National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts said she fully realizes there is no foolproof plan to keep the players from contracting COVID-19 during the season resumption in the Orlando bubble. Yet her choices for negotiation were limited: find a suitable and safer plan to resume the season or wait until there is a vaccine and perhaps cost the league two seasons.
Firstly, Roberts told the Globe the NBPA is prepared for several players to test positive just because of the contagiousness of the virus, regardless of the league’s safety measures and social distancing.
“Of course [the players] understand it could be a positive test and they want to know what the protocol is,” Roberts said this past week. “No one is saying, ‘Suppose a player tests positive?’ We’re beyond that. The question now is, ‘When a player tests positive, what are we going to do?’ ”
The player will be quarantined for as many as two weeks and will be treated and consistently tested. Meanwhile, the pool of players, coaches, and team executives are expected to be tested daily during the league’s time at Disney.
“That’s the only realistic mind-set you can have going into this. A player is going to test positive,” Roberts said. “It’s not any more of this ‘if’, it’s ‘when’ and what can I do to mitigate against the ‘when.’ When it happens, if I’m not successful, what treatment is available to me, what are my chances of being really, really sick, and how are you detecting the presence of an infection?
“Honestly, I don’t think this is any different than what any American has to come to grips with.”
While there was a reported players’ call Friday to discuss concerns of being in the Orlando bubble for as many as 10 weeks, Roberts said the players’ concern has dissipated as education on the virus and safety measures have increased.
“At the very beginning when we were being told that this was a disease that people like me [middle-aged] had to worry about, it was more of an annoyance for the players, except for those who had family members my age,” Roberts said. “But it was not something they thought was going to have this kind of an impact on their lives or their livelihood. As time went on and the seriousness was revealed there were times when players were very concerned about it, especially when it became clear it was not confined to folks over 60.
“I got really serious questions. ‘Is this something I need to be worried about? Can it kill me? Can it impact my ability to continue to play basketball?’
“That keeps going on. But then you had to get to the point where everybody had to get to. Do I wait until there’s a vaccine? Or do I figure out a way to accept there’s a protocol that can mitigate this? Do I take a risk?”
Roberts said no player is being mandated to play and there will be no repercussions — besides financially — if a player decides to sit out the season.
“I don’t believe any player would say this was forced upon them, it’s not,” she said. “Not a single player has to play. This is not involuntary servitude. I don’t have to work. They don’t have to work. But it’s of course a mitigation of risk with the players. On this health and safety protocol, I’m satisfied that it can’t be any better than this. But I’m candid that it’s not bulletproof.”
Roberts said the consensus she received from players over weeks of conversations is that most want to return to play and try to finish the season.
“I think the players are where they want to be,” she said. “They want to give it a shot and if it doesn’t work, well, we tried. Hopefully nothing catastrophic will happen and we can just figure out Plan B.
“If the worst would happen and it would spread, we shut it down.
“This is the virus. I’m going to be disheartened, but I’m not going to be surprised because there’s no scientific or medical ability to protect against it. The players know it. The teams know it.
“We’re doing absolutely everything we can to mitigate it. If I didn’t think we were, that the league was half-stepping, then I would recommend with every ounce of my being that our players not even think about playing again. But that’s thankfully not the case.”
Roberts said pushing forward with a plan to play — despite the lack of a vaccine and increasing cases in some areas of Florida — was difficult. But the NBA revealed there would be no plan that would include risk of contraction.
“It’s a tough decision because it’s about people’s health,” she said. “Having said that, this is at least the new normal for a while. If it’s another 18 months before a vaccine and we’re going to have to figure out a way to manage through it.”
And finally, the league has a tentative start date for the 2020-21 season, Dec. 1. If the NBA Finals conclude in early October, that would be a seven-week offseason for players to rest, free agents to sign, players such as Jayson Tatum to sign extensions, and rookies to be integrated to new teams.
Roberts said no opening date has been agreed and the NBA can’t set a schedule without the union’s consent. Meanwhile, those 2020-21 games likely will be without fans.
“Dec. 1 is not an attractive option,” she said. “Those are tough questions that have to be resolved. How do we address the revenue challenges this virus has created and will create next season? I don’t know when they’re going to have fans back in the arena. I don’t think we’re going to have them in October.
“There are a number of factors that will impact when the season will begin. I don’t know if we’re going to have a second spike. What’s the virus going to look like? And if you’re going to talk about a compressed season, we were able to reduce the amount of back-to-back games, the notion of returning to that and the obvious injury risk that come along with that, is not attractive. But nothing will happen without the players signing off. That’s for sure.”
Some ideas to reward teams with best records
There have been ideas thrown around for how NBA teams can receive home-court advantage when all the games are on neutral floors.
How would you give one team an advantage over another in a basketball game? Do you give the “home” team the ball before each quarter? Do you give the “home” team extra fouls? How about ship the home team’s floor to Orlando and make it cosmetically look like a home game?
None of that is going to happen, according to Celtics majority owner Wyc Grousbeck. The league has no plans to sacrifice the integrity of the game with any changes to the rules or offering advantages to the team with the better record.
Grousbeck said he is just ready for his Celtics to play ball.
“I’m super ready and looking forward to resuming play,” he said. “I’ll be there and I hope we’re there for a long time. The reason we wouldn’t bring the parquet floor to Orlando is they would literally count up 16 people it would take to install it and we don’t have any room for extra people. There’s not even room for one extra person, basically.
“In general, just play, baby. Sort of like a version of Al Davis.”
According to reports, head coaches can begin attending team workouts June 23. It’s uncertain when teams can begin official practices, but a majority of those workouts are expected to be in Orlando. Teams are expected to arrive three weeks before the season resumes.
Former Celtics executive and Suns general manager Ryan McDonough suggested one way to give teams with better records an advantage: allow teams with best records — Milwaukee is first — to choose their Orlando accommodations first.
McDonough believes lodging will be critical.
“The one I list the best that may seem minor is giving the top-seeded team their choice of hotels,” McDonough said. “Not all hotels on the Disney campus are created equal. Some are nicer than others, then let the Bucks maybe pick their hotel first and maybe which floor they would like to stay on.
“That would make a lot of sense if you went overall by league record, you’re trying to reward Milwaukee and the Lakers for being the two best teams over the course of 80 percent of the regular season. And also keeping in mind that those two teams could be there for a while. Any advantage the league could give, I like that better than having teams bring in their home court. Maybe that looks good for TV, but that seems like a little bit much for me and with all the logistical challenges. I don’t see how changing the floor makes any sense.”
It’s obvious the NBA has decisions to make over the next few weeks, but there has to be a way to give teams that earned better records an advantage that doesn’t temper the purity of the game.
NBA at forefront in fight for social justice
Not only did NBA commissioner Adam Silver confirm that the season was going to resume, he added that the league expects to work with players regarding the issues of racial discrimination, police brutality, and mistreatment.
“We also recognize that as we prepare to resume play, our society is reeling from recent tragedies of racial violence and injustice,” he wrote. “And we will continue to work closely with our teams and players to use our collective resources and influence to address these issues in very real and concrete ways.”
NBPA executive director Michele Roberts was encouraged by and not surprised by those words. The NBA has become the foremost professional sports league on social issues. The league is primarily Black, and Silver has never discouraged the players from speaking out through various venues on social and racial issues.
While the NFL spent years trying to mute its players — such as blackballing Colin Kaepernick — from making political statements, the NBA has encouraged it. And even during this time, no NBA owner has publicly displayed disagreement or perplexity with the strong statements that have been made.
This harmonious relationship between the league and its players has turned the NBA into the model for professional sports leagues.
“If a current owner of an NBA team is opposed to players using their social platforms, exercising their right to protest, they have the intelligence to keep that to themselves,” Roberts said. “I have no reason to think that there are such owners.
“Knock on wood, our owners are completely aligned with the players or at least they are astute to understand that’s probably not a good idea to publicize any adverse feelings about the planned protests.”
The Knicks were the 29th team to release a statement regarding racial issues, and it was a mild statement by owner James Dolan. The Spurs have not released an official statement, but coach Gregg Popovich released a personal statement in support of peaceful protests, and he again chastised the administration of President Trump.
What’s more, NBA players can be credited for helping precipitate the previous call for action on racial issues when LeBron James, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwyane Wade addressed a national television audience at the 2016 ESPY Awards. A few months later, Kaepernick began sitting, and then kneeling, during the national anthem.
“We haven’t had the kind of controversies the NFL has had despite that our players have been quite vocal,” Roberts said. “A lot of people don’t remember what precipitated Kap taking a knee was that call to action by Chris and Bron and Melo and Wade at the ESPYs. It was that call to action that Kap heard and said, I gotta do something. Our players have never stood silent, and the truth is they never will.
“Adam is smart enough to know these men have never been shy about making known their position about these social and political issues. Political expression is happening at a more frequent rate. I heard what he said and I ain’t mad at him, he’s right. The players are angry. They want to be engaged and they are going to be engaged, and there is no reason to think they’re going to stop being engaged because the season resumes.”
Now that the schedule has been set and eight teams will be left at home for the resumption in Orlando, some teams can begin conducting business. The Knicks need a coach and there are several capable candidates who are interested in the position, such as ESPN/ABC analysts Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy, and former Celtics assistant and Bulls and Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau apparently is the favorite, but the Knicks have to take into account he has a reputation of wearing on his players. The Knicks need a defensive mind-set. They need their younger players to develop and they could use Thibodeau’s discipline. But is he a long-term answer? And can he attract free agents? Those are the questions new president Leon Rose will have to answer. Also, with Dolan making what is perceived to be a major mistake in his reaction to the protests and social issues among African-Americans, the Knicks could struggle to sign marquee free agents as long as he is the owner. The Knicks’ job is a difficult one, but it would appear Jackson, Van Gundy or Thibodeau is capable of returning the franchise to respectability … The Bulls, with new management, have to decide whether Jim Boylen will be their coach next season. Boylen is not the hard-charging coach he has perhaps shown in his abrasive relationships with his players. He honestly is trying to change the culture in Chicago, but he may have pushed players such as Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn too hard in the early going. Team president Arturas Karnisovas and GM Marc Eversley are likely to decide on a new coach who can cultivate the young talent. Chicago expected to make a playoff run this season, but LaVine and Boylen clashed, Lauri Markkanen took a major step back and Dunn lost his confidence. Rookie Coby White showed promise, but there is a logjam at point guard with Dunn and Tomas Satoransky. There are some issues to be solved, but the Bulls have enough talent to make the playoffs next season … The shortened offseason could encourage players such as Gordon Hayward, DeMar DeRozan, and Anthony Davis to opt into their contracts and avoid the chaos of free agency in such as short period. Also, it’s uncertain how much next year’s cap will be affected by the pandemic and the major loss of revenue, so it would be safe for these players to stick to a salary they know won’t change.