WNBA return
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WNBA tips off shortened season inside its own Florida bubble

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A WNBA season like no other will get underway on Saturday with all 12 teams at a single site.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert, league staff, and the player’s union worked together on a plan to tip off the league’s 24th season at a single site during the coronavirus pandemic. They coordinated on medical protocols and the logistics of playing in one location.

After a couple of weeks in the bubble, the plan seems to be working. There have only been two positive tests for the coronavirus by staff and players, and those were in the first few days when people arrived on July 6. There have been none since.

“Knock on wood every day, but things are stable here” in Brandenton, Florida, Engelbert said. “So far, the plan and the protocols are working. Wearing masks, washing hands, daily temperature checks.”

Engelbert, who just finished her first year as the league’s commissioner, is confident the WNBA will have a successful season and make it through the playoffs in October.

“Again, I’m not superstitious, but the more I talk about how well things are going, I do get a little nervous,“the commissioner said. “But I’m very confident right now.” she said.

The league welcomes back a few of its stars who missed last season because of injury or pregnancy. Seattle got the biggest boost with the return of Breanna Stewart (Achilles’ tendon) and Sue Bird (knee). Phoenix also will have a healthy Diana Taurasi back after she only played six games last season because of hamstring and back injuries as well as Skylar Diggins-Smith (pregnancy).

MISSING IN ACTION

While the league will have many players back, it will be missing a few who have decided to take the season off for a variety of reasons including medical and social justice reform.

Reigning MVP Elena Delle Donne is out rehabbing her back after having surgery on it January. She was denied by the league’s independent panel of physicians for receiving a medical exemption for her Lyme disease, but the Washington Mystics are still going to pay her salary. Her new teammate Tina Charles, who was acquired in the offseason was given the medical exemption by the panel because of an extrinsic asthma condition.

Other players missing include Las Vegas Aces’ star Liz Cambage, who was given a medical exemption. Washington’s Natasha Cloud and Atlanta’s Renee Montgomery decided to opt out of the season to focus on social justice reform.

SOCIAL JUSTICE

The Black Lives Matter movement is at the front of the players and the league’s mind as the season tips off. Players will wear uniforms for the opening weekend of the season and beyond featuring Breonna Taylor’s name when the league begins play. The league and union also formed a Social Justice Council that will come up with ideas for the players to continue to work on this cause.

“I think to me it’s a no-brainer,” Stewart said. “We want to continue to use our platform to amplify things we’re fighting for and continue to put an emphasis on Breonna Taylor. Focus on the fact that her killers haven’t been arrested.”

NEW FACES

No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu is one of seven rookies on the New York Liberty roster this season — the most of any team in the league and the most to be on a roster in at least a decade. While Ionescu is one of the most recognizable new players in the WNBA, there are a bunch of talented first-year players expected to make an impact, including Satou Sabally (Dallas), Bella Alarie (Dallas), Chennedy Carter (Atlanta) and Ruthy Hebard (Chicago). There are also two new coaches in the league with Walt Hopkins taking over the New York Liberty and Marianne Stanley coaching the Indiana Fever.

SHORTENED SEASON

Teams will play 22 games this year facing all the other franchises twice. There will be no fans in attendance and no travel to other cities which should save some of the grind on the bodies of the players. The playoff format will be the same as its been for the past few years with the top eight teams making the postseason and the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds getting byes to the semifinals. The first two rounds will be single-elimination playoff games.

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.

Celtics sign coach Brad Stevens to contract extension

Celtics coach Brad Stevens
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The Celtics shocked by hiring Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013. He was a mid-major college coach, and even big-time college coaches rarely translated to the NBA. In fact, Stevens was viewed as such a college coach, rumors of him returning to that level persisted for years.

But Stevens has turned into a quintessential NBA coach. Despite taking over amid a rebuild, Stevens has won 56% of his games with Boston. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

Especially now.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics have signed head coach Brad Stevens to a contract extension, the team announced today.

Stevens, who previously signed a contract extension in 2016, is one of the NBA’s top coaches. He implements crisp schemes on both ends of the floor and communicates roles clearly to his players. At just 43, he could rival some of the longest coaching tenures in NBA history.

There are still questions about Stevens’ ability to coach stars. They might become more pronounced as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascend.

But that’s a first-world NBA problem – having a coach who raises his team’s level and premier talent young players who could lift it even higher.

Another week, still zero players test positive at NBA restart

NBA COVID-19
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It’s starting to sound routine, but it shouldn’t — that the NBA is pulling off an impressive feat keeping COVID-19 outside the bubble (just watch other sports try to come back).

The league announced that 342 players were tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus in the past week and there were zero confirmed positive tests. The league has had no positive tests inside the NBA bubble since it started.

It’s a testament to the tone Commissioner Adam Silver set (working with Chris Paul and the players’ union) setting a tone of patience and — to use a coaching cliche — not skipping steps.

The NBA began testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (that’s where a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again.

The idea was simple — to keep the virus outside of the bubble — but the execution was not. Nor was making sure there was buy-in from the players (and, for the most part, there has been).

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining through the end of the finals, and when family members arrive next month there will be new ways the virus could penetrate the bubble.

It isn’t time for an NBA victory lap yet, but so far so good.

Nate McMillan agrees to contract extension as Pacers coach

Nate McMillan extension
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The rumor that Nate McMillan was on the hot seat in Indiana? Turns out, about as accurate as the rumor Nicholas Cage is a time traveler.

McMillan and the Pacers have agreed to a contract extension, the team announced Wednesday (it was first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN). McMillan had one year remaining on his current contract. There are no details about the length or compensation. But McMillan isn’t going anywhere.

“What Nate has done in four seasons with our franchise merits this extension,” said President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard. “Between injuries and changes in personnel, he and his coaching staff have adapted and produced positive results. He also represents the franchise, the city and our state in a first-class manner.”

This is the right move by the Pacers, McMillan has been one of the better coaches in the NBA the past couple of seasons (he was fourth in Coach of the Year voting a season ago and will get votes again this season). He has gotten the Pacers to exceed their on-paper talent level a few seasons in a row. Talks to extend McMillan were likely in the works already, but the push to get a longer contract announced now — while the Pacers are still playing at the NBA restart in Orlando — likely was tied to that rumor going public.

The Pacers are the fifth seed in the East and will face the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. That Indiana got there without a healthy Victor Oladipo — thanks to strong play from Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis for most of the season, then from T.J. Warren at the NBA restart — is a testament to McMillan’s coaching.

McMillan’s style isn’t flashy or modern — the Pacers are bottom eight in both three-pointers attempted and pace this season — but it works. The Pacers offense has been pretty average this season overall (18th in the league), which is not bad considering the team was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level). The Pacers also have found and developed good young players.

All of that ties back to coaching, which is why McMillan earned this extension.