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Opinion: Is the NBA experiencing growing pains or warning signs with campus setup?

  • July 14, 2020

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – NBA teams have settled on this isolated campus in Walt Disney World for less than a week. For better and for worse, they have already learned what it is like to live in a whole new world.

Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook announced he tested positive for the coronavirus before the team left for Orlando last week, and the NBA announced that two out of 322 players did not clear quarantine after teams arrived in Orlando on July 7. The Los Angeles Lakers estimated guard Rajon Rondo will be sidelined for six to eight weeks after fracturing his right thumb during Monday’s practice. And the Sacramento Kings’ Richaun Holmes and Houston Rockets’ Bruno Caboclo have to spend additional days in quarantine after leaving the Disney campus.

At some point, someone would have raised the question. So it seems useful to answer it now. Should the NBA view these examples as inevitable growing pains? Or should the NBA conclude they have spotted red flags?

The needed caveat to this answer: No one truly knows.

A view of the entrance to  ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Kissimmiee, Florida.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said there are “no risk-free options,” and those in NBA circles have often cited the format of the resumed season as “the best of bad options.” The novel coronavirus has already killed more than 130,000 people. The infection rates and deaths have increased dramatically in Florida. And as long as there is no vaccine, Silver conceded last month that “you cannot outrun the virus.”

Keep in mind, though, the NBA structured its resumed season fully aware that it seemed inevitable the league would oversee the kind of issues that arose on Monday. Therefore, the NBA maximized its odds of finishing the season by ensuring these speedbumps do not turn into road blocks.

Silver and National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts have not dismissed any positive case outright. These are human beings, not chess pieces. Studies have shown COVID-19 can still infect the young, leave them with long-term conditions and seriously put others around them in harm’s way. So the NBA isn’t celebrating any infection case. Yet, they are encouraged that the infections rates dropped since teams first began testing players on June 23 (16 out of 305).

In theory, that would give those players time to clear quarantine so they could travel with their respective teams to Orlando or stay at home if positive tests still persisted. For the two players that tested positive after arriving in Orlando, the NBA said those players never left quarantine. So they immediately went home to avoid compromising the campus bubble. Though no coach wants to oversee practices with a diminished roster, those players still have time to recover to return when the NBA begins the season on July 30 at the ESPN’s World Wide of Sports Complex. They then have eight regular-season games before the postseason begins on August 17.

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“It would be nice to have everyone in the beginning. But everybody is dealing with it,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said in general terms on a video conference call. “Everybody is trying to deal with doing the best you can. I think by the time the eight games are over, there won’t be any effect.”

Yet, the Lakers cannot say the same thing about Rondo. Even if he is not the same Rondo that helped the Boston Celtics win an NBA championship in 2008, Lakers coach Frank Vogel rightfully pointed out that “losing Rondo is a huge loss for our team” because of his on-court smarts, passing and defensive tenacity. But Vogel said, “we expect Rajon to be a part of our playoff run” since his return from surgery and subsequent rehab could coincide with either the end of the first round or beginning of the second round of the playoffs.

The NBA outlined its schedule so that teams would have at least some time for teams to absorb injuries, players to shed rust and coaches to experiment with different lineup combinations. Teams began fully practicing on Saturday. Each team will have three scrimmages beginning on July 30, and then each team will have eight regular-season games.

Sure, the NBA could have resumed operations by jumping straight into the playoffs so that fewer teams were exposed to the campus environment. Yet, that would have prevented any team with holding a de-facto training camp and exhibition games. In the Lakers’ case, Vogel has more relative wiggle room to determine the depth chart because of the absences to Rondo and Avery Bradley, who opted out to stay home with his family.

“We’re very confident that he’ll be able to get back and be a major factor for us in our playoff run,” Vogel said of Rondo. “So having the seeding games, the way they’ve set up this sort of schedule benefits us in this situation.”

And yes, the NBA also formulated its schedule anticipating that players might break the rules initially. In its 113-page health and safety protocol, the NBA detailed that security would monitor those that leave the campus site. Unless a player received pre-approval for an illness or a family emergency, the NBA instructed players they could not leave the campus site for any reason. If they did, they would immediately return to quarantine and receive reduced paychecks to account for the days missed.

Holmes and Caboclo found out the hard way it is not worth it to test these boundaries. The NBA will enforce the rules. Based on Holmes’ statement, he and others will likely think twice before leaving the campus again since that would compromise their availability for when actual games start.

“After the initial quarantine period, I briefly and accidentally crossed the NBA campus line to pick-up a food delivery,” Holmes said in a statement that the Kings released. I am currently in quarantine and have 8 days left. I apologize for my actions and look forward to rejoining my teammates for a playoff push.”

Does that mean the NBA can absorb any and all problems? Not exactly.

If a handful of players test positive for COVID-19 once the season starts, then the campus could be exposed to further outbreaks. If a star player or a key role player suffers an injury during the season, that could seriously compromise the team’s championship aspirations and test the league’s competitive integrity. It only takes one player to view its food delivery options as more important than everyone’s health.  

But the NBA has mostly put everyone in a position to succeed and safeguarded them from any potential failures.

“It’s definitely going to be adjustments that need to be made. But that’s one thing about our league and professionals – we can make adjustments on the fly as we’re able to,” Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said in a conference call. “The protocols are unbelievable. I think our protocols and health and safety measures are top notch.”

One of the reasons for Lowry’s rave reviews? He was one of several NBA players involved in discussion between the league and the players union on how to resume the season. Lowry does not have a formal role with the NBPA, which consists of executive director Michele Roberts, president Chris Paul and an executive committee (Andre Iguodala, Kyrie Irving, C.J. McCollum, Jaylen Brown, Malcolm Brogden, Garrett Temple, Bismack Biyombo, Anthony Tolliver). But Irving was among a handful of other NBA players that gave input.

The NBA outlined a health-and-safety protocols that spans 113 pages. It details the team’s daily testing routine, approved activities during quarantine (golf, fishing, cards, ping pong) and how NBA and Disney personnel will disinfect the courts and equipment before and following practices and games. It has installed varying technologies to help monitor everyone’s daily health reports. It notes that Disney employees have been trained to clean its properties out of sight of any NBA players, coaches and staff members.

That does not mean everything has gone perfectly. Consider what happened on Monday. The Rockets do not have one of their star players. The Lakers’ dwindling depth puts even more pressure on LeBron James and Anthony Davis. A player’s urge to satisfy his food-delivery cravings left the rest of the NBA campus vulnerable.

“This is a serious pandemic. Everything we’re going through is obviously tough, and that compromised my health and everyone here,” Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma said. “But I also feel for those guys. Those guys were probably just hungry.”

As they quickly learned, the NBA proved it would follow what Westbrook stressed when he announced his COVID-19 diagnosis.

“Please take this virus seriously,” Westbrook said in a tweet. “Be safe.”

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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