It has been relatively smooth sailing for the NBA in its bubble down in Orlando so far. Sure, Lou Williams went to a strip club for chicken wings and Richaun Holmes took a few too many steps off campus to also get chicken wings, but otherwise players have gone along with the program. There hasn't been a COVID-19 outbreak. Everyone seems to be getting along. It really couldn't be going much better, and it certainly could be going much worse.
Just because it's worked once (SO FAR) does not mean it would work again, though. Such a hypothetical was thrown out there by NBA Players Association executive director Michelle Roberts, who said if "tomorrow looks like today," then the bubble is the only realistic option to hold the 2020-21 season in full. Via ESPN:
""If tomorrow looks like today, I don't know how we say we can do it differently," Roberts told ESPN in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. "If tomorrow looks like today, and today we all acknowledge -- and this is not Michele talking, this is the league, together with the PA and our respective experts saying, 'This is the way to do it' -- then that's going to have to be the way to do it.""
Part of what makes this current bubble situation work is that it's only for the most important part of the season: the playoffs. MLB players wanted no part of a full season bubble in Arizona, which obviously ended up being the right call given Arizona is now one of the most-impacted states in the country by coronavirus. But they initially shot it down because an entire season spent in a bubble environment with limited to no access to their family and friends just isn't something anyone will willingly sign up for. Even if it means a season will be held and they are compensated handsomely.
It's an easier sell to NBA players to tell them they'll only be there for a few months and the opportunity to win a championship as the main sales point. But especially for teams that go deep into the playoffs, coming back from their time holed up in Disney hotels and then being told they're doing the same thing two or three months later will not land well. It just won't. Even if they managed to get enough space to bring in immediate family members for players and staff, the players won't willingly be sequestered away for an 82-game season.
Thus, the NBA will need to get creative if Roberts is right and the state of the country has not improved enough to hold the season as they would in a normal year. Operating under the assumption that this season will end as scheduled and a bubble successfully prevents an outbreak, it could be re-used, but in a different way than Roberts is suggesting. The league could split the season up into two halves to prevent bubble fatigue. Have all 30 teams show up in Orlando in December, play 41 games over the course of two months, then give everyone a month-long recess, sort of like an extended All-Star break. Come back in early March, play the remaining 41 games until early May, then take another several-week recess before doing the same thing for the playoffs, with the Finals presumably running until early to mid-July.
This would throw off the league's offseason schedule again, but as Roberts appears to recognize, getting things back to "normal" takes a backseat to ensuring everyone's safety and the viability of a full 2020-21 season. It would be mentally exhausting for the players, to be sure. Having their families there would be a requirement for something like this, which seems feasible given teams who make it past the first round of the playoffs in the current bubble can bring immediate family in. But not everyone who plays in the NBA is married and has kids. There are plenty of young guys with a lot of money who want to go out and spend it. Sitting still for a few months in pursuit of a ring is one thing, but the telling a young 20-something with millions in the bank account they have to stay put at Disney for a six-month regular season is something else entirely. This proposed solution addresses that as best as anyone could hope.
The NBA seems the most willing of the major sports leagues to explore every avenue in order to find something resembling an optimal solution. We will all have much, much bigger problems to worry about if the country hasn't gotten a handle on coronavirus come December, but in terms of the problems facing the NBA, people are going to have to think outside the box. How far remains to be seen.