Just more than two months after it crowned the Lakers as champions, the NBA is back for a season that will be unlike any before.
After its 2019-2020 season was suspended in March by the league’s first confirmed COVID-19 case and then finished in a bubble over the summer, the NBA is about to embark on a challenge that MLB already faced and the NFL is in the late stages of: completing a season during a pandemic without a bubble.
Here’s a breakdown of what will look different in the 2020-2021 NBA season:
Instead of the regular 82 games, this season will include 72 games because of the delayed start and a hope to get back to a normal schedule after this season. It won’t quite be MLB’s 60-game sprint, but cutting 10 games off the schedule does add some extra importance to each one.
The trade deadline will reportedly be March 25 while the All-Star Weekend that was set to be in Indianapolis has been postponed, with no details yet on what might replace it.
Of those 72 games, only 37 or 38 are currently scheduled for each team. The NBA released the first-half schedules for games spanning from Tuesday through March 4. The second-half schedules are set to be announced near the end of the first half of the season, giving the league some flexibility to deal with potential postponements or outbreaks that happen before then.
The league also tried to make a schedule that will reduce travel and include the use of series.
Change at the end
Once the regular season is actually completed, the NBA will get a taste of its new playoff format featuring a play-in tournament. The Nos. 7-10 teams in each conference will be entered into the tournament to determine the final playoff spots. The No. 7 team will play the No. 8 team in the “Seven-Eight Game,” with the No. 7 seed at stake. The No. 9 team will play the No. 10 team, and the winner will play the loser of the Seven-Eight Game for the eighth and final playoff spot.
The bubble has popped
The NBA is entering the real world this season, saying goodbye to its well-protected days in Disney World. With that will come the challenges of playing a season in which not even the strictest of protocols can keep the virus away from players.
While fans were virtual in the bubble, they still won’t be in person at most arenas. Only five teams have plans to host fans when the season begins, though it remains to be seen if others could join them. One of the arenas that will have fans is Tampa’s Amalie Arena, which will host the Raptors this season due to COVID-19 restrictions traveling to Toronto.
The bench could run a little longer this year as the league voted to expand active rosters on game nights from 13 to 15 players. The tweak gives teams some more flexibility while dealing with potential COVID-19 cases throughout the season.