As daunting as a comeback seemed for the N.B.A. in May and June, when worriers like me openly fretted about all the threats to the viability of Bubble Ball, there is an uncomfortable reality generating little coverage in basketball circles in advance of the Nov. 18 draft and the free-agent frenzy to follow.
The health and safety hurdles that loom for the league now are far greater than they were in the spring.
Coronavirus outbreaks are surging anew and wreaking havoc across the United States. The country averaged more than 110,000 new cases per day over the past week — more than any other country and amid fears that gatherings connected to the holiday season will be an accelerant. In that unsettling climate, N.B.A. training camps are on course to open in three weeks in 30 separate practice gyms as opposed to a centralized site in Central Florida, with teams playing in their home markets this time and scheduled to travel largely in the same manner they would have in pre-pandemic circumstances.
They will not be playing once a week, as teams do in the N.F.L. They will not be playing a sport with baked-in social distancing, à la Major League Baseball. They will be playing a game teeming with contact and face-to-face interactions — and, unlike in football, baseball and soccer, they will be playing it indoors.
“The N.B.A. pulled off a really elegant experiment with the bubble, and I would be the first to say that I had reservations that they were going to be able to pull off what they did,” said Dr. T.O. Souryal, a former president of the N.B.A. Physicians Association who worked as the Dallas Mavericks’ team doctor for more than 20 years. “That’s fantastic.”
“But now you don’t have the bubble,” Dr. Souryal continued. “You have the real world, and it’s a whole different ballgame — no pun intended. Now you’re taking away the bubble concept, and this introduces a tremendous number of variables that I don’t know how they intend to control.”
The doctor is not alone. The medical staffs of 30 teams are also eagerly awaiting detailed guidance from the league office on the measures, still being negotiated with the N.B.A. Players Association, that will be instituted to complement daily testing to try to best approximate the N.B.A.’s deft and dogged campaign that kept the coronavirus from infiltrating the village it operated at Walt Disney World from July 7 to Oct. 11. Those teams, remember, will largely have to administer all those measures that the league controlled on its Disney campus near Orlando, Fla.
The N.B.A. is under no illusions. It knows virus-related interruptions and setbacks are forthcoming when players no longer work and live at the same address and there is no strict control over who can visit them. The league has been watching closely to study how the N.F.L. and the college game have dealt with their inevitable coronavirus crises, because bubble norms will be unattainable.
Yet it is also hard to miss how much the concern volume has dropped compared with the spring. Maybe it’s a false sense of security that stems from how successful the N.B.A. bubble was — or simple concern fatigue now that we’ve all had this virus in our lives for eight months. I may regret admitting this aloud, but I, too, am not the relentless fretter on these issues that I used to be. There has been far more noise in recent weeks about how short the turnaround will be for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat than the daunting prospect of keeping the virus out of their camps, and I have been as wrapped up in the compact nature of the shortest off-season in league history as anyone.
Perhaps the best explanation is that the sporting landscape has changed so significantly since March, when the N.B.A. was the first league of prominence to institute a shutdown in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Sports organizations at all levels followed the N.B.A.’s lead and thrust Commissioner Adam Silver into the role of standard-setter. The N.B.A. was expected, from that point, to engineer the safest solution on the planet to resuming operations in the middle of a pandemic. At an estimated cost of $190 million to erect a restricted-access bubble at Disney World, Silver & Co. did just that.
But that was then. Look at what’s happening in sports now. The virus appears to be a greater threat as winter nears, just as many experts warned it would, but the N.F.L. reports new Covid-19 cases as coldly as any other ailment on the injury report. The Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo, at worst the second-best soccer player in the world, tested positive for the coronavirus without much fuss. Clemson took Notre Dame to two overtimes, in a contender for college football’s Game of the Season, even after the Tigers’ star quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, was sidelined by the virus. Notre Dame’s fans recklessly stormed the field in triumph, as university officials knew they would, even after the indefensible celebration scenes that followed the Los Angeles Dodgers’ World Series triumph.
No one in sports is waiting around to use the N.B.A. as a compass anymore. Leagues are trying instead to revamp their standard operating procedures to find a passable balance between risk-taking and economic necessity, thereby keeping the lights on and sustaining themselves financially in these coronavirus times. It is also folly to expect the N.B.A. not to join in.
This is what businesses will always try to do. They adapt or perish. The optics are going to get seriously squishy if the N.B.A. is confronted with its first widespread outbreak, or if it creates any added burden to public health care systems already under strain, but it deserves the same basic latitude to try to play without the aid of a high-priced bubble as any other professional league.
Such is the esteem for the way the N.B.A. is run that it was widely assumed that the Justin Turner situation never would have happened on Silver’s watch. Removing the Dodgers’ third baseman in the eighth inning after a coronavirus test came back negative, but allowing him to return, mostly maskless, for the team’s championship celebration because, well, Turner felt he belonged out there with his teammates? Not on hardwood, pal.
Yet basketball’s nature is also such that Silver will surely soon be seeing coronavirus curveballs that his M.L.B. counterpart, Rob Manfred, and the N.F.L.’s Roger Goodell would probably never face.
“I think it’s going to be much more challenging for the N.B.A. than the N.F.L.,” Dr. Souryal said, “just because it is an indoor sport.”
The Scoop @TheSteinLine
NBA Calendar …
Nov. 18: NBA Draft*
Nov. 20: Free agency starts at 6 PM
Nov. 22: Free agent signings can begin at 12:01 PM
Dec. 1: Training camps open
Dec. 22: Opening Night
*Freeze on trades being lifted is still TBD but remains likely to happen in the Nov. 16 range
The Pacers are hiring the former NBA big man and longtime assistant Greg Foster as part of new Indiana coach Nate Bjorkgren’s staff, league sources say
As @NYTSports reported yesterday, Atlanta is hiring former Pacers coach Nate McMillan to bolster Lloyd Pierce’s Hawks staff
You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Responses may be condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)
Q: Can teams start making trades before free agency? — Anthony Smith (Seattle)
Stein: Not yet. Teams expect that to change as the Nov. 18 draft gets closer, but the freeze on trades that has been in effect since last season’s trade deadline passed on Feb. 6 probably won’t be lifted until around Nov. 16.
Teams, though, have not been prohibited from discussing trade concepts, with the chatter ramping up in recent weeks. There is an eagerness in many front offices to start making moves again after nine months of inactivity, so you can expect a good bit of action once the bell rings.
The same holds for free agency itself. Negotiations can begin on Nov. 20 at 6 p.m., with signings allowed on Nov. 22 at 12:01 p.m., but you can rest assured that the frameworks for various new contracts have been discussed early, as they always are.
In terms of potential blockbuster deals, Jrue Holiday of the New Orleans Pelicans has been generating considerable trade buzz, but the difference-making guard most likely to be dealt before the season opens Dec. 22 is Oklahoma City’s Chris Paul. The Thunder are widely expected to embrace a rebuilding posture after last season’s surprisingly strong showing — and Paul, for that matter, made what some interpreted as a farewell speech when he tweeted a thank you to Thunder fans in September after the team’s first-round loss to Houston.
Q: In Numbers Game last week, in an item about Daryl Morey’s 14 years with the Houston Rockets, you stated that “no other team in the league posted a .500 or better record” to match Houston’s over that span. I think you meant in every season of that span, because the Spurs’ overall record for the past 14 seasons is well over .500, and I imagine that they aren’t the only team that can make that claim. — David Reese
Stein: You’re right, David. My language was imprecise.
I was indeed referring to the Rockets being .500 or better in each of the past 14 seasons. San Antonio’s winning percentage is higher than Houston’s over the same stretch — .677 to .602 — but the Spurs did slump below .500 last season (32-39) for the first time since Gregg Popovich’s first season as the Spurs’ coach in 1996-97 (20-62).
Q: “Ted Lasso” is a masterpiece. — @Lazron from Twitter
Stein: I mentioned this show in last week’s newsletter and was heartened to hear how many people, to my great surprise, genuinely love it.
The Apple TV+ series features the fictional Lasso (portrayed by Jason Sudeikis as only he can) and his move to London (unqualified as he is) to work in the top tier of English professional soccer.
A move to London? English soccer? There was no way, in other words, that I would not end up hooked. Emulating some form of Lasso’s preposterous path has only been a dream scenario of mine for about 40 years.
Yet I never would have expected such broad acceptance for a plot that, as even 11-year-old me would readily concede, regularly stretches the bounds of believability. Lasso is so relentlessly positive that the series somehow manages to be consistently uplifting, despite the various angles from which the show’s writers try to pump in some of the English game’s nasty side — and the way they gloss over how unfeasible so much of it is from a real-life soccer perspective.
Of course, given how sobering life tends to be in 2020, you don’t have to be a soccer-loving Anglophile to want an escape. Or unashamedly enjoy this silly one so much.
(An N.B.A. tie people may not remember: Sudeikis, as Lasso, coached Steve Nash’s team — with yours truly playing for the opposition — in the 2016 edition of Nash’s annual charity soccer game on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Also on Nash’s roster that year, albeit in street clothes, was a certain Kevin Durant. Nash, of course, will welcome Durant to his first training camp practice as the Nets’ head coach on Dec. 1 — which is just three weeks away.)
A reminder, now that opening night for the 2020-21 season has been officially pinpointed for Dec. 22, that an N.B.A. championship is the hardest to win in major North American team sports: Five N.B.A. franchises have won it all in 51 of the league’s 74 seasons, led by the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers with 17 each. Next in line are the Golden State Warriors and the Chicago Bulls with six championships each, followed by the San Antonio Spurs with five.
Four of the nine head coaches replaced since the end of last season have taken assistant coaching jobs for the coming season. They are: Mike D’Antoni (from Houston to the Nets), Alvin Gentry (New Orleans to Sacramento), Nate McMillan (Indiana to Atlanta) and Jacque Vaughn (moved from the Nets’ interim coach to Steve Nash’s assistant).
Thursday is the 10th anniversary of the sale of the Golden State Warriors to Joe Lacob and Peter Guber. Before the team’s injury-induced slump to a 15-50 record last season, it won three championships and made five straight trips to the N.B.A. finals from 2015 to 2019.
I still say that Golden State’s 24-0 start in the 2015-16 season is the most “unmatchable” achievement of the Lacob-Guber era. The Warriors were 73-9 that season to set an N.B.A. record for the regular season, and topped the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72-10) by the slimmest of margins. I’m as convinced as one can be that no team will match a 24-0 start.
Here’s one leftover gem from my historian pal Todd Spehr from last week’s discussion about the 1977 N.B.A. finals: These voting results are nowhere to be found online, but Spehr tracked down a Stan Hochman article from The Philadelphia Daily News in 1977 that had the full N.B.A. finals voting results. Bob Gross received two votes, finishing third behind his Portland teammate Bill Walton (6) and Philadelphia’s Julius Erving (3). The next time, after Erving, that a player from the losing team earned N.B.A. finals M.V.P. votes was 19 years later, when Seattle’s Shawn Kemp (3) finished behind Chicago’s Michael Jordan (6) but ahead of the Bulls’ Dennis Rodman (2).