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The N.B.A. May Return Too Soon

Building up to Friday’s virtual meeting between ownership representatives from the league’s 30 teams and Commissioner Adam Silver, league officials are lasering in on a scheduling format to present to the players’ union to finish out a rebooted 2019-20 season.

Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, advised me Monday that he thought it would more realistically be “over the next two weeks that the big decisions will be made,” but they are coming soon.

“We are going to play basketball,” Charles Barkley said in a text message. Barkley told Paul Finebaum of ESPN the same in a radio interview Tuesday, saying that his Turner Sports bosses had advised him to get ready to come back to work as an analyst.

The league’s publicly stated target is to play games at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida, albeit with an undetermined number of teams, starting in “late July.” Players leaguewide are thus preparing to be summoned to return to their team markets as early as next week for quarantine measures and a gradual return to 5-on-5 practices, all in anticipation for the eventual move to the complex at Walt Disney World in Orlando.

In other words: Momentum behind an N.B.A. comeback, nearly 80 days into the league’s abrupt shutdown, is as strong as we’ve seen.

“It’s been two and a half months of, ‘What if?’ ” Michele Roberts, the president of the National Basketball Players Association, told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “My players need some level of certainty. I think everybody does.”

Indeed. Who wouldn’t want a little more sureness now? Yet I must confess that I also feel increasing uneasiness the closer we get to the game’s return. As slowly as things may be moving for hoops-starved fans, and even the players as Roberts suggested, there’s a nagging sense that the comeback wheels are still spinning faster than they should.

The N.B.A. is not merely a full-contact sport but one played indoors. The amount of encouragement the league can thus take from the relatively promising start to German soccer’s top-flight comeback, two weeks in, is offset by longstanding warnings from public health experts that the coronavirus is more readily transmitted indoors than outdoors.

A general manager asked me the other day to make a case that the N.B.A. world feels appreciably safer than it did on March 11 when Silver suspended operations. It’s a subjective question, to be sure, but I couldn’t muster much pushback to the G.M.’s argument that money reasons are the only reasons to support resuming the season now.

The league’s go-to counter to such claims is that conditions are unlikely to be safer in October, November and December than they are now — and that it could be catastrophic financially for all sides in the sport to delay a return when safety assurances don’t appear to be coming any time soon. So there is little to be gained, such thinking holds, by waiting for more progress toward the development of a vaccine breakthrough that is likely far down the road.

That logic must resonate, given that Roberts told Shelburne, based on the union’s ongoing discussions with its membership, that “the players really want to play.”

Compared to the much more contentious dynamic between the league and the players’ union in Major League Baseball, N.B.A. players generally leave the impression that they believe in the league’s ability to craft suitably detailed safety protocols for a return to play. They know that the union’s president, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Chris Paul, is in constant contact with Silver — and they heard directly from Silver earlier this month about the league’s confidence that it can obtain the number of kits needed to facilitate a large-scale testing program before games would restart without inviting more criticism from politicians or the public.

Yet so many unknowns persist, even if you accept the idea that the league can implement mass testing with rapid results — and without cutting into the public supply.

Among the unknowns:

  • How rigidly will the N.B.A. control access into and out of its “campus” base at Disney to try to combat the spread of the coronavirus?

  • How will players’ bodies react to what, for many, will ultimately amount to a thoroughly uncharacteristic three-plus months away from the game?

  • How unsightly, beyond the potential injuries, will the standard of play be after that sort of layoff?

  • And how comfortable will players, coaches and team staffers be with the added risks attached to playing indoors compared to working in the more expansive spaces seen in soccer, football and baseball?

The more pressing curiosity, judging by how hard various teams are lobbying this week for the scenarios most advantageous to them, is what schedule constructions the league office is pitching to the players: how many teams will be invited to Orlando; whether or not they will try to wedge in some regular-season games first; and which of the dizzying myriad playoff concepts is ultimately employed.

Those, though, are purely competitive details.

As he acknowledged to the players in a May 8 conference call, for Silver “the most significant question ultimately is: Can we play without compromising your safety?” Silver also stressed that “no decision we make will be risk-free.”

The N.B.A. has lapped up praise from those who described its decision to suspend the season on March 11, when Utah’s Rudy Gobert tested positive, as so decisive that it transmitted the severity of the coronavirus outbreak to the American people as loudly as any development in sports or entertainment.

What that also means, of course, is that no league will be scrutinized more closely as it makes its comeback steps.

But I can’t help it. On the verge of the N.B.A.’s comeback, I likewise can’t stop fretting about how the league can manage to stay back in the face of this unpredictable virus.

Something tells me that at least some of the league’s power brokers, deep down, feel the same.


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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line. (Responses may be condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

Q: Narrated by Phil Johnson. The same Phil Johnson who was his longtime assistant and quit the Jazz the same day he did? — @BrianSmith429 from Twitter

Stein: Brian was asking about the four-minute tribute video I passed along that the Utah Jazz assembled and distributed to pay homage to Jerry Sloan, who died Friday at age 78 after receiving diagnoses of Parkinson’s disease and Lewy body dementia.

The narrator was indeed Phil Johnson, Sloan’s ever-present assistant coach with the Jazz for Sloan’s 22½ seasons as the boss on Utah’s bench. Countless writers have already shared this remembrance, but I feel compelled to repeat the line about how Sloan and Johnson were routinely spotted in press rooms all over the league, eating their pregame meal in the same space as the writers, because that habit was so rare. It never happens in the modern game, and I certainly can’t remember a head coach, during my 27 seasons covering the league, as willing to dine alongside the pesky news media as Sloan.

Yet Sloan’s achievements were such that he didn’t need to do anything extra to win the admiration of the sport’s chroniclers. After 10 seasons of memorably rugged, handsy defense, he was the first Chicago Bulls player to have his number (4) retired, and then Sloan became as synonymous with the Jazz — and with consistency — as Utah’s incomparable pick-and-roll duo of Karl Malone and John Stockton.

Those three were a package deal that showed up every night and just kept winning, season after season, even though the opposition pretty much knew what was coming (while also bracing for Utah’s infamous physicality). You presumably just watched the trio’s most painful defeats all over again in “The Last Dance” — six-game losses to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the N.B.A. finals in 1997 and 1998. But those Jazz teams are right there with the 1980s Milwaukee Bucks, the Sacramento Kings of the early 2000s and the Steve Nash-era Phoenix Suns on my list of the greatest teams that never won it all.

Sloan was known for riding his players, and referees, hard, but he inspired immediate buy-in from Malone and Stockton, which gave the small-market Jazz an identity and moxie that Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs openly studied and envied as they were building their own dynasty.

The longtime Jazz center Mark Eaton, who played for Sloan for five of his seasons as head coach, was the first N.B.A. player I ever interviewed — in (gulp) 1989. So I decided to reach out to Eaton after Sloan’s passing to try to get a sense of how Sloan managed to last so long in one place with such a demanding approach.

“My favorite memory is him yelling at me at halftime for not hitting the boards hard enough and then saying after the game, ‘C’mon, let’s go grab a beer,’ ” Eaton said. “That was Jerry — toughness and fairness all rolled into one package. He was your friend and always had your back while pushing you at the same time.”

Q: How bad was the Western Conference when Michael Jordan played for the Bulls? None of the N.B.A. finals Jordan played in went more than six games, whereas two playoff series in the East went seven games in years he won the championship. — Adam Battocchi, Virginia

Stein: “Bad” is the wrong word.

The East was definitely the stronger conference throughout the 1990s. You could credibly throw Reggie Miller’s late 1990s Indiana Pacers and maybe Pat Riley’s early 1990s Knicks into the conversation about the strongest teams over the past four decades that were unable to win a championship.

But the West of the 1990s was never as weak as the East at its various low points in the 21st century, which inspired more-than-occasional references to the “Leastern Conference” from snarky scribes like me. The Charles Barkley-led Suns in 1993, the Seattle SuperSonics with Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp in 1996 and Utah’s two finals teams were all tough outs that had real cracks at getting to a Game 7.

Those teams basically all had the same problem: Jordan.

Q: I’m a Suns fan, but I have the utmost respect for Jerry Sloan. I think the fact that he never won Coach of the Year is a travesty. — @finecian from Twitter

Stein: It is hard to believe that neither Sloan nor Rudy Tomjanovich, who earned a spot in the Basketball Hall of Fame’s 2020 class in April, managed to win the C.O.Y. trophy. Sloan won Coach of the Month honors 10 times, according to Basketball Reference, but never the biggest individual honor in his profession. Of the top 10 coaches in career victories, only Sloan and Rick Adelman failed to win C.O.Y. honors at least once.

This doesn’t exactly compensate, but my longtime colleague Doug Smith of The Toronto Star tweeted a reminder the other day that the Professional Basketball Writers Association created the Rudy Tomjanovich Award — given annually to the coach who best combines on-court excellence and cooperation with the media and fans — largely so the writers association could award the first one to Sloan in 2011 by a unanimous vote.

Only two coaches in N.B.A. history have won more than 1,000 games with one franchise: San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and his sideline role model, Utah’s Jerry Sloan, who died Friday at age 78. Popovich is No. 2 in career regular-season victories with 1,272; Sloan is No. 4 with 1,221 — 1,127 coming with the Jazz from 1988 through 2011.

Next in line in coaching wins with one team is Boston’s Red Auerbach at 795, or 332 behind Sloan.

Quite a statistical revelation from my fellow Los Angeles Daily alumnus Ross Siler: N.B.A. teams made 244 coaching changes during Sloan’s tenure as Jazz head coach from Dec. 9, 1988, through Feb. 10, 2011.

What is the incentive for the N.B.A. to play some regular-season games as opposed to jumping straight into the playoffs? One reason: The minimum number of games most teams are required to deliver to their regional broadcast partners is 70. There are some exceptions, like the Los Angeles Lakers, who are on national television frequently and thus can’t appear on a regional network as often. But 70 is the threshold for most teams, and if they fall short they will either owe a refund to their regional partners or have to accept a deduction from future payments.

The basketball community in Dallas, where I live, was rocked last week by the deaths of two former N.B.A. writers who made a lasting impression when they worked in this market: Roger B. Brown of The Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Marty McNeal of The Dallas Times Herald (and later the Sacramento Bee). Both were in their 60s … and both were beloved colleagues were taken far too soon. #RIP




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