Every professional sport in the U.S. has suspended play due to the coronavirus pandemic, but two leagues in particular face challenging tests. The NBA and NHL are the only leagues to have nearly completed their regular seasons, meaning an alteration to the regular season schedule isn’t the only solution. Both have to figure out how to deal with their respective playoffs and the placement of teams.
Two NBA teams — the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs — had played 63 games, meaning they have 19 left for the 2019-20 regular season. The other 28 teams have between 15 and 18 games left, with the playoffs previously set to begin April 18.
The NHL is even closer to finishing its regular season. The Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders have 14 games left, but every other team has either 11, 12 or 13 games to play in the regular season, with the playoffs scheduled to start April 8.
Both leagues will have to prepare for any scenario. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the league is suspended for at least 30 days, while NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman declined to give a timetable for when the league will resume play.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver joins TNT to discuss the league’s decision to suspend game play. pic.twitter.com/p7TtruOKOG— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) March 13, 2020
Three NBA players have tested positive for coronavirus: Utah’s Rudy Gobert, Donovan Mitchell and Detroit’s Christian Wood. No player in the NHL has tested positive for coronavirus, but Bettman told CNBC’s Scott Wapner that once he heard news of an NBA player testing positive, he wanted to get ahead of it and put the league on pause.
One key issue for how the leagues will handle the remainder of their seasons is how they’ll seed teams for their playoffs. Some of the top teams in both sports have clinched postseason spots, but it’s imperative to give teams fighting for the final few spots a chance to prove their place.
The first solution for both leagues is to keep the season on hold until it’s deemed safe and then resume from where the season left off. This keeps the integrity of determining the playoff spots and allows for the eventual champion to have won it in “normal” fashion. However, the logistics of re-scheduling every game make this idea difficult.
Arenas will have other events that can’t be moved, meaning the NBA or NHL couldn’t have the same schedule flexibility as they do during their normal league years. With the amount of games the NBA still needs to complete, finding a balanced schedule would be nearly impossible. Even though the NHL has fewer games, it’s in the same situation.
Another option the leagues can pursue is to cancel the remaining regular-season contests and begin the playoffs once teams resume play. With the coronavirus predicted to grow in numbers, it’s likely the leagues will remain on hold beyond their scheduled playoff starts. It’d be easier for league officials to push the playoffs back a few more weeks instead of having to determine new dates for the regular season.
This idea prevents teams from making a run to improve their rankings, some of which could earn playoff spots in the meantime. It also has an effect on the 2020 NBA and NHL Draft, as draft positions could change drastically in a short period of time.
Another solution is to cancel the remainder of the seasons as seen in college sports and resume operation in the next league year. This would mean the NBA wouldn’t crown a champion for the first time in its history, but it wouldn’t be the first time the NHL has dealt with a season ending without a player hoisting the Stanley Cup, as the league was in a lockout in 2005.
When — or if — play resumes for these leagues, the eventual champions will be the last team standing in what would be a season for the history books. There’s no clear-cut path that the leagues can take because of the novelty of the situation. It’s a matter of waiting and evaluating situations as the pandemic continues, but until the outcome of the season is determined, fans can only speculate what’s next for sports.
Contact Noah Ziegler at email@example.com. For more coverage, follow the sports desk on Twitter @TheBreezeSports.