Five winners in NBA’s 22-team restart plan

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Nothing is set until the owners vote on Thursday, but the NBA seems to have coalesced around this restart plan:

Twenty-two teams come to Orlando in mid-July — 13 from the West, nine from the East, all teams within six games of the playoffs when the league hit pause — and, after a two-and-a-half week quarantined training camp, play eight regular-season games each starting July 31. That will be followed by a two-game play-in matchup between the eight and nine seeds (if the ninth seed is within four games the team it’s chasing) with the lower seed needing to win both. From there, the league jumps to a traditional 16-team playoff (no 1-16 seeding) with seven games per round.

That plan — and the unconventional choice of 22 teams — has backing because it’s a compromise that is a win for a lot of people and groups. Who? Here are seven groups or people that come out as winners with this plan.

1) NBA Players

NBA players win not just because they get to go back to work — even if the working conditions are a bit unusual — but they got the regular season games they wanted. It was the players who arguably made the biggest push for regular-season games before the playoffs, and there were two reasons for it. First, going straight to the playoffs — even with a training camp — was asking for injuries. The only way to get in game shape is to play games, and the players wanted some meaningful games in front of the postseason.

The other reason is money. NBA players get paid by their teams for the regular season (for the playoffs they get bonuses paid by the league with the amount depending upon how far they advanced). The league is already withholding 25% of player paychecks anticipating canceled games, this plan at least replaces some of those games. There were 259 total games remaining when the NBA season was paused, this would see 88 of them played. There are no gate receipts for teams, this is not the same financially for owners, but some regular-season games being shown by local broadcasters ultimately helps players’ paychecks.

2) NBA Broadcasters

This is a win for ESPN/ABC and Turner Broadcasting (TNT) because they get games — and sports-starved fans will watch (expect insane ratings). Also the game’s biggest names — LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, etc. — will be taking part, and the stars are always the draw in the NBA.

Speaking of stars, those networks also get Zion Williamson — a massive draw in the 19 games he played — who will be part of at least the regular season, and maybe more. Plenty of people around the league think the whole idea of a play-in tournament gained favor with the league simply to get Williamson to Orlando. With this 22-team format, the league also picks up Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, and Devin Booker to draw eyeballs.

On top of all that, there will be eight regular-season games per team, which can help local broadcasters and get some past the goal of 70 games (a target number in most NBA local broadcast contracts).

3) Pelicans and Trail Blazers

If play had not been suspended, Fivethirtyeight.com estimated a 60% chance the Pelicans would have made the playoffs and a 14% chance the Trail Blazers would have gotten in. Both teams were 3.5 games back of Memphis with 17 games to play, but the Grizzlies had one of the toughest remaining schedules in the league while the Pelicans had the easiest and the Trail Blazers had a soft closing stretch as well. Plus, New Orleans was coming together and playing better ball (5-5 over their last 10 with a +2.5 net rating) than either Memphis or Portland (both 4-6 with essentially flat net ratings).

Now New Orleans and Portland get to make their case, even if the schedule will not tilt to them as it did before. The league wanted Zion Williamson in the Orlando bubble to juice television ratings, so it came up with a way to get him there, but that plan helps a few teams. Portland returns with a healthy Jusuf Nurkic and that makes them a much more dangerous threat to make the playoffs. Sacramento gets the chance to break the longest playoff drought in the NBA.

4) LeBron James (and other stars on contenders)

LeBron only has so many shots at a title left and he didn’t want this one to go to waste — there’s good reason he’s been so vocal in pushing for a return to play (after an initial hesitation about games without fans). LeBron is 35, plus this Laker team had key players with injury histories — Anthony Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo — yet it stayed healthy and it came together as a team and played elite defense. This season came together for the Lakers, and while they will largely get the band back together for the 2020-21 season, there are no guarantees — LeBron needs to take his title shots while he can.

That same philosophy applies to other teams. The Clippers, with Leonard and Paul George, were finally healthy and coming together, who knows if they can stay that healthy for another season. The Bucks need to prove to Giannis Antetokounmpo they are contenders so he doesn’t balk when they offer him a supermax contract this summer (although the financial situation with the league could cause that anyway, even if he doesn’t want to leave Milwaukee). James Harden knows he only has so many chances, and on down the list.

5) Adam Silver

Watch the attempts at a restart in Major League Baseball and other sports, and the acrimony between players and the commissioner/ownership becomes the story. It speaks to what an amazing job Silver did building consensus. This wasn’t something that just started when play was suspended, Silver has involved players in the decision-making process going back to the Donald Sterling removal, and he was more collaborative in getting a new Collective Bargaining Agreement past than any commissioner in recent memory. Silver also has been a consensus builder with the owners, and he has involved GMs and team presidents in calls.

All of it built up a lot of political capital and trust, so when Silver had to make the call not everyone was going to like — the 22-team return plan is far from universally popular — he could still get everyone to buy-in. Everyone trusts him, and that is huge for a commissioner.

Honorable Mention Winners: The Philadelphia 76ers (they get a healthy Ben Simmons back, plus with enough wins in the regular season they can move up a spot and avoid Boston in the first round of the playoffs); Also the Washington Wizards and Phoenix Suns, both of whom were not making the playoffs (fivethirtyeight.com had the Wizards at 2% and the Suns at less than 1%) but now get the chance to play some more games and maybe find their way into the dance.

Nets reportedly sign Donta Hall for restart games in Orlando

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Donta Hall went undrafted out of Alabama last June, then made the most of the opportunities he was given. The 6’9″ big man tore up the G League for the Grand Rapids Drive, averaging 15.4 points a game on 66.9% shooting, plus gabbing 10.6 rebounds a night. It was good enough to get him a call up to the Pistons and getting in four games for them.

Now he’s going to play in the NBA restart for the Brooklyn Nets, a story broken by Marc Stein of the New York Times.

The shorthanded Nets are without big men DeAndre Jordan, Taurean Prince, and Nicolas Claxton (Jarrett Allen was the only center on the roster). Donta Hall will get the chance to impress the Nets — and other teams — and try to earn a contract for next season (he will be a free agent when the Nets are eliminated).

Hall is a tremendous athlete, he’s bouncy and long (7’5″ wingspan). If his skills develop, he has a role in the NBA.

The Nets were hit hard by injuries and had to make substitute signings such as Jamal Crawford and Michael Beasley. Here is what the final Nets roster looks like in Orlando.

After four months off, first NBA teams practice in restart bubble

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Nikola Vucevic had to raise his voice a bit to answer a question. He had just walked off the court after the first Orlando Magic practice of the restart, and some of his teammates remained on the floor while engaged in a loud and enthusiastic shooting contest.

After four months, basketball was truly back.

Full-scale practices inside the NBA bubble at the Disney complex started Thursday, with the Magic — the first team to get into the campus earlier this week — becoming the first team formally back on the floor. By the close of business Thursday, all 22 teams participating in the restart were to be checked into their hotel and beginning their isolation from the rest of the world for what will be several weeks at least. And by Saturday, all teams should have practiced at least once.

“It’s great to be back after four months,” Vucevic said. “We all missed it.”

The last eight teams were coming in Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers among them. Lakers forward LeBron James lamented saying farewell to his family, and 76ers forward Joel Embiid — who raised some eyebrows earlier this week when he said he was “not a big fan of the idea” of restarting the season in a bubble — showed up for his team’s flight in what appeared to be a full hazmat suit.

“Just left the crib to head to the bubble. … Hated to leave the (hashtag)JamesGang,” James posted on Twitter.

Another last-day arrival at the Disney campus was the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who boarded buses for the two-hour drive from Naples, Florida — they’ve been there for about two weeks, training at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers — for the trip to the bubble. The buses were specially wrapped for the occasion, with the Raptors’ logo and the words “Black Lives Matter” displayed on the sides.

Brooklyn, Utah, Washington and Phoenix all were down to practice Thursday, along with the Magic. Denver was originally scheduled to, then pushed back its opening session to Friday. By Saturday, practices will be constant — 22 teams working out at various times in a window spanning 13 1/2 hours and spread out across seven different facilities.

Exhibition games begin July 22. Games restart again for real on July 30.

“It just felt good to be back on the floor,” said Brooklyn interim coach Jacque Vaughn, who took over for Kenny Atkinson less than a week before the March 11 suspension of the season because of the coronavirus. “I think that was the most exciting thing. We got a little conditioning underneath us. Didn’t go too hard after the quarantine, wanted to get guys to just run up and down a little bit and feel the ball again.”

Teams, for the most part, had to wait two days after arriving before they could get on the practice floor.

Many players have passed the time with video games; Miami center Meyers Leonard, with the Heat not practicing for the first time until Friday, has been giving fans glimpses of everything from his gaming setup to his room service order for his first dinner at Disney — replete with lobster bisque, a burger, chicken strips and some Coors Light to wash it all down.

The food has been a big talking point so far, especially after a handful of players turned to social media to share what got portrayed as less-than-superb meals during the brief quarantine period.

“For the most part, everything has been pretty good in my opinion,” Nets guard Joe Harris said. “They’ve done a good job taking care of us and making sure to accommodate us in every area as much as possible.”

Learning the campus has been another key for the first few days, and that process likely will continue for a while since teams will be using all sorts of different facilities while getting back into the practice routine.

“We have to make the best out of it,” Vucevic said. “You know, this is our job. We’re going to try to make the best out of it. I really think the NBA did the best they could to know make this as good as they can for us. And once we start playing, you’re not going to be thinking about the little things.”

Zion Williamson’s stepfather accused of taking $400,000 before Zion’s season at Duke

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The legal fight over NBA rookie Zion Williamson’s endorsement potential now includes an allegation that his family received $400,000 from a marketing agency before his lone season for Duke.

Prime Sports Marketing and company president Gina Ford filed a lawsuit last summer in a Florida state court, accusing Williamson and the agency now representing him of breach of contract. That came a week after Williamson filed his own lawsuit in a North Carolina federal court to terminate a five-year contract with Prime Sports after moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC.

In court filings Thursday in North Carolina, Ford’s attorneys included a sworn affidavit from a California man who said the head of a Canadian-based firm called Maximum Management Group (MMG) told him he paid Williamson’s family for his commitment to sign with MMG once he left Duke for the NBA.

The documents include a marketing agreement signed by Williamson with MMG from May 2019, a December 2019 “letter of declaration” signed by Williamson and his stepfather agreeing to pay $500,000 to MMG president Slavko Duric for “repayment of a loan” from October 2018, and a copy of Williamson’s South Carolina driver’s license — which listed Williamson’s height as “284” and his weight as “6′06.”

In a statement to The Associated Press, Williamson attorney, Jeffrey S. Klein, said those documents were “fraudulent.”

“The alleged ‘agreements’ and driver’s license attached to these papers are fraudulent – and neither Mr. Williamson nor his family know these individuals nor had any dealings with them,” Klein said. “We had previously alerted Ms. Ford’s lawyers to both this fact and that we had previously reported the documents to law enforcement as forgeries, but they chose to go ahead with another frivolous filing anyway.

“This is a desperate and irresponsible attempt to smear Mr. Williamson at the very time he has the opportunity to live his dream of playing professional basketball.”

The affidavit is from Donald Kreiss, a self-described entrepreneur who worked with athletes and agents in marketing relationships. He had recently contacted Ford then provided the affidavit last week outlining interactions with MMG and Williamson’s family, according to one of the filings.

Ford’s attorneys have sought to focus on Williamson’s eligibility. His lawsuit stated that Prime Sports violated North Carolina’s sports agent law, both by failing to include disclaimers about the loss of eligibility when signing the contract and the fact neither Prime Sports nor Ford were registered with the state.

Ford’s attorneys have argued the Uniform Athlete Agents Act wouldn’t apply if Williamson was ineligible to play college basketball from the start.

Ford’s attorneys had sought to have last summer’s No. 1 overall NBA draft pick and New Orleans Pelicans rookie answer questions in Florida state court about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils. They had also raised questions about housing for Williamson’s family during his Duke career in a separate filing in North Carolina.

A Florida appeals court last month granted a stay to pause the proceedings there, shifting the focus to the North Carolina case.

Duke has repeatedly declined to comment on the case because it isn’t involved in the litigation, but issued a statement in January that school had reviewed Williamson’s eligibility previously and found no concerns.

Russell Westbrook, James Harden do not fly to Orlando with Rockets, will join team later

Russell Westbrook James Harden
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The Houston Rockets have landed in Orlando to be part of the NBA’s restart bubble.

Except for stars Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Neither was on the team’s charter flight from Houston, but both plan to join the team soon. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news, with the story confirmed by others soon after.

Just-signed Luc Mbah a Moute and assistant coach John Lucas also did not fly with the team and will catch up soon, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

Westbrook and Harden are not the only stars to delay their arrival in Orlando, the Clippers Kawhi Leonard did the same for personal reasons. The teams have agreed to this, but with limited practice time in the run-up to the eight seeding games, coaches want everyone in camp to work on rebuilding chemistry as fast as possible.

Coach Mike D’Antoni did fly with the team and was cleared to be in the bubble. D’Antoni, 69, was subject to extra consideration for entrance into the bubble by the NBA due to his age and the risk factors for people older than 65 with COVID-19.

The Rockets are one of the most interesting teams to watch in Orlando because of their all-in commitment to small ball — 6’5″ P.J. Tucker will play a lot of center. In the uncertain world of the NBA’s restart, that unconventional approach could get them upset wins. Or, they could get bounced early. There is no more high-variance team in Orlando than the Rockets.