On Wednesday evening, the Celtics arrived at their Milwaukee hotel expecting to face the Bucks the next night at Fiserv Forum.
Whether that game would have fans was the only question that lingered as concerns about large crowds and the coronavirus had forced the NBA to deliberate about how to continue its season.
Earlier in the afternoon, the Golden State Warriors announced they would cooperate with a San Francisco ordinance that prohibited gatherings larger than 1,000 people. So the Warriors would play their Thursday home game with the Brooklyn Nets with no fans in the arena.
That shocked many players around the league. Neither the Bucks nor any other NBA team had made any decision at that time about whether to prevent fans from attending home games. And the Wednesday night schedule continued as planned.
That was until a hiccup prior to tipoff between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena, where players were literally powdering their hands and knuckle-knocking team employees at the scorer’s table before a Utah trainer raced to inform game officials that a Jazz player might be positive for Covid-19.
That’s when the NBA changed everything. The game was postponed and it was revealed that Utah center Rudy Gobert, who had been foolishly joking with reporters and teammates by touching them and their equipment in previous days, had tested positive.
Shortly thereafter the NBA postponed the season, through an e-mail and social media post at 9:32 Eastern time. Back in Milwaukee, the Celtics didn’t hear anything from team officials until about an hour later, when they were told their flight back to Boston would be at 11 a.m. on Thursday.
According to Celtics radio analyst Cedric Maxwell, the team met for breakfast at 8:30 the next morning, and team trainer Art Horne offered players the option to be tested at the Celtics’ Brighton practice facility on Saturday morning.
Team officials and players were told they weren’t at risk of being infected by Gobert, the test was just a suggestion. Fellow Frenchman Vincent Poirier, a Celtics backup center, had gone to dinner with Gobert the night before the March 6 game with Utah at TD Garden. But Poirier played with G League Maine on that day in Portland against Grand Rapids. He was not at TD Garden.
When asked if he planned on getting tested, Maxwell said, “I’m not really sure if I am or not. I wasn’t around Rudy Gobert in any other way. I haven’t been around the players and shaking their hands. If it happened it would have been with somebody maybe out in the street. But I don’t feel right now I would. I’m kind of in my house by myself, so I’m not doing anything right now.”
While the players were lighthearted and understood the situation, it was no normal flight home.
“I think everybody was a little apprehensive,” Maxwell said. “I didn’t hear anybody [saying], ‘Oh my God, this is happening!’ I think that the players just seemed like they were in a fog because this is something that not one of us have gone through, especially them.
“When you’re a young player and you don’t see the end of life, you just see the beginning of life. You don’t even think about it in that way. It’s starting to hit home now with all the things that are happening, that it’s serious, but at the same time it’s something now they know they have to go through.”
If you’re wondering about Maxwell and play-by-play man Sean Grande, they will be paid during the league’s hiatus as they are contractually bound for seasons, not games. But like the rest of us, Maxwell is left to figure out what to do with no NBA games in March.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the postponement will be at least 30 days, but many league observers expect that is a conservative number. The NBA could take 6-8 weeks to resume, or may not resume at all this season.
Maxwell said he believes the NBA could take the lead in helping resurrect the sports world after these unfortunate circumstances.
“This season could end up being one of its greatest seasons,” he said. “The hunger and the thirst for that particular sport is going to be high, maybe people want it that much more, to see people come back in a resilient way. The way the NBA took the lead, they could take the lead with sports coming back, and I think the public is going to be very hungry. It’s going to be real interesting to see how the NBA is going to feed that appetite of the fans who are out there.
“There’s no March Madness. There’s no Masters. All these things that there’s not, and the NBA has the chance to be one of the first leagues actively to come back. The hunger and the thirst is going to be that much more.”
Maxwell said the past few months, including Kobe Bryant’s death, could be the first time some of these players have considered their mortality.
“I think they’re confused,” he said. “I think there’s some doubt, but I don’t think players are going to let that deter them from what they need to do. This is uncharted territory for everybody. They’re going to have to go into this in the most novel way.”
WNBA must devise its own game plan
With the NBA suspended and the G League’s season also done, the WNBA’s season, which is scheduled to begin in May, could also be in jeopardy. But in this situation the league has several weeks to deliberate. The league announced it would go through with the WNBA Draft, which is April 17.
“The health and safety of players and employees — with our teams and at the league level — is of the utmost importance,” commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a statement. “With regard to Covid-19, we are in touch with the teams, consulting with infectious disease specialists and monitoring guidance from the CDC and WHO. The WNBA is currently not in season, but together with the WNBPA and teams, we have been in close communication and will continue to connect with and offer resources to players in the US and those playing overseas.”
One aspect that may affect the draft is the NCAA’s decision to potentially grant another year of eligibility to seniors who missed the NCAA Tournament. Point guard Sabrina Ionescu, who returned for her senior year at Oregon to compete for the NCAA title, could decide to return for a fifth season.
Oregon center Satou Sabally, who was a projected top-five pick and announced she was leaving after her junior season, could also decide to return. The Ducks were the No. 2-ranked team in the country and were likely headed for another Final Four appearance.
In the men’s game, the NCAA’s decision to potentially allow seniors another season would only affect one likely draft pick: Michigan State forward Cassius Winston. Dayton forward Obi Toppin, who is a projected top-10 pick, is only a sophomore but was likely to enter the draft. The Flyers were a projected No. 1 seed and could have reached the Final Four. Will Toppin consider returning to school for another chance to win a title?
Most players facing that decision allow weeks to pass after the tournament to make that call. The top four projected picks are all freshmen or one year out of high school in the case of LaMelo Ball. But it would be interesting to see how many seniors would take the NCAA up on an offer to return and how that would affect the NBA and WNBA draft pools.
These are special circumstances and there could be players who truly decide to give college one final run.
Atkinson, Nets: a strange breakup
The biggest story line before the postponement of the season was the parting of the ways of the Brooklyn Nets and coach Kenny Atkinson following, ironically, a March 6 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
There had been rumblings about Atkinson’s job security, which was bizarre considering he had led the Nets out of the abyss and into the playoffs last season with a shorthanded and youthful roster. But there was a distinct difference between last year’s Nets and this year’s Nets.
General manager Sean Marks went big-game chasing and signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Durant signed with the Nets without even meeting with Marks or Atkinson. Irving soon followed because of a prearranged agreement they would play together.
The Nets then made the strange signing of ex-Clipper DeAndre Jordan, even though they had been tutoring former first-round pick Jarrett Allen to be their franchise center. According to those close to the organization, Atkinson tried connecting with Irving but never could.
And remember, Irving was coming off a tumultuous two-year stint with the Celtics, during which he lost faith in coach Brad Stevens. It was unlikely he was going to bond with another coach who didn’t play in the NBA and had even less experience.
Also, the 31-year-old Jordan didn’t come to Brooklyn to be a backup and mentor to Allen. He came to start. Their numbers are almost identical, but Allen is 10 years younger.
“We saw an opportunity for change and to put the Nets in a better place,” Marks said. “We’ve talked about this for three or four months. I would have loved for Kenny to be here long term. I hoped it would last forever. We made some mistakes, we had fun along the way. The position we’re in right now will take us to the next level.”
Marks wouldn’t give a definitive reason why Atkinson was removed. The Nets were 29-34 under Atkinson with Durant being out all season as expected, and Irving limited to 20 games before opting for season-ending shoulder surgery.
Caris LeVert, who dropped a career-high 51 points on the Celtics, missed 25 games with a hand injury, while reserve forward Wilson Chandler was suspended 25 games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Still, the Nets were the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, and the expectation was they would be competitive this season and then be championship ready the next.
But it will be with a new coach. Irving and Durant will return and Jordan is likely to start because of his relationships with the aforementioned two and because his numbers are decent. But the perception is gone that the Nets were a hard-working franchise that avoided drama and were going to take the necessary steps to reach elite status.
Atkinson was considered an astute coach who got the most out of his players. Injuries have crippled the franchise in Atkinson’s era.
The Nets were supposed to contend for a top four playoff seed with Irving and a healthy LeVert, but instead were relegated to fighting to avoid being the eighth seed. Atkinson was asked about the struggle to stay healthy when his team visited Boston on March 3.
“I think you have to embrace the struggle,” he said. “I know that sounds corny, but we have to wrap our arms around this. I really think this is where you really learn a lot about your group and anybody says, ‘We’re waiting for next year.’ It’s like, ‘No, we’re building for next year,’ even though Kyrie and KD aren’t involved. This will help us down the line.
“I’ve told KD and Kyrie we don’t need you guys flying in on your cape. We’d love to have you guys fly in on your capes, but this will be good for us to go through what we’re going through now. I really believe that."
Atkinson was out of a job three days later, and Marks told reporters Durant and Irving weren’t behind the removal. It was an organizational decision.
“We used the players in a lot of different ways, this didn’t involve the players,” Marks said. “This was between Kenny and myself. It was amicable and mutually agreed upon. Where the team has come from the last three or four years, we are appreciative.
“The discussions he and I had were what’s best for the Nets. It’s time for another voice in the locker room and it was time we part ways. Kenny has proved he’s a coach in this league. He’s proven he can do it. We wish it could have lasted much, much longer. Time has run its course. It was time to move on.”
The G League suspended its season because of the coronavirus, and that is likely to completely end the season as the playoffs were set to begin this month. What hurts the NBA is those players who won’t get a chance to play extra games for development. That includes Celtics big man Tacko Fall, who, as much as becoming a megastar off the court, was getting valuable experience on the court with the Red Claws … One of the unintended positives from the NBA season suspension is players who are dealing with nagging injuries will get a chance to heal, and that includes Celtics forward Jaylen Brown, who missed the final four games before the hiatus with a strained right hamstring. Also, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons is set to have his back injury examined in three weeks, meaning he could be healthy for a potential playoff series with the Celtics, if there is a playoff series … J.B. Bickerstaff signed a four-year agreement to remain coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers after a short stint as interim coach. This is Bickerstaff’s third NBA job, and while he has done an admirable job taking over for the resigned John Beilein, he could also be the beneficiary of the Cavaliers not wanting to pay for another high-profile coach. Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown, who was fired in 2014 after his second stint with the club, is still receiving checks from the Cavaliers. Cleveland also still has to pay Beilein, meaning Bickerstaff, who was initially hired to serve as a helpful assistant because of his NBA experience, is now the long-term solution. Point guard Collin Sexton has been splendid in the past few weeks, averaging 30 points per game in March, including 41 on March 4 against the Celtics … The Celtics announced they will honor any tickets purchased for games over the next 30 days, including the March 13 game with the Washington Wizards, when they are rescheduled. If those games are rescheduled, the Celtics will provide either a credit for a future game ticket or a refund … There will be no possible scouting for NBA teams over the next month with several all-star games such as the Jordan Brand and McDonald’s All-American Game being canceled. The NBA has offered no word on whether the draft will be pushed back. The Las Vegas Summer League is set to begin on July 10, and that could also be in question.
Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.