The final, fleeting fight for 30 teams to resume the NBA's season is raging through these last days of indecision. Hours of commissioner Adam Silver's time are being spent engaging owners and high-level executives who are making the case for how the league should march into the summer's playoffs, including those desiring the entire league to descend upon Orlando, Florida.
Some want a wide-open playoffs, a knockout round to give those teams who are among the worst a way to punch up into the play-in for the eighth seed. Some want every market -- New York and Chicago included -- invited into the fans' consciousness. And some are fearful of delivering the competitive disadvantage of a nine-month hiatus prior to the 2020-21 season to young, rebuilding franchises.
From all angles and agendas, there are appeals underway to Silver. The idea of 30 teams returning for the resumption of the season in Orlando has lost momentum, but it still has a significant lobby.
The Atlanta Hawks have the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference and the third-youngest roster. As a franchise, they're chasing the chance to grow a young roster besieged with injuries and suspension -- and buoyed by a February deadline trade for center Clint Capela -- by getting back onto the floor.
The NBA and National Basketball Players Association have discussed a model of 30 teams returning to reach a target goal of 72 regular-season games, sources said. The Hawks, who had 10 players participate in voluntary workouts on Memorial Day, are the league's closest to that total with 67 games played this season.
"Our guys are excited about the opportunity to get back to it," Travis Schlenk, the Hawks' president of basketball operations and general manager, told ESPN. "It has importance for us. We're a young team, and because of injuries and some other things this season, we didn't get to see them all together.
"Clint says he's feeling better, and there's a possibility that we can get him back on the court. Practicing and playing five games would be valuable to us."
Cleveland is eager to play too. Another young roster, another franchise that needs to show improvement of its younger players. Detroit wants to get back to training camp and play games. New Orleans. Portland. Charlotte. Washington. Outside the playoff picture, there's enthusiasm to play.
As everyone expected, of course, there isn't unanimity on these issues. When the NBA and NBPA canvass teams at the bottom of the standings, they also hear ambivalence. Not one owner or GM is explicitly telling anyone they don't want to play this season. Even so, there are enough players on enough bad teams who've shared the idea that they don't see the value in several weeks of camp and quarantines to play five to eight regular-season games with no playoff potential.
Some lottery teams have also made it clear via back channels to the league that if their players are decidedly so-so on returning, there will be no showdown. Translated: If you need to keep us out, we'll gladly keep our favorable lottery position. See you next season.
Privately, Silver has been considering the idea that there are plenty of sensible reasons to pare down the roster of teams in Orlando. First, there's safety. Fewer teams, fewer people to contract or spread the coronavirus -- and less bad basketball. Even elite teams will be sloppy upon return, so what about the others?
There will be a lot more Damion Lee and Alen Smailagic than Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. In a normal year, no one would care about the Golden State Warriors playing out the final string of games in obscurity with young players. This time? It would represent the unveiling of the NBA's return, and it would be precisely what the NBA doesn't want: a bad television spectacle.
If anyone tells you the NBA knows exactly what it's going to do, they're probably ahead of themselves. This is still an open discussion, and there will be more debate on Thursday's GM call with the league and Friday's board of governors call. It's possible the league could bring a recommendation to the owners on Friday, but that's still uncertain. The NBA believes it has time to deliberate and discuss the matter. In fact, there's a possibility the first games played in Orlando could be in August, not July, sources said.
In the end, the NBA will come to the NBPA with a couple of detailed scenarios, recommending one. They'll do so after hundreds of hours of talks with union officials and players, a full download of data about the union's preferences.
The league's GM survey included a pool play option featuring somewhere between the 16 current playoff teams and the full body of 30 NBA teams, sources said. Teams would be divided into a certain number of groups and face each member of their group the same amount of times. (The total number of pool games has not yet been specified.) All of these would likely be branded as playoff games.
Based on the final standings within each group, eight teams would advance out of pool play into a bracket meant to mimic the league's normal postseason structure, sources told ESPN's Zach Lowe.
Several current postseason teams were not initially enthusiastic about that proposal, sources told Lowe. A slump in group play could result in what is currently a solid playoff team -- even one slated for home-court advantage in the first round of a normal postseason -- failing to advance into the eight-team tournament, while a present-day lottery team might get hot and make the final eight.
"It isn't like guys can run off to Vegas or Europe on vacation if we don't play. There's a level of boredom that makes guys more willing to play right now too." Eastern Conference GM
No one wants a product that embarrasses the NBA. Appealing to players only on a sense of duty for the league's greater good isn't going to work. Free agency is already fraught with peril this year -- and probably longer.
Some agents are hinting to GMs: Clients who've had good seasons on the way into free agency don't want to risk undoing that success in a return. Those on contenders will have a hard time explaining why they're not playing -- and virtually every one of them is too competitive and committed to sit out.
On mediocre and bad teams? Well, you'd have some players ducking out of a return -- especially if it's just six to eight games. That has to be a significant part of the consideration for Silver.
There's so much to examine, and so many factors that could leave teams feeling unfairly treated. The West's No. 8 seed, Memphis, had its toughest stretch of games left this season. Portland, New Orleans and Sacramento are within 3.5 games of Memphis in the standings. Portland -- with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins possibly returning -- and New Orleans -- with a well-conditioned Zion Williamson -- could be dangerous challengers in a play-in scenario.
Another factor in the wishy-washy nature of how unconvinced players on non-playoff teams could react to getting called back for a resumption: "It isn't like guys can run off to Vegas or Europe on vacation if we don't play," one Eastern Conference GM said. "There's a level of boredom that makes guys more willing to play right now too."
There are still a number of ideas under discussion, including this one: bringing back the four Western Conference teams on the playoff bubble for play-in purposes, but none in the Eastern Conference, sources said.
"Over the weekend, you're getting a sense the league is starting to realize: Less is more," one high-ranking Eastern Conference executive told ESPN.
When the NBA feared losing the season completely in March, it was easier for owners, executives and players to hear Silver preparing everyone for how frustrated and aggrieved they might be once these choices are made. As everything moves closer to a return, it's clearer that'll be the case.
"If we don't show up, we lose more money," one starter on a non-playoff team told ESPN. "We are already in the hole. And what message does it send to the public, the teams, the players that we are OK with 10 to 14 teams not playing? We already have a competition problem in the league.
"My thing is, play 30 teams for as many games as possible for the money or go straight to the playoffs."
Adam Silver hears them all. And wherever he lands on the issue, whatever model he suggests to the owners and union that makes the most sense for all, the commissioner always did suspect how it would end: hard decisions leaving hurt feelings. This is a small part of the pandemic's price to the NBA.