As NBA restarts after four-month hiatus, teams, players and coaches grapple with unfamiliar situations in the bubble
When the NBA restarts in the Orlando bubble, it is likely to drag everyone out of their comfort zones in more ways than one.
Lakers star LeBron James called it a big-ol’ Amateur Athletic Union tournament for old men. Clippers coach Doc Rivers said it reminded him of the greatest basketball camp in the history of the world. Orlando Magic guard Evan Fournier simultaneously compared it to being in high school and the Olympic Village. For better or worse, a camp resembling high school or the Olympic Village, when the NBA restarts inside a bio-secure bubble at the Wide World of Sports campus in Orlando, the experience will be new to everyone, be it a veteran like LeBron in his 17th season or a rookie.
“It’s 2020. Nothing is normal in 2020,” said James during a media availability.
The NBA restart is likely to drag everyone out of their comfort zones in more ways than one.
Players and coaching staff are also not used to staying away from their families for so long. They’re even less used to living out of the same hotel room for months at a stretch leading to bizarre protocol violations like when Sacramento Kings’ Richaun Holmes broke protocol by stepping out of the NBA campus line… to pick up a food delivery. Around the same time, Houston Rockets’ Bruno Caboclo violated the two-day mandatory quarantine rule, which necessitates that any player arriving in the bubble for the first time stay confined to his hotel room for the first two days. A few days later Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler had the hotel security called on him for dribbling a basketball in his hotel room.
It didn’t take long for players to grumble about the facilities. Lakers’ Rajon Rondo compared his hotel room to a ‘Motel 6’ (a chain of budget hotels in America) while his teammate JR Smith moaned about the food options in an Instagram live.
The criticism of life in the bubble has slowly died down as days turned into weeks.
Oklahoma City Thunder’s Steven Adams admitted in his first media availability that his wife had sent along two batches of lasagna with him to the bubble after seeing the social media posts of players who had arrived early on.
A few days later Adams did another media availability on the day he turned 27. Sure enough, he was asked about his impression of life in the bubble. “It’s all good, mate. Let’s be clear, it’s not Syria. It’s not that hard. We’re living in a bloody resort. Everyone’s got a complaint. Everyone’s got their preferences. It’s not too serious, just a bit of dry food here and there. (You) Get bored every now and then.”
There are other, less superficial issues to contend with. Players are used to having an offseason between two seasons. But the coronavirus pandemic has led to a four-month halt in the middle of the season which will be followed by an eight-game season to ascertain a Playoff spot for many teams. This means teams no longer have the luxury of waltzing through games before picking up the intensity when the Playoffs come around.
Players like Houston Rockets’ James Harden and Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic have used this four-month downtime to shape up while others like Clippers’ Paul George have shrug off injuries that would have bothered them had the season followed its regular schedule.
“This whole season, all the way up until maybe a month or two ago, I had to always do shoulder rehab stuff to warm the shoulder up. Just so much had to be done before I actually took a foot on the floor. Now I feel great again,” said George.
Coaches have also had to make some tough decisions on players to take inside the bubble. Each team is allowed a maximum of 17 players, which leaves a narrower margin than usual for injuries.
Another aspect that the players and coaches will have to get used to is the lack of partisan fans at the arena.
While some players have said it will affect their game, Clippers' coach Rivers pointed out that it was making his job slightly more convenient.
“Calling plays is easy (in this scenario). I called several plays ― most of them without getting up (from my seat). That was kind of nice, actually. I even had a conversation with the officials while sitting down. So maybe I’ll have a better voice by the end of this, who knows,” he joked after the Clippers’ first scrimmage game against the Orlando Magic.
Carry-ons like no other, for road trip like no other
For all players and coaching staffs, this will be a road trip like no other. So, obviously, it required them to take with them things that they wouldn't ordinarily carry on a roadtrip.
Sacramento Kings coach Luke Walton said he had taken along a whole bag filled with coffee. “Like seven pounds of coffee beans, and a grinder... I’ve got a French Press in my room,” he said, “I knew we were going to be quarantined so I couldn’t trust whatever was going to be in my room.”
Others were more elaborate with their choices. Reggie Jackson said Clippers teammate Montrezl Harrell had brought a portable sauna inside the bubble. PJ Tucker revealed he had an 85-inch television delivered to his hotel room “to make him feel at home”. Tucker has reportedly also brought over 60 pairs of shoes into the bubble.
Many players have brought along their X-BOXs and PlayStations, Portland Trail Blazers’ Dame Lillard has converted his hotel room into a mini recording studio. The point guard goes by the name Dame DOLLA (Different on Levels the Lord Allows) and has recorded singles with Lil Wayne.
If any of that seems excessive, the Utah Jazz have moved their entire weight room to their Orlando hotel, despite the NBA providing teams with elaborate gym facilities.
The elephant in the room
Of course, the lingering uncertainty caused by the coronavirus will hang over the season until the NBA champion is crowned in October.
This sense of uncertainty has been exacerbated by some players like Houston Rockets' Russell Westbrook testing positive for the virus in mid-July. There have also been instances of players, such as Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Rockets’ James Harden, coming in later than the rest of their squads while others like Pelicans’ rookie Zion Williamson have had to leave the bubble due to medical emergencies in their family.
The Clippers, who have chosen to take just 15 players to Orlando rather than the maximum cap of 17, have seen three players leave the bubble recently: Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. On top of that, they also have Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet unavailable for reasons they have not disclosed, leaving the franchise to have only 10 players available for the time being.
NBA’s rules dictate that when a player returns to the bubble, he will have to self-quarantine for anywhere between four days to two weeks depending on his situation when he was outside.
“The league has learned what teams have already known, it’s more than basketball that comes up (in the bubble). Guys have life going on. Whether it’s a family problem, a kid problem, a wife problem, anything, there are issues that come in these guys’ life. We give guys days off all the time because of it. No one really notices it. But now when you’re in the bubble and a player leaves, it really (gets noticed). I think, in a good way, because of this, the public sees that NBA players actually are human and they do have regular life issues going on.
“Usually with life issues (during a regular NBA season) you can come back to the team and play the next day. Now with a life issue, you have to quarantine for 48 hours or four days,” Clippers coach Rivers said before addressing the elephant in the bubble: “We all knew that we could start the league. The key is: can we finish?”
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