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To Play or Not to Play: The 2020 NBA Summer League

As the end of the season draws closer, it is time for the NBA to figure out where things go from here. 

The league and Players Association have had several meetings in the past several weeks to decide the logistics for this offseason and next season. Here’s what we know. The NBA Draft will take place on November 18th. Free agency is supposed to follow soon after. There is no set date for it to kick off, but it has been reported that it should begin before Dec. 1. 

As far as a start date for the 2020-21 season is concerned, little seems to be known as to when it will begin. The commissioner wants next season to end on schedule next June, but knows he has to be wary of not giving the players ample time to reset for the year ahead. 

The uncertainty of this upcoming season has put many things in limbo. One important aspect of every preseason that is often forgotten could be in jeopardy of occurring at all, and that is the NBA Summer League.

The average fan of the NBA pays little attention to the Summer League. A series of tournaments normally held in Orlando, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas, very few players from the league make it on to any 15-man rosters for the regular season. Coaches and team executives are often less concerned with winning the games than the individual players’ performances. It can also lend itself to relatively sloppy basketball at times, considering that the teams get very little time to practice together.

So with all this in mind, why should we care about whether the NBA Summer League is played or not? Well first of all, it is everybody’s first look at recently drafted rookies, allowing the league to begin to see who is NBA ready and who isn’t. More importantly, the summer league is a vital opportunity for players that have been overlooked to prove that they belong in the league. Undrafted players like Kendrick Nunn, Kent Bazemore, and Jonathan Simmons, guys who went on to play meaningful minutes for great teams, might have never gotten a shot in the NBA without the summer league.

Yet despite the importance of the summer league to the ecosystem of the NBA, there is much doubt as to whether it is feasible for the event to occur this offseason. Although rather small in magnitude to the actual NBA season, it is still an event that requires an immense amount of resources for the league, and might not be viewed as an investment that can be made given where the league is at in the current moment.

The first and obvious issue that needs to be figured out is the venue. It is unlikely that the usual schedule featuring three different cities over the course of two weeks will occur. For the preservation of public health it would likely be held in one of the usual three venues, or one completely different location. 

Is limiting the league to one area enough though? Given the rising Coronavirus infection rate in America, the only safe option to play basketball may have to be with the creation of a “bubble” shut off from the outside world. Considering that the league invested $150 Million to make the NBA bubble in Orlando happen, and the recent inevitable loss of revenue that previously would have come from ticket sales, the NBA might not be too enthusiastic about putting even more resources towards a summer league bubble.

Despite the potentially shallow pockets of the league, a bubble to have some kind of summer league play in November or December is not out of the question. Unlike the typical NBA season, the summer league’s format is arguably very conducive to a bubble environment. All the players and coaches stay in hotels together, and don’t travel until the competition is over. The tournaments are all played on three to four courts in the same venue. The only major challenges the league would have to make would be shutting off the rest of the world from each of the teams, and making sure the league can acquire the necessary testing capacity.

The playing of a summer “fall” league this year would not be without its host of roadblocks. But if the NBA is willing to cough up the necessary resources to ensure the safety of players and coaches, we may still get to see some of our favorite former college starts and other NBA hopefuls compete in one of the most perennially fun basketball events of the calendar year.

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