NBA 2020-21 season explainer: Schedule, COVID-19 protocols, playoff format and big questions

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How should the NBA handle positive COVID-19 cases? (1:10)

Paul Pierce questions how the NBA will manage COVID-19 cases without a bubble. (1:10)

The NBA returns to regular-season action on Dec. 22 following an abbreviated offseason -- one that saw the draft and the start of free agency compressed into the same week -- with some uncertainty.

With the coronavirus pandemic ongoing, the league is facing decisions about how to undertake a campaign outside the relative security of a bubble. The NBA circulated a 134-page guide about health and safety protocols last week, but it has outstanding concerns to address.

Here's what we know and don't know about how the 2020-21 season will work.


What happens if and when a player tests positive?

Any time a player tests positive for COVID-19, he will have to go through a series of steps before being able to play again.

If the player is asymptomatic, he must sit out for 10 days from when first testing positive, then pass a cardiac screen and, finally, work out alone at the team facility for two more days before being allowed to return to full team activities -- assuming there are no issues.

If the player is symptomatic, he must sit out for 10 days from when symptoms subside, then follow the same path as asymptomatic players.

If a player gets a serious case of COVID-19 -- up to and including going to the hospital -- he would have to work out alone for three days, rather than two, before being cleared to return to team activities, assuming everything checks out.

Basically, fans can expect that if a player tests positive, he will be unable to play for at least two weeks -- and if he shows symptoms, that time frame could easily grow longer. -- Tim Bontemps


What happens if an individual or a team breaks COVID-19 protocol?

In an updated version of the health and safety protocols released this weekend, the NBA laid out what the potential punishments will be for players, staff and teams that violate them. The protocol states that any "failure or refusal to comply" may subject players and staff in Tiers 1 and 2 to disciplinary action by either the league or individual teams, up to and including warnings, fines and/or suspensions. Anyone who is found to be noncompliant may also have to go through educational sessions on the importance of following the protocols and how they can protect both themselves and others.

In addition, teams could also be punished for failing to comply -- as well as for failing to report any "potential or actual violation, and/or any discipline imposed by the team for such violation." If teams are found to repeatedly violate the protocol, they could be subject to "enhanced discipline." It specifically pointed out that any violations that lead to spreading the coronavirus to other teams, and as a result require adjustments to the NBA's schedule or impact any other team, could cause punishments up to, and including, "fines, suspensions, adjustment or loss of draft choices and/or being forced to forfeit games. -- Bontemps


Will games be suspended for positive tests?

Much like the NFL, potential game suspensions or postponements will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. NFL teams have tried to play through the schedule when only a handful of players test positive in an organization, but schedules have had to be altered in outbreak situations.

The NBA remains confident in its protocols, but it remains to be seen how it will handle the situation if several players on one team test positive at the same time. -- Nick Friedell


How is the season schedule different?

The schedule will be different in a few ways.

First, there will be only 72 games, down from the typical 82. While teams are still scheduled to play at home and away against every team in the opposite conference, they will play only three times against each team in their own conference. Typically, teams play four games against 10 opponents in their own conference and three against the other four.

Second, in an effort to reduce travel, teams will play what can be described as "baseball-style" series against opponents, with two consecutive games in the same city against the same team. Fans will get a small taste of that during the preseason, when there will be several repeat matchups between teams.

Finally, rather than releasing the entire schedule all at once, the NBA is going to release it in halves. The First Half -- games taking place from Dec. 22-March 4 -- was released last week, and the Second Half will be released after about 30 games have been played. This gives the NBA flexibility to adjust to possible postponements due to COVID-19 issues. -- Bontemps


Will there be fans at games?

That decision will be made on a team-to-team basis in consultation with local and state health officials. No fans will be permitted in several NBA arenas at the start of the season. Some cities will allow a limited number of fans at games -- with all fans over the age of 2 required to wear face masks.

The Memphis Grizzlies announced that the capacity in FedExForum "is expected to be roughly 20%," based on socially distanced seating configurations, to start the season. The Utah Jazz announced a plan to have a reduced seating capacity of 1,500 in the lower bowl only and limited seating on the suite level. The Atlanta Hawks plan to have friends and family in the stands in the first weeks of the season and 10% capacity for their Martin Luther King Jr. Day game, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Several other teams are in the process of determining what their seating capacity will be to begin the season.

The Golden State Warriors' "Operation Dub Nation" plan to fill the Chase Center to 50% capacity -- a proposal that included rapid COVID-19 testing for every person who entered the arena -- was rejected by the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

"In the present circumstances, bringing thousands of individuals (and households) together -- many of whom would travel and return from other counties -- creates too much risk of widespread transmission in transit and while visiting San Francisco," the department of public health said in a letter to the Warriors, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Other franchises, including the Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets and Charlotte Hornets, have announced they will open the season without fans at home games.

"We are optimistic that conditions will improve in the coming months and hope to be able to have fans in attendance later in the season," the Hornets' statement read. -- Tim MacMahon


What are players allowed and not allowed to do on the road? And how have traveling parties changed?

In the past, there was no limit on how many people teams wanted to have along on trips; it was strictly a matter of how many they were willing to pay for to take on the road. Now, though, there is a hard limit of 45 people who can be part of the travel party. For some teams, that won't matter. For others, it will cause major headaches.

While the NBA is clearly concerned about the threat of the virus as teams begin traveling, the league will allow players and staff to leave hotels for dining under specific circumstances, including: outdoor dining, fully private room dining in restaurants, or NBA/NBPA approved restaurants that meet specific league criteria. The league and the union are putting together a list of at least three such restaurants in each NBA city. There are also further restrictions on movements at home, including people in Tier 1 and 2 not being allowed to: go to bars, lounges or clubs; attend live entertainment or game venues; or visit public gyms, spas, pool areas or large indoor social gatherings that exceed 15 people. -- Bontemps


How will the league handle cities potentially instituting bans on games and practices?

The Toronto Raptors already had to relocate temporarily. Due to travel restrictions the Canadian government put in place during the pandemic, it isn't feasible to have an NBA team based north of the border right now.

The Raptors chose Tampa, Florida, as their home for an indefinite period after considering several other sites.

Other situations requiring a franchise to relocate would be handled on a case-by-case basis. Teams and the league office are in frequent contact with local and state officials, discussing protocols and seeking government guidance, so the hope is that a team won't be caught off guard by such a situation.

The league has an idea of which cities have the infrastructure in place to host an NBA team, but there isn't an official list of alternate cities at this point. Potential relocation cities would be evaluated solely on health and safety issues, as factors such as fan support would not be relevant. -- MacMahon


What about the possibility of a COVID-19 vaccine?

The league's protocol document also includes language about how a COVID-19 vaccine could affect the season. Once "one or more vaccines" have been both authorized by the FDA and specialists working with the NBA and the NBPA believe them to be safe and effective, the NBA and NBPA will discuss whether "Tier 1 and Tier 2 individuals" will be required to receive the vaccine. The protocol also says that, if the vaccine will not be required, that could create the need for additional health and safety restrictions for those who don't get the vaccine, compared to those who do. For example, people who don't get the vaccine could have to wear masks or get tested more often than those who do get it. -- Bontemps


How are player salaries affected?

Although the season is 10 games shorter, player salaries will remain the same. What will change is the amount of pay that is withheld in an escrow fund. Because the players and the league essentially employ a 50-50 split of basketball-related income (BRI), the players typically get 10% of their pay withheld until the end of the season to make sure the books are properly balanced. Then, depending on the way the revenues play out as compared to projections, both sides will square things up at the end of the season.

This season, however, revenue is all but certain to be lower than the 10% withholding could make up. As part of the negotiations to bring the league back for the 2020-21 season, the two sides agreed to have an escrow of no more than 20% this season and to spread the losses out over the next three years to make sure that no single class of players was impacted too heavily. -- Bontemps

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What's happening with the All-Star break?

The NBA will not hold an All-Star Game this season, but there will be a break in the action from March 5-10, separating the two halves of the season. Players will get six days off in the middle of what figures to be a hectic schedule. Whether All-Star teams will be named is yet to be determined.

Indianapolis, which was scheduled to hold the 2021 All-Star Weekend festivities, will now host in 2024. -- Andrew Lopez


When is the trade deadline?

The 2021 trade deadline has yet to be finalized. The deadline is typically in early February, a week or two before the All-Star break, but this season's deadline will occur after March 3. That is the date when free agents who signed with their own teams for greater than a 20% increase from the previous season can be traded. -- Royce Young


How will the play-in tournament work?

After the success of the play-in tournament in the bubble, the NBA officially implemented and expanded the play-in tournament for the 2020-21 season. The NBA board of governors unanimously approved the play-in tournament on a one-year basis.

Four teams in each conference -- the Nos. 7-10 seeds -- will make up the play-in tournament. The teams with the seventh- and eighth-highest winning percentages will have two chances to make the playoffs, while the teams with the ninth- and 10th-highest winning percentages will have one chance.

The "Seven-Eight Game" will be between the teams ranked seventh and eighth, while the "Nine-Ten Game" will feature the teams ranked ninth and 10th. The winner of the Seven-Eight Game will advance to the playoffs as the No. 7 seed. The loser will host the winner of the Nine-Ten Game, and then the winner of that contest will get the eighth seed in the playoffs.

The play-in tournament is scheduled for May 18-21. -- Lopez


Will there be a playoff bubble?

It is too early to say. The NBA isn't even releasing the full schedule yet, so there isn't any formal plan for how the playoffs might look. There is built-in flexibility for how the NBA is planning to approach the season, and while a playoff bubble could be a possibility, if needed, the hope for the league would be for the postseason to be as "normal" as possible, including fans in the arenas. Exterior factors will determine much of that, and it's impossible to predict what the situation might be in June. -- Young


What would it take for the NBA to suspend the season?

It remains unclear. In the health and safety protocol, this is what the league said with regard to the potential for suspending the season: "The occurrence of independent cases or a small or otherwise expected number of COVID-19 cases will not require a decision to suspend or cancel the 2020-21 season."

The document goes on to say it is designed to "promote prevention and mitigation strategies to reduce exposure to, and transmission of, the coronavirus," but that it is likely some players and staff will contract the virus.

The fact that this is left so open-ended is an indication that the NBA is well aware of the difficult road ahead. Already we have seen two Warriors players and one Washington Wizards player test positive, according to those teams.

After seeing the complications the NFL and MLB have had in playing their seasons outside of a bubble format, we know that the NBA has the potential for similar issues. -- Bontemps

ESPN's Bobby Marks contributed reporting.