How the 2020-21 NBL season might look

The NBL is discussing a delay of its initial hopeful start date, multiple 'bubble' options, and the possibility of relocating the league's two Melbourne teams to begin the 2020-21 season, multiple sources have told ESPN.

The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic led to the delay of the upcoming NBL season, with a taskforce put in place in the beginning of August to plan how the league would overcome the unprecedented logistical challenges.

December 3 had been marked by the NBL as a hopeful start date to the new season -- pushed back from the usual October commencement -- but that's moved back "at least 30-45 days", according to one source with knowledge of the discussions.

A start date for the season has yet to be decided, but is expected to be finalised within the next few weeks. The NBL's decision-makers held a meeting on Monday with the intent of coming closer to a firm start date for the new season, sources said, after they engaged with Premiers across relevant states, as well as the league's Return to Competition Taskforce.

"We are currently working with the clubs and players to plan for the forthcoming NBL season including a start date," NBL Commissioner, Jeremy Loeliger, told ESPN when reached for comment. "We have already said we won't start the season before December and will look to finalise the start date soon. We are absolutely committed to putting on the best season we can considering the challenging circumstances and will do all we can to play in front of fans.

"We are encouraged by the improvement with regards to COVID, particularly in Victoria, and hope that by the time our season will be ready to commence the border restrictions will be lifted. We are exploring a lot of different scenarios and will be guided by our NBL Return to Competition Taskforce and the respective state guidelines before finalising our decision closer to the start of the season."

One development that's regarded as a positive step toward the 2020-21 NBL season's planning being finalised is that players across all teams began receiving salary payments in the middle of August.

The NBL's priority remains to work on solutions that would secure crowds at games, because any alternative is seen by the league to not be financially viable. Decision-makers within multiple teams have also privately acknowledged that playing games without fans is not feasible, sources said, though that sentiment isn't a consensus.

Since the beginning of discussions about how the upcoming NBL season could function, the idea of emulating the NBA's 'bubble' was debated, but has always been regarded as a last resort, sources said. Four potential locations for an NBL bubble have been discussed as strong options, sources said: New Zealand, Cairns, Adelaide, and Perth. Victoria and NSW have also expressed interest in housing an NBA bubble, and discussions with those two states remain ongoing. A bubble would feature all nine NBL teams functioning in one city, potentially on a temporary basis.

The NBL's priority, however, remains to have each team function in their respective markets, sources said. Among the biggest issues facing the NBL is the state of Victoria, which has suffered through a significant second wave; though, in a positive development, the amount of new cases dropped to double digits this week. The NBL has two teams, Melbourne United and the South East Melbourne Phoenix, based in the state.

One option being discussed - an idea that's gaining steam - is for the two Melbourne teams to operate in a different state to begin the new season, before back-loading those teams' home games, sources said. That would give the state of Victoria time to continue its recovery from its second wave before dealing with the logistics of housing and welcoming NBL teams, while giving both Melbourne franchises the ability to function in a city that hasn't been as intensely hit by the coronavirus.

"Like all businesses, we have to prepare for every scenario that we could come up with," United CEO, Vince Crivelli, told ESPN on how his team would respond to a bubble or relocation. "That, to be honest, is normal business rules. You should always be preparing yourself for what's next and trying to assess the landscape and make your next move.

"That's no different for us; we've been in that mode for a while now. I've been out of the office since March, dealing with this thing remotely for the good part of six months; our whole team has been in this situation. As a collective, we constantly work on what the scenarios are that can play out. We do that to be prepared, because we don't know what's gonna happen in Victoria over the next three to four months."

The Phoenix have returned to practice after several training players tested positive for the coronavirus and, like their Melbourne counterparts, are in lockstep with the NBL when it comes to functioning in the new season.

"Like all clubs, we are working closely with the NBL as well as the players, around the planning and operation of the season," Phoenix CEO, Tommy Greer, told ESPN.

"The priority for everyone is playing in front of fans if we can, as they are an integral part of the league and our club. There are challenges for everyone in sport right now, but we are optimistic about what's possible and planning accordingly."

On Tuesday, Victoria's sports minister, Martin Pakula, included the NBL in a list of events or leagues he expressed confidence in going ahead, telling reporters, "We have the Spring Racing Carnival, the Boxing Day Test, Australian Open, Formula 1 Grand Prix and the NBL season... all really important events to Victoria and all events we are having conversations about in an ongoing sense and I'm really confident about all of those events occurring here."

Crivelli said he was encouraged by Pakula's positive words about the potential of professional sports going ahead in the state.

"That's really encouraging; it's super encouraging to hear that," Crivelli said. "It's just too early for us to know what the next step will be. But, fair to say, we've been doing our planning on every scenario we can think of. At the right time, whenever those decisions are made, we'll be ready to pull the trigger on it."

Another obstacle for the league is how it incorporates the New Zealand Breakers, because of how restrictive international travel has become during the pandemic. A potential 'travel bubble' between the two nations was put on hold by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern because of Victoria's second wave, so the NBL has been working with Breakers owner, Matt Walsh, on potential solutions; one of which is relocating the team to an Australian city for the season.

"We have been in constant discussions with Larry (Kestelman), Jeremy (Loeliger), and the rest of the league office since the end of the season on how the upcoming season may play out," Walsh told ESPN.

"COVID has made a normal NBL season impossible and we will all have to adjust in some fashion. We have discussed everything from a New Zealand bubble, a central hub, and the Breakers relocating to Australia and calling an Australian city home for the season.

"Sport NZ has been extremely supportive and is committed to helping us in any way they can. My number-one concern is the safety and wellbeing of our players and staffs. We've built a championship roster and we look forward to competing in whatever format the league and owners decide is the safest and best for all involved."

The lack of a firm start date to the season has also put a halt on the recruitment of imports, with multiple teams holding off on making significant signings until they know when the 2020-21 campaign will officially begin, sources said. Multiple American imports who have signed on for the NBL season have also pushed back their arrival date, sources said; initially planning to land in their respective locations around late-October, many are now setting their sights on early-December.

Crivelli confirmed that United was one of the teams that are being patient when it comes to signing imports.

"We've got two import spots up our sleeves, and a Next Star potentially, to fit in... the truth is, our concern has really been on the health, safety, and wellbeing of our people for the past four-to-six weeks," Crivelli said.

"Not that we're saying it's not important but, in the context of what we've been dealing with, we've been putting our players' welfare front of mind. To a large extent, we're still doing our due diligence in researching the marketplace, but pulling the trigger on an import for us isn't a priority.

"We feel comfortable that we've still got plenty of time to do that, and if it means that we start the season without an import for a week or two, because we were concentrating on the health and wellbeing of all of our people, I think I'm willing to wear that."

Sydney Kings CEO, Chris Pongrass, also told ESPN that his team is prepared to remain flexible from a roster perspective, due to the uncertainty surrounding the start of the new season.

"A number of scenarios are being mapped out for the upcoming season by the League Office and Taskforce," Pongrass said. "We understand the need to remain flexible in our decision making from both a commercial and basketball operations front, and adjust if and when things change.

"We have remained poised in our roster build and are confident this group will be competing for a Championship once again this season. The health, safety and well-being of our players and staff is paramount. With that in mind, we will still do everything we can to best service our members, corporates, sponsors, and fans."