What N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver has proclaimed to be “the single greatest challenge” the league has ever faced remains its most fluid challenge, too.
Early in his conference call Friday night with the N.B.A. Players Association, Silver did say, “Since we stopped the season, the goal has been to restart the season.” Yet it is still only a goal, two months into the suspension of play, in part because no one — not even Silver — is sure whether the league can stay back, so to speak, once it comes back.
“No decision we make will be risk-free,” Silver told the players, according to a recording of the teleconference reviewed by The New York Times. “We’re going to be living with this virus for the foreseeable future.”
Imagine a rebooted N.B.A. season in July or August. Playing on in the face of new positive tests, player trepidation, gloomy forecasts about a second wave of infections, criticism from countless external forces and the inevitable obstacles we can’t even pinpoint yet — it all looms as deeply daunting stuff.
Sean Doolittle of the Washington Nationals may as well have been speaking for several of his N.B.A. counterparts on Monday when he unleashed a 16-tweet thread to publicly question what Major League Baseball has planned in terms of “protections for players, families, staff, stadium workers and the work force it would require to resume a season.”
The N.B.A., mind you, is not without hope. There has been some real progress in the testing arena, starting with the Orlando Magic’s ability to secure clearance last week from local health officials and the league to test asymptomatic players and staff members. With the Lakers and Clippers also expected to soon receive similar blessings in Los Angeles, Orlando’s breakthrough makes it somewhat easier to imagine the N.B.A. reaching a point in coming weeks where all 30 teams can administer tests freely without worrying about taking tests from needier segments of the public.
A far thornier issue for Silver, in his contact sport, figures to be answering the array of health-and-safety questions akin to those Doolittle so forcefully posed to M.L.B.’s elders. Perhaps the resistance is not universal, but there are surely N.B.A. players apprehensive about returning. The question-and-answer session of Silver’s call began and ended with complaints from Oklahoma City’s Chris Paul and the Nets’ Kyrie Irving that some of their peers already feel pressure to return to team practice facilities for individual workouts in what surely rank as the most sanitized gyms on Earth at the moment — even though only two teams (Cleveland and Portland) had opened their practice facilities at the time of the call.
“It’s an issue employers everywhere are going to have to confront,” Michele Roberts, the union’s executive director, told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne last week. “Because I guarantee there’s going to be at least one player, if not many more than that, that are going to have genuine concerns about their safety.”
Silver does not want to apply pressure. He made it clear to his Friday audience that, while there can be no such thing as a risk-free return without a coronavirus vaccine, players cannot be forced back to work by team owners or the league office.
“We’re not going to make any decisions that aren’t joint,” Silver told them.
As I’ve been advising for weeks, keep your eye on Germany as a possible preview of what awaits Silver’s league this summer. Bundesliga soccer isn’t N.B.A. basketball, but the Bundesliga is a league of global stature and poised to return to operations this weekend with what it calls “ghost games” — matches without fans.
The Bundesliga approach calls for any player or team staff member who tests positive to be quarantined for 14 days — while the rest of the group carries on.
Could that sort of protocol work on these shores? Would N.B.A. players really stomach the idea of showing up for the next day’s practice or game after a teammate or two was forced into quarantine? Are teams in North America, and their fans, prepared to accept the possibility that a star player will be forced to leave the team for up to two weeks in the middle of the playoffs as if he had sustained a more common injury? Are the star player’s teammates going to be willing to play without him?
Do we dare limit our focus to those sufficiently unsettling questions without asking: What if someone dies?
We don’t have any detailed answers yet. Nor, frankly, do the German soccer authorities, who are at least two months ahead of the N.B.A. Dynamo Dresden, in the Bundesliga’s second tier, will not return to the field this weekend as scheduled, because local health authorities demanded that the entire team be quarantined after two new coronavirus cases, overruling the league officials who would merely have isolated the individuals who had tested positive.
So we repeat: Coming back is one thing. Staying back is another entirely.
There is no mystery, by contrast, about the forces behind the push for a conclusion to the 2019-20 season. Nearly 80 percent of the 82-game schedule was completed before play was suspended, but crowning a champion, as the N.B.A. has managed to do in each of its previous 73 seasons, is a secondary aim at this point.
It’s a money thing as much as anything.
Silver told players that game-night income from fans accounts for roughly 40 percent of the league’s annual revenue, drawing focus to concerns about the financial consequences of a canceled season — how that would affect the salary cap, free agency, future earnings and the very existence of the current collective bargaining agreement. The gravity of Silver’s statement, with no one in the league expecting to see fans in its buildings before 2021 at the earliest, needed little elaboration.
Yet the money vs. safety calculus is as tricky as it gets. Critics will say that the N.B.A. is irresponsible in hurrying to come back before there is a significant medical development to combat the coronavirus. Defenders will counter by pointing out that there’s little benefit to waiting for a comeback when the conditions may be no more favorable in the winter than they are in the summer or fall.
Silver stressed to the players that no decisions have to be made before June 1 — that there’s still time — but the clock’s ticking will surely get a lot louder for everyone the closer we get to July.
The math will have to get done at some point. The lone comfort for the players is that they will have a louder voice than usual.
The very personal assessment involved in deciding “how much risk we’re all comfortable taking,” as Silver put it, was nobody’s idea of player empowerment when the season started. But here we are.
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Q: I’m so confused as to why a non-playoff team with nothing to play for would open their doors. Can anyone explain this? — @joey_buckets3 from Twitter
Stein: The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t going to the playoffs even if the N.B.A. manages to restart its 2019-20 season. Yet the Cavs were the first franchise to welcome players back Friday when teams in states where shelter-in-place restrictions have been eased were allowed to unlock their practice facilities.
One of the best explanations came from Cleveland’s Larry Nance Jr. After spending about 90 minutes Friday lifting weights and partaking in some catch-and-shoot drills, Nance said, “It was more for mental health than physical, to be honest with you.”
Allowing players to return to the gym, even if teams are initially limited to a maximum of four players inside at any time, is the first step back toward normalcy for athletes whose lives have been disrupted like never before by the coronavirus. It’s also a matter of safety. League and team officials think it’s wisest to make their own facilities available to discourage players from seeking out unauthorized gyms that aren’t sanitized to the same standard.
But there are other good reasons. The N.B.A., for starters, has made it clear that it hopes to resume play with a few regular-season games involving all 30 teams, not just those who were playoff-bound when play was halted March 11.
Another one: As we’ve discussed in the newsletter previously, many N.B.A. athletic training staffs would want to give their players up to six weeks’ worth of supervised prep time before games restarted after such a long layoff. The more likely scenario is a ramp-up period closer to three weeks to give the league as much of the summer as possible to complete as much of the remaining schedule as it can.
From a league perspective, by making facilities available to players well before teams officially reconvene, it can assert that players have been provided a theoretical head start on the road to getting back into basketball shape to compensate for the potential forthcoming crunch.
Q: Why do league rules prohibit teams from buying these hoops? — @NateAllard from Twitter
Stein: Nate’s question comes in response to my recent piece with Scott Cacciola on the reality that many N.B.A. players, counterintuitive as it sounds, do not have a basket at home and thus have struggled to get shots up during a suspension of play that hit the two-month mark on Monday.
In March, the league informed teams that furnishing players with “individual workout equipment of a modest cost” was permissible. But buying a hoop, they were told, would be considered salary-cap circumvention.
The list of approved equipment for teams to supply includes workout mats, workout balls, resistance bands and “modest” free-weight sets. Paying for the delivery of boxed meals to players is also allowed.
Q: Great memories from that Knicks-Lakers Game 7 in 1970. I, too, was there as a 13-year-old, like Spike Lee, and went with my friend, whose father had tickets in Section 106. A reporter from Los Angeles, Bud Furillo, helped us get some autographs. I recognize Donnie May and Mike Riordan in the main photo that ran with your story, but who is the player on the right? — Paul Winston
Stein: Leaping in the air in that photo, in celebration, was Cazzie Russell. We initially had the photo captioned improperly last week, but the error was quickly spotted by a few Knicks die-hards who wrote in — like Morton Frank of Redwood City, Calif.
As Mr. Frank put it, “Cazzie’s Adidas sneakers and comparatively low socks” are clear giveaways for some fans. “To this day, I can give you the same detail and trivia on the whole team,” he wrote. “To love the old Knicks is to love them all the way.”
I really enjoyed talking to Spike and Marv Albert (and our own Harvey Araton) to learn more about that team and that series, because I certainly wasn’t consuming any of it as a 1-year-old.
It’s always bothered me that history doesn’t get passed down with the same vigor in basketball as it does in baseball, which has sparked me in adulthood to embrace every opportunity to find out more about the long-overlooked 1970s, which was a period of great struggle for the sport.
For Knicks fans especially, Friday’s 50th anniversary of the win that clinched the first title in franchise history was a welcome respite, since this season was otherwise destined to be remembered for the curiously timed ousters of David Fizdale and Steve Mills; James L. Dolan’s shabby treatment of Lee; and multiple instances in which the sad state of the franchise inspired loud “Sell the Team” chants.
With 36 points and 19 assists in the Knicks’ Game 7 triumph over the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1970 N.B.A. finals, Walt Frazier is one of only four players in league history to post at least 20 points and 10 assists in a Game 7 of the league’s championship series, according to Basketball Reference. The others:
Jerry West (42 points, 12 assists and 13 rebounds in the Lakers’ Game 7 loss to Boston in 1969)
James Worthy (36 points, 10 assists and 16 rebounds in the Lakers’ Game 7 victory over Detroit in 1988)
LeBron James (27 points, 11 assists and 11 rebounds in Cleveland’s Game 7 win at Golden State in 2016 to complete the Cavaliers’ comeback from a 3-1 series deficit against the 73-win Warriors)
For all the attention Willis Reed’s thigh injury in the 1970 finals understandably still gets, we can’t forget that knee surgery limited the Lakers’ Wilt Chamberlain to a career-low 12 games during the regular season. Chamberlain played the final three regular-season games after a four-month absence and then appeared in 18 games that postseason for the Lakers, averaging 22.1 points and 22.2 rebounds.
Michael Jordan lost nine of his first 10 N.B.A. playoff games with the Chicago Bulls. Jordan led the Bulls to a playoff mark of 95-31 in winning six championships between 1991 and 1998, although he missed the 1993-94 N.B.A. season while playing Class AA baseball for the Birmingham Barons.
With Jordan in uniform, Chicago was pushed to only two Game 7s in the 1990s and won both, outlasting the Knicks in the 1992 Eastern Conference semifinals and defeating Indiana in the 1998 Eastern Conference finals.
The N.B.A. has instructed teams to refuse admittance to practice facilities for anyone who registers a temperature higher than 99.1 degrees. The threshold was 99.5 degrees for Taiwan’s Super Basketball League when it checked players as they entered the HaoYu Basketball Training Center during the S.B.L.’s recent playoffs.