As training camps open for the NBA season, Kyrie Irving and Andrew Wiggins have become the faces of the unvaccinated NBA player.
Wiggins, the Warriors forward, has openly refused vaccination and risks missing home games because of a San Francisco Department of Public Health ruling that mandates proof of vaccination for large indoor events. Irving won’t discuss his status but refused to show up at the Nets’ media day because New York has a similar mandate.
Irving spoke to reporters from an undisclosed location, refusing to talk about the issue, citing his privacy. Wiggins, one of the more reserved players in the NBA, having drawn criticism in the past for his lack of passion and emotion, was adamant this past week in defending his non-vaccination stance.
While the players association and the league collaborate on policies that make it more restrictive for unvaccinated players to enjoy the luxuries of the road — leaving the hotel, going out for dinner, or having friends in their rooms — there are certain players who are standing by their decisions.
Wiggins is one of them. Irving appears to be another, and vaccination has become a major issue and topic of discussion among players.
“Back is definitely against the wall,” Wiggins said. “But just going to keep fighting for what I believe, whether it’s one thing or another, get the vaccination or not get the vaccination. I’m just going to keep fighting for what I believe and what I believe is right. What’s right to one person isn’t right to the other, you know, vice versa.”
Wiggins made a case to the NBA that he refused vaccination because of religious reasons. The league said it had “reviewed and denied” his request, and Wiggins must be vaccinated in order to play in the Warriors’ home games.
“It’s none of your business. That’s what it comes down to, you know,” he said when pressed on the subject. “I don’t ask you about your beliefs. I don’t ask you about what you guys think is right or wrong. We’re different people. It would be like parenting. You don’t — some people shed their beliefs onto their children; some people let their children grow up and believe what they want to believe. Who are you guys, why do I have to explain what I believe, or you know, what’s right or what’s wrong in my mind? We are two totally different people. What you think is not what I think; what I think is not what you think.”
Wiggins does have the right to his beliefs. The consensus among NBA players this past week was that vaccination status is a personal issue. Some players such as Marcus Smart and LeBron James said they were vaccinated because they wanted to play basketball and owe it to their teammates. Others said they did research and found it to be safe and effective.
Others, such as the Wizards’ Bradley Beal, said they won’t get vaccinated. And whatever their reasoning, however irrational, a handful of players are standing by their convictions.
“I’ll say something when I’m ready,” Wiggins said. “You know, the only thing the media has done is kind of make it bigger than it has to be. So like I said, I will say my side of everything when I’m ready. I don’t work on [your] time. I work on my time. And it’s my problem, not yours.”
Meanwhile, Wiggins’s teammate Stephen Curry is one of the league’s spokesmen on receiving vaccination.
“It’s difficult,” Curry said. “I mean, you ask everybody on the team, have 18 ways of explaining personal decisions, the sense of urgency of the decision, understanding what the potential consequences and fall-out is. At the end of the day, it is up to him. I think it’s no secret to that point. We obviously hope that he has all the right information and access to the right resources to ask all the questions he has on making a decision.
“We hope he’s available. We hope it moves in the right direction. My opinion is obviously, I got it and ready to be available, and following the mandates and whatnot. But that’s kind of where it is and the coming weeks and how it all plays out is going to be entirely up to him. We obviously hope he’s available and with us and kind of go from there.”
Warriors nearing full strength
The Warriors are close to being whole, with Klay Thompson expected back by January from his two-year injury absence, along with a healthy Draymond Green, James Wiseman, and two lottery picks. Stephen Curry is coming off one of the best season of his career and isn’t showing any signs of slowing down at 33.
What’s unique about the Warriors is their age disparity. Generally, NBA teams prefer not having a combination of older players and first- or second-year players as their primary contributors. But here we are with Curry (33), Thompson (31), Green (31), Wiseman (20), and rookies Moses Moody (19) and Jonathan Kuminga (18).
“If you look at it on paper, that’s definitely something that jumps off the page in terms of I think me, Klay have been here 10 years together, and Draymond as well, and Andre [Igoudala] for a significant portion of that and the best days of it,” Curry said. “I know how we operate and we have a crop of amazingly talented, high potential, energetic young guys who have a lot to accomplish in this league and we hopefully can marry the two in terms of what we do on the floor every single night.”
If the Warriors are to contend in the Western Conference, they have to acclimate their young players as quickly as possible. All three — Wiseman, Moody, and Kuminga — are potential cornerstones, but the Warriors’ winning window is now.
The Warriors chose Wiseman over LaMelo Ball, but the young center was hampered by a knee injury last season that derailed Golden State’s chances to grab the eighth seed. The Warriors lost both play-in games.
Thompson hasn’t played since Game 6 of the 2019 Finals, more than two years ago. He is getting close to full health, and as he goes, so go the Warriors. Curry said he believes his teammate will get back to All-Star form.
“It’s kind of hard to summarize it, but I feel like he is just much more comfortable in where basketball is in his life, and other things that he has going on that bring him joy,” Curry said. “But that only increases the appreciation of being able to play at this level and really commit himself to the work that it’s going to take during rehab to get back to 100 percent. Because that could be demoralizing for a lot of people, when your greatest joy is taken away for so long, but he’s found other things that give him life and fun and joy and a sense of purpose.
“It’s going to be really gratifying when he gets to the finish line and has the moment that he deserves when he comes back, and hopefully he can realize the positives that have come out of it for sure.”
Curry wants to win a fourth championship, but he has the rare opportunity to play for one franchise during his entire career. As for now, the Warriors have a bunch of question marks, mostly related to health and youth. If everything works out, they could return to the Finals. If Thompson is healthy, Green returns to previous form, and the young core plays beyond its years.
“I feel like we don’t have huge holes in the roster,” Curry said. “There’s a lot of potential for young guys to step up in a meaningful way, probably faster than we’ve been used to in the past with how we’ve won because we haven’t really relied on rookies to come in and play significant roles.
“But we haven’t had three lottery picks either. It’s a nice balance of trying to figure out what that looks like. We want to be healthy to give ourselves the best chance to see what that looks like. Our culture remains the same and everything that we do on the court and how we play, it will be probably pretty similar to years past.”
Leonard comfortable with staying home
Still recovering from a partially torn ACL, Kawhi Leonard could have re-signed with the Clippers and become a free agent again next season. Elite players such as Leonard and LeBron James have signed one-year deals with player options for the second season, staying open to alternatives and placing an onus on the team to compete right away.
Leonard, however, signed a three-year deal this summer, committing to the Clippers into his mid-30s. It was a surprising move and a sign that Leonard is happy in Los Angeles.
“I made my decision based on at first, obviously, family, being closer to my family, being in the state of California,” he said. “Once I got here, I learned who works here, who was in the front office, and just kind of building chemistry with the staff and people in the front office.
“A big part of it was just winning. They want to win, I want to win, and I’m home. I’m comfortable with the guys on my team, and I just felt like it was a good situation still.”
Leonard was honest about why he signed a long-term deal, especially after sustaining a serious knee injury.
“The best situation for me was to do it one and one and then opt out and sign a long-term five-year deal, but there’s a lot of concerns that that brings up for you guys and your job, and it creates story lines that I’m going to leave the team,” he said. “One thing, I wanted to secure some money, and I wanted to be able to come back if I was able to this year. If I would have took the one and one, I probably would have not played just to be cautious and opted out and took a five-year [deal].
“I’m here. I’m here to be a Clipper. I’m not going to another team unless something drastic happens, but I’m here for the long run.”
The Clippers are essentially returning the same team that reached the Western Conference finals last season, except with Eric Bledsoe replacing Patrick Beverley at point guard. Leonard could miss the season, meaning Paul George, oft-maligned during his Clippers tenure for faltering in big moments, will be the unquestioned go-to player.
“He finished it off great,” Leonard said of George. “He gave it all he had that last playoff run. It was even hard to watch them, just being hurt. But they did their thing. Everybody did, stepped up, played in a great way, did a good job. This season, it’s going to be different. I’m not there to start training camp, but I think he’s motivated enough and knows what he can do. He always knows — he’s been proving himself over the years in this league, from becoming a defender to a leading scorer to a two-way player.
“But he’s going to do good. His expectations need to be better than mine, so it’s all about him and his mind-set. Doesn’t matter about what I think he should be doing or how he should play, I’m going to definitely give him feedback to help him get better, but it’s all based on him.”
Tremont Waters has found a home for now, as the former Celtic signed a training camp deal with the Bucks. Waters was not re-signed by the Celtics after two seasons and had a stint with the Rockets’ summer league team. Boston once envisioned Waters as its potential backup point guard, but he never took that next step to become a reliable and productive NBA player … Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens said the club is in no hurry to fill its second two-way contract and is likely to wait until teams finalize rosters to fill that spot. Rookie Sam Hauser, signed out of Virginia, is the Celtics’ lone two-way player and he’s expected to spend most of the season with G-League Maine … The Nuggets’ gamble paid off when they took a chance on injured swingman Michael Porter Jr. in 2018. The former Missouri standout was projected as a top-five pick before experiencing back issues. That scared off teams, but the Nuggets took Porter, sat him for a full season, and now he’s agreed to a five-year, $207 million extension, a sign that the Nuggets are committed to chasing a championship. The Nuggets aren’t favorites in the Western Conference because Jamal Murray is recovering from a torn ACL suffered late last season, but could still contend … The rookie extension deadline is approaching and there are several players entering their fourth seasons who are up for big paydays. In Phoenix, the Suns have two players worthy of extensions in Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges. A deal for Ayton, one of the league’s emerging centers, appears to be a lock. He helped the Suns get within two wins of a championship and has vastly improved since being drafted No. 1 overall in 2018. Dallas’s Luka Doncic, Atlanta’s Trae Young, Boston’s Robert Williams, and Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are the latest to sign extensions along with Porter. Jaren Jackson Jr., Collin Sexton, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Huerter are among those on rookie deals who could get extensions before the Oct. 17 deadline … It looks like former Celtic Kelly Olynyk will have a real opportunity for a prominent role with the Pistons. Olynyk was sent from Miami to Houston last season in the Victor Oladipo trade and played well for the lottery-bound Rockets, boosting his free agent value. Olynyk could start at power forward for Detroit.