Like everyone else this year, the NBA has had to adapt on the fly, and their plans for next season are perhaps the clearest example. Back in the summer, prior to the restart, they were targeting Dec. 1 to begin the 2020-21 season, but it didn't take long to realize it simply wouldn't be possible to turn things around that soon.
In recent weeks, with hopes of fans possibly returning to arenas sometime next year, signs were pointing to a Martin Luther King Jr. Day start. Now, all of a sudden, we're back to December. Early on Friday, reports emerged that the league is targeting a pre-Christmas start on Dec. 22, and are hoping to play a 72-game season that will be over before the Olympics next summer.
Nothing has been nailed down, but assuming there's no major alterations to these reported details, here's a look at some of the winners and losers from the big announcement:
Winner: Teams with continuity
Without a doubt, one of the biggest winners here are the teams that will largely run things back. In particular, playoff teams who are taking that strategy. The 2020 NBA Draft isn't happening until Nov. 18, and the offseason -- if the season opener is on Dec. 22 -- will give teams 34 days to get through the draft, free agency and training camp. That's not a lot of time. And sure, teams have been able to plan for a while, but the offseason never goes as planned. Therefore, teams that aren't looking to make any major changes will have an advantage due to their continuity. They won't have to rush through any signings, or make hasty decisions on potential blockbuster trades, or integrating new players in a condensed timeframe.
Loser: Front offices
If there was anyone fuming at this decision, it was definitely the various front-office employees around the league. While a shorter offseason is great news for a fans, and even some players on non-playoff teams, it's a nightmare for general managers. They all of a sudden have 34 days between the draft and opening night. That's just over four weeks for the draft, free agency and any trades they're looking to get done. If there's any saving grace, it's that there aren't that many big name free agents hitting the market this year, which means things should be a little less hectic. That's still such a short turnaround when you have to both manage the present and plan for the future. It will be interesting to see if there's any surprising or unusual moves because of the shortened window. A few years from now we should get some good stories about this offseason.
If the season didn't start until MLK Day, that would have meant over three months without a single NBA game. And while the playoffs are great, fans of some individual teams have been waiting much longer than that to see their teams in action. Teams that showed up to the bubble but didn't make the playoffs only played eight games and have been done since early August, while the eight squads that didn't go to Orlando haven't played a game since March. That's a really long time without seeing your favorite players in action, and now those fans won't have to wait quite as long. Plus, just in general there's now one less month without games to watch. That's a win for fans, especially when they can't go to games in person.
Loser: Teams who made a deep playoff run
The season starting on Dec. 22 instead of Jan. 18 means one less month of rest and preparation for everyone, but the truth is a lot of teams are probably excited by that news. The eight teams that didn't get invited to the bubble haven't played a game since March, while another six teams only got in eight games in the bubble. That group is probably desperate to get back in the gym and get the season going again. On the other hand, this is a big blow for teams that made a deep playoff run. The Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat didn't finish the Finals until Oct. 11, while the other conference finals teams, the Boston Celtics and Denver Nuggets, were playing late into September. Starting camp again in early December is an extremely quick turnaround for those teams. It will be difficult to quantify exactly how much this matters, but it's certainly a disadvantage for these groups
Winner: The league's bank account
Just like it's nice for fans to have less time without games, the same is true for the league. It wasn't surprising that pleasing the TV partners was one of the first reasons cited for the NBA's desire to push up the start date of the season. Christmas has been one of the few marquee days of the season for years, and they'll get to maintain that spotlight and tip off the season in style. But even more important is the league office's estimation that the difference between starting before Christmas or starting on MLK Day is a whopping $500 million. That's a staggering amount of money in any situation, but it's even more enticing for the league after their losses due to the shutdown earlier this year.
Loser: Free agents
While free agents won't have quite the same logistical challenges as front office personnel trying to map out the next few months, they are put into a tough spot by this change of plans. While nothing has been confirmed yet, free agency is expected to begin on or around Dec. 1. That's about three weeks before the season starts, and barely a week before camps will get going. Any player who ends up signing with a new team is going to be rushing to get acclimated, and that's even if they end up signing right away. It's pretty much a guarantee that some players will be joining teams after camp begins, and that's going to put both them and the team in a difficult position.