Beyond the bubble
SPORTING CHANCE - Joaquin M. Henson (The Philippine Star) - September 29, 2020 - 12:00am

The NBA is ending its season soon with the Finals between the LA Lakers and Miami starting Thursday morning (Manila time) while the PBA is reopening its 45th campaign in Clark on Oct. 11. Because of the pandemic, both leagues had to do something innovative to reboot, employing the bubble to provide safety and protection for everyone involved in the games.

Luckily, about 70 percent of the NBA regular season was done when the contests were suspended last March. That allowed NBA commissioner Adam Silver to weed out eight teams which were mathematically out of playoff contention for the bubble restart at Lake Buena Vista, leaving 22 to compete for 16 postseason slots. Silver arranged for eight “seeding” games for the 22 teams to determine the playoff qualifiers. He borrowed the twice-to-beat system from the PBA and called it the “play-in” to decide the last slot in the Western and Eastern conferences if the margin of difference between the eighth and ninth placers was four or less games.

Unlike in the NBA, the PBA had just launched its 45th season with a game between San Miguel Beer and Magnolia when the suspension came. So there are 65 more contests to play in the eliminations. PBA commissioner Willie Marcial created the league’s own version of a bubble to bring the 12 teams over to Clark. It’s a compressed 2 1/2 month schedule where doubleheaders will be held every day during the eliminations. In all, the PBA will play 90 games assuming every playoff series goes the distance. It’ll be a maximum of 49 game days. In contrast, the NBA restarted last July 31 (Manila time) and Game 7 of the Finals will be played on Oct. 12 (Manila time), if necessary or a period of 72 days. The period would’ve been extended if each of the previous playoff series went the distance.

The big question is what will the NBA and PBA do for next season? The NBA plays an 82-game regular season for each of its 30 member teams. It’s difficult to imagine gathering 30 teams to play 82 games each in a bubble because that would take about six months to finish. Then there are 105 playoff games to schedule, assuming every series goes the limit. Will the NBA break up the regular season into clusters and reprise playing in a bubble? There could be 10 teams in one of three clusters to play each other for a specific period then take a break before rotating to join another cluster, repeating the system until the end of the regular season. That would be a logistical challenge and extremely expensive but may be doable.

In the PBA, the solution is easier to figure out because the competition format splits the season into three separate conferences. The PBA could repeat what it’s doing for the Philippine Cup in the Clark bubble thrice for the next season with breaks in between. The NBA put up a $170 million budget for the Florida bubble while the PBA’s allocation is the equivalent of $1.4 million involving 18 less teams. If the pandemic continues, the PBA might even play just two conferences, both without imports because it will be difficult for foreign players to come over due to travel restrictions and safety concerns. It’ll be a monumental hassle if a team replaces an import.

Under the circumstances, the PBA may find it not as difficult to play out next season than the NBA because of less teams and a format that divides a season into three tournaments. It’ll still be a test of creativity and resilience to get the next season going whether in the PBA or NBA.

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