N.B.A. Hopes for ‘as Close to a Normal Season as Possible’

iCrackStreamsDecember 22, 2020

The first team to take up residence at the N.B.A. bubble in July was one of the first to be assigned a road trip last week. The Orlando Magic on Thursday afternoon boarded a team flight for the first time since March and made the short journey to Atlanta to jump-start a season like no other.

Upon arrival, Orlando’s 47-passenger contingent — including two coronavirus testers — was divided up and ushered onto four separate buses to maximize social distancing. Players were reminded to avoid the hotel gift shop and crowded elevators and were instructed to stay on the hotel property, apart from visits to a nearby Whole Foods Market.

“I don’t know if it’s going to be like that all season long,” Orlando’s Evan Fournier said in a phone interview. “I still don’t know what I’m really allowed to do. I guess that’s what the preseason is for.”

Dress rehearsals, for a league adjusting to new realities, are indeed underway. Tuesday marked Day 5 for the N.B.A.’s rapid-fire exhibition schedule — with a countdown clock in the bottom left-hand corner of NBA TV, the league’s official channel, offering repeated reminders that next Tuesday’s opening night for the 2020-21 season is fast approaching.

As Fournier noted, N.B.A. teams are trying to make road life as restrictive as possible, hoping to keep their traveling parties safe with the coronavirus still surging across the country. It’s way too soon to say the league’s measures are working, when leaguewide travel has just begun, but Fournier sounded refreshingly hopeful when we spoke, saying he feels safe given the players’ daily testing, combined with as many old bubble practices as teams are able to replicate now that they’re on the move.

The French guard joked Saturday on Twitter, in his native language, that he was getting sick of himself after three days in the same Atlanta hotel room, but Fournier left little doubt in our chat that he was “super happy” to be back on the court for two games against the Hawks.

“It’s so much better than just being in the bubble, in my opinion, because we actually get to travel and play in real arenas,” Fournier said.

You can understand the sentiment. Everyone who plays and works in the league knows that the restricted-access village erected by the N.B.A. at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., was by far the safest way to conduct business and finish the 2019-20 season, but no one wanted to do it again because of the mental-health toll exacted by long stays behind Disney’s gates, cut off from the outside world.

So the N.B.A. will try to do it this way, with nearly 160 pages of safety guidelines for teams to follow to try to keep the coronavirus from infiltrating practices and mostly fan-less arenas, even as the increasing (and at times farcical) ineffectiveness of college football and basketball in combating the virus suggests that major disruptions are looming. The N.F.L., without a bubble, has likewise had countless troubles.

A month ago, as the draft and free agency approached, I wrote about how strange it was to see and hear so little public concern about the daunting challenges that the N.B.A. would face this winter, when medical experts were rightly predicting an alarming spike in Covid-19 cases. Not much has changed in the weeks since — James Harden’s uncertain future in Houston gets far more coverage from the basketball media than health issues — but I do get it. The virus has been a constant in our lives for nine months. Many have grown weary of worrying.

It was thus so tempting, starting Friday night, to get swept up in the basketball as the preseason began. Training camps landed a little later on the calendar than usual, but this, after all, is the time of year for just that — for all teams and their fans to dream before the games start counting.

John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins have looked healthier and livelier than the Houston Rockets, who are otherwise soaked in the drama of the disgruntled Harden, could have hoped. Golden State’s Stephen Curry returned from his own injury woes with a new trick shot that he flung from the empty stands at Chase Center during pregame warm-ups and that may have topped every past trick shot in a career full of them. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving had majestic moments together in their long-delayed debut as Nets teammates. Talen Horton-Tucker, who turned 20 on Nov. 25, looked as dangerous as Los Angeles Lakers insiders have whispered for months he would be when he got a chance to play real minutes. Zion Williamson, too, was back to his wrecking-ball best Monday night in the New Orleans Pelicans’ exhibition opener.

Thursday’s Minnesota at Dallas preseason game is the first I will have the chance to attend in person. Members of the news media are not allowed to get anywhere near the floor or the two teams, as we used to, but I don’t think I will be able to stay home after getting Fournier’s description of the State Farm Arena scene for the Magic’s 116-112 victory over the Hawks in the teams’ Friday exhibition.

“It was really fun, actually,” Fournier said. “I didn’t really pay attention to the empty seats. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s just because I was so happy to be out there.”

Where I live, in the same city as one of the game’s loudest optimists, talk about the coming season tends to be even more bullish, in contrast to my typical fear-the-worst anxiety, which I am once again struggling to stifle. Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks’ owner, is a self-professed vaccines “geek” who has been reading everything he can as a mass vaccination campaign begins to roll out nationwide. Last week on SiriusXM NBA Radio, Cuban said it was “my personal belief” that there would be a “huge snap back” in March or April “where most of the people in the country will have had access” to coronavirus vaccination “if they wanted it.”

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, has predicted that most people will be able to get the vaccine by late spring or early summer, and that those with no underlying conditions could be vaccinated by the end of March or beginning of April. Seemingly taking his cue from such projections, Cuban told SiriusXM that he thinks “things are going to get really fun” in N.B.A. arenas in the second half of the season, provided that the league’s rush to start before Christmas to satisfy its television partners proceeds into the spring with no serious setbacks.

When I reached Cuban on Tuesday, he insisted that the Mavericks’ mantra is “safety first, safety second and safety third.” He also confirmed that he would be at American Airlines Center on Thursday night, which will be Cuban’s first opportunity to watch his team in person since the viral clip of his stunned in-game reaction to news of the season’s suspension on March 11.

“So far, so good,” Cuban said. “The most important aspect is that the players and staff that are traveling are treating each game as a self-imposed bubble. We won’t be able to eliminate cases and outbreaks, but if we can minimize them, then hopefully it can be as close to a normal season as possible.”

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.

(Questions may be lightly edited or condensed for clarity.)

Q: Congratulations on 35 years in the business, and I wish you many more. My question is basically which parts stand out most to you in the evolution of N.B.A. basketball into a global, 24/7 machine? I remember being at university in the 1990s, watching the game of the week with the lads and using newspaper box scores for our little fantasy league with made-up rules. How things have changed. — Heath Melrose (Brindisi, Italy)

Stein: N.B.A. players are among the most recognized (and closely followed) athletes in the world. It hasn’t always been this way. I know I’ve said it before, but the ever-growing interest in those individual personalities and a perpetually insatiable appetite for N.B.A. transactions are the standout changes for me.

Apologies if I have shared this remembrance in the newsletter and just forgot, but the signal to me that the N.B.A. had truly entered a new era was a seemingly minor trade in January 2007 that sent Earl Boykins from the Denver Nuggets to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Chris Ramsay, one of my ESPN.com editors at the time and the son of the legendary former Buffalo Braves and Portland Trail Blazers coach Jack Ramsay, told me that my story on the trade generated several hundred thousand page views. The trade deadline was more than a month away, but the appetite for a transaction headlined by a reserve guard was an early hint of how the landscape was changing.

As for your mention of fantasy basketball, I make similar comments to my 14-year-old son, Aaron, every weekend while watching him breezily manage his first fantasy football team with all these new-age phone apps that do all the math for you. Not sure I would have made it through high school if I’d had a phone with push notifications to distract me.

Q: Oscar Robertson will always be in my top six. — Ken Paul (New York Times senior staff editor)

Stein: Ken got a good chuckle out of me with this response to a section of my recent piece on Diego Maradona that mentioned the contentious greatest-of-all-time debates in soccer and basketball.

I listed Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain as the N.B.A.’s top six contenders for G.O.A.T. status — while acknowledging that there may not be a consensus on those finalists.

Ken’s note promptly validated the suspicion that my top six might not be your top six. So did the email protest I received from one of our newsletter regulars, David Machlowitz of Westfield, N.J., asking why I included Magic but not Larry Bird.

Just imagine what will happen if James wins his fifth ring this season by leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a second consecutive championship. That would give us some real G.O.A.T. tension at the front of the N.B.A. line as well as the back.

Q: There has been talk of expanding rosters to deal with the Covid-19 situation. The N.B.A. will probably be affected even more by the coronavirus than the N.F.L. because there are so many more games per week, so wouldn’t everyone benefit if rosters were bigger? — Heber Costa e Silva (Brazil)

Stein: There was some behind-the-scenes support in November for N.B.A. teams to be allowed to sign four players to two-way contracts this season rather than two, which would have essentially enabled teams to carry 19 players instead of 17.

That push was ultimately rejected, but the league did eradicate the old 45-day N.B.A. limit for players on two-way deals. Players holding two-way contracts can be active for 50 of a team’s 72 games this season and will each earn a uniform $449,155. The league is also expected to formally announce later this week that teams will be allowed to dress 15 players per game this season, up from the usual 13.

Two-way players are thus widely expected to stay predominantly with their N.B.A. teams in 2020-21 — which, of course, is one of the daunting variables that G League officials have to factor in as they continue to discuss the best format for their season.

Holdouts are rare in the modern N.B.A., but the Houston Rockets’ duo of James Harden (two) and P.J. Tucker (one) missed three days of training camp combined to convey varying levels of dissatisfaction with the team. Harden wants to be traded; Tucker wants a contract extension.

Five of the last eight offer sheets to restricted free agents have gone unmatched by the incumbent team. This includes the Knicks’ four-year, $71 million offer sheet to then-Atlanta Hawks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. in July 2017 and, more recently, Atlanta’s four-year, $72 million offer sheet to Bogdan Bogdanovic that the Sacramento Kings declined to match.

Although Milwaukee’s acquisition of Jrue Holiday is widely regarded as a clear upgrade to the Bucks’ backcourt because of his two-way prowess, Holiday’s résumé includes only limited playoff experience. He has reached the postseason four times in 11 N.B.A. seasons and advanced to the second round just once each with Philadelphia and New Orleans.

Fred VanVleet averaged 17.6 points and 6.6 assists per game last season and just received a four-year, $85 million contract from the Raptors. The last undrafted player to average at least 15 points and 5 assists for an entire season, according to Basketball Reference, was also a Raptor: Toronto’s Mike James averaged 20.3 points and 5.8 assists in 2005-06.

The Washington Wizards now have Twitter accounts in three different languages after adding a Hebrew feed to publicize the exploits of their Israeli first-round draft pick, Deni Avdija. In addition to its main English feed, Washington launched a Twitter account in Japanese last season for the first-rounder Rui Hachimura.

Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to [email protected].

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