On one month anniversary of NBA shutdown we know little more than we did then

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It was one month ago today that Thunder trainer Donnie Strack, wearing a suit, raced up to the referees just moments before tip-off of Utah in Oklahoma City to tell them Jazz center Rudy Gobert had just tested positive for the coronavirus.

Soon after, the game was canceled. Games being played went on as scheduled, but that night the New Orleans game at Sacramento was called off because one of the referees had worked a Jazz game a couple of nights before.

That was the last day any of us saw NBA basketball live. The NBA was shut down.

One month later, we know little more than we did then.

“When we initially shut down, we were calling it a hiatus or a pause. There was no sense our country would be shut down. In some ways, I know less now than I did then…” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said less than a week ago. “I’ve told my folks that we should just accept that for the month of April, we won’t be in a position to make any decisions. That doesn’t mean on May 1st, we will be. It’s just, honestly, too early to project or predict where we will be in the next few weeks.”

That hasn’t changed.

Ten NBA players — including Gobert and Jazz teammate Donovan Mitchell, plus stars such as Kevin Durant and Marcus Smart — tested positive for the disease. Fortunately, none were seriously ill. Multiple people on team staffs, including Knicks owner James Dolan, also tested positive.

Nationally, more than 18,500 people have died from the disease — the United States has passed Italy for the nation with most deaths due to COVID-19 — and nearly 500,000 people have tested positive. While there are models and projections — which show the stay-at-home and social distancing orders are working — nobody knows for sure when the peak of the disease in the United States will be.

Nobody knows when life will return to something resembling pre-coronavirus normal.

Which leaves the NBA stuck in limbo, along with all major sports.

The health and safety of the players remains paramount, but there is no money coming into the league at the gate right now and teams are taking a financial hit (like nearly every other business nationwide). There have been team staff layoffs and salary reductions (with more to come). While that pain has yet to hit players with cuts in pay, that is coming. All of that will add pressure to Adam Silver to get the league playing again.

NBA staff — working from home, along with representatives of the players union — are trying to map out scenarios to return to play and find a way to crown a champion for this season.

The most likely way that happens is a “bubble” — bring all the players, coaches, training staffs, equipment managers, referees, plus broadcast crews and more — to one city, essentially quarantine them there creating a safe environment. Then games could be played, without fans, and televised. There might be some regular season games, although that seems like a long shot, and then a condensed playoff format.

This plan brings a lot of challenges. They have tried to do it in China and twice that basketball league had to push back its timeline.

Trainers who spoke to NBC Sports said they would like a month of a mini-training camp before games were played — needing time to ramp guys up and avoid injuries — but they don’t expect to get that. A scenario being bounced around would have two weeks of players in the bubble being able to work out individually (one player, one trainer, one half of the court) followed by two weeks of camp and some scrimmages. Then games.

That means telling NBA players they need to be isolated from their families and friends for more than a month to play these games. For teams advancing deep in even a shortened playoffs, it will be more than two months.

The NBA reportedly does not want to go deep into September with its playoffs, but working backward from that the league would need to create its “bubble” and get players in likely by about mid-June and playing in July.

For the NBA to pull this “bubble” off they need a venue — Las Vegas is the most-discussed destination — and they would need access to fast, accurate tests to detect the disease. The NBA and players union are looking at the testing availability, but finding tests that do not have a lot of false negatives has not been easy. Plus, the NBA does not want the perception it is pulling thousands of tests — and potentially the lab time to process them — away from hotspots of the disease that need them. As a nation, a lack of testing has hampered our ability to track and contain the virus; the NBA understands how that could look if tests are not widely and readily available.

There are other challenges with the bubble — keeping hotel staff, cooks, security, and everyone else around the bubble tested; players leaving the bubble to enjoy the distractions of Las Vegas or wherever — but the league is looking intently at this option.

Because it is their only option. Certainly for this season, maybe for the start of next season.

Who knows how long it will be before 18,000 people will feel safe and want to gather in an arena to watch LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo or anyone else play. Who knows when the kind of travel the traditional NBA schedule requires will be taking place. Unless the NBA wants to push the return of games until next December — something that comes with its own host of challenges, including NBA and MLB teams sharing regional broadcast networks — it’s tough to say what the start of next season will look like.

Right now, it’s tough to say what anything looks like.

Because one month since the NBA suspended its season, nobody knows what comes next. Nobody knows much more than we did a month ago.

 

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.