It looks like barring the unforeseen—of which this country has already certainly seen its share of this year—the 2019-20 NBA season will return. Earlier this month, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that the league had come to an agreement and that 22 teams would complete the season by playing a shortened schedule, tentatively set to begin in late July. While this was a solid first step towards basketball’s return, it turns out that there are plenty of details that need to be worked out along the way. One of these details involves the risks about to be taken by players who are on the cusp of being eligible to sign rookie extensions, a key one being the Boston Celtics’ Jayson Tatum.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Tatum is among five members of the 2017 NBA Draft Class who have been in contact with the National Basketball Players Association with a proposal to protect their financial future against risks they would take on if they resumed playing. Along with the Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo, the Sacramento Kings’ De’Aaron Fox, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma and the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Tatum is asking the league to finance insurance policies in the advent of career-altering consequences by resuming play while the coronavirus still rages. The players rightfully believe that they and others are exposing themselves to not only the potential long-term health effects connected to suffering from a serious bout of Covid-19 but also the increased chance of injuries based upon the long period of layoff and the reduced time they will have to train before games resume.
While obviously all returning players will be taking on more risk than normal in the proposed shortened season, this particular draft class has reason to be particularly mindful considering where they are at in their careers. When this season ends, they will be due rookie extensions that could very well end up being the biggest contracts they sign in their NBA careers. Teams obviously would be hesitant to hand out hefty contracts to any of them if anything should happen, so with them so close to a major payday it is in their best interests they would be seeking some sort of additional insurance going forward.
Tatum in particular has reason to believe that—unless the worst should happen—that the Celtics will be handing him as much as they possibly can this upcoming offseason. Last month, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst made the not-so controversial statement that the Celtics have essentially already made the decision. “I’m gonna tell you,” Windhorst said, “they’re gonna have to pay him like it because after this season ends, he is going to get most likely a max contract. They’re going to bet that he becomes that player.”
Now what that would be will, of course, depend on what happens with the NBA salary cap. Currently, the 2021-22 cap, when Tatum’s expected new deal would officially kick in, is projected to be $125 million. That, however, will likely take a sharp hit once the economic impact of the ongoing pandemic becomes fully apparent. A maximum extension for Tatum would be 25% of the cap, not including the various incentives that the Celtics could include to sweeten the deal. In other words, Tatum could very much be looking at being the highest-salaried player in team history. If he continues to improve at his current rate, it would end up being a worthwhile gamble for the Celtics to make.
In fact, the only true stumbling block between Tatum and such a payday would seem to be that worst-case scenario. Even without looking into the increased threat of on-court injuries, the well-known risks of a serious case of Covid-19 alone would make this upcoming shortened season an unprecedented threat for him and other players who are due dramatic raises. For Tatum and company, in particular, their entire futures will be on the line.
Until now, most of the news about the NBA’s return has been almost unnervingly optimistic, as both the league and the media are invested in selling the public the possibility of a smooth resumption of the season. However, it is important to be realistic and factor in the ever-present possibility that Adam Silver’s best-laid plans could go disastrously wrong. As much as the league would like to emphasize the relative safety of the “bubble” of Walt Disney World