We might not be waiting for Clipper basketball as long as we thought. According to new reports, the 2020-21 NBA season could start on December 22nd, with the league eyeing an accelerated 72-game schedule that would satisfy television contracts and only finish a few weeks behind the league’s normal mid-June conclusion.
ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Brian Windhorst first reported that the league had presented the new scheduling proposal at Friday’s Board of Governors meeting, with The Athletic’s Shams Charania adding that projections indicate that this schedule would bring in over $500 million in additional revenue compared to the prior plan, which featured a mid-January start. The league and players have a 50/50 revenue split, and as both sides felt the sting from last season’s shortfall and brace for another down year without fans in the seats, there’s significant incentive for cooperation to get a deal done and a season underway as soon as possible.
The new proposal hasn’t been confirmed yet (that could come this week), but let’s take a look at what we know so far–and how it affects the Clippers:
- December 22nd Start Date: First thing first: if this plan goes through, we’ll get Clippers basketball a lot sooner than expected. After enduring the long mid-season COVID break, we knew there was a good chance that we wouldn’t have to wait as long as normal this off-season, but rumors had placed the start of next season somewhere between Martin Luther King Jr. day–January 18th–and sometime in mid-March, when the league hoped a potential vaccine could allow the safe return of fans to arenas. If the Clippers play on opening night, a December 22nd start would put their first game of 2020-21 just over three months after their final game of 2019-20, and under two months from today–with the upcoming draft and free agency to keep us occupied in the meantime.
- Accelerated Off-Season: If the NBA is planning on playing regular-season games on December 22nd, that means the league is gonna have to get to work on off-season business pretty quickly. Expect a formalized plan, including an announcement regarding the salary cap for next season, in place by this Friday. Then, things will heat up as we get towards November 18th’s NBA Draft. The free agency period, which was previously expected to wait until December 1st to allow the league a Thanksgiving break, should open within a few days after the draft, and players will report to camp in early December. Normally we have almost 4 months between the draft and camp opening, and this year it’ll be about two weeks. Teams won’t have time to wait around, and it’s highly possible that player movement will be limited as teams favor continuity with such a short turnaround.
- 72-game season: We’ve seen shortened seasons before, not only last year but also recently in 2011-12 after the last lockout, when teams played 66 games. It’ll mean ten fewer opportunities to watch the Clippers this year. In the macro, that’s ten fewer games of one of the best teams in franchise history, but in the micro I’m not sure what we’ll really notice. A shortened season is probably a good idea for the league’s product, and while a drastic change isn’t likely because of the massive revenue that accompanies local and national television deals, the notion that those can be fulfilled in a 72-game year could–could–be an indication of future changes, especially as the league incorporates play-in tournaments for the playoffs.
- Lest Rest: Here’s one that could really hurt the Clippers. In a normal season, teams play 82 games in 177 days–2.16 days per game. John Hollinger estimates that this accelerated schedule would have teams play 72 games in 135 days. That’s just 1.88 days per game, and while the difference between those two numbers might seem small, it’s going to mean a lot more back-to-backs across the board. With Kawhi Leonard sitting the second night of back-to-backs for the last two years to manage a degenerative quad injury, that measure’s continuation could cost him a lot more games this season. The team might need to carefully find other ways to limit the load on Leonard’s body, like considering minutes restrictions and treatment/recovery programs to enable him to play back-to-backs.
- Less Travel: Traveling less could be one important part of that calculation. Playing fewer games necessarily changes the typical schedule makeup, and the accelerated rate of games could mean that the players push the league to reduce travel and focus more on conference and divisional games. Previously, Hollinger had suggested that the league could have teams play baseball-style “series,” where the Clippers could, for example, travel to Sacramento and play 4 games in a row against the Sacramento Kings, and then travel back to LA to play 4 games in a row hosting the Phoenix Suns. This would be an interesting change to the regular season, and would help keep players fresh, which could help Kawhi Leonard possibly suit up for some back-to-backs. But the extra divisional games would be particularly brutal in the Pacific, where the Clippers would play extra games against the 2020 Champion Los Angeles Lakers, led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and the 2015/17/18 Champion Golden State Warriors, with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green all healthy again. Even the Suns–whose playoff hopes would be severely negatively impacted by such a division-heavy schedule–face a formidable challenge with Devin Booker leading the way.
- No All-Star Break: The league is already squeezing games in a much shorter window, so All-Star weekend is a natural casualty of the accelerated schedule. It’s a bit of a shame, as the event had finally broken out of a prolonged slump last year with the incorporation of the ELAM ending, but the event doesn’t make much logistical sense this season. George and Leonard are both likely All-Stars, so we won’t get to see two Clippers play in the game, but it’ll be a small sacrifice if it means a full season that keeps the league’s players and staff safe and healthy.
- Olympics Availability: One perk of a shortened and accelerated season is that it would allow players to be available for the delayed 2020 Olympics, which will begin next July in Tokyo. It matters for the US Men’s National Team, of course, but probably matters even more for the Men’s teams (it’s unclear what the WNBA season will look like next summer) from other participating nations, as their NBA players are typically national team stars. George and Leonard both have a chance at being on the US roster if they so choose (young sharpshooter Landry Shamet has an outside shot at being brought in to training camp for the US Select Team, but he won’t be headed to Tokyo), while the Clippers’ current roster also features Mfiondu Kabengele, who plays internationally for Canada, and Iviza Zubac, who plays internationally for Croatia.
Canada has a wealth of NBA players, including big men like Orlando’s Khem Birch, Memphis’ Brandon Clarke, Miami’s Kelly Olynyk, Dallas’ Dwight Powell, and Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson. Since Olympic rosters are limited to 12 players, Fi is actually on the outside looking in unless he has a huge year, there are some injuries, or players opt out. Canada hasn’t qualified for the Olympics yet and will play in a qualifying tournament in late June and be favored to nab the one spot that is available between them, Greece, China, Uruguay, Turkey, and the Czech Republic. This tournament will likely only overlap with the NBA Finals.
Similarly, Zubac’s Croatia will be playing in a late June Olympic Qualifier tournament–but he’s the clear-cut starter and Croatia will need more help to emerge from a play-in tournament with Germany, Russia, Mexico, Tunisia, and Brazil. It would be cool to see Zu in the Olympics, but hopefully he’ll be rooting on Croatia’s qualifying efforts from afar and playing for the Clippers in the NBA Finals instead.
- Fan Attendance: The last wrinkle, as it impacts fans of the Clippers and every other team, is that the league’s choice to move the season’s start even earlier than anticipated appears to be a bad omen regarding the NBA’s confidence that they’ll be able to sell tickets and play in front of crowds this season. The United State’s coronavirus crisis has worsened in recent weeks, and the impact of limited attendance at football and baseball games is still unclear. Since the NBA plays in smaller, closed-roof stadiums, it’s hard to imagine any sizable crowds until at least the late spring.
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