On March 11, Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for COVID-19 and the NBA shut down the season, right as the entire league was entering the final push before the playoffs. Believe it or not, professional basketball is back this week and you can watch even if you don’t pay for cable.
That said, there are some things you need to know about the NBA’s restart. The United States isn’t even close to being out of the COVID-19 woods yet, so the league has taken some drastic measures to make sure it can crown a champion (and collect incomprehensible amounts of TV revenue) for the 2019-20 season.
The games start on Thursday, July 30. It’s weird as hell, but if you’ve been bored for the past five months with nothing to watch on TV, it’s better than nothing.
Wait, basketball is back? How?
Over the weekend, you may have noticed that Major League Baseball is back. Those teams are still traveling around the country and playing in empty stadiums. Everyone is getting regularly tested for COVID-19, but more than a dozen players for the Miami Marlins alone have tested positive, then they played a game anyway, and it seems like the league could shut down again at any minute.
That’s not how the NBA is doing it. There will be no traveling or even contact with the outside world until the NBA Finals are over. Instead, players, coaches, broadcasters, referees, journalists, and all of the other people who keep the train rolling are staying in a tightly controlled “bubble” in Orlando, Florida on a Disney campus. Everyone is holed up across a handful of hotels, games are played in three different arenas onsite with no seating for fans, and anyone who leaves or enters is closely monitored and tested before they can interact with other humans.
The games haven’t even started yet and we’ve already gotten a hilarious example of what happens when a player tries to break quarantine: LA Clippers guard Lou Williams will miss the first two games of the restart while quarantining because he decided to get some wings at a famous strip club in Atlanta. To be fair, the wings looked really good.
This is an odd approach, but it’s not a unique one. The NHL, WNBA, and MLS are all doing the same thing in different cities. One could and probably should argue that the U.S. doesn’t deserve to bring back sports yet, but the results in the NBA’s bubble so far are somewhat encouraging. The last round of COVID testing produced zero positive results.
They put the whole league in Orlando?
No. While it’s arguably irresponsible to play any basketball right now, it’s definitely irresponsible to make the teams that were already knocked out of playoff contention before the season shut down play basketball. The NBA only sent the 22 teams that were still alive in the playoff race to Orlando and left these eight teams out:
Golden State Warriors
New York Knicks
If your favorite team isn’t on that list, then they’re still playing. At one point, there were rumors of a second bubble in Chicago for the bottom-feeders because even bad teams need game revenue, but it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen. The world can survive without closure to the Knicks’ season.
How many games are there?
This is where things get a little strange from a pure basketball perspective. Normally, an NBA team plays a 72-game regular season. If they have one of the eight best records in their conference by the end, they can punch a ticket to the big dance. Since the NBA didn’t get to finish its regular season before the pandemic took hold, each of the 22 teams in the bubble will play eight “seeding” games amongst themselves to decide who gets to go to the playoffs. Their records in those games will be added to their records before the shutdown to calculate playoff seeding.
The top seven teams in each conference will go to the playoffs as normal, but there’s a special rule in the restart for the eighth seeds. If the teams in eighth place in the Eastern and Western Conferences (currently the Orlando Magic and Memphis Grizzlies) are four games or fewer ahead of the teams in ninth, there will be a best-of-two play-in tournament. That way, the ninth seed can usurp the team ahead of them and go to the playoffs instead by winning two in a row.
Does it make sense? Not really. Is it transparently a way to give rookie sensation Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans an easier path to a first-round matchup against LeBron James? Pretty much. Once the playoffs actually start, they’ll be the same as usual: Three best-of-seven rounds in each conference culminating in a best-of-seven finals. If you thought you could watch all of that without navigating the confusing world of cable TV or streaming alternatives, we have bad news for you.
When and where can I watch?
The NBA restart officially begins on Thursday, July 30 with a double-header on TNT: Jazz vs. Pelicans at 6:30 p.m. ET and Clippers vs. Lakers at 9:00 p.m. ET. The playoffs tip off on Aug. 17 and the Finals start on Sept. 30. You can see the schedules for each team’s seeding games here.
The majority of the seeding games will be on ESPN, ABC, TNT, and NBA TV. According to the schedule, a small handful of them will not be nationally televised and will instead air on local affiliates, like they would under normal circumstances. The easiest way for most people to watch those games will be via NBA League Pass. Right now, you can pay $28.99 for access to out-of-market games that aren’t nationally televised. Using the same League Pass link, you can subscribe to just NBA TV for $6.99 per month, if you want.
For the national games that make up the majority of the seeding and the entirety of the playoff schedules, you’ll need one of two things: A cable login or a subscription to a streaming alternative that has ESPN, ABC, TNT, and NBA TV. YouTube TV is going to provide the best value on its own, as $65 per month gets you all four of those networks. “Best” is relative here.
If you go with another service, you’ll have to make compromises. Hulu with Live TV is probably the second-best option at $55 per month, as it gives you everything but NBA TV. You can just supplement that with the aforementioned NBA TV subscription. Sling Orange is just $20 per month (discounted from $30) and gets you everything except ABC. Finally, fuboTV will give you NBA TV with its $55 per month standard package plus the $6.99 per month “Extra” add-on package. It actually doesn’t have ESPN and ABC yet, but it’s supposedly getting both of those in “early August.” No TNT on fuboTV, unfortunately.
Not great, right? It’s labyrinthine and costly to watch these games without cable, to be sure. There are other, less legal ways to do it that we can’t suggest to you, but you have access to Google. Oh, by the way, there’s a whole other basketball league you should check out while you’re at it.
What about the WNBA?
The NBA doesn’t officially start until Thursday, but the WNBA’s regular season actually started over the weekend from a bubble of its own in Bradenton, Florida. From now until Sept. 12, all 12 WNBA teams will play a 22-game regular season before starting the playoffs. It’s never been easier to watch the WNBA thanks to an expanded national TV schedule, and you really need to check it out if you like basketball at all.
The games are spread across ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, CBS, CBS Sports Network, and NBA TV. Either Hulu with a separate NBA TV subscription or fuboTV’s standard option with the aforementioned NBA TV add-on will work here. Both setups will run you a little bit more than $60 per month, so it isn’t cheap. That said, the WNBA is in a pretty fantastic spot right now and it’s well worth your time if you’ve never watched it before. The Seattle Storm, in particular, are very fun to watch.
WNBA has its own version of League Pass with the same local and national restrictions as the NBA’s subscription plan. Unlike NBA League Pass, though, it’s only $16.99 to get everything. That’s a heck of a deal.
It’s a bummer that watching live sports without cable is as difficult as ever, especially during a time when nobody can reasonably go to a sports bar to watch the biggest games. We here at Mashable hope you can find a cost-effective and easy way to follow both basketball leagues. It’s not like you have anything else to do.