capacity if we continue on the same trajectory of rise that we see now.

The goal of social distancing is to avoid overburdening the healthcare system, but “the irony of successful social distancing is that fewer will develop immunity,” according to a triple-bylined story written by an epidemiologist, a biostatistician and an oncologist and medical ethicist in the New York Time published Tuesday. “That means that social distancing 2.0, 3.0 and, who knows, maybe even 4.0 will very likely have to occur.”

Those three experts — Michael Levy, Susan Ellenberg and Ezekiel J. Emanuel — likened it to pumping a car’s brakes on an icy road: You push on the brakes, then ease up, then do it again, and after three or four times you are slow enough to stop. This suggests that, without the development of effective treatment, it will not be as simple as self-isolating for a little while and then everything, including the NBA, getting back to normal for the foreseeable future. 

The broader point here is that the factors that will determine if and when games can be played again are largely out of the league’s control. For example, the United States-Canada border was closed on Wednesday, and the Public Health Agency of Canada has directed anyone arriving in the country to self-isolate for 14 days. As long these types of travel restrictions persist, the Toronto Raptors will not be able to host games. 

Ultimately, Silver told Nichols, the NBA will play games “when public health officials give us the OK.”

Which players have contracted COVID-19?

Gobert, his teammate Donovan Mitchell, the Detroit Pistons’ Christian Wood and four Brooklyn Nets have tested positive. Kevin Durant is one of the Nets. There are surely more, however, who just haven’t been tested yet. 

On a related note, here’s more from Murthy’s NPR interview:

Well, I’ve been having conversations with physicians from hospitals across the country. And what I found […] is that health care providers are seeing people who have symptoms that are consistent with the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, but they’re unable to get them tested. And this is presenting several really important problems for them.

No. 1, if they can’t get them tested early enough, then – and they’re concerned they have COVID-19, then they often have to quarantine or advise quarantine for the people with whom that person is in contact, sometimes including the doctor himself or herself. But second, because we can’t get accurate and sufficient testing, we’re not able to get a accurate picture of how COVID-19 is unfolding across our communities, which makes it difficult to direct our resources and our time and energy.

So on top of all of this, the lack of testing is really creating a lot of anxiety and worry for doctors, nurses, for staff in the hospitals who are worried that they also are not only unable to treat patients with the full care that they need, but they’re also themselves at risk at a time when they are running out of masks, gowns, gloves and other equipment that they need to protect themselves.

Why do so many NBA players have access to tests when so many people don’t?

Here’s the NBA’s answer, from spokesperson Mike Bass to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne: 

“Public health authorities and team doctors have been concerned that, given NBA players’ direct contact with each other and close interactions with the general public, in addition to their frequent travel, they could accelerate the spread of the virus. Following two players testing positive last week, others were tested and five additional players tested positive. Hopefully, by these players choosing to make their test results public, they have drawn attention to the critical need for young people to follow CDC recommendations in order to protect others, particularly those with underlying health conditions and the elderly.

That jibes with USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt’s story about how 58 people with or connected to the Jazz organization were tested at Chesapeake Energy Arena last Wednesday. Oklahoma State Department of Health spokesperson Jamie Dukes told Zillgitt that it was a “public health decision,” and Rishi Desai, a doctor who used to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explained it by classifying athletes and team personnel as “super spreaders,” since they are around so many people and traveling. Silver used that term in his ESPN interview, too.

That argument, however, was more compelling last week than it is today, as athletes and team personnel are expected to be self-isolating like the rest of us. Shortly after the Nets’ positive tests were announced on Tuesday, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted that testing asymptomatic players shouldn’t be a priority: 

“I’m sure the NBA wants to stop players spreading it amongst each other, so it makes good sense […] from a league standpoint,” an emergency room doctor in New York told VICE’s Laura Wagner. “It makes, you know, zero sense from a public health standpoint.” The doctor also urged owners of NBA teams to use their resources to buy personal protective equipment for healthcare professionals.  

Silver responded to that sentiment and de Blasio’s tweet during his interview on ESPN:

“I of course understand his point and that it’s unfortunate we’re at this position as a society where it’s triage when it comes to testing. And so the fundamental issue obviously is that there are insufficient tests. I’d only say in the case of the NBA we’ve been following the recommendations of public health officials. I mean, let me begin with he situation in Oklahoma City last Wednesday night: The Utah Jazz did not ask to be tested. The Oklahoma public health official there on the spot not only required that they be tested, but they weren’t allowed to leave their locker room, which was for at least four hours after the game where they had to stay, masks on, in the locker room. They couldn’t leave until the health authorities had tested them. so, I mean, that was our first case. 

“And then what followed when we then had an additional positive test the next day, the protocol then followed that we then follow with, again, health officials’ and our doctors’ recommendations that we then looked at essentially that group of teams that were most proximate to the initial team that had tested positive. And then the circle expanded from there. And so I understand it, but we’ve had eight NBA teams, full teams that have been tested now, and members of other teams that were showing symptoms. And again I understand from a public health standpoint why some people have reacted the way they did, but I’d say from an NBA standpoint we were following directives.”

The Golden State Warriors were not tested as a team for COVID-19. On a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Warriors general manager Bob Myers explained it, via USA Today’s Mark Medina:

“We’ve been told that testing’s in short supply,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said on the conference call. “We’re treating ourselves like people, which is what we are. We’re not better than anybody. We’re not worse. We’re just a basketball team, like any company. Right now, we’re not interacting with anybody. I’ve been told by our doctors that we shouldn’t be testing asymptomatic people in California.”


“Every team’s responsibility is to check in with their players each day and staff members or anybody for that matter, even me, to report symptoms,” Myers said. “So we’re doing that. But outside of that, we’re not mandating, nor do I think we should be at this time until testing becomes more available that everybody gets tested.”

Here’s the Nets’ statement on the matter, via the New York Times’ Sopan Deb:

“As we learned NBA players on other teams had tested positive for COVID-19, we noticed that several of our players and staff had symptoms. Based on this information, and the judgment that all of our players are subject to high exposure due to the close physical nature of basketball, the communal nature of teams and the possibility of an accelerated spread from team to team, our medical experts advised that our players get tested. We sourced the tests through a private company and paid for them ourselves because we did not want to impact access to CDC’s public resources. Using the test results, we were able to take immediate precautions and strictly isolate the players who tested positive. If we had waited for players to exhibit symptoms, they might have continued to pose a risk to their family, friends and the public. Our hope is that by drawing attention to the critical need for testing asymptomatic positive carriers, we can begin to contain the spread and save lives. We believe it is not only the right thing to do for our players and their facilities, it is the responsible thing to do from a medical and epidemiological standpoint.”

Are teams practicing?

Of course not. In a memo sent Sunday, the league extended its temporary ban on full team practices indefinitely, per ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. Players can work out at team facilities, but they are supposed to stay apart from one another. Teams are expected to check the temperature of anyone who comes into the practice facility, and anyone who has a fever should leave, pending further tests, per ESPN’s Zach Lowe. 

If the season isn’t over, will there be fans in the arenas when it resumes?

Well, on Sunday the CDC recommended that no gatherings of more than 50 people should be held for the next eight weeks. There is a “working plan” for games to be played without fans, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, and they might take place in practice facilities or G League arenas, per the New York Times’ Marc Stein. 

What else will be different? 

Maybe lots of things. Silver said on ESPN that all suggestions are welcome, and the league is considering scenarios that involve restarting the season as normal, restarting it without fans and simply getting “a subset of players” to compete while regularly tested and isolated. 

If the season resumes, maybe there will be an abridged regular season and then a traditional playoff format. Maybe the NBA will get to try a play-in tournament, an idea that Silver referenced on Wednesday. Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie suggested on Twitter that the league should come back with a 28-team tournament that is preceded by play-in games and includes the playoffs as we have come to know them. 

Why, though, couldn’t the playoffs be replaced by a single-elimination cup for one season? And if there aren’t fans in the stands, then why have teams fly all over the country? There is some logic to playing all the games in a central location, like the G League Showcase in Las Vegas. Silver told Nichols that a crisis like this can result in opportunities for innovation. 

How is this fair to [my favorite team/player/etc.]?

Stop whining, it’s a pandemic. Yeah, it’s a shame that the Milwaukee Bucks might not have the home-court advantage they earned before the world changed, I guess. And it’s a shame that the New Orleans Pelicans might not be able to make a run at the eighth seed or whatever. Perspective, please. 

What’s up with the NBA Draft?

It’s scheduled for June 20, but that doesn’t mean it will actually happen on that day. There might be no combine, there might be no individual workouts and there is all sorts of uncertainty about how the league will handle this. In theory, the draft could take place while the playoffs are happening, and/or without the draftees themselves being present. 

If the season is over, how will the league handle awards, records, etc.?

Presumably, the media could still vote on end-of-season awards. Presumably, James Harden would officially go down as the 2019-20 scoring leader. Silver did not confirm this in his interview on Wednesday, however. 

“I’m not there yet,” Silver said on ESPN. “I mean, we’ll figure it out. I hope I’m not just in denial, but I’m just not there yet.”

What about 2020-21?

If nobody knows what’s happening with the rest of the 2019-20 season, then nobody knows what will happen with the next one. At the recent Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin made the case that the NBA should start its season on Christmas Day and hold the Finals in August. If this season resumes in some form, we’ll find out what something like that looks like. 

On ESPN, Nichols asked Silver if this stoppage could lead to a permanent changes in the schedule. “Possibly,” Silver said. “Those are the things we’re always talking about.”

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