As the NBA calendar resumes and teams prepare for the conclusion of the season in Orlando, Florida, few franchises have been more representative of the myriad concerns than the Los Angeles Lakers. The West’s top seed has faced positive coronavirus test results in the immediate aftermath of the league shutdown, family tragedy and personal decisions on how to participate in a time of intense social unrest. And that’s before determining whether or not to play basketball again this season.
Guard Avery Bradley opted out — citing potential COVID-19 concerns for his 6-year-old son and a commitment to strengthen his community — and center Dwight Howard hasn’t finalized plans to join the team because of his own family concerns and for social justice reasons.
“We got to continue to speak up, continue to figure out ways to affect change as a group,” Lakers player representative Danny Green told ESPN when asked what he would like to see when the league restarts in Florida. “We’ll be competing against each other and focusing on winning, but we still need to focus on what’s the bigger picture.”
Bradley formed a players coalition with Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving. They recommended actionable items to the league that included a significant financial commitment to organizations serving Black communities, improved hiring practices to put Black candidates in influential positions in the NBA and increased partnerships with Black vendors before returning to play.
Players and staff also have to put their personal lives on hold. Green proposed to his longtime girlfriend just a month ago. If his team makes it to the Finals, he’ll be away from his Los Angeles home for almost 100 days.
There are many around the league committed to the restart and many who seemingly have as much worry as hope. Here’s a compilation of players, coaches and executives sharing how they decided to participate, their lingering health and safety concerns, and how they plan to use the NBA platform to make a statement in Orlando, culled from public comments over the past two weeks. — Dave McMenamin
Deciding to participate
Teams were required to submit their 37-person travel parties for Orlando this week, though players are still able to opt out at any point.
The decision to participate has been challenging for players — some of whom remain undecided — as they face significant time away from families, health concerns and questions about distracting from the Black Lives Matter movement. Others have found it to be a straightforward choice.
Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors guard: “It sucks. It’s terrible timing. But that’s been 2020 for us. We all know the right thing to do is to not play, to take a stand. Morally, yes, that makes sense. But life goes on. We’re all young, Black guys. None of us want to give any money back. I don’t think that we should. I think that money can be used in a number of different ways.
“This issue, racial injustice, social injustice, police brutality, all these things are not ending anytime soon. Our fight was long term. That was part of my decision. … But if the league or more of my guys would have come together and said we didn’t want to play, I would have sat out, as well. I wouldn’t have even fought it.”
Doc Rivers, LA Clippers coach: “There are so many reasons for everybody to play, but there are also very valid reasons for guys to opt out. I don’t think many will. I think they are all invested in what we are trying to do.”
Lou Williams, Clippers guard: “I got a lot of flak, and other guys are getting flak for saying, well, you know, maybe we shouldn’t play. Because the reality is this: We have millions of people in the streets protesting. This the first time in history all 50 states have had people outside protesting for one cause. We don’t want to be a distraction. We want to be an added help to the cause.”
Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic center: “I spent every moment with my kid and my wife, so it’s something I very much enjoyed about this whole situation. But it is what it is; we all have to make that sacrifice and go in and do our jobs and finish the season.”
Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards guard, who remains undecided: “I am still working my tail off every single day as if I am playing. It is more or less a decision that will come down to the medical staff and coming back from zero to 100, and then I have some nagging stuff from the end of the year that we are trying to clean up too. We are looking at it from all angles.”
Sean Marks, Nets general manager: “We have a job to do. We have to bring a team to Orlando. We will bring a team to Orlando. We will go down there, and we will compete.”
Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers guard, who remains undecided: “A part of rehab is working your way back and getting yourself to 100 percent. So at the end of the day, going back and turning things up as quickly as we’re about to do, and pretty much going to playoff formation and playoff games after eight games, I’m more susceptible to injury than anyone else is. So it’s not about now. It’s about longevity.”
Rob Pelinka, Lakers VP of basketball operations: “Have I had nights at dinner where I’ll look over and my 10-year-old daughter has tears in her eyes and I ask her why and she says, ‘It’s because Daddy could be gone for 3½ months’? Yes, that stuff is part of this. But I think she understands the bigger picture.”
Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics guard: “I think everyone’s situation obviously is just different. Obviously, some guys have families and kids, wives, you know? For me, I’m a single man with no kids, so I’m going to be fine. All I do is stay in the house anyways, so there’s nothing wrong with me staying in a room.”
D.J. Augustin, Magic guard: “[Leaving family is] probably the most challenging [part] for me, especially right now. A few weeks ago, maybe three weeks ago, my father-in-law passed away. So my wife — she really needs me right now. But at the same time, she understands what I need to do for my job and for our family.”
DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs guard: “It’s tough. You’re taking guys that have been with their families every single day for the last few months and all of sudden, separating everybody into this one confined space and taking away a lot of joyful things we do outside of basketball. … It’ll be something for every single player when it comes to mental health.”
Joe Harris, Nets guard and 2020 free agent: “The way I look at it is like, ‘All right, we have eight games left, this would be the equivalent of Game 74 in the regular season. I wouldn’t take the last eight games off in the season just to get myself ready for free agency.’ I’ve been lucky to be in Brooklyn the whole time where we’re working out relatively hard, where it’s not going to be such a shock to the body to turn around and start ramping things up in Orlando.”
Brian Windhorst outlines the confusion coming from some NBA personnel about the rules within the bubble and how to deal with the coronavirus.
Making a statement in Orlando
Players have insisted that the fight for racial equality be a central part of the league’s return to play, and many have considered skipping the NBA’s resumption to focus on social activism.
Leaders of both the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association have told players that they are discussing ways to use the league’s platform in Orlando to call attention to social justice and police brutality.
Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder guard and NBPA president: “We understand how powerful our voice is, and so even if we’re back to playing, we understand that our voice can still be heard, our message can still be screamed loud and clear on an unbelievable platform. So just know that you’re going to continue to hear us. Just know that. It’s never a ‘shut up and dribble’ situation.”
Bradley Beal: “We stopped playing basketball because of COVID. We didn’t stop playing because of social justice. I feel like we can still raise that awareness and we can still bring attention to what is going on in the world by using our platform and utilizing names on the back of our jerseys.
“Like doing it so people get pissed off and tired of seeing it. That is the messaging that I think we are trying to get and push because that is the only real change that we are going to be able to generate. Statements are great. We can speak out and speak out. But if we are not actively doing things and actively getting involved and showing our faces and at these meetings with local officials, lawmakers and politicians and everybody who makes these decisions, then we are kind of chasing our tails in a way.”
Justise Winslow, Memphis Grizzlies forward: “People are out there fighting. People are meeting in person, on Zoom, people are fighting the fight. I don’t know when the season resumes if it’ll be a distraction or if it’ll be an even better platform. That’s yet to be seen. I know myself and plenty other players, whatever it is, if we’re playing, we’re going to try and use that platform and keep bringing awareness.
“It’ll be tough because we won’t be in our actual communities. We won’t be on the front lines. We won’t be able to have these important meetings with city officials or police chiefs. We’ll be in the bubble. It’s hard, but I pray that regardless if we’re in the bubble or not in the bubble that we can continue to fight the fight.”
Anthony Davis, Lakers forward: “I think we’re stronger together. … I think we’re able to have more people in the room from other teams [in Orlando] and receive other ideas and figure out how we can change the world. What can we do individually and what can we do as a unit to make change, and I think the more people we have, the more minds we have, the more ideas and thoughts we can come up with to kind of change the world and change what’s going on.”
Markelle Fultz, Magic guard: “I think as long as we’re safe, this is something that we all need. Basketball is a big part of a lot of people’s lives. Not just ours, but our families, people that just watch it. … I feel as though we can make it the best of both worlds, as long as we’re doing everything that we can do for not only ourselves but standing up for what’s right in this world.
“We had a chance to get on a call and just trying to help people learn [about] the right to vote. To have a chance to vote, to register to vote, so they can vote and make a big change. I feel as though that’s the first step.”
Michele Roberts, NBPA executive director: “The African American community in this country has been engaged in a conversation internally about what to do, with all of us — not simply the National Basketball Association players, but all of us. And the conversation … that has happened between our players is exactly that: What do we do? How do we do it? How should we do it?
“I can’t imagine anything healthier than that. I would’ve been ashamed had there not been a conversation. If the players had been talking about getting back to play and nothing else, frankly, as an African American woman, I would’ve been disappointed.”
Mark Cuban, Mavericks owner: “If [the players] were taking a knee [during the national anthem] and they were being respectful, I’d be proud of them. Hopefully, I’d join them.
“Whether it’s holding their arm up in the air, whether it’s taking a knee, whatever it is, I don’t think this is an issue of respect or disrespect to the flag or to the anthem or to our country. I think this is more a reflection of our players’ commitment to this country and the fact that it’s so important to them that they’re willing to say what’s in their heart and do what they think is right.”
Sterling Brown, Milwaukee Bucks guard: “It’s not like I’m just going out here just to play basketball just to get some money then go sit back down and chill. No, I have never done that and won’t do that. I’ve pretty much bridged the gap. I keep my main focus as to why I’m doing what I’m doing … and I know that my main focus is not just myself. I’ve got to feed myself, others around me, my family, friends and community. I’m trying to help elevate the Black community, so I’m doing it with a different focus and drive.”
Anthony Davis likes the Lakers’ chances to win an NBA title in Orlando more than before the league halted its season.
Restart challenges and getting ready for real games
Teams started mandatory individual workouts this week. They won’t begin any group activities until arriving in Orlando next week, with scrimmages scheduled a couple of weeks after that.
This hiatus has been longer than a typical NBA offseason, and the coronavirus pandemic has presented a series of challenges as players and teams get ready for a postseason push. But the time off also has allowed some players to get healthy and recharge.
Mike Conley, Utah Jazz guard: “This is a new situation for us all. Guys are going to have to do without having their normal routines like at home, and normal recovery systems and schedules and regimens. It’s just going to be something that’s new that we’re all thrown into, and whoever can adjust to the uncomfortable circumstances will do the best.”
Frank Vogel, Lakers coach: “Conditioning will be a great unknown. Players are [typically] playing pickup four or five days a week a month before they get to training camp. But that’s not been the case. It’s been all individual workouts. What will their bodies be ready for, not having really played?”
Ja Morant, Grizzlies guard, who had minor knee surgery in June 2019: “My knee’s feeling way better — no pain. I actually feel like I’m leaving the floor easier and jumping higher. I’ve just been taking this time to focus on my body, make sure everything’s feeling good, so when I go out and play, I’ll be fine.”
Luke Walton, Sacramento Kings coach: “For teams like us, and Phoenix, San Antonio, Portland, New Orleans, we have to find a way to create that chemistry and be peaking from day one of the eight-game season. That’s a completely different challenge.
“You got a limited window with a lot of distractions out there that are real. I think whatever team can find their stride the quickest, and get back to playing how they were, out of [the teams] that are fighting to get in, will have a big advantage.”
Brad Stevens, Celtics coach: “We want to be at our best on Aug. 17 [when the playoffs begin]. We’ve got two weeks, a couple of scrimmages and then eight seeding games. The seeding games are important, but the most important time is Aug. 17. … It’s important to be able to play our best then.”
Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans forward: “It was very tough [to stay in shape], because even now you still don’t know what’s fully going on with [the restart] situation. But me and my stepdad just found different ways to stay in condition, on court, off court, just wherever we could find it.”
David Griffin, Pelicans executive VP of basketball operations: “From a basketball standpoint, I think you’re going to see COVID have an enormous impact on teams and even some of the teams that went into the bubble as a playoff seed. … This is something where we’re all at the mercy of the same enemy.”
Donovan Mitchell, Jazz guard: “For me, the biggest thing with coming back is injury. Not having played for maybe like 120 days or something like that, and kind of just being at a complete halt and then kind of going right into games that matter. … It’s not like these games are just like the preseason where you’re sitting out. These games matter, and I think that’s my biggest concern.”
DeMar DeRozan expresses frustration about the health and safety rules for the NBA bubble.
Out of a pool of 351 people who have been tested for the coronavirus since June 23, 25 have tested positive. The Nuggets and Clippers shut down their practice facilities following a round of positive tests, and the Nets have multiple players not participating in the restart for a variety of reasons, including the virus.
Despite a surge of cases in Florida, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said this week he remains confident in the league’s safety plan but that a large spread of the virus could bring the season to a halt.
Mark Cuban: “There’s obviously risk, but each and every day, the science improves and the medical response has gotten smarter. Look, the number of cases [in Florida] just goes to show you that you need to be quarantined, you need to be safe, you need to be diligent, we need to wear our masks and to take the necessary precautions, and that’s exactly what we’ll do.
“If the general population in all of these cities, including Dallas, had followed those same precautions and hadn’t gotten overly confident that this was behind us, we wouldn’t be experiencing what we are today. So I think the bubble will actually make our players safer.”
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers guard: “My confidence ain’t great because you’re telling me you’re gonna have 22 teams full of players following all the rules? When we have 100 percent freedom, everybody don’t follow all the rules. I don’t have much confidence. But hopefully, it’ll be handled to a point where we’re not putting everybody at risk or in a dangerous position.
“The fact that we’re going to be in a bubble, it kind of knocks it down and limits the chance of us being exposed to everybody else outside the bubble in Orlando. I think it is a safer situation. But I don’t think it’s possible for them to protect us 100 percent. I think everybody’s going there understanding that.”
Adam Silver, NBA commissioner: “I am absolutely convinced that it will be safer on this campus than off this campus because there aren’t many situations that I am aware of where there is mass testing of asymptomatic employees. In some ways, this is maybe a model for how other industries can ultimately open.”
Nick Nurse, Raptors coach, on his team’s early arrival in Florida: “I haven’t sensed any discontent or whatever about having to be here, or asking why. In general, the guys are good, and I think most of them are concerned about their careers and getting back to wherever they were or getting them better.
“For me, in general, I’m not doing anything. I’m staying in my hotel. Every second I leave, I’m wearing my mask, I’m staying away from people. I’m going to the gym and doing that, and then coming back. I don’t even want to stop anywhere.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks forward: “Everybody has concerns about their health. Nobody wants to put themselves in risk out there, but at the end of the day, that’s what the NBA chose, and we’re gonna resume the games, and we’ve all gotta do our job. And my job is to play basketball and go out there and support my teammates and represent the city.”
Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets coach, on concerns about older coaches: “I get why [the league] wants to be cautious. I appreciate it, and that’s great. At the end of the day, it’s almost like, well, let me go to a safe environment. Do you want to keep me out of that safe environment? It’s like, ‘Wait a minute, let me in! This is great.’
“So we’ll see how it goes, but other than being a little bit older, I’m ready to go.”
DeMar DeRozan, on the 100-page health and safety manual, which bans doubles pingpong at hotels: “The pingpong thing is ridiculous, to be honest. Guys can’t do this, but we can do this and battle over each other? That part just don’t make no sense to me. I got through 10 lines of the handbook and just put it down because it became so frustrating and overwhelming at times, because you just never thought you’d be in a situation of something like this.”
Jarrett Allen, Nets center: “I think for everybody, including myself, there’s a little bit of worry. We’re all going into an unknown. But at the end of the day, I have no doubt that the two powerhouses, Disney and the NBA, are coming up with the best solution for us. Obviously, there’s a little doubt in my mind. We’re all human. But I’m confident in them.”
Joe Ingles, Jazz forward: “One of the scariest parts is once this is all over going back to my family and not having symptoms or something like that and taking it back. Going back will be something I’m really cautious with, as well.”
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers guard: “I trust in the NBA and in those older vets like [LeBron James] and like [Chris Paul] who are ready to go down there. … Wherever my team is, I feel like it’s my responsibility to go down there and represent Philadelphia in the highest way possible, and I think this is the right way to do it. If we’re safe down there, and I trust in what the NBA is doing, and they’re taking extreme precautions with this.”