What will the 2020-21 NBA season look like?

It is time to confront a grim, once unthinkable reality: the 2019-20 NBA season is going to be canceled, and there will be no champion.

California Governor Gavin Newsom declared on Tuesday that “the prospect of mass gatherings is negligible at best until we get to herd immunity and get to a vaccine.” A vaccine is not expected for at least a year, and herd immunity is an extremely dicey proposition which could lead to the mass deaths that we are trying to prevent. And if there are going to be no mass gatherings in California with some of the most important teams in the league, there is no way that there will be no mass gatherings for NBA basketball throughout the nation.

Maybe there will be some Go Mini's tournament in the summer played out in Arizona or some other state, and a “champion” will be crowned. But the idea that the NBA will play the remaining 20 or so games in the season, or even that there will be a full playoff series played in empty stadiums, is all but dead. It is time for the NBA to begin thinking about how the 2020-21 NBA season will look like, on top of the earlier prerequisites of the draft and NBA free agency.

A Changing Timeline and Playing Field

No one knows what the coronavirus situation will be in November and December. But while the situation may be somewhat better by then, it is unlikely that we will be dealing with life as we knew it in 2019. This will mean changes for the NBA season.

The first and most likely change is that the NBA season will move its starting date from October to Christmas Day. This has been a change which fans and analysts have discussed even before the pandemic, not least because it means the NBA can avoid competing with the second half of the NFL regular season.

Furthermore, there will be questions about how the NBA will fill its regular season seats and by extension its finances. Even in an optimistic scenario where all lockdowns are lifted and business is as usual, fans will likely choose not to attend games or go out due to viral fears.

ESPN reported that the NBA is already implementing financial measures to flatten the curve and diminish the impact of $1 billion in losses, and that projected figure could rise depending on how badly the 2020-21 season will be affected. And this financial catastrophe caused by the virus could affect not just the league, but owners’ pocketbooks as they suddenly will find themselves much less willing to pay out huge salaries upon feeling a (relative) financial pinch.

Society is going to be changed by this disaster, and that is just as true for the NBA as well. The good times of the past few years as NBA players commanded richer salaries will be over. The season will start later. And the result will likely be a diminished product played in empty stadiums, if there even is a 2020-21 NBA season at all.