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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

To minimize risk in return from hiatus, there's no point in inviting all 30 NBA teams to play

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver pauses while speaking at

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver pauses while speaking at a news conference before an NBA preseason game on Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in Saitama, near Tokyo.  Credit: AP/Jae C. Hong

As one foot is slowly and cautiously placed in front of the other while the NBA navigates its way back to the court, commissioner Adam Silver has preached an approach based on science and medical expertise.

Leaks have emerged, testing the waters about when and where play will resume for a season shut down by the coronavirus on March 11. While reports have surfaced of a return to games in mid-July in Orlando, and The New York Times reported Friday that teams have been advised that the traveling party that sometimes can be about 50 per team will be limited to 35, one thing that has not been spoken out loud is just who will be invited.

There has been no edict yet, but the easiest decision for Silver may be this: Leave out the also-rans.

League sources indicate that no decisions have been made on exactly how a return will take shape and that some of the rumors leaking out are true but some are not. The simple fact is that Silver does not have a set plan yet. He has made it clear in his few public statements that he wants to absorb as much information as he can. Every week he puts off the announcement, it allows more tests, more planning and more ability to shrink the risk.

In a statement Saturday NBA Chief Communications Officer Mark Bass confirmed that it was in talks with The Walt Disney Company for a late-July start in Orlando.

"The NBA, in conjunction with the National Basketball Players Association, is engaged in exploratory conversations with The Walt Disney Company about restarting the 2019-20 NBA season in late July at Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida as a single site for an NBA campus for games, practices and housing," Bass said. "Our priority continues to be the health and safety of all involved, and we are working with public health experts and government officials on a comprehensive set of guidelines to ensure that appropriate medical protocols and protections are in place."

Teams have between 15 and 18 games remaining on the schedule. But if you’re cutting those down to five, what are you really accomplishing other than creating a lot of meaningless games and having teams with nothing to play for finding their way into a setting that risks injury and infection?

There may be no sure things, but this is pretty close to it: To minimize the risk, to shrink the pool of testing and to conduct this ending to the 2019-20 season as quickly as possible, don’t invite all 30 teams.

The teams on the outside looking in seem to know which way the wind is blowing. The Knicks have not opened up their practice facility. A league source from a team outside the playoff picture indicated that he believes the season is over for his team.

Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said in an interview earlier this month on 95.7 The Game: “We’ll be good soldiers. If the league asks us to play more games, we’ll play. I don’t anticipate that happening, but we’ll be ready if it does, and in the meantime, it’s not my decision. It’s not our decision. It’s the NBA’s decision.”

If we don’t know all of the risks faced with gathering for a resumption to the season, one easy way to figure it out is a simple math equation. If you put all 30 teams in this bubble-like setting, then as the Times reported, 1,050 people will be in the same place. That does not include referees, league officials, game operations crew, broadcasters and media.

Now if you cut that to 16 teams, that drops the number of team personnel from 1,050 to 560. When you’re counting testing capacity, that matters.

It’s understandable why Kerr and the Warriors might be ready to put this injury-riddled season behind them and move on to next season, when they believe they can reclaim their place among the best teams in the game. Left out most in this are the fans of those 14 teams, some holding a more robust claim to wanting to be a part of it.

Look, we know that fans want to see their teams play. Fans want to see anything resembling sports, as demonstrated by whoever stuck around from beginning to end on the HORSE competition aired earlier in this shutdown. But do we really need to see the 21-45 Knicks play out the final 16 games of another lost season? These teams with no shot already are moving on with a “better luck next year” approach, changing executives, coaches and, soon, players.

There are three teams in the Western Conference with a gripe. The Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings are all three games out of the last playoff spot in the conference but just 1 1/2 games behind the worst record of the 16 teams currently tucked in the playoff picture.

Is there a workaround? Maybe some version of the NHL plan to expand the playoff field — a play-in round for the first four teams outside the playoffs against the last four in. Necessary? Maybe not. But it’s a way to excuse the suspended portion of the regular season taking away the chance for a late push into a spot. That it also allows the NBA to trot Zion Williamson and the Pelicans out there a few more times doesn’t hurt, either. The San Antonio Spurs would be the fourth team into the mix.

If you opted for the last two teams in the Eastern Conference and the last two in the Western Conference in a play-in round, you’d still get the Blazers and Pelicans, but you'd also be rewarding the Wizards and Hornets (23-42 before the season was suspended).

Adding four teams would mean an additional 140 players and staff from those teams. Not ideal, but better than 490 more. Could the last four in —- the Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Orlando Magic and Philadelphia 76ers — make a case that they already were in the playoff picture? Sure, but do the 30-35 Magic really have a claim to the playoff spot with 17 games left?

The answer is safety first. It’s an unusual season. This is an unusual way forward.

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