Dumping those eight made sense. All were significantly out of the playoff picture, a few had stars nursing injuries, and others were simply playing out the string. “It feels like the end of the season for our team,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said all the way back in April.
But as the top 22 teams head for the bubble this week with the coronavirus threat showing no signs of abating, those eight also-rans are left wondering what comes next. The 2020-21 season is tentatively scheduled to begin in December, so teams that don’t participate in the restart would go nine months without competitive basketball — more than double the length of a typical offseason. Executives and coaches from multiple teams in this group have worried, both publicly and privately, that the long layoff could put them at a disadvantage.
“We were hopeful to be granted the opportunity to continue the season to further the development of our young team in meaningful basketball games and also feed off the positive momentum we had built prior to the league shutdown,” Cavaliers General Manager Koby Altman said in early June. “Collectively, our players want to compete at the highest level.”
Those feelings have deepened because the top teams will be able to hold group workouts once they are in the bubble, while those left out will remain barred from holding team activities at their practice facilities. Players are getting itchy during the layoff — with some turning to unauthorized summer games — and teams are pondering next year’s competitive landscape.
“I’m relieved we were left out,” said one team executive with deep concerns about the coronavirus. “At the same time, we don’t want to be left behind.”
The NBA held a conference call last week with seven of the eight teams not headed to the Orlando area to discuss various options for their return to play, according to people with knowledge of the conversation. Possible solutions included a tournament to be held in a second bubble in Chicago, head-to-head events among smaller groups of teams and a reopening of practice facilities for intrasquad workouts and scrimmages. Any finalized proposal that surfaces from conversations among these eight teams must be approved by both the NBA’s board of governors and the National Basketball Players Association.
“Obviously, health is the number one priority,” said one person with knowledge of the league’s thinking. “I wouldn’t say we are close [to a final proposal], and no decisions have yet been made.”
The NBA’s extensive health protocol for the Florida bubble ran 113 pages and mandated conditions that would be expensive and difficult to replicate in a second bubble. Players in the Florida bubble must go through an extensive quarantine, live in restricted hotels and play in gyms that are painstakingly disinfected to reduce the risk of virus spread. An ESPN report pegged the cost of the Florida bubble at more than $1.5 million per day.
Justifying those costs with LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo present to attract television audiences is an easy sell. Maintaining that standard for teams largely filled with younger, less-proven players is much tougher. Even so, the NBPA surely will fight for the same level of protection for its members, whether they are returning to work in greater Orlando, entering a second bubble or participating in group activities at team practice facilities.
Chicago would be a natural choice for a possible second bubble; it has hosted the NBA’s annual draft combine and was the site of this year’s All-Star Weekend. The NBA used DePaul’s Wintrust Arena, which is adjacent to a hotel, for multiple events in February, including a secured community service event with former president Barack Obama. It’s not hard to imagine the NBA setting up a fall tournament there, similar to The Basketball Tournament, a two-week event built around a quarantined hotel and arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Some team executives, though, question whether a second bubble makes sense. If numerous players are opting out of playing in greater Orlando, why would established stars on the eight teams staying back, such as Stephen Curry and Blake Griffin, show up to a second bubble? If the playoffs will dominate television interest and the non-Florida stars won’t show up to a second bubble, will fans care about watching what happens there? And if television money doesn’t produce an overwhelming incentive, why hold a tournament at all?
“There would be fewer hoops to jump through, and we would have more control,” said one team executive who strongly favored hosting team activities at his organization’s practice facility rather than pursuing the Chicago plan. “[My top priorities are] checking in on our players and keeping connections within our team. We can do that here [in market].”
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