The NBA’s show will go on near Orlando next month despite a dramatic rise in novel coronavirus cases in Florida as well as player concerns about social justice issues.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the league and the players’ union share the belief that their “deliberate, intentional and collaborative” plan will provide a safe environment even though Florida reported nearly 9,000 new cases Friday.
“We are left with no choice but to learn to live with this virus,” Silver said on a conference call with reporters, his first since April. “No options are risk-free right now. And if we can’t sit on the sidelines indefinitely, we must adapt. My ultimate conclusion is that we can’t outrun the virus. While [the bubble] is not impermeable, we are in essence protected from cases around us. For those reasons, we’re still very comfortable being in Orlando.”
More than 300 players reported to teams in their home markets this week for testing as the league entered Phase 2 of its return plan. Sixteen players tested positive and will be subject to self-quarantine in the coming days, although Silver noted that none of the players “were seriously ill in any way” and that the number was “roughly where we expected,” given age and demographic trends.
Players who tested positive will undergo subsequent tests and a cardiac screening before they will be cleared to travel to Florida. A few players, including Washington Wizards forward Davis Bertans and Los Angeles Lakers guard Avery Bradley, have announced they will not play.
“I’m somewhat relieved that the number [of positive tests] wasn’t higher,” said NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts, who joined Silver on the conference call. “I was also relieved that we had the foresight to identify the players that would be testing positive now. The great majority of our players have been doing exactly what they should be doing. One [positive test] is too many, but 150 would have been devastating.”
The NBA’s bubble plan, laid out in a 113-page health and safety protocol, drew praise from public health experts, including Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert and a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, because it reflected many best practices in mitigating the spread of the virus. Games will be held on a single-site campus without fans. Players must undergo daily testing, and wear masks and maintain social distancing when they are not playing. A positive test within the bubble will be met with a strict quarantine procedure and contact tracing efforts; play will continue without the affected player, who will be treated as if he was injured.
Even so, as Florida’s coronavirus cases skyrocketed this week, doubts about the plan mounted in part because some Disney employees will be allowed to leave the bubble to return home after work and in part because numerous other teams in Florida have had to suspend training camps and practices after positive tests. After keeping its daily new caseload under 2,000 throughout April and May, Florida surpassed 3,000 new cases June 18, exceeded 5,000 on Wednesday and nearly hit 9,000 on Friday. Orange County, home to Disney World, also has had its case numbers and positivity rate dramatically increase.
“I probably wouldn’t have played because the unknown going into that situation looks crazy right now, seeing so many new cases,” Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant told the DawgTalk podcast this week. “It’s just so unpredictable. It’s easy for me to say right now because I’m injured [so I can’t play anyway]. I probably would have chilled [at home].”
Silver acknowledged the league’s internal concern “has increased” this week and said the league and players are “closely monitoring” developments, but he expressed confidence in the bubble concept. A “subset” of Disney employees could be subjected to additional testing, he added, as a method to ensure the health of personnel inside the bubble.
“We ultimately believe it will be safer on our campus than outside it,” Silver said, leaving open the possibility that a “significant spread” of the coronavirus inside the bubble “might lead us to stop” the resumed season. “We’re not saying full steam ahead no matter what happens.”
The NBA has not set a threshold for when to pull the plug if faced with a widespread outbreak. The players, cognizant of the bubble’s inherent uncertainties, opted to proceed anyway. Roberts said she can “sleep at night” knowing the level of detail that was put into the health and safety plan, which includes extensive security to maintain the perimeter of the bubble and efforts to manage players’ mental health.
Still, the idea of living and working within the bubble for up to three months without the ability to freely come and go is daunting.
“We never pictured ourselves playing like this,” said Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul, the NBPA’s president. “When people hear health and safety, a lot of times people think about injury or they just think about covid-19. While both are important, I think mental health is the biggest thing that a lot of us players think of first.”
The finalized restart agreement followed ongoing conversations about social justice protests that included Silver, Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum, Roberts, Paul and other members of the NBPA.
Numerous players, including Nets guard Kyrie Irving, have argued that resuming basketball could take attention away from efforts to reform police departments or expand voting rights. In a joint statement, the NBA and NBPA said Wednesday that “the goal of the season restart in Orlando will be to take collective action to combat systemic racism and promote social justice.”
The players have engaged the league on increasing the number of black executives and coaches, adding partnerships between the league and black-owned businesses and launching a foundation to support efforts in the black community. While Paul didn’t disclose specific plans for player demonstrations during time spent in the bubble, he added that they have no intention of participating in “a shut-up-and-dribble situation.”
“We have a great group of players who are well-informed … about covid-19 and social injustices,” said Andre Iguodala, a Miami Heat forward and the NBPA’s vice president. “Everyone is making some type of sacrifice. A lot of people in America don’t have jobs right now. [By playing,] we have the opportunity to be a beacon of light and show our sympathies.”
Before the NBA proceeds to its standard 16-team postseason format, each team will play eight regular season games in a “seeding” round that will set the playoff bracket and allow players to shake off rust. The results and statistics for these games will count toward regular season totals, and the matchups were determined by the remaining opponents on each team’s schedule before the shutdown, with a balancing process used to finalize pairings.
Games begin July 30 with a TNT doubleheader that features the New Orleans Pelicans versus the Utah Jazz and a crosstown battle between the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers. July 31 will see five games, highlighted by an ESPN doubleheader featuring the Boston Celtics versus the Milwaukee Bucks and the Houston Rockets versus the Dallas Mavericks. This TV-friendly launch ensures that the league’s brightest stars set to compete in Orlando — LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic and James Harden — all appear on the first two nights.
Teams will then play between four and seven games per night through Aug. 14, with at least three of those games nationally televised on TNT, ESPN or NBA TV. From there, the schedule will proceed to a possible play-in round for the eighth seeds in each conference before the first round of the playoffs starts on Aug. 17.
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