No team has been hit harder by COVID-19 than the Washington Wizards, who have had seven players test positive over the past few weeks.
The Wizards have had six games postponed because they could not meet the NBA’s minimum number of required players, but they are expected to return to the floor Sunday against the Spurs. The NBA did not release a schedule past March 4 for the purpose of leaving open dates for makeup games.
And the schedule makers are going to have the arduous task of scheduling makeups for the Wizards, Celtics, and Grizzlies, who just had three games wiped out.
As for the Wizards, the league moved on without them. There were games played, practices and shootarounds conducted, while Washington didn’t even have access to its practice facility. The team worked out for the first time in a week on Wednesday, and they were scheduled to play the Bucks on Friday. But after consultation with the league and Players Association, that game was postponed as well because the Wizards barely had time to conduct a full practice. Coach Scott Brooks is trying to view this positively, but it’s difficult.
The Wizards will try to galvanize an already injury-depleted roster to push for a playoff spot. Center Thomas Bryant has been lost for the season because of a knee injury and star guard Russell Westbrook has missed time because of a quadriceps strain.
“It’s not an ideal situation,” Brooks said this past week. “[The first practice] wasn’t much, but we did the best we can. There’s nothing we can do. You can’t just start back up at game speed. These guys are world-class athletes, but they haven’t done anything. I’ve been in the league 30 years and I never missed a game, let alone as many games as we’ve missed. I knew this could potentially happen. This virus is real and it’s creative and it hit us pretty bad.
“But we’re going to battle back together. It was almost like therapy for all of us to get together. This is not a hoax; over 400,000 Americans have passed away. We take it serious. You’re obviously concerned, but we love doing what we do, but it’s definitely challenging.”
The Wizards still lack enough players to scrimmage, but they are eager to return to the floor on Sunday at home.
“We had nine guys today, which was good enough to do a lot of three-on-three stuff,” Brooks said. “Going into practice I was very concerned, knowing we hadn’t practiced in nine days. The health of our players is extremely important. I believe we’ve got the best commissioner in sports and they take the players safety and healthy as a premium.
“Let’s face it, it’s not an easy decision what the league has to do. They’ve had some tough decisions they’ve had to make over the last couple of weeks. I knew they would do the right thing. It’s definitely going to be a challenge.”
Psychologically, Brooks said he struggled with the postponements and other setbacks. The Wizards are trying to make the playoffs, and they had been playing better of late.
“We have some holes, but obviously there’s some opportunities [for our guys],” Brooks said. “We’ve got pretty competitive guys. Our mind-set today is a lot better. Last night, I wasn’t in the best place, but today seeing the guys coming back and we had a good practice today. Never in my wildest imagination did I think we would have a two-week break in the middle of January. But what’s going on is real.
“We’re always going to do right by the players. Zoom calls and text messaging, that’s played out. We’re tired of it. I was worried about the health of our players.”
Bradley Beal said the players are wondering whether to continue the season or potentially take a league-wide break.
“It’s a recipe for injury, honestly,” said the Wizards guard. “It is going to be tough playing shorthanded. The health of us is the most important thing, the safety of us. It’s unfair for other teams to practice and we literally haven’t played in a week and some change.
“A lot of guys want to play. It’s a fine line between the two. It’s a tough situation and I think it’s going to take a collective effort between the [Players Association] and the league and figuring out what’s the best thing moving forward. It’s mixed feelings. A lot of guys want to play, want to earn their checks.”
COULDN’T BE HAPPIER
Inauguration Day big for Rivers
Doc Rivers returning to the Eastern Conference as coach of the 76ers means he gets to interact with the Boston media more often than when he was with the Clippers.
Rivers was beaming on Inauguration Day, as he supported President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on their road to the White House. Rivers established a friendship with Harris several years ago, and the two have kept in touch.
“It was awesome, for a lot of reasons,” Rivers said of the inauguration. “Being involved on that side and seeing the people that you want to go in office go in office. Kamala is not only the first brown, I would say, female vice president, I’ve known her for a good eight, nine years. It was very emotional, just really a neat day for me, and for a lot of people. It was a good day.”
Rivers said he was able to exchange text messages with Harris over the past few weeks. Rivers has become a role model for NBA players because of his activism and ability to relate to their issues.
“I haven’t talked to the president, it’s just phenomenal to say, but I have talked to the vice president,” Rivers said. “We texted a couple of times as well. I got a feeling that today my texts may not go through anymore because I know they change phones as of today. We have had talks, for sure.”
Meanwhile, the 76ers have improved under Rivers, with center Joel Embiid playing like an MVP candidate, as evidenced by his 42-point performance against the Celtics on Wednesday. But they have been hurt by injuries, Ben Simmons playing out of his natural position, and the addition of several newcomers.
“This is not a team that’s been together, so we just need to resume work together to start growing,” Rivers said. “I don’t think anyone can have a timetable. Anyone that tells you you can, they’re just smarter than me. I think every team has their own time when they come together. Some come together right away and keep growing. I just look at this season as growth, got to keep growing and get better. Hopefully by the time the playoffs start, you’re at your peak. That’s what you want to try to do. Joel’s presence helps everybody on the floor, and especially Ben when he’s down on the post.”
A new Big Three has moved into Rivers’s neighborhood after the Nets acquired James Harden to join Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to make a legitimate run at the NBA title. It was Rivers and Danny Ainge who formed the original modern-day Big Three with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce, winning one championship and coming within one victory of another.
Rivers laughed when he was called the father of the modern Big Three, but he said there is one critical point to making a superstar trio successful.
“I’ll call Danny the father since he’s the oldest. I could be the stepfather,” Rivers said. “We had the right three. Ray, Paul, and Kevin were not only phenomenal players, but it was just their time. They were ready to win and they knew the sacrifice it was going to take from each one of them to give up shots, to give up different things. And they were all willing to do it.
“I’m never sure three is the right number or two, and I just say that because someone always has to make a sacrifice when you have the three, and that has to be a special person. I thought Ray was that guy for us. He had to sacrifice the most shots, the most touches. Even the way he played, and I don’t think he got enough credit for that.
“I thought [Chris] Bosh was the guy in Miami that had to change his game the most, and Klay Thompson was the guy in Golden State. So it’s always somebody who isn’t getting as many shots, and I know where you’re going [about who will make the sacrifice in Brooklyn], and I’m not going to answer. I don’t know who it will be.”
Porter gets fresh start
The Cavaliers this past week told 2019 first-round pick Kevin Porter to stay home until they worked out a trade or released the 20-year-old guard, who has great potential. Porter, who played at Southern Cal, came into the draft with red flags and many detractors. And on Friday, they traded him to the Rockets for a protected second-round pick.
Porter was suspended by coach Andy Enfield during his lone season with the Trojans because of conduct detrimental to the team. Porter’s father was murdered when he was 4 years old and he unquestionably had some issues when he decided to make the jump to the NBA.
The Cavaliers were pleased with Porter’s rookie season on the floor, but concerned over his behavior off it. In November, Porter was stopped in Mahoning County (Ohio) for improper handling of a firearm and marijuana possession after a single-car accident. The weapons and marijuana charges were dropped, but the Cavaliers still decided to essentially shut down Porter.
He has not played this season despite being healthy, and he attended his first game recently after tending to personal issues, then went off on team officials, including general manager Koby Altman, after his locker was moved to accommodate space for newly acquired Taurean Prince. It was then that the Cavaliers decided to move on from Porter, and the Rockets will try to help him reach his potential.
On the Rockets’ coaching staff is John Lucas, a former NBA head coach and point guard who overcame substance-abuse issues and who has helped countless players deal with personal problems and become productive on the court.
Porter made the mistake that many youngsters with troubled pasts do. The NBA is not a solution for mental health issues or personal problems. The money only complicates matters. That’s why many teams backed away from Porter, who had the talent to be a lottery pick but dropped to 30th in the draft.
Porter is only 20 and needs emotional support. But the question is whether he is ready to not only live the NBA life, but to be a good teammate and conduct himself with maturity off the floor.
The league is getting progressively younger because of one-and-dones, and teams’ patience in these youngsters is getting shorter. Of the 30 first-rounders in the 2017 draft, four are already out of the NBA, and four of the top nine picks have already been traded.
Porter said all the right things during the draft process, telling teams he was over his issues at USC and ready to contribute to a team and was mature enough to handle the life of a pro. But the NBA life adds problems, such as supporting family members, the means to purchase lavish items, and just trying to maneuver the pressures of being a professional athlete with trolls on social media lambasting you after every subpar game.
NBA teams have tried to add mentors to their staffs. The Celtics hired former Harvard and WNBA standout Allison Feaster to serve as a player liaison, and she has had an impact, building strong relationships with players. For the Celtics’ first few weeks in the bubble, Feaster was the lone member of the front office in Orlando.
The league’s stance on mental health and support has become stronger and more compassionate. The Cavaliers gave Porter a break to begin the season to allow him to become mentally and emotionally prepared, but Porter still had his blow-up with management.
Will the Rockets be the answer for Porter? That’s yet to be determined, but the organization will take a chance and attempt to resuscitate his image and unearth his potential. Let’s hope Porter can harness that talent into success on and off the floor.
The NBA has not yet announced whether it will expand rosters to 18 or 19 because of the pandemic, but the Players Association is pushing for more opportunities for players, many of whom are waiting for phone calls. Two players who are ready to go are former Celtic Isaiah Thomas and three-time Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford. The NBA expanded active rosters to 15 this season, and 17 to include two-way players. With no G-League yet, players on two-way contracts can remain on rosters and be added to the active list. For the Celtics, Tremont Waters and Tacko Fall have played important roles this season on two-way contracts. Veterans such as Thomas and Crawford are seeking bigger roles than just end-of-the-bench support, and it doesn’t make sense for a team to bring in one of them for a bit part. So the past success of Thomas and Crawford may be hurting them because teams assume they won’t be satisfied with smaller roles … A player just picked up off the free agent market was former Raptors center Alex Len, who signed with the depleted Wizards. Washington recently lost center Thomas Bryant for the season (torn ACL). The Raptors have decided to go with a smaller lineup with the improved Chris Boucher at center, as well as former Celtic Aron Baynes in stretches. Can Len help the Wizards? The answer is yes. He could provide bench scoring and defense in spurts. He has never played more than 23 minutes per game and does provide a defensive presence … Another center who could be on the market is two-time NBA champion JaVale McGee, who was moved by the Lakers to the Cavaliers for salary-cap space to acquire Dennis Schroder. McGee can provide help for a contender, but there isn’t much room for him in Cleveland with Andre Drummond and the newly acquired Jarrett Allen. McGee would come as a bargain. He’s earning $4.2 million in the final year of his contract, and the rebuilding Cavaliers would be looking for draft assets. And remember, the Celtics have a $4.7 million trade exception created by the Enes Kanter deal with Portland, so they could offer the Cavaliers perhaps a pair of second-rounders for McGee. The Celtics have thought about acquiring McGee in the past. This may be a can’t-miss opportunity.