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The Risks Will Probably Outweigh the Reward for teams like the New Orleans Pelicans in Finishing the 2019-20 NBA Season

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Shutting things down and focusing on next season may be in the best interests of the players and the front offices’ long-term goals.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

As states begin to cautiously explore loosening restrictions, momentum has gathered towards finding a resolution to the 2019-20 NBA season.

Following a CNBC report that several league executives preferred to simply cancel the season and move toward the 2020-21 campaign, LeBron James led a pushback that quickly gained traction.

Dismissing the possibility given the uncertainty surrounding this pandemic and a potential ‘second wave’ rings just as foolhardy as guaranteeing its return. Careful, measured steps need to be thought out and executed long before this ‘bubble’ concept can come to fruition. In this concept, the league is researching ideal locations that can house NBA players in a secure location while giving them access to a multi-court facility capable of allowing multiple games at one time. Disney World and Las Vegas have both hosted similar events in the past and are front-runners to host this abbreviated version of the season.

You can read about steps here and read about Disney World’s potential plan here.

The motivation behind the NBA’s return are clear: the NBA and the NBPA came to an agreement to withhold 25 percent of players’ salaries beginning on May 15th. Should the NBA forfeit its season, owners can invoke force majeure, thereby allowing them to siphon those funds into their own pockets, replacing some of the substantial losses they’ve incurred.

“I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll be able to finish the season for television. I don’t think we’ll have fans,” Cuban said on CNN. “I hate to put odds on it, but I’m cautiously optimistic. But this virus isn’t giving us any information to help us.”

Beyond the how, a different question looms large for many NBA franchises.

Why?

There’s no viable way the NBA can complete the regular season. Even should Disney and Vegas coordinate to play four games per day over 33 days (a scheduling nightmare), how would 450 players recover between games? What facility would they use and how would they share said space with 29 other franchises? What kind of toll would such a workload take on NBA players who have been isolating for nearly two months?

An abbreviated regular season is the only option and that should not appeal to some bottom-feeding franchises who’s risk in participating far exceeds the reward.

There’s the matter of securing 15,000 tests and the optics that come with it. There’s the dangers of putting those with advanced age (coaching and front office personnel) into direct contact with hundreds to potentially thousands of people.

For teams like the New Orleans Pelicans, the 2019-20 season was a developmental season, an experiment in fit and formula. While substantial losses to injury sidelined that experiment for much of the season, the Pelicans finally got a glimpse of what their work had earned them after Zion’s return on January 22nd. The Pelicans starting five emerged as the league’s very best among groups playing 180 minutes or more with a net-rating of +26.3.

  • Brandon Ingram established himself as a Most-Improved candidate and All-Star all at once.
  • Derrick Favors proved himself an immeasurable presence, resurrecting the Pelicans season after a 6-22 start to lead them on a 22-14 run with the team’s highest individual net-rating over that time.
  • Since December 18th, Lonzo Ball’s impact rose to All-NBA levels, as he became one of just four players to exceed 13 points, seven rebounds and eight assists while shooting 40.7 percent from three on 6.8 attempts per game.
  • Don’t forget the team’s leader, Jrue Holiday. Lost in the successes of the Pelicans young core was another All-Defensive performance. During that same span, Holiday married all world defensive prowess with 19.6 points, seven assists and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 37.4 percent from three on 6.3 attempts. Only six players exceeded those statistics over that span.
  • Josh Hart proved his mettle as an integral part of the rotation and starter in times of circumstance. Jaxson Hayes showed off his incredible athleticism while giving glimpses of an offensive skill set that can expand in time. Redick was Redick.
  • And, of course, there’s Zion.

So, what else can be gained from playing out the remainder of the season? The thought of a cinderella run into the eighth seed over Ja Morant and the Memphis Grizzlies rings hollow a goal now. Playing out all 18 remaining games does not seem a feasible option, nor is perhaps of playing seven-game series through four rounds of playoff basketball. Should the schedule be dwindled, that 3.5 game lead the Grizzlies possess increases to an unreachable level.

The NBA has floated a play-in tournament, but the optics surrounding it are more trouble than they’re worth. The Western Conference is a jumbled mess with even the Phoenix Suns just three games behind the Pelicans. Every team outside of the Minnesota Timberwolves are still very much mathematically alive. In the Eastern Conference, it’s a different story.

So, in the interest of fairness, how do you create a play-in tournament for one conference and not the other? How do you strip the right the Grizzlies have earned in a single game? At what point does all of this fall under the parameters of just “trying to recoup revenue that simply can’t be replaced?”

That money is already gone.

The Money Side

Ben Golliver of The Washington Post described the situation:

Gauging the precise economic hit of the NBA’s suspended season is impossible, but one high-ranking team executive said that the total damage could reach $40 million per team, or more than $1.2 billion, if the playoffs are lost.

There will not be a fair conclusion to this tournament nor one that meets the criteria we have come to expect even from shortened seasons in finding a worthy champion. For those competing for the NBA title, the risk may outweigh the reward. In fact, for teams with aging superstars like LeBron James a shortened conclusion may be ideal.

But let’s not pretend the monetary issue is the critical one in returning these games. The Smoothie King Center and its arena staff will not return to work if play resumes. The Walt Disney company will not be employing vendors and aisle to aisle hot-dog salesmen. Bars and restaurants surrounding all 30 NBA arenas will not reopen and host wide-ranging viewing parties.

Beyond a few essential personnel, the only companies that will recoup much of anything will be NBA owners, those who invested in advertising and the league, which has risen in value exponentially in the past ten years.

For example, the New Orleans Pelicans went for $338 million in 2012. They are worth $1.35 billion in 2020. Per result, the NBA’s $58 million salary cap has doubled in that time.

The NBA will be fine.

The second aspect of this story is the players. The salaries that may be forfeited are being funneled into the 2020-21 season, allowing players who return to the NBA a chance to recoup. Any decline in the salary cap for 2020-21 (estimated at $8 million per team) should inevitably lead to another monstrous cap spike in 2021-22 like its predecessor in 2016 (Durant year). For players who may not see a minute in 2020, the loss is appreciable. Darius Miller may fit that criteria due to the unfortunate Achilles injury experienced last offseason.

But for the most part, NBA players will recoup what they’ve lost. That’s the plan.

The New Orleans Pelicans should withdraw from the 2019-20 season

Now, let’s talk risk.

Let’s start with the young core of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson.

Lonzo has yet to enter an offseason fully healthy in his three professional years. If the season were to end today, he would be guaranteed of finishing on a high note, both physically and mentally.

When Ingram was introduced to the Pelicans last offseason, he hadn’t even been cleared to shoot yet! Think about that, Ingram went from shooting 1.8 threes per game in 2018-19 to 6.8 in 2019-20 without shooting a single offseason shot from March until sometime in late August/early September.

Zion showed the incredible burst, leaping ability and strength that made him a national icon at Duke. He also missed the first 44 games of the season due to a lateral meniscus tear. He would probably benefit more from working with Fred Vinson and Aaron Nelson to improve his game and durability rather than appearing in a handful of games after a quicker than usual ramp-up to finish the season.

Then there are veterans like Holiday and Favors.

For Favors, it’s a contract year and the man has earned a nice reward for his performance this season. His on-court contributions were critical to the Pelicans who went from being the NBA’s fifth-worst team and third-worst defense through December 17th to its ninth and eighth best after. Favors has arguably the most to lose of anyone. If the salary cap should decrease substantially next season, teams will have less to spend and his market could evaporate very quickly. Still, getting to free agency healthy should be priority number one for he and his family as he’s proven his worth, at least to New Orleans.

Likewise, Holiday is extension eligible this summer and should get a seat with David Griffin and Trajan Langdon to discuss his future. The Pelicans will fast become very expensive going forward, but Holiday has proven the perfect blend of offensive and defensive playmaking for this young core. As Lonzo improves and takes more ownership of the offense, Holiday should only thrive further. With more energy available on the defensive end and fresher legs on the offensive, his numbers and confidence could only improve. And Holiday is 30th among active players in total minutes. There’s no reason for him to expend any more energy this season.

The NBA will be asking players to zip through a shortened training camp after months of time away from so much as a gym, much less a basketball court. After those three to four weeks of aggressive training, they’ll then be forced to leap frog right into the most meaningful minutes of their 2019-20 season. They’ll be asked to either:

  • Finish the regular season in six weeks to secure enough time for the playoffs to end by Labor Day. That’s potentially 18 games in 33 days.
  • Enter straight into a do-or-die play-in tournament bound to test their bodies in a way no game has yet this season. Without the proper time to condition, this could lead to abject disaster. Would one torn ACL, Achilles or other extensive injury be worth it in this unprecedented circumstance?

For those fighting for a chance at the Finals, that reward may outweigh risk. For others, in addition to having nothing to play for, they’ll have COVID-19 to worry about.

NBA superstars like Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns know all too well the risk this disease not only presents to themselves but to their families. There’s still so much we don’t know about this disease to risk players and the general public’s health. While the 450 players, their team personnel and television crews could reach numbers in the thousands, there’s also the health of those that will prepare their rooms and meals to think about.

The Best Thing the Pelicans Can Do is Sit Out

If the NBA wishes to resume and collect some of its lost television revenue, let those that may have a chance to win a title ultimately decide for themselves and volunteer. If the NBA is to take every team with a sizable advantage in the playoff race, they could select all 13 teams with 39 wins or more and conduct an abbreviated regular season, play-in tournament or playoff structure from those teams. To recoup lost value, they could sell games scheduled for NBATV to Amazon Prime, Hulu, Youtube or any other number of hosts who would seize the opportunity and pay top dollar to do so. Creating a competitive environment while supplying what each individual team needs to recover and social distance would be far more viable.

For teams like the Pelicans and those destined for the lottery, there simply is no logical explanation worth the risk. Reward the teams that performed during the regular season well enough to earn substantial leads, take what financial benefits you can and focus on the upcoming season. Removing teams also gives the playoff entrants more time to condition and recover thereby protecting individuals players and the league itself.

The best option for the Pelicans and similar teams is to hit the training facility (once cleared to do so) and come back stronger, faster and savvier in 2020-21.

For more, please check out our podcast with Oleh Kosel, David Grubb, Kevin Barrios and myself!

Let’s geaux, Pels! (next season)