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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has to find a way to balance revenues and safety

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver talks during events at

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver talks during events at NBA All-Star weekend on Feb. 15 at the United Center in Chicago. Credit: TNS/Chris Sweda

The NBA managed to make its way through the 2019-20 season, crowning a champion on Oct. 11 after halting action on March 11 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

About 4 1/2 months after that stoppage, the league got back on the court after a long and arduous planning phase.

It was a triumph of science, medicine and executive planning, creating a bubble-like campus in Orlando that allowed commissioner Adam Silver and players to team up to survive even as COVID-19 dominated life outside the bubble.

They got to the finish line and the Lakers celebrated a title — with none of the controversy that accompanied the Dodgers’ World Series win after Justin Turner, who had tested positive for the virus that day, insisted on being part of the celebration and sat next to cancer survivor Dave Roberts for postgame photos.

The NBA's next act?

The plans are being played out in real time right now, with the two sides trying to plot out a plan for 2020-21 — weighing potential start dates, the length of the regular season and a way to get it all done safely. But it seems as if some of the lessons learned from the salvaging of this past season have been lost in favor of trying to refill the bank accounts of all involved in the league.

Silver has cautiously approached most of the planning, and when asked about next season, he has continuously moved back the start date to what makes sense — allowing for an offseason with the draft, free agency, training camps and enough rest time to allow players to avoid injury.

But after predictions that the season wouldn’t start until 2021 — maybe January, but whenever it would allow a safe return — suddenly word floated from the league to the NBA Board of Governors last week that the league could start as soon as Dec. 22 with a 72-game schedule.

According to one source with knowledge of the talks, the push for the quick start came from the league’s national television partners, ESPN and TNT. It also moves the completion of the season safely ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled to begin July 23.

When ESPN broke the story, it also chronicled the losses that the league absorbed in the last season because of the loss of gate receipts and merchandise revenue, as well as the dispute with China after a tweet by then-Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey prompted China to halt televising NBA games.

Understandably, there is some nervousness that the losses could continue to pile up if the league cannot put fans in the seats in the upcoming season.

While there have been a number of leaks about plans, the actual reality remains up in the air for now. The NBA and the NBPA are still seeking a way to negotiate a new collective- bargaining agreement — extending the deadline to Nov. 6 on Friday as they continue to work together.

While the NBPA has a lot to lose if it plays hardball — the numbers from last season’s revenue could drastically reduce the salary cap — executive director Michele Roberts made it clear that the safety of players remains a priority.

"This summer, up through just two short weeks ago, our players accepted the challenges posed by and risks to their personal health and safety in order to save our season," Roberts said in an interview with The Athletic. "Separated from their communities and their families, these men lived in isolation for months. Each day could have been met with the news that this awful virus had invaded their space and they were exposed to likely infection. They stayed the course, followed the protocol and, as a result, were able to deliver fabulous competition and completed the season able to crown a champion. It has been reported that those efforts generated an additional $1.5 billion of revenue to be enjoyed by the players — and the team owners.

"The players are now being asked to re-pack their bags and head back to camp in a little over a month. The prospective loss of revenue largely forms the basis of this proposal. Since its receipt a week ago, the NBPA — as is our practice — is reviewing and assessing the proposal and its underlying thesis. We will do so as expeditiously as practicable. Our focus will also include an analysis of any relevant health and safety implications. Simultaneously, we will be addressing these issues with our players. And, while we are all anxious to resolve these and other substantive issues outstanding between the parties, we plan to proceed at a pace that provides our players ample opportunity to determine the best way to proceed."

The players may be more blunt. The Lakers’ Danny Green said in an appearance on The Ringer Podcast that he and his teammates — particularly his most famous teammate, LeBron James — will not be ready to start in December.

"To have that quick of a restart, I wouldn’t expect to see him there," Green said. "I wouldn’t expect to see him the first month of the season . . . I just don’t expect guys to want to be there, or show up willingly."

Silver is in a tough spot, trying to keep 30 owners who have seen revenues drop as well as the television partners happy while also trying to protect the players and the integrity of the game.

While the return for the restart of the 2019-20 season brought not only a champion but an estimated $1.5 billion of revenue, it should be remembered that the league — the first to shut down and the first to return — did it without incident.

Can they do that again if they open up home arenas and fly teams back and forth across the country? Can they do it if they allow fans in the stands?

As we noted in last Sunday’s column, there has been talk of starting the season with a weighted schedule, allowing teams to limit travel. For example, the Knicks would be required to travel only to Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Boston and wherever Toronto would play.

Is that safe enough? Baseball’s final moments were tarnished by Turner’s appearance on the field, and Silver will have to think carefully about just how far he allows the league to go in this next season.

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