John Wall was not allowed to play in the first two games of the Rockets’ regular season because he was in COVID-19 protocol after being contact-traced back to a group of teammates getting haircuts at his home.
So he had to wait an extra week to make his official return after two years off with injuries. The NBA has a short memory and in that span, Wall descended from one of the league’s top point guards to damaged goods who made questionable off-court decisions.
In his prime, Wall was one of the fastest players in the league, unstoppable off the dribble with an improving perimeter game. But a series of knee and foot issues sidelined him and he was essentially passed on the Wizards by Bradley Beal. So he wanted out.
The trade to Houston offers Wall, now 30, a chance to shine and a vehicle for his rebirth. He returned to the floor with 22 points in a New Year’s Eve win over the Sacramento Kings, and he cherished every moment.
“It was great, I hadn’t played in 735 days,” he said. “So for me to get the opportunity to work hard and everybody that has been in my corner [encouraging me] to compete.
“I thought about it all day. I couldn’t sleep last night. When the ball touched my hands after the jump ball I was happy to compete with some of the best guys in this league.”
Since he has been out, Wall has watched as impactful point guards have sprouted up all over the league, and he was physically unable to show he could compete until this past week.
“Twenty-two [points], 9 [assists], and 6 [rebounds] in my first game is not bad, I’ll pat myself on the back,” he said. “I put the work in. I know how much better I feel. I think you guys can see that. I feel amazing, I feel like I’m in high school again. I feel like I’m not even 30 years old, and that’s crazy to say with all the injuries I’ve been through that I couldn’t control.”
It appears as some of the lessons Wall painfully learned about conditioning have resonated.
“For me to learn how to take care of my body at the best level and keep listening to [my trainers], I feel great, couldn’t ask for nothing better,” he said. “It was my first NBA game since my mom’s passing and to go through that and get a win and have Christmas with my two boys, and to go through that, it’s [great].”
Pistons in middle of an overhaul
The Pistons hired general manager Troy Weaver during the pandemic and he has reshaped the roster. That has meant a difficult adjustment for Dwane Casey’s team because of the shortened offseason. The Pistons, who held off the Celtics on Friday night, are 1-4 and are starting rookie Killian Hayes at point guard.
Another rookie, Villanova product Saddiq Bey, was in the starting lineup along with former No. 4 overall pick Josh Jackson. Casey is just trying to develop cohesion and it cost them early games.
“We do have a bunch of young and new guys and it’s a chemistry lab right now, and it’s putting it all together,” Casey said prior to the 96-93 home win against the Celtics. “They’re coming along as expected — ups and downs for young players, but I like them. I like the talent. I like the base that they have to draw from.
“For all rookies around the league right now, I think it’s really unfair because they didn’t have a summer league, they didn’t have August or September. So you’re asking a lot of them to come in, sight unseen, and fit into the NBA. That’s a very difficult thing to come in and do. Especially with us, we’re throwing ours right into the fire.”
Casey said one of the reasons there have been so many blowouts, such as the Clippers’ 51-point loss to the Mavericks, is that chemistry couldn’t be established in the shortened training camp and preseason.
“I think guys are out of rhythm and out of sorts, so to speak, with the pandemic and testing,” he said. “I think the lack of fans, you don’t have that energy boost when a team does get behind to pick you up or even the opposing fans to pick you up, so to speak.
“I think also, the increased mentality to shoot the 3-point shot is another factor for the blowouts. So, there’s a lot of different things going on, but I think it will even itself out.”
ONE AND DONE
Another bubble seen as unlikely
So far, the NBA has resumed without any major glitches after the season-opening game between Houston and Oklahoma City was postponed because of contact tracing concerns with the Rockets. The NBA wants to play in the teams’ home venues and will continue to do so, hoping the COVID-19 vaccines can eventually result in the return of fans.
As for another bubble, that’s highly unlikely. While the players who spent as many as three months in the bubble in Orlando put up with the limitations for the sake of completing the 2019-20 season, there is no desire to return to that format.
The players despised being away from their families, being limited to a campus, and being unable to live in their own homes. The Players Association made it clear to the league that a bubble would not be acceptable for the 2020-21 regular season.
Commissioner Adam Silver touched on the possibility of a new bubble, but the league has mostly avoided problems because of daily testing, social distancing, and a new tracker that will monitor the movements of team personnel.
“There are circumstances where if it were over a shorter period of time, we would be open to returning players to a bubble, and I think players would, as well, if that were the only alternative to otherwise not playing,” Silver said. “I will say, though, that as we move on in the season, it’s our hope that given the planned rollout of the vaccine that we’ll be going in the other direction, that it’ll become increasingly more likely that there will be a return to a home-court advantage, that come May, June, July, which right now our season is targeted to end mid-July, that by that point there really will be a meaningful opportunity to have fans in our buildings.”
While the vaccines could have a profound impact on the season and allow for more normalcy and an economic boom for owners, Silver said the league will not “jump the line” to get the vaccines to players.
“I think despite very optimistic projections, this is an unprecedented rollout of a vaccine over a relatively short period of time,” he said. “So if there wasn’t a true home-court advantage, I think given the impact of travel on players, it’s something that we would definitely look at because it may be that, as I said earlier, that given that the virus doesn’t have the same impact on all communities at all times, there might be certain geographical locations in the country that are safer to be in than others, so that also may lend itself to wanting to play at a neutral site. All things that we will continue to look at, depending on how the season rolls out.”
Meanwhile, James Harden continues to play for the Rockets despite his supposed trade demand. And for how well the 76ers are doing with the Ben Simmons-Joel Embiid combination, a Harden trade to Philadelphia to rejoin former Rockets general manager Daryl Morey seems less likely.
It’s an uncomfortable situation for the league, and each time Harden is asked about wanting to be traded, he passes on answering or changes the subject
“I don’t believe he made a public trade demand,” Silver said. “I know that a lot has been written about his situation, and I believe the last thing he said publicly is that he’s focused on the game and being in Houston at the moment.”
The league fines players who make public trade demands, so Harden isn’t going to publicly acknowledge that he has handed the Rockets a list of teams that he would prefer to play for, a list that includes the Celtics.
The NBA would prefer one of its star players not continue to play despite wanting to play for another team, but there’s nothing the league can really do about it until the issue is resolved between Harden and the Rockets. So far, Harden has played MVP-like basketball despite being out of shape and causing such a distraction.
“I guess in a general way, though, because I recognize those reports didn’t come out of thin air, that to the extent that a player is unhappy with his team or a team is unhappy with a player, it’s always the league’s strong view that those matters get handled behind closed doors,” Silver said. “I mean, we recognize that it’s part of the dynamic of any relationship, any employer-employee relationship, that occasionally things go sideways, and especially when there are changes around a franchise. But again, the expectation is that everyone is professional and that team personnel have an opportunity to speak directly to each other, including having in some cases difficult conversations with each other. But those conversations, those disputes be handled privately.
“James is a great player in this league. But he’s also a player under contract, and there’s responsibilities that come with agreeing to a long-term contract. He’s very well aware of that. Again, I’m hoping that things settle down as we go into the season and that he has another great year.”
Taking a pass on pot
The NBA decided to postpone random marijuana testing for the season, a move that could mark a permanent stance on marijuana use as a means of body recovery.
“It’s an ongoing discussion with our Players Association,” commissioner Adam Silver said. “What we decided jointly was that these are unusual circumstances right now, and let’s put off for another day the longer conversation about whether marijuana should still be on a prohibited-substance list.
“To me, when it comes to penalties around drug use, it’s really more of an indication of a failure. I mean, we hope that you never have to impose any sort of discipline for substance abuse, and they’re there by collective agreement with the players that this is something these rules, we believe, make for a better league.”
It’s apparent that marijuana use exists in the NBA and players have found ways to avoid testing positive. It appears the league and the Players Association will take a long, hard look at the drug and its benefits for recovery. Several former players, including Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson, have gone public about marijuana use during their careers, calling it one of the league’s worst-kept secrets.
“I recognize that society’s views around marijuana use have changed dramatically since these rules were put in place, and in many ways the suspension of random testing this season is a recognition of that,” Silver said. “Having said that . . . our players travel for a living, and one of our concerns has always been, and I know the Players Association shares this concern, that if our players are traveling from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, from jurisdictions that do not have prohibitions to jurisdictions where there’s still criminal penalties for possession and use of marijuana, we want to make sure we’re not creating a trap for our players and putting in place rules that will put them in the crosshairs of the law.”
Silver makes an astute point. Marijuana is not legal everywhere and if the NBA offers players a free pass on using, does possession in these states become a legal issue?
“Like most things that we deal with, not necessarily simple solutions,” Silver said “I will say as a general matter, while marijuana has been taken off our list for random testing, it doesn’t mean there isn’t still a concern from the league that marijuana, no different than alcohol, can be abused, and that it’s something that we want to pay close attention to, especially given the incredible stress that our players are often under, and particularly given the stress of playing in a pandemic.
“We’ll continue discussing it with our players and presumably we learned a fair amount as we went through the bubble around this substance because we had suspended our rule then, as well, and I think now under something a little bit closer to regular league conditions, players living at home, players traveling, we’ll see how it goes this year and then we’ll revisit it with the Players Association.”
It becomes yet another pressing issue the league needs to discuss with the players’ union.
The seat is getting hotter for Wizards coach Scott Brooks, who despite the team acquiring Russell Westbrook to team with a healthy Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans, has lost his first five games, including two to the previously winless Bulls at home. Expectations soared once the Wizards traded John Wall to the Rockets for Westbrook, with talks of reaching the playoffs. But the Wizards’ issues are the same as last season. They are ninth in the NBA in scoring but 26th in points allowed. While Westbrook has amassed triple-doubles in each of the four games for which he has been active, he was shooting just 42.1 percent from the field and 26.7 percent from the 3-point line. Bertans, who sat out the bubble to guard his health with impending free agency, reported to camp out of shape, while Rui Hachimura missed the first four games because of an eye issue. The Wizards began a four-game trip Friday with a 130-109 win in Minnesota. The trip includes stops in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Boston, before returning home to games against Miami, Phoenix, and Utah, so their poor start could get a lot worse . . . The Raptors got off to an 0-3 start, playing their home games in Tampa because of Canadian COVID-19 restrictions, before a New Year’s Eve home win against the Knicks. In that game, All-Star forward Pascal Siakam was benched because of an incident during the previous loss against the 76ers where he walked directly to the locker room after fouling out in the final 30 seconds. The Raptors have been trying to get adjusted to their new home but also playing without Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, who left via free agency. The issue with the Raptors is shooting, a 41.3 percent clip through four games, including 39.3 percent from Siakam and 30.6 percent from key reserve Norman Powell. With the improvement of the Nets, the 76ers off to a 4-1 start, and the Celtics looking like they are getting better, the Raptors may be the fourth-best team in the Atlantic Division. As for the Knicks, they are improved behind a rejuvenated Julius Randle, who is putting up All-Star-caliber numbers in the early going. Randle was averaging 23 points, 10.4 rebounds, 7 assists and shooting 52.9 percent from the 3-point line. The Knicks have become respectable under new coach Tom Thibodeau and that’s mostly without lottery pick Obi Toppin, who is expected to miss a few weeks because of a strained calf.