The N.B.A.’s $500 Million Hope for the Holidays

Want more basketball in your inbox? Sign up for Marc Stein’s weekly N.B.A. newsletter here.

The most frequently posed query in N.B.A. circles over the past several weeks — When do you think next season will start? — had also been one of the hardest to answer.

Even Commissioner Adam Silver, at a news conference before Game 1 of the finals, cautioned reporters that it was too soon for him to provide details in response “to most of your questions” about the 2020-21 season.

That all changed Friday after a board of governors meeting. In yet another reminder of 2020’s seemingly boundless unpredictability, numerous team owners supported the league’s new plan to push for a Dec. 22 start date — just 10 weeks removed from the Los Angeles Lakers’ six-game championship triumph over the Miami Heat.

The league office cannot unilaterally impose its preferred timetable upon N.B.A. players, but negotiations are underway before a looming Friday deadline to modify the current labor agreement. Although that deadline has been moved back three times, expectations are that the sides will ultimately strike a deal this time on the terms for next season, such as setting the salary cap and luxury tax figures and an overhauled calendar with Dec. 22 as opening night.

These are the three main reasons a December start, after the longest N.B.A. season, suddenly became the target:

Throughout the N.B.A.’s three-month stay at Walt Disney World, all signs pointed to the 2020-21 season beginning in 2021. League insiders frequently cited mid-January as the earliest possible start date, and several said they would not be surprised to see the wait extended until February or March. Playing the long game, it was often suggested, would enhance the chances of fan attendance for at least a portion of the regular season.

Of course, over the two-plus weeks since the season ended, daunting projections about the spread of the coronavirus this winter have led to rising pessimism about the league’s ability to admit even small crowds anytime soon. Multiple teams thus began to whisper last week that momentum was building to start the new season around Dec. 25 to preserve the ability to broadcast five games on Christmas Day.

Disney, which owns ESPN and has been described by Silver as the league’s biggest partner, badly wants to continue that Christmas tradition and have five games to televise on either ABC or ESPN. Turner, the N.B.A.’s other primary broadcast partner, would get its traditional opening night doubleheader on a Tuesday if the union agrees to the Dec. 22 proposal. The league, for its part, has informed the union that it projects a difference of $500 million in revenue if it can start the season in December rather than mid-January.

All of those factors resonate pretty loudly after the season that the N.B.A. just endured.

The league fell an estimated $1.5 billion short of its projected revenue for 2019-20 after a costly breakdown in its relationship with China, the cancellation of 171 regular-season games in response to the virus outbreak and the absence of playoff ticket income. The shortfall would have been an estimated $3 billion if the league didn’t engineer a bubble environment near Orlando, Fla., to find a way to finish its suspended season — at a cost of roughly $180 million.

It is smart business for any league, when possible, to make its broadcast partners happy. Just as establishing the bubble inside Disney World’s gates, rather than in Las Vegas or any other proposed locale, presumably only strengthened the N.B.A.’s bond with Disney, moving up the timetable for next season for the networks’ benefit is another potentially grand gesture.

The league’s current TV contract with Disney and Turner runs through the 2024-25 season, but it’s not too early to start thinking about the next one — especially when there is so much negative noise about the N.B.A.’s TV ratings.

Starting the new season before Christmas would probably enable N.B.A. players to participate in the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021. And several of the league’s top international players, such as Italy’s Danilo Gallinari, Marco Belinelli and Nicolo Melli and France’s Evan Fournier and Rudy Gobert, have said in recent weeks how important it is to them.

The league wants to make that happen, if possible, which would also prevent high-profile N.B.A. playoff games from clashing with the Summer Games. But the bigger motivation for preventing the playoffs from straying too far into July is to avoid playing throughout the summer for a second successive season, while also restoring free agency as the centerpiece of the N.B.A.’s summer calendar.

League officials have publicly downplayed concerns about the recent ratings decline, pointing to the N.B.A.’s mammoth social media following as a source of optimism about its broader appeal. Vocal critics — with little to no evidence — increasingly attribute the plunge to a leaguewide embrace of social justice causes, but the dip has had an impact even if there is no clear-cut explanation. Long-held fears among N.B.A. traditionalists that the viewing audience will inevitably shrink after July appear to have been validated.

The bubble was a test run for those who have lobbied the league to move to a season that starts around Christmas and continues through the summer months to compete more with Major League Baseball rather than the N.F.L. Although numerous sports are contending with worrisome TV ratings, it was a setback for N.B.A. change-seekers that Bubble Ball did not come close to approaching the ratings bonanza some were expecting.

Another inescapable truth: Players want their summers back, too. After the intense demands of the bubble, with the Lakers and the Heat forced to spend nearly 100 days on an isolated campus, Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers was most likely speaking for many of his peers when he said as much Sunday on Twitter.

The sudden shift to a December start, even if it is accepted by the players, would create chaos across the league.

Twenty-two teams have been off since early September, but the Lakers and Miami were still playing less than three weeks ago and would face an unenviable turnaround. Rookies selected in the Nov. 18 N.B.A. draft would find themselves in practice settings just days later, without the benefit of summer league to help with the transition. A compressed free agency is likely to begin before Thanksgiving and run concurrently alongside expedited training camps. And seven teams have new coaches who will be rushing to implement their systems — while Houston and Oklahoma City still have vacancies to fill.

It’s likewise a given that the 2020-21 season can’t possibly proceed as smoothly as bubble life did. Even if the arenas are essentially empty, teams are determined to play in their home markets. Players, coaches and team staffers living at home and traveling would invite the same coronavirus-related risks and problems that have plagued the N.F.L. this season.

But making sure the 2020-21 season ends in July at the latest would increase the N.B.A.’s readiness for a traditional October-through-June run in 2021-22, which appears to be its next real opportunity to regain access to the crowds, sponsors and ancillary arena income that, as Silver said in May, typically accounts for 40 percent of the league’s annual revenue.

This newsletter is OUR newsletter. So please weigh in with what you’d like to see here. To get your hoops-loving friends and family involved, please forward this email to them so they can jump in the conversation. If you’re not a subscriber, you can sign up here.

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.

(Responses may be condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

Q: You may have written about this before and I missed it, but why is Bill Russell not included in every serious GOAT discussion? He played in a very different time, but his standout achievement — winning 11 championship rings — shouldn’t be diminished by when he played. — Chris in Dallas

Stein: Russell has always figured prominently in this discussion — at least when I’ve discussed it. He’s the greatest winner in basketball history. Bob Ryan, the Boston Globe legend, likes to say that Russell is “the greatest documented winner in all of North American sport.” As such, I’ve insisted for years that Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (also colossal at both the collegiate and pro level) are right there with LeBron James as Michael Jordan’s foremost rivals in the GOAT race.

Yet it’s also true, as noted in a recent newsletter, that I have amended that position in the wake of James’s latest title run with the Los Angeles Lakers. I doubt he’ll ever do enough to win over even a fraction of the Jordan supporters who believe His Airness’s 6-0 record in the finals is the unassailable difference-maker. But I do think James, fueled as well by his longevity and his off-court stature, moved into his own stratosphere by leading a third franchise to a championship.

Which is to say that, yes, I do believe James has separated himself from even Russell and Abdul-Jabbar.

Saying so, unfortunately, will be interpreted in some corners as downgrading Russell’s 11 rings because they were won in a league that never had more than 14 teams when he played. It will also mean, to some, that I am docking Abdul-Jabbar points for needing Magic Johnson’s assistance to win five of his six championships. I prefer to see the promotion of James to an undisputed No. 2 in the GOAT rankings as giving him bonus points for all he has achieved (including nine trips to the finals in a 10-year span) in the modern N.B.A., while facing the sort of scrutiny none of his GOAT rivals have ever known.

Not that I expect to sway you. Perspectives will forever vary on this one. As Jordan himself suggested in an interview with Cigar Aficionado from 2017 that was recirculated recently, trying to grade his achievements against Russell’s is an “unfair parallel.”

“Because we played in different eras,” Jordan said.

Q: I think that Anthony Davis should have been co-most valuable player of the N.B.A. finals with LeBron James because of Davis’s defense on Jimmy Butler and his fabulous shooting. Don’t you agree? — Rolf Sternglanz (Stony Brook, N.Y.)

Stein: I don’t believe in co-winners of such awards, so no. Co-winners are pretty much impossible, anyway, on an 11-voter ballot when the voters have license to choose only one player.

You could certainly argue that the 11-0 vote in James’s favor was too lopsided, but I can’t fault any of my colleagues who voted for him. As ridiculously disruptive as Davis was as a defender, on top of his uber-efficient scoring, James was huge in the finals and throughout the postseason.

And, like it or not, James was always going to get extra credit from voters for the intangible leadership he provided the Lakers. On his first attempt, Davis certainly validated that he is the most imposing tag team partner James has ever had, but James empowered Davis and Coach Frank Vogel to function better than ever in their roles. That stuff does count.

Q: Why are the Lakers’ championships that they won in Minnesota counted as part of their franchise total? Do the Oklahoma City Thunder have one championship because of the Seattle SuperSonics’ title in 1979? — Jamal Mohmand (Houston, Texas)

Stein: Yes. The Thunder actually do.

Based on the way the N.B.A. keeps records, Oklahoma City indeed inherited Seattle’s championship when the franchise relocated and the SuperSonics became the Thunder.

The league’s policy in these cases is to keep team histories conjoined while letting the individual franchises decide how much (or how little) they want to promote their past. The Los Angeles Clippers, for example, have routinely paid homage to their Buffalo Braves predecessors with retro Braves gear over the years. The Sacramento Kings’ record book includes not only the Kansas City Kings’ run but also its Rochester and Cincinnati Royals incarnations. The same holds for the Atlanta Hawks’ years in St. Louis and Milwaukee.

Oklahoma City has consciously operated under the premise that it is a franchise unto itself that started in the 2008-9 season — even though the N.B.A.’s history books regard the Thunder as the same franchise that called Seattle home from 1967-68 through 2007-8.

The Lakers, by contrast, have treated their history as one continuous arc from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. It is their right to do so and it is certainly understandable, given that the team never changed its nickname and made the move west with Elgin Baylor in tow as an all-time great who starred in both cities.

Even if the Lakers suddenly went the Thunder route and advertised only the 12 championships they have amassed in Southern California, they would still be credited by the league as having won as many as the Boston Celtics: 17.

The 2011-12 season, delayed by a lengthy lockout, is the only season to have started in December. Teams played 66 regular-season games that year; 70 to 72 games is the target for next season.

If the 2020-21 season starts Dec. 22, as the league office now hopes, only 72 days will separate the opener from the last day of the previous season, when the Los Angeles Lakers clinched the 2019-20 championship with a Game 6 N.B.A. finals victory over the Miami Heat on Oct. 11.

The same gap, between Toronto’s clinching victory in Game 6 of the 2019 N.B.A. finals over Golden State and opening night of the 2019-20 season, was 131 days.

In 21 playoff games for the Lakers in his first taste of the N.B.A. postseason, Alex Caruso started only one game. That start came in Game 6 of the N.B.A. finals and crucially enabled the Lakers to speed up their pace for the series clincher, with Miami clearly weary after the Heat had managed to pull out an intense victory in Game 5.

Caruso has started 13 regular-season games in his three seasons with the Lakers.

Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *