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As NBA readies for return, coaches are pragmatic about how pandemic could alter season

Vincent Goodwill
·6 min read
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Stan Van Gundy knows there’s a day he could sign a lineup sheet that’s a wee bit short on available players—say, eight or nine available bodies.

The new coach of the New Orleans Pelicans isn’t necessarily embracing the reality but admits the coronavirus can hit his team, or any team, in the worst possible way, basketball-wise.

“OK, let's go. We got those eight or nine, let’s get out there and compete,” he said following his second practice with his team. “Let’s not get distracted by outside stuff. Let’s not make excuses. Let’s compete every night.”

He’s not being fatalistic here, just pragmatic. He almost looks at it like an injury, just one of a different kind.

“You certainly know you’re gonna deal with things to keep guys out,” Van Gundy said. “It’s just all a part of it. For us, we have to get to the point where we’re ready to compete, any time, any place, under any conditions.”

It’s inevitable, even with all the elaborate guides the NBA sends to its teams and the massive success of the summer bubble, the coronavirus will hit the league this season.

Nobody seems to be in much denial of the fact, especially after nearly 9% of the league’s players who were tested were discovered to have the virus after arriving in home markets.

Former Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy gestures during a game on Jan. 3, 2018. Van Gundy now coaches the New Orleans Pelicans as the NBA attempts to start its season. (Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
Former Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy gestures during a game on Jan. 3, 2018. Van Gundy now coaches the New Orleans Pelicans as the NBA attempts to start its season. (Rob Foldy/Getty Images)

Although the NBA has watched MLB and the NFL recently deal with the rigors, there are different challenges as the NBA is approaching the start of preseason play this weekend, and the coaches are probably at the forefront more than usual.

As training camps began, it was as prevalent a discussion in the group settings as was the installation of base offenses and defenses.

“Don’t be the guy who causes everything to break down,” one coach told Yahoo Sports of his opening message to his team. “Don’t be that guy. What’s his name? Danuel House. They’re grown men. Guys are gonna be guys.”

The NBA determined following an investigation that House had a female testing official in his hotel room during the playoffs in Orlando. House left the Orlando campus and the Rockets lost to the Lakers in the second round in five games.

But House has become a spook story of sorts, the example that Keyser Soze will come get you if you don’t follow the COVID protocols the league sent out to teams days ago.

“You try to put the fear of God into them,” the coach told Yahoo Sports.

The coach isn’t predicting Armageddon, but believes games will be canceled due to player attrition. The NFL has moved games around and reshuffled its schedule, but with the NBA it’s different. Games aren’t once a week, and the league is certainly prepared for the possibility of such a measure.

The schedules have been altered to limit long travel, and there are plenty of home-and-home games baked into the schedule to condense longer trips both within the conference and out.

When it was suggested to a senior official that younger teams would have to be monitored more, the official replied it’s new for the mid-career players and veterans, too, so the message has to be drilled home with no exceptions.

The exhaustive handbook the league issued discussed the daily testing and restrictions on exposure to the public to limit the possibility of contracting the virus. A player missing 10 to 12 days before resuming basketball activities after a positive test is to be expected. (The return to play after isolation includes medical exams, a few days of working out individually away from the team, cardiac screenings and being cleared by a group of doctors.)

“You’ve got to do what you can do and control what you can control,” Van Gundy said. “You can control your behaviors. We don’t have to go out in crowded places, we can social distance. We can wear masks. But there’s no guarantee. No guarantee it’ll be enough. Will we have to deal with cases of COVID? I don’t know, it’s very possible.”

And the league is holding teams accountable should things get on the extreme side, with the threat of fines, suspensions, the loss of draft picks and even forfeiting of games.

Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, left, talks with Donzaleigh Artis, mother of draft pick James Wiseman, in San Francisco, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, left, talks with Donzaleigh Artis, mother of draft pick James Wiseman, in San Francisco, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Some coaches have expressed doubt to this plan, saying the success of the Orlando bubble isn’t a true indicator. Even with a vaccine on the way, the NBA isn’t going to skip the line to take vaccinations from the country’s most vulnerable.

But who determines where the line is after that?

“It’s dangerous,” a coach told Yahoo Sports. “It’s tough you have guys with kids. You take it home, that’s the thing. You put travel on top of it. You can only go to certain restaurants, how do you determine these things? Guys are nervous.”

COVID-19 has been made to be political since it made its way through the states, and the spread seems uncontrollable entering the holiday season. There’s a sense of carefulness not to stigmatize those who’ve come down with it or will come down with it, given the nature of the virus.

New Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers chuckled at the inevitability as well as the way it’s been publicized.

“It’s ‘personal responsibility’ around the states except for the states that don’t believe it,” Rivers said. “Keep your guard up. It’s different for all of us. Not having family members, not having friends come to visit. We haven’t been resigned to the fact it’ll affect us but if it does, we’ll keep it moving.”

The Golden State Warriors are dealing with two players that have COVID-19, and although coach Steve Kerr wouldn’t reveal the two players on his roster who have it, it’s fairly easy to connect the dots based off which players missed practice.

He agreed with Van Gundy’s assessment from a coach’s seat, treating it like an injury.

“It’s gonna be awhile,” Kerr said. “That’s being established right now, so we’re following protocols like every team is and as a coach we’re looking at it, similar to a sprained ankle. And from a coaching standpoint, guys will be out for a couple weeks so you gotta adapt and adjust. There’s a much bigger picture here which is let’s make sure we’re all being really safe and healthy and not transmitting the disease because there are much bigger repercussions beyond the game.”

There’s the testing, the rules and everything in between. And there’s no way to understate the fact this is ever-evolving and the side effects can go far beyond missing a couple weeks of games.

“We’ve had our medical staff address our players multiple times,” Kerr said. “Our team doctor, we’ve been really loading the players with information on everything and urging them every day to be solid with the protocols. That’s all we can do.”

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