Dec 22, 2020 - Sports

NBA steps out of the bubble and into the world

Illustration of basketball wearing a face mask

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The Disney World bubble kept the NBA safe from COVID-19 this summer. Now comes an even greater challenge: staging a 72-game season in the real world.

Why it matters: In the bubble, the NBA made and enforced the rules, set up a complex testing program and operated three arenas. In the real world, teams will be responsible for doing everything themselves.

  • While the NBA can lean on its bubble experience to a certain degree, it has never traveled during the pandemic like MLB and the NFL have.
  • The best the league can do is prepare for all contingencies, as there will almost certainly be bumps in the road along the way.

What they're saying: "I think we are prepared for isolated cases. In fact, based on what we've seen in the preseason [and] watching other leagues operating outside a bubble, unfortunately, it seems somewhat inevitable," NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Monday.


  • 10-day quarantine: If a player tests positive, he must remain in isolation for at least 10 days or pass COVID-19 tests on two consecutive days before returning.
  • Travel rules: Teams can use only pre-approved restaurants and private dining spaces; players are banned from visiting bars, nightclubs and public gyms.
  • Hotel rules: Players are limited to two guests in their rooms and both must be family members or close friends.
  • Expanded rosters: In anticipation of positive tests, the NBA has expanded active game rosters from 13 to 15 players. Plus, two-way players can be active for up to 50 games.

Key dates:

  • Dec. 22-March 4: First half of regular season (best games)
  • March 5-10: All-Star break
  • March 11-May 16: Second half of regular season (schedule TBD)
  • May 18-21: Play-in tournament
  • May 22-July 22: Playoffs

For the record: 24 of the NBA's 30 teams will begin the season without fans, while the following six teams will allow reduced crowds:

  • Cavaliers: 300 fans (1.5% capacity)
  • Jazz: 1,500 (8.2%)
  • Magic: 4,000 (21.2%)
  • Pelicans: 750 (4%)
  • Raptors (in Tampa): 3,800 (18.5%)
  • Rockets: 4,500 (25%)

Worth noting: The Spurs plan to allow a limited number of fans starting on Jan. 1, and the Hawks plan to allow 1,700 fans (10%) starting on Jan. 18.

Looking ahead: NIAID director Anthony Fauci has predicted that most Americans will be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine by late spring or early summer, and that "it's possible" we could see full stadiums again in 2021.

  • Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told SiriusXM NBA Radio that he thinks "things are going to get really fun" in NBA arenas in the season's second half.
  • "We won't be able to eliminate cases and outbreaks, but if we can minimize them, then hopefully it can be as close to a normal season as possible," Cuban told NYT.

Go deeper: Season preview (NBA)

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