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NBA owners approve 22-team plan to resume play

The ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Florida, where the NBA and MLS will be based this summer (Credit: Getty Images)

The National Basketball Association’s Board of Governors made their biggest step yet toward resuming their 2019-20 season, voting overwhelmingly on a 22-team return-to-play centered in Orlando, Florida. 

The structure, actively in the works in recent days, will involve 16 teams that were in playoff position when the league suspended play on March 11 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, along with six additional teams within six games of the last postseason spot in each conference. 

The return to action, slated to start July 31, will start with eight seeding games to determine final playoff seeding, with the potential of a play-in tournament for the final spot in each conference depending on final records. The playoffs would then begin in their traditional conference-based tournament, with the NBA Finals set to conclude no later than October 12. 

All play is set to be held without attending fans at the Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN Wide World of Sports, something the NBA previously acknowledged was in active discussions. The league has been focused for many weeks on a single-site plan for restarting games and teams will also stay and practice at the Disney complex.

The league, like others coming back amid the public health crisis, plans an extensive series of health measures for the realigned season.

The vote, according to multiple sources, was 29-1, with Portland the lone dissenting team. The National Basketball Players Association is set to vote June 5 on the plan.

“While the Covid-19 pandemic presents formidable challenges, we are hopeful of finishing the season in a safe and responsible manner based on strict protocols now being finalized with public health officials and medical experts,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who described the vote as the first of many steps required to restart play.

“We also recognize that as we prepare to resume play, our society is reeling from recent tragedies of racial violence and injustice, and we will continue to work closely with our teams and players to use our collective resources and influence to address these issues in very real and concrete ways,” Silver said. 

Among the steps yet to be finalized are obtaining that union approval, completing on-site details with Disney, getting sign-offs from public health officials in Florida, and finishing the health and safety protocols.

But with the end of the 2019-20 season now laid out, the Board of Governors also set dates for a series of subsequent league events. The 2020 Draft Lottery will be held August 25, with the Draft itself slated for October 15. The 2020-21 season is tentatively set to begin December 1. 

“While there is still work to be done, we applaud the effort and collaboration that has gone into finding a safe, competitive format,” said Alex Martins, Orlando Magic chief executive.  It has always been our feeling that sports have the ability to bring people together and we look forward to restarting the NBA season while using that platform to drive meaningful social impact at this period of time.”

The vote to move forward with 22 teams in or near playoff position means the season is now over for Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Golden State, Minnesota, and New York. The National Hockey League recently unveiled a thematically similar return-to-play plan that also focused on teams in playoff contention prior to the suspension of play. 

“Although we know that there are much more meaningful and important issues for our country to focus on at this time, we are extremely grateful for the opportunity to play basketball again,” said Tommy Sheppard, Washington Wizards general manager. “There is still much work to be done, but we are excited to be able to return.”

The NBA was the first major US team sports property to shut down down play amid the pandemic, doing so on March 11 after Utah Jazz Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus.