NBA small-market teams urge 30-team restart

Near the end of the NBA’s board of governors call on Friday, Oklahoma City Thunder owner Clay Bennett delivered an impassioned soliloquy on why the league and owners needed to consider the competitive and financial plights of smaller-market teams that could be left out of the season’s summer resumption in Orlando, Florida — and the potential symbolic power of all 30 teams gathering there to play as one united association.

As the NBA moves toward a plan of inviting 22 teams to restart a truncated season in late July, sources told ESPN, Bennett spoke of exhausting ways to accommodate non-playoff teams still wanting to play. He wondered: Was there a way to safely bring back all 30 teams?

The inequities facing smaller markets had to shape the league’s thinking, Bennett suggested. Nine months without games — March to December — could have an impact on developing players, cultivating sponsorships and selling tickets in markets where franchises struggle to gain a hold.

For those teams left out of the playoffs, there has already been dialogue on the possibility of mandatory summer training camps and regional fall leagues of four to five teams that could bridge the lengthy gap between seasons, sources told ESPN. Those are ideas many teams consider vital, and there’s an expectation that the NBA will raise possible scenarios such as these with the players’ association, sources said.

“The message was something bigger, reminding people that some teams can’t just reopen the doors in nine or 10 months and so easily sell tickets or a sponsorship without having played basketball for that long,” one high-level Eastern Conference official on the call told ESPN.

Between now and Thursday’s vote of the board of governors on the plan to restart the season, the NBA is working to complete the details of a 22-team format for Orlando.

A three-fourths majority of the 30 teams is required for a plan’s passage, but owners expect unanimous support for whatever form the NBA’s final proposal takes, sources said. They are lining up behind Silver to back the league and National Basketball Players Association’s ultimate plan — even as they wait on the final details to be agreed upon with the NBPA.

The mechanics of potential play-in tournaments in both conferences in any 22-team resumption are still at issue as the league enters the final stages prior to Thursday’s vote. There is still uncertainty over how much of an advantage — if any — the team who finishes the truncated regular season in eighth might receive entering the play-in tournament.

The simplest example: What if Brooklyn and Orlando — now in seventh and eighth, respectively — win half their remaining games and the ninth-place Wizards skid to something like a 2-6 finish (in scenarios that include eight more regular-season games)?

That would leave Washington eight games behind the No. 8 seed entering the play-in. Should Washington have to beat the No. 8 team at least twice in a row to secure the No. 8 seed? How many times? And what happens if Washington closes the gap with No. 8 during the truncated regular season?

Should the NBA have multiple play-in scenarios ready for the East depending on how those remaining regular-season games go?

The play-in situation in the West in any 22-team scenario would be more crowded, likely including five teams — Portland, New Orleans, San Antonio, Sacramento and Phoenix — alongside the current No. 8-seeded Grizzlies. If Memphis maintains its solid cushion — at 3½ games when the NBA suspended the season — should it have an easier, and perhaps shorter, path to winning the play-in than those other five teams?

The financial elements of the plan are significant for the league too, with the 22-team format worth several hundred million dollars more in revenue than the 16-team straight-to-playoffs plan would, sources said.

On the back end of Friday’s owners meeting with Silver, several owners — including Philadelphia’s Josh Harris and Phoenix’s Robert Sarver — enthusiastically backed Bennett’s call for the league to come together for as many teams as possible.

Already, the NBA knew how passionate Atlanta owner Tony Ressler felt on the issue of the Hawks’ inclusion to Orlando. He reiterated on the call after Bennett’s speech that his franchise wanted to resume the season — provided some reassurances, to the degree any were possible, that the NBA could maintain player health and safety while adding teams. Ressler did not explicitly link the Hawks’ participation to any path for Atlanta to make the playoffs, sources said, and attendees took that to mean Ressler supported Atlanta’s playing even without such a path.

Golden State’s Joe Lacob told peers that the Warriors were willing to participate that way too, although his franchise has been far more cool to the idea in private, sources said.

The Hawks and Warriors are two lottery teams with far different realities: a small-market Southern city in a rebuild contrasted with the massive resources of a big-market team reloading its roster with healthy All-Stars for a 2020-21 playoff run.

Even if Silver wanted to include 30 teams for the NBA’s restart, he reminded those on the call that there are some franchises — and players — far less invested in the risks and rewards of several weeks of training camp and quarantine simply to play several regular-season games, sources said. The issue of health and safety with 30 teams — and the hundreds of additional people who could become carriers of the coronavirus — had impacted that process too.

If the NBA ends up settling on the 22-team format, at least some of the remaining eight teams will push for some form of training camp over the summer, sources said. Franchises fear being apart from their players for as long as eight or nine months.

Like so much of what comes next, the concept of a formal summer camp places the NBA in uncharted territory. Intruding on what are typically offseason months for players would require some bargaining with the players’ association, sources said. And what about players entering free agency when the offseason begins — which could extend as far as mid-October?

All of this precedes the potential renegotiation of major chunks of the collective bargaining agreement ahead of the 2020-21 season — when the NBA faces the potential for a long period of games with no fans in attendance. The current CBA was not meant for a circumstance in which 40% of the league’s revenue — the approximate amount tied to gate receipts and attendance — gets wiped away.

Going forward will require major compromises from every stakeholder. The NBA is inching toward its first such compromise on Thursday, and it might be telling how long it has taken everyone to approach that finish line — and how much work remains this week.

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