The bubble’s proximity provided convenience to players weighing group decisions and total authority over game proceedings to the league, plus a controlled environment when it came to health and safety. By contrast, the NBA this week weathered three different controversies, all of which were made worse by physical distance between various parties.
First, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and several other stars went public with harsh criticism of the NBA’s decision to pursue an All-Star Game in March. Then, Kevin Durant vented about the league’s contact tracing protocol, which sidelined him for the second time this season and saw him pulled from the court during the middle of a game. Finally, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who had instructed his organization not to play the national anthem before home games at the start of the season, was compelled by the league office to reverse course.
In the bubble, the stars would have had the opportunity to work with union leaders face-to-face on an All-Star Game plan, Durant would have far fewer social contacts and possible exposures to the virus and the league would have immediately noticed any deviations from standard game operations. These episodes exposed the many new complications created by the NBA’s decision to return to the real world. Nearly two months in, this decentralized season has produced separation anxieties of all sorts, wearing on players, coaches and executives even as they become accustomed to the new demands and protocols that govern day-to-day life.
“If you had asked me how things were going three weeks ago, I would have said, Holy s---,” said one member of a Western Conference team’s traveling party. “It’s getting better. We had a lot of new rules to process, there were a lot of positive tests, and there was a fear factor for people who were flying again. Our guys have been great about the rules, and we’re adjusting. It’s still crazy. I can watch our team play anywhere we go, but I can’t go watch my son’s youth team play.”
Indeed, the NBA’s tightened protocols have made life even more difficult. Players and traveling staffers were instructed to avoid public settings other than games and practices, and they were barred from hosting personal guests in their hotel rooms. Pregame meetings were reduced to 10 minutes and teams were required to use spaced-out seating charts on team flights. Postgame embraces between players from rival teams were prohibited, and masks were required on the bench and in the locker room. The rules appear to have had a noticeable positive impact; only one player tested positive over the past two weeks, a steep drop from January’s rash of cases leaguewide.
Multiple assistant coaches said they have had to come to terms with the direct impact that the protocols can have on their team’s record, either by cutting down on practice time and in-person meetings or by sidelining players.
“It’s harder to sustain momentum,” said a Western Conference assistant, who noted that much of the league is hovering around .500 in the standings. “There are a few [late-game situations] already that I wish we could have back. Maybe we do something different or we didn’t have the right guy available or we tried something that we hadn’t run through enough.”
An Eastern Conference assistant echoed concerns about the lack of hands-on instructional time, noting that almost all his work with individual players is now done by video. “It’s fine but not the same,” he said, adding that his head coach was preaching the importance of bonding during games far more than he did before the pandemic. “Because our group can’t spend as much time together, they are louder on the bench, standing up and cheering. They’re making the most of it.”
This season has produced moments of extreme isolation: Durant had to enter six-day quarantine periods twice this season, and some players and staffers have had to isolate on the road after positive tests or exposures. Even those who have remained free and clear of the virus have had their lives fundamentally disrupted. One Eastern Conference assistant who changed teams this offseason said that his wife and children are living more than 1,000 miles away because he felt it was safer not to move them to his new market.
Several front-office executives noted that the most common player complaints this season have centered on a desire to spend more time with family and friends and the annoyance of early-morning coronavirus tests, which disrupt sleep schedules.
Other issues raised by players to executives included the struggle to establish chemistry with constant lineup changes and the need to acclimate to empty, full-size arenas. One Western Conference executive said that players have lamented that it “feels like the world has stopped,” while another said multiple players were worried that their contributions might get overlooked with fewer media members and fans in attendance.
“Every team does it differently, but we’ve focused on gratitude,” one Western Conference executive said when asked how his organization has coped with such concerns. “A lot of people in the world have it a lot worse than us. Be grateful that you and your loved ones are healthy. The protocols work if everyone sticks to them. The show can go on. This won’t last forever.”
Yet there remains an undercurrent of frustration expressed by some stars toward the league that didn’t exist during the bubble, fueled in part by the challenge of communicating clearly and efficiently in this new environment. Durant hammered the NBA for “wack a-- P.R. tactics” in its handling of his confusing contact tracing episode. James, sounding blindsided, called the NBA’s pursuit of an All-Star Game in Atlanta a “slap in the face” after previous plans for Indianapolis were scrapped. Leonard said the NBA was putting “money over health,” a direct hit on the league’s values.
Those statements conflict with the union’s efforts to work with the NBA on a scaled-down event, in hopes of salvaging television revenue and maintaining productive relationships with the owners and media partners. Meanwhile, Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns — who said he has lost seven family members, including his mother, to covid-19 — sounded dismayed when he returned from an extended covid-related absence of his own.
“I personally don’t believe that there should be an All-Star Game, but what the hell do I know?” Towns asked, sarcastically. “Obviously, I haven’t dealt with covid, right? I’m probably a guy who has some insight into that.”
With so many prominent players feeling the need to go public with their criticisms, the league’s response has been to plunge ahead: All-Star Game talks continue, Durant returned to the court Friday, and “The Star-Spangled Banner” plays on.
In the wake of Cuban’s experiment, which went undetected for more than a month because Dallas wasn’t yet able to host fans, the league issued a statement noting that “all teams will play the national anthem in keeping with long-standing league policy.” The move was in keeping with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s desire for a centrist position. Silver said in December that he hoped that players would stand for the anthem but that he wouldn’t punish players who protested.
“When you try to create social change, it’s never going to be easy,” Cuban told ESPN. “We saw that all summer long. We listened to people, and there are a lot of people who tried to stand up for what they believed in and weren’t really heard. These are difficult conversations that aren’t going to go away whether or not we play the national anthem.”
This week was a reminder that distance only increases the difficulty level.