In an internal memo sent to teams Friday, the NBA indicated that plans for the resumption of the 2019-20 season remain on track, with all players instructed to return to their markets by June 22 and games set to begin at a single-site campus in greater Orlando on July 30, one day earlier than initially proposed. But the league and its players have yet to reach agreement on a health and safety protocol, with union members airing grievances and asking questions during a virtual meeting Wednesday.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced plans June 4 for a 22-team return, with the NBPA’s executive committee voting to approve the framework a day later. A group of stars, including LeBron James, has remained united in favor of a return throughout the league’s three-month shutdown, and an informal poll of NBPA members in mid-May reflected broad support. The NBPA’s executive committee, led by Oklahoma City point guard Chris Paul and team representatives, rather than the full union body, voted to proceed with the Orlando plan.
More than 75 players, including Paul, talked through the Orlando return Friday night during a conference call that stretched nearly two hours, according to people with knowledge of the call. Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving, who underwent shoulder surgery in March and was not expected to compete this summer, expressed general opposition to the plan, while other participants shared their own doubts. The call did not produce a firm resolution, but the players talked through the significant financial repercussions of not playing and pledged to maintain a unified approach.
Dissenting voices have consistently raised fundamental questions since the Orlando plan first emerged. Given the scope of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed at least 112,000 lives in the United States, some have asked whether it is even worth returning. How, exactly, will the NBA ensure the safety of its players? How restrictive will life be within the campus? Will families be allowed to visit?
Concern mounted for some players last week when the NBA and NBPA set a timetable for a return before providing a clear picture of day-to-day life on the campus to all players.
“I’m still up in the air a little bit,” Portland Trail Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony told TNT this week when asked whether he would play in Orlando. “We don’t have all the details. We don’t know a lot of information. Until we have that, it’s hard to commit to it 100 percent.”
Anthony’s hesitance illustrates the differing motivations facing players. For a superstar such as James, who was slated to earn $37.4 million this season with the West-leading Los Angeles Lakers, the Orlando return represents an opportunity to recoup millions in withheld salary and to compete for a title, which could burnish his legacy.
But Anthony, a veteran with nearly $260 million in career earnings who is on a minimum contract this season, has little financial incentive to play in Orlando. Meanwhile, the Blazers are the West’s ninth seed and stand little chance of competing for a title.
The NBA’s decision to expand its format to 22 teams and play eight regular season games before the playoffs increase its ability to generate television revenue, but it also opens the door for players on mediocre teams to question their role in the proceedings and what their lives would be like on the campus.
Initial opposition to the Orlando return came from many teams who were functionally eliminated from the playoffs, contributing to the decision to leave eight teams at home. Nine of the 22 teams invited to Orlando have losing records, though, and even players whose teams are eliminated before the playoffs will be with their teams in Orlando for at least 35 days. This midsummer imposition led one player to tell The Washington Post that he felt non-contending teams would be “props for television.”
The quality-of-life question has been a persistent and significant hurdle. At present, players who are living at home and following quarantine guidelines are relatively safe from the coronavirus. In Orlando, the players would theoretically be at greater risk, enjoying less freedom of movement, separated from their loved ones for up to three months and forced to undergo regular testing.
It’s possible that the NBA would allow families to join after the completion of the first round — once 14 of the 22 teams had vacated the campus — but then players would need to weigh the risk of bringing their loved ones into an environment that will number more than 1,000. Other common activities, such as going to off-campus restaurants, clubs or other destinations, would make maintaining a safe campus environment nearly impossible.
Other concerns have developed in recent weeks. Florida’s Orange County, which is home to the Disney campus, experienced relatively few cases in May. However, case counts have increased noticeably in June, with county health department official Raul Pino telling the Orlando Sentinel that “we are on our way up.”
While players have long expressed concerns about contracting the virus and its potential long-term impact on their health and careers, others have questioned in recent weeks whether going into group isolation in July is the right time at a moment of intense reflection on social justice issues.
“Some guys are going to say, ‘I want to sit out [for health reasons],’ ” Indiana Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon told the Ringer. “Other guys are going to say: ‘The black community and my people are going through too much for me to be distracted with basketball. I’m not going to prioritize [basketball] over the black community.’”
James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and numerous other stars have spoken out or protested police brutality in the weeks following Floyd’s death. Lillard, who campaigned for the Blazers to have a shot at competing in the playoffs, told GQ in an interview published Friday that he is weighing moral questions and family obligations.
“I’m just connected to so many people that it’s like, how can I be consumed with a basketball game? Look at the lengths that we’re going to play a basketball game when there’s something so much greater going on,” Lillard said. “This is something that affects me personally. Something so much more meaningful going on, that really needs us. So I mean it’s a battle every day for me.”
Counterarguments have emerged on both the health and activism fronts. Video clips of some players returning to pickup games circulated this week as some states reopened and loosened restrictions, leading team personnel to argue that a protected campus would be a safer environment than unregulated games in public.
Other players have argued that the national television spotlight provided by the playoffs could offer the perfect stage for meaningful, coordinated social justice protests by players. Under the current timetable, the Finals wouldn’t conclude until mid-October, just weeks before the 2020 election.
The NBA has made no indication that it would fine or otherwise punish players who choose to sit out for health or political reasons; such a move would surely draw intense criticism. All players have had 25 percent of their paychecks withheld since May 15, and the players collectively stand to recoup hundreds of millions of dollars in wages by playing. Although the NBA has yet to indicate publicly whether absent players would be paid by their teams, ESPN reported Wednesday that they would not be. In preparation for possible pullouts and with an eye toward health concerns, the NBA has indicated to teams that they would be able to expand their initial rosters for Orlando to 17 players.
If player complaints harden into a widespread movement against a return, the NBA and the NBPA would be faced with a nuclear scenario. The NBA could use the force majeure clause and terminate the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, plunging the league into a protracted labor battle.
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