Bub­ble grow­ing pains ... or warn­ing signs

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Mark Me­d­ina Colum­nist USA TODAY

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.

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 Lak­ers es­ti­mated guard Ra­jon Rondo will be side­lined for six to eight weeks af­ter break­ing his right thumb dur­ing Sun­day’s prac­tice. And the Kings’ Richaun Holmes and the Rock­ets’ Bruno Cabo­clo have to spend ad­di­tional days in quar­an­tine af­ter leav­ing the ESPN Wide World of Sports Com­plex 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.

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 Mon­day. There­fore, the NBA max­i­mized its odds of fin­ish­ing the sea­son by en­sur­ing these speed bumps 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 teams to Or­lando or stay at home if pos­i­tive tests per­sisted. For the two play­ers who tested pos­i­tive af­ter ar­riv­ing at the cam­pus, 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 have time to re­cover to re­turn when the NBA be­gins the sea­son on July 30. They then have eight reg­u­larsea­son games be­fore the post­sea­son be­gins on Aug. 17.

“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 who helped the 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 on­court 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 the be­gin­ning of the sec­ond round of the play­offs.

The NBA out­lined its sched­ule so teams would have at least some time for teams to ab­sorb in­juries, play­ers to shed rust and coaches to ex­per­i­ment with lineup com­bi­na­tions. Teams be­gan fully prac­tic­ing Satur­day. Each team will have three scrim­mages be­gin­ning July 23 and then will have eight reg­u­lar-sea­son games be­gin­ning July 30.

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 who leave the cam­pus site. Un­less a player re­ceived preap­proval for an ill­ness sit­u­a­tion or a fam­ily emer­gency, the NBA in­structed play­ers they could not leave 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 their 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,” 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.”

That does not mean ev­ery­thing has gone per­fectly. The Rock­ets don’t have one of their stars. The Lak­ers’ dwin­dling depth puts more pres­sure on Le­Bron James and An­thony Davis. A player’s urge to sat­isfy his food 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,” Lak­ers for­ward Kyle Kuzma said. “But I also feel for those guys. Those guys were prob­a­bly just hun­gry.”

As the play­ers 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.”

JOE MUR­PHY/NBAE VIA GETTY IM­AGES

Le­Bron James and the Lak­ers warm up dur­ing prac­tice Mon­day in the NBA bub­ble.

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