NBL Grand Final fallout: On transparency, Rule 34 and why speed was critical, especially with coronavirus threat

"The NBL’s intention has always been to provide advice, guidance and work through a consultative process with the two teams involved as circumstances were, and still are, far from normal. This was done with a very clear understanding that of course the final decision will always rest with the NBL and the rules governing the league."

This was NBL owner, Larry Kestelman's perspective in an official NBL release on Thursday, in the 48 hours following news of the Sydney Kings' withdrawal from the series, following serious concerns of health and safety.

And the NBL did make their decision, when the Perth Wildcats were announced as the NBL 2020/21 champions. To be clear, this in no way discredits the Wildcats' run this season. They had outgunned the Kings during the regular season, and performed admirably in the Grand Final series, winning in Sydney twice during Games 1 and 3, leading 2-1 with big performances from MVP (and Finals MVP) Bryce Cotton, as well as Nick Kay. The team's success was never an overnight flash-in-the-pan phenomenon, and is a well-deserved outcome.

But the series of events that eventually wound their way to this conclusion, has involved more off-court events than the actual basketball play. It wasn't just the brooding threat of COVID-19 that had already shut most other basketball leagues in the world, when the Grand Final series was still going on. Kings owner, Paul Smith said that there was an agreement in place and no winner would be decided, had the series not been fully played out.

“We had an explicit three-way conversation last Friday because the NBL could provide no guidance, they hadn't a clue what to do, with the scenarios that were unfolding,” Smith said, as reported on The Age. “It was explicitly stated by the Wildcats and the Kings that neither was to have the championship without completing the five-game series. Explicit. That was last Friday before we played game two. We won game two. Imagine if we limped home two-down? That was before we won the game.”

Why wasn't the series shortened?

Hindsight is obviously 20/20, as always. But given the looming situation over the COVID-19 coronavirus situation and how it rapidly escalated in China and other countries, it would have made perfect sense to exercise caution and wrap the series up as quickly as possible: with limited downtime between games, or even a shortened series. Sydney did the right thing to protect their people and everyone around them, by making the decision to exit the series. Given the Kings' continued emphasis on health and wellbeing, why was a shortened series not the de facto option, but pursued to the traditional best of five instead?

"Before we even started the series, no one knew what was going to unfold from a virus perspective. We started the series - once you start a five game series, you start a five game series. You plan to play a five-game series."

Smith, when asked by The Pick and Roll, acknowledges the question as a valid point, but clarified how circumstances unfolded. The team had planned to play a five-game series when the Grand Final started, with health and load management geared along those lines.

"After Game 1, when a three game series was discussed, our point was, no one knew where things were going to go, but our view was we started a five game series, you finish a five game series. If the league had said, we're going to shorten it to a three-game series because of circumstances beyond our control, at the start before we even played a game."

The onus was on the league to make the call, but Smith confirmed that the team was comfortable with the closed door situation as the situation stood on 13 March, and that they were "with an adjustment to no fans in the building, we felt we were able to finish the series in five games, there's nothing to suggest we could not continue on the five game series behind closed doors". He did acknowledged that circumstances changed again, which resulted in the cancelled games.

Credit to the NBL for prioritising public safety and playing games behind closed doors, which made for one of the stranger sights in NBL postseason history. But it would have made sense from the league's perspective --especially after the NBA had led the way to swiftly suspend their own season-- to conduct the games as quickly as possible.

Did the league have final say on how long the series should have gone for, or did the rules state that complete buy-in had to have been present for a series to be shortened, or cancelled?

"Why didn't [the league] make the decision?" Smith asked rhetorically, when the same question was posed to him. "I'm not saying they don't [have the final say], but the league shows no leadership. They didn't impose anything on us."

Smith also commented on the lack of business continuity planning from the league's end, citing a lack of policy or written documentation to keep the teams aware of what could happen. "Where we're at here --and how did we get here-- we got here because there was not one shred of documentation, ask the league. Any policy, or any document they handed down to the clubs on a day by day basis, saying these are the changing circumstances should this happen, this will happen et cetera - there's nothing from them. Nothing.

"I'm talking written. Nothing written, nothing spoken - we were left to our own devices. All the way... no scenarios, no contingencies, nothing was presented to us. Nothing."

League clarification

The Pick and Roll reached out to the league for comment, and received the following release, that explained the situation as it progressed.

The NBL made the decision to proceed with game one as planned in Sydney on Sunday March 8. In the days leading into game two in Perth last Friday we were in constant contact with both teams. A number of options were canvassed with both teams including shortening the series to best of three games and moving the locations of games. We also discussed and costed charter flights to protect the health and wellbeing of players and staff.

At that stage there was no agreement to change the schedule and games two and three were to proceed as planned. Both teams also agreed to continue to fly commercial. However, we did make the decision after consulting the clubs and medical experts to close the remaining games of the series to the general public even though we weren’t required to do so at that point and other sports were continuing to play in front of crowds.

With the situation changing daily, we then proposed to both teams after game three in Sydney last Sunday to bring forward the remaining games of the series to Wednesday and Friday of this week. Perth agreed to do this but Sydney insisted the scheduled five day break between games was necessary for players’ rest and recovery.

At no stage during discussions with the teams was there any agreement between the teams and the NBL to not award the championship should the series be unable to be completed. However, the NBL did make it clear we would immediately cancel the series should a player test positive for coronavirus. We continued to monitor the situation closely and NBL executives and staff were in attendance at all games during the Grand Final series to help manage and lend support.

Bogut speaks out

Sydney centre, Andrew Bogut shared his thoughts on Twitter, before making his stand on the league's leadership clear on a Friday morning conference.

“There’s a lot of half-truths throughout this whole process,” Bogut said, via Fox Sports Australia. “It’s hugely disappointing for any professional athlete to have to make the decision that we made. But, to me, what’s more disappointing is the way the NBL’s handled this, and that’s got nothing to do with them picking Perth as a winner.

“For me, there’s three categories with great companies in professional sport: it’s handling things proactively, being reactive, and then doing things retroactively. I think the retroactive aspect of this has been a ten out of ten, the proactiveness has been barely a one, and the reactive stuff’s probably about a five.”

“I think it goes the grain to just block your ears out and hope that everything works out,” Bogut also said. “That’s what I felt, outside of the Kings brass; it was a case of ‘la la la la la’. We were told at numerous times when our front office people — (owner) Paul Smith, (CEO) Chris Pongrass — reached out to the league, ‘business as usual; everything’s fine’. A day later, the NBA shuts down. The day after that, the Grand Prix shut down, and we’re in limbo. It’s something the NBL needs to learn from, being a league that prides itself on trying to build and get better."

“You don’t wanna be felt like a pawn in an organisation,” Bogut also said. “And I think that’s what a lot of players felt, was that we haven’t even been given an afterthought. The players haven’t had any direct communication with the NBL throughout this process, whatsoever.

“That has to improve... there was no contingency plan, there were no scenarios put out.”

Transparency engenders trust. It illustrates the thought process, allows understanding on where the leader and organisation are ("This is where we're at, and this is what we're considering, while we discuss our strategy"), how things evolve with time ("The situation is changing, and this is why we're deciding to change"), and why the results are the way they are. And from Bogut and Smith's comments, it's something that the players found a challenge.

On the mysterious Rule 34

In the league's release, NBL commissioner, Jeremy Loeliger made mention to the cancelled Games 4 and 5, with application from a particular rule in the NBL operations manual.

The league's decision to award the championship to Perth was made in consultation with various parties, including the "NBL Board of Directors, members of our Advisory Board, FIBA and our external legal advisers K&L Gates

We feel that the rules set out in the NBL Operations Manual are clear in this regard.

In this instance, games 4 and 5 were cancelled by the League due to unforeseen circumstances pursuant to Rule 34 of the NBL Operations Manual.

Consequently, the Champions of the Hungry Jack’s 2019/20 NBL Season are the Perth Wildcats.

Not to be confused with the tweet that was made in jest, the actual Rule 34 relates to what is defined as "game abandonment", and allows the league to "make the final and binding decision regarding the continuance or abandonment of play". The league also decides on whether said game should be cancelled, rescheduled and how the game result should be decided, if it is to be abandoned. The rule's verbiage is straightforward, and essentially empowers the league to do what is necessary (by conducting "an automatic investigation") and decide the outcome, including where the rescheduled game is to be played at, or whether the game is replayed in its entirety, or in part.

Having said that, the rule appears to be built to address individual game outcomes, and not the result of a series - there is no wording that relates to a postseason series. In this case, Rule 34 allowed the league to cancel the remaining games, and looks largely inconsequential to the league's final decision. Phrasing in the release's following line however, with the use of "consequently", gives heavier weight to the rule than what it actually was meant to address.

TL;DR - Rule 34 does not seem related to the league's decision to award the Wildcats as NBL 2019/20 champions.

Transparency in the decision-making process that resulted in the champions, rather than an opaque window, would leave little room for rumours - although one could argue that speculation drives discussion and brand awareness.

Given the reality that an apparent mutual agreement was not acted on, is there a need for transparency in decisions like these moving forward, in terms of public releases that would document the decision making process ahead of time? Would the no-winner agreement between the league and both teams have changed the course of NBL championship history, had it been announced publicly ahead of Game 2?

"We aren't lawyers. We're running businesses in sport. It changes day to day, it's unpredictable. So when you're in these unpredictable environments, you rely on each other's word," Smith said, and affirmed that written agreements would be a point of emphasis moving forward.

Earlier thoughts on transparency

It was mentioned previously by Loeliger, the NBL has prided itself on being an agile organisation. They've shown an ability to adjust on the fly, as shown in Didi Louzada's signing as a draft-and-stash style Next Star, rather than the draft development prospect category. That's allowed the NBL to open its options tremendously, in terms of bringing young, experienced talent to Australia. But why wasn't the change highlighted prior to the signing, and more importantly - why is the NBL's Collective Bargaining Agreement private, unlike other pro sports leagues?

There is always a need to balance business decisions and transparency to the public, but it continues to be a question, that's been highlighted again in this latest series of events. There's a need for greater transparency on impactful decisions, especially when it relates to outcomes from behind-the-scenes discussions, that will drive better accountability and trust from all parties.