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How will this year’s NBA playoffs work? What if a player tests positive for COVID-19? What we know so far

Disney World, here they come!

James Harden of the Houston Rockets celebrates after a basket in this 2015 file photo.
James Harden of the Houston Rockets celebrates after a basket in this 2015 file photo. (2015 Getty Images)

Whether you’re a die-hard NBA fan or you’re not even the slightest sports fan, you have to admit: Watching these professional leagues resume operations should be pretty interesting.

And the NBA is among the first of the leagues to tackle all of this, after suspending activity March 11 due to coronavirus concerns.

But as the summer continues to progress and states slowly start to reopen, the NBA will carry on, as well: specifically, 22 teams will resume the 2019-2020 season at Walt Disney World in Florida in the next month or so.

Thirteen teams from the Western Conference and nine Eastern Conference teams will resume play. If all goes according to plan, playoffs are set to begin in mid-August.

In the West, we have the following squads: the Los Angeles Lakers (49-14), LA Clippers (44-20), Denver Nuggets (43-22), Utah Jazz (41-23), Oklahoma City Thunder (40-24), Houston Rockets (40-24), Dallas Mavericks (40-27), Memphis Grizzlies (32-33), Portland Trail Blazers (29-37), New Orleans Pelicans (28-36), Sacramento Kings (28-36) and the Phoenix Suns (26-39).

And in the East, it’s: the Milwaukee Bucks (53-12), Toronto Raptors (46-18), Boston Celtics (43-21), Miami Heat (41-24), Indiana Pacers (39-26), Philadelphia 76ers (39-26), Brooklyn Nets (30-34), Orlando Magic (30-35) and the Washington Wizards (24-40).

Those teams will play eight regular-season seeding games before a possible play-in series, according to this report. After that, the NBA will start its standard postseason. It’s definitely not a format the fans are used to experiencing, but it’s better than nothing -- and this has been a strange year for sports, considering how the world came to a screeching halt when the coronavirus arrived in the United States.

Speaking of COVID-19 specifics, ESPN broke down the NBA’s 100-page health and safety protocols, released earlier this month -- focusing especially on the major questions we likely all have, and some key details.

Who will be hoisting the hardware this year?
Who will be hoisting the hardware this year? (2007 Getty Images)

Here’s what we learned from that ESPN report -- with some other information added in for background and context:

So wait, what’s happening and when?

The NBA’s full restart timeline includes the following dates:

  • July 1: Individual workouts begin; 37-person team travel party must be submitted to the league; substitute players are eligible to be signed.
  • July 7: Teams begin arriving in Florida.
  • July 9-29: Training camp starts in Florida with three scrimmages per team.
  • July 30: Seeding games begin (there will be eight per team).
  • Aug. 17: Playoffs begin.
  • Aug. 30: Family and guests of teams may arrive.
  • Sept. 30: Target NBA Finals start date.

Will there be fans at these games in Orlando?

No, but if you’re watching on TV, you’ll still see some people in the stands.

If other NBA players don’t have a game they’re currently playing in, a limited number will be allowed in -- along with select members of the media, team executives, league and union personnel and even some sponsors.

Games will be held at three arenas around Walt Disney World.

Participating players in those games will have to spread out over two rows.

A public-address announcer and cameras will capture the games for the public.

What about masks?

People will have to wear masks or facial coverings when they’re indoors on the Disney campus -- except while eating, while in an individual’s room or participating in outdoor activities.

NBA players actively in a game, referees, bench players and coaches who are sitting in the front row won’t have to wear masks either if a contest is underway.

What if a player or coach doesn’t want to go to Orlando?

It all comes down to the “why.”

If a player is at higher risk for severe illness if he contracts the novel coronavirus, he can be designated “protected” -- and he won’t have to report to Orlando and he won’t lose money. His team will have to determine if he can be “protected.”

There will also be a panel of three medical experts reviewing players’ medical histories. If this panel determines an athlete is at high risk, it could excuse him and the player won’t be penalized, salary-wise.

Final health decisions will come down to this panel of experts.

But if a player simply decides he doesn’t want to travel to Orlando, for whatever reason, he will lose a corresponding number of game checks. “For example, a player making $10 million per year will lose roughly $108,000 per game missed for up to 14 games,” ESPN said.

Needless to say, this year's remainder of the season will NOT look like this -- a general view before Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Canada.
Needless to say, this year's remainder of the season will NOT look like this -- a general view before Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Canada. (2019 Getty Images)

Teams can declare a coach or other staffer “protected” as well. And as for a coach older than 65, for instance, if a team doesn’t list that person as protected, the league can refer the matter to a physician for further review -- and prevent that coach from being allowed on campus, if it’s in the best interests of health and safety.

Will there be ongoing COVID-19 testing?

Yes. As for how often people will be tested, the league said “regularly,” which is probably less often than daily, ESPN said.

If circumstances in Orlando change, daily testing is possible.

What if a player tests positive? What comes next?

He will be isolated and re-tested, just to confirm those results.

Once health officials know he’s truly positive for coronavirus, he will begin treatment and start a period of rest and recovery. It must last at least 14 days, according to the ESPN report.

The NBA seemed to consult with doctors in preparing these health documents and recommendations -- and those medical professionals are concerned about potential cardiovascular risks that come with having the virus, ESPN said. “Players will be restricted from exercise and will have to pass cardiac tests before a return to basketball is even considered,” the report reads.

How possible is it that the league shuts down again?

Or as ESPN asked the question: “How many people would have to test positive?”

That answer isn’t spelled out in the NBA’s documents, “but it is clear the league is preparing for positive tests.”

“On this subject, the document says only, ‘The occurrence of a small or otherwise expected number of COVID-19 cases will not require a decision to suspend or cancel the resumption’ of the season,” the ESPN report reads. “As to what constitutes a critical mass, that is left undefined.”

What do we know about the setup at Disney World?

We found these tidbits to be pretty interesting -- and very detailed:

  • When people arrive, they will have to self-isolate in their hotel rooms for up to 48 hours until they test negative for COVID-19 two times. This ensures no one “in the bubble” has the virus.
  • Players and staffers can’t go into each other’s rooms.
  • Through July 21, players can’t socialize with players staying at other hotels, in order to limit spread if there is an outbreak. (The athletes, by the way, are staying at The Gran Destino Tower at Coronado Springs, the Grand Floridian and the Yacht Club).
  • Each team will have its own chef and food room. Those will be available 24 hours a day.
  • Players can eat with other players if it happens outdoors.
  • “Eventually, teams can have meals at some restaurants on the Disney campus that will be closed down to accommodate them. They might also be able to order from select local restaurants.”
  • Everyone on campus -- and yes, some guests are permitted on campus -- will have to wear a Disney MagicBand unless playing basketball or otherwise exercising. MagicBands work as room keys and help with other medical screenings.
  • Team hotels will have players’ lounges complete with video games, card tables, pingpong and other activities to keep busy. There will be no doubles in pingpong for social distancing reasons and new packs of cards will be used for each session, ESPN said.
  • Pools, trails and golf courses will be open on the Disney campus.
A look at Walt Disney World Resort as it marks its 45th anniversary.
A look at Walt Disney World Resort as it marks its 45th anniversary. (2016 Getty file photo/Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

Tell me more about these guests and what kind of rules they must follow.

Firstly, there will be no guests until after the first round of the playoffs -- but once that’s over, each of the eight teams will get 15 to 17 hotel rooms for player guests. Players will cover those room costs, ESPN said.

“To be allowed onto campus, guests will have to self-quarantine for a week, then quarantine and be tested at least every other day for three days in either the home market or outside of the NBA’s campus in Orlando. Anyone who tests positive during this period won’t be allowed to enter the NBA campus.”

Further testing will take place every four days on campus.

Can people leave campus once they’re all checked in?

Well, no one will be prevented from leaving. But it gets a little tricky.

If a person leaves campus without approval and wants to reenter, he or she will face at least 10 days in quarantine and have to undergo deep nasal testing, ESPN said.

Other tests on campus, for what it’s worth, will entail shallow nasal or shallow oral testing.

There are excused absences; for example, if there’s a family emergency. In that case, returning would require four days in quarantine as long as the person tested negative for COVID-19 each day he or she was outside the campus, according to the report.


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