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There was so much fretting and behind-the-scenes lobbying throughout the league last week about how many N.B.A. teams would be allowed to continue their seasons at Walt Disney World Resort in late July. Sixteen teams? 20? 22? All 30?
It all seems so frivolous now.
The only matter of import in the N.B.A., as the calendar flipped to June, was the mounting anger and concern after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the unrest Floyd’s death has sparked nationwide in the latest high-profile case of police violence involving an African-American man.
On Thursday, the N.B.A. is scheduled to take its biggest step yet toward a return to play after a shutdown of nearly three months in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Team owners are expected to ratify a modified schedule that will most likely send 22 teams to play the rest of the season at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Fla.
A celebratory mood, though, is not in the forecast.
As the league acknowledged Monday in a private memorandum to its teams that was obtained by The New York Times, many people working in the N.B.A. “are experiencing trauma, frustration and isolation” amid protests and tumult across the nation and the ongoing struggle for justice and racial equality.
N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver offered his personal view Sunday in a memo to league office employees. “This moment also requires greater introspection from those of us, including me, who may never know the full pain and fear many of our colleagues and players experience every day,” Silver said.
The most challenging and dispiriting season in league history simply refuses to let up — with no appropriate segue to the analysis of some recent news items and the rest of the newsletter.
The considerable hand-wringing in recent weeks about the return-to-play framework for the N.B.A.’s reboot has overlooked at least one key point:
We should probably anticipate more player pushback on the rules they will be asked to follow in the “campus” environment in Orlando than any format that gets adopted — especially since the day-to-day regulations and the depth of the safety protocols that the N.B.A. will propose remain mostly unknown.
Players are sure to have several questions. Among them: How strictly will player movement be monitored beyond trips to and from their hotel rooms and the court? How long will the campus be operational in Orlando before select family members are allowed to make visits? There will obviously be no fans allowed at games and no travel required, but what are the specifics about food preparation, accommodations and testing programs?
These things matter way more to players than how many teams are included.
The latest estimates say that going with 22 teams would enable the N.B.A. to stage as many as 88 regular-season games before proceeding to a brief play-in round and then the playoffs.
The N.B.A.’s justification for a field of 22, arbitrary as the number may sound, is that it includes every team that was within six games of a playoff spot when the season was halted. Asking them to each play a minimum of eight games in Orlando is sure to be questioned from a safety perspective, but don’t forget the finances involved. There were 259 regular-season games remaining when the season was suspended; it is believed that playing roughly a third of them will help many teams satisfy their contractual agreements with regional television partners.
Bringing all 30 teams to Orlando is the only truly fair option, but the N.B.A. wants to keep the circle as small as possible for safety reasons. The league, though, is resistant to bringing only 16 teams, despite the obvious safety upside, because that would make it harder to stage a handful of games before moving into the playoffs. The league and the players, for financial and quality-of-play reasons, both see that as a necessity.
The Knicks’ coaching search won’t officially start until they get binding word that they will not be among the teams invited to Central Florida.
Such confirmation, of course, could come as soon as Thursday, when the league’s Board of Governors is scheduled to vote on Silver’s preferred proposal. The expectation in league coaching circles is that the Knicks will move with reasonable swiftness from there, since Tom Thibodeau is regarded as such an overwhelming favorite to replace the interim coach Mike Miller.
Leon Rose, the Knicks’ new team president, has a close relationship with Thibodeau from their lengthy stints as agent and client with Creative Artists Agency. Word is that the Knicks, for good measure, have already begun background work on their top target.
A contentious run in Chicago, followed by critiques of Thibodeau’s handling of young players and a messy exit in Minnesota, would prompt some teams to not consider Thibodeau despite his impressive career winning percentage of .589 (352-246) and his undeniable impact on Boston’s championship defense in 2008 as an assistant. But it would be a serious shock at this point if Rose went in another direction with his first major hire.
James L. Dolan decided against putting out a team statement to denounce the killing of Floyd and formally register the Knicks’ participation in a leaguewide push to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
Dolan wrote Monday to Madison Square Garden employees that a sports franchise is “not any more qualified than anyone else to offer our opinion on social matters.” What he overlooked in what some have interpreted as an apparent attempt to avoid criticizing his friend Donald Trump: Issuing even a cursory statement, if nothing else, would have prevented the Knicks from ranking as the only team in the league to so overtly withhold a public reaction to Floyd’s death and the ensuing outrage.
The team later posted an all-black photo to its Instagram account in line with #BlackOutTuesday, an social media campaign to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. But Monday’s letter sent a disheartening message to the Knicks’ players and everyone else in the organization and goes down as yet another damaging episode for the Knicks’ reputation in 2020 — hardly the first since Dolan hired a branding consultant, Steve Stoute, in January to enhance the club’s image.
As of Tuesday, San Antonio and Detroit were the only two teams in the league yet to unlock their practice facilities for voluntary, socially distanced player workouts.
The ability to get back into practice gyms has been described as a mental-health refuge above all, even for players on teams whose seasons won’t be continuing, because so many players were so abruptly cut off from access to a basket since the N.B.A. suspended play March 11.
Miami’s Meyers Leonard, interviewed as part of the reporting for our story on the leaguewide hoop shortage in early May, estimated that only 10 percent of current players had a basket at home. Before the coronavirus outbreak, Leonard reasoned, most N.B.A. players had little reason to even consider it.
“First of all, we have world-class facilities to use 24 hours per day,” Leonard said. “And secondly, shooting outside does not even come close to shooting inside at an N.B.A. You’re dealing with wind, hard rims and concrete, which isn’t good for your joints anyways.”
The first N.B.A. finals that I vividly remember watching starred Wes Unseld of the Washington Bullets in 1979.
The Bullets lost that finals rematch to Seattle after beating the SuperSonics in 1978, but I will never forget being able to watch the undersized Unseld’s famed rebounding and pick-setting on my own little black-and-white TV for the first time, albeit with a game or two regrettably on tape delay.
Unseld is one of only two players in league history, alongside Wilt Chamberlain, to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors in the same season. He died Tuesday at 74 and, after playing his entire career with the Bullets then later working for Washington as both a coach and an executive, will remain as synonymous with his franchise as any player in league history.
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. 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: Why doesn’t the N.B.A. continue the season playing outdoors? Why are indoor arenas necessary if there are no fans? — Elizabeth Morris
Stein: It’s an understandable question given the concern over what many public health experts regard as basketball’s increased susceptibility for spreading the virus because it is a full-contact sport played indoors.
But outdoor basketball is not N.B.A. basketball. Outdoor basketball in Orlando in the summer, furthermore, would be impossible to pull off because of weather that vacillates between stifling heat and humidity and stormy downpours.
Perhaps there are other cities that could provide a suitable setting to meet the N.B.A.’s needs for erecting the insulated environment it is planning at Disney World, but playing more than a diversionary game or two outside would be changing the conditions of the season too drastically to be considered legitimate. Take note of what Miami’s Meyers Leonard told us earlier about outdoor shooting and how little it does for N.B.A. preparation. It’s one of the big reasons, along with space considerations, that so many N.B.A. players don’t have a hoop at home, as our Scott Cacciola and I wrote about in early May.
Q: No one talks about player and coach contracts. Aren’t a lot of these expiring at the end of June in line with the completion of the original playoff schedule? The same goes for free agency: What’s up with that? — John Valentin
Stein: Actually, John, I think lots of people in the league are discussing these issues. The state of current contracts in relation to a first-of-its-kind summer schedule, pushing both the draft and free agency into the fall, calculating next season’s salary cap after this season’s significant revenue losses and numerous other financial details will have to be resolved once the league and the players’ union agree on the format for the rest of the season and the requisite safety protocols.
There are frankly too many unknowns to list them all. Another significant detail you can expect to hear much more about in the coming weeks: The N.B.A. will have to put in place a system for settling the salary reductions caused by falling short of 82 games in a manner that’s equitable for the both the players on teams that won’t resume playing and those on the 22 teams expected to restart.
I tend to believe that those things will be figured out, piece by piece, after the more immediate hurdles are cleared. That’s not to say it will happen completely devoid of tension, since financial matters are always the trickiest to negotiate, especially when losses are involved. But you don’t hear much fear in N.B.A. circles — at least not yet — that the league is at risk of facing the sort of chasm we’re seeing between the players and team owners in Major League Baseball. The relationship between the N.B.A. commissioner, Adam Silver, and Oklahoma City’s Chris Paul, the president of the players’ union, is too strong.
Q: Why did the Buffalo Braves trade Bob McAdoo for John Gianelli and cash in 1976 instead of just waiting for him to walk in free agency and getting free-agent compensation that would have been more valuable? — @LucasJHann from Twitter
Stein: I see you really want to replay my childhood heartbreak.
Cash was king in a lot of N.B.A. trades in the 1970s. That was especially true after my Braves, then owned by Paul Snyder, brought in John Y. Brown as an ownership partner. Brown ultimately became the Braves’ majority owner, positioning him to essentially swap rosters with Boston’s Irv Levin in 1978, which resulted in Brown becoming the Celtics’ owner and Levin relocating the Braves to San Diego (and renaming them the Clippers).
But Brown needed fresh funds to wrest full control from Snyder and got them by first peddling Jim McMillian’s contract to the Knicks, then by making the deal that sent McAdoo and Tom McMillen to the Knicks in a multiplayer swap that netted $2.5 million — worth about $11 million today.
Front-office (and financial) decisions in the N.B.A. were simply not scrutinized by the fans and the news media in the 1970s as they are now, which is among the reasons so many deals of that era look so lopsided in hindsight. But I’m not sure anything could have stopped Brown. He clearly wasn’t thinking about free-agent compensation or anything else for the Braves with a long-term, roster-building vision.
Buffalo will instead be remembered as a franchise that, in its short eight-season run, shooed away the future Hall of Fame coach Jack Ramsay and then dismantled what may have been one of the great frontcourts in league history without even giving it a chance.
McAdoo and two fellow future Hall of Famers, Adrian Dantley and Moses Malone, overlapped on the Braves’ roster during the 1976-77 season, only for management to trade Malone to Houston after just two games in October and exile McAdoo in December. Those surrenders were followed by Dantley’s departure to Indiana shortly before the 1977-78 season.
Just to illustrate how wild the times were: Dantley won the league’s Rookie of the Year award with the Braves and was traded twice in his first 18 months as a pro. The Pacers acquired Dantley from Buffalo on Sept. 1, 1977, then promptly dealt him to the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 13, 1977, in the quest for a starting center (James Edwards) despite Dantley’s immediate status as an elite N.B.A. scorer.
Imagine the sort of scorn Buffalo and Indiana would have faced in the modern climate for giving up on Dantley so quickly. In one of the few comparable situations, Chris Webber was traded from Golden State to Washington after winning Rookie of the Year in 1993-94, but Webber, remember, largely forced his way out.
15 of 60
The lack of diversity among the top decision-makers in the N.F.L. received considerable news media coverage in May, but the N.B.A. continues to merit similar examination, despite its reputation as the most progressive of North America’s major sports leagues. Only 15 of the league’s 60 head coaching and top player-personnel jobs are held by minorities. That includes Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra, who is Filipino-American, and eight African-American head coaches: Atlanta’s Lloyd Pierce, Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff, Detroit’s Dwane Casey, Indiana’s Nate McMillan, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Doc Rivers, New Orleans’s Alvin Gentry, Phoenix’s Monty Williams and Jacque Vaughn, the Nets’ interim coach. As covered in our April 21 newsletter, only six teams have a person of color leading their front office: Cleveland (Koby Altman), Minnesota (Gersson Rosas), Philadelphia (Elton Brand), Phoenix (James Jones), San Antonio (Brian Wright) and Toronto (Masai Ujiri).
6 of 64
The 15-for-60 tabulation was inspired by NBC Sports’ Peter King, who noted in the May 25 edition of his weekly megacolumn on the N.F.L. — in addressing the longstanding ineffectiveness of football’s Rooney Rule — that only six of the N.F.L.’s top 64 jobs are held by minorities. An estimated 70 percent of N.F.L. players and an estimated 80 percent of N.B.A. players are black.
There have been only four outdoor games in N.B.A. history — all exhibitions involving the Phoenix Suns. The Suns played Milwaukee in Puerto Rico in September 1972, then arranged preseason games in Indian Wells, Calif., in 2008, 2009 and 2011 against Denver, Golden State and Dallas. The W.N.B.A. staged an outdoor regular-season game between the Liberty and the Indiana Fever at the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, the site of the United States Open, in July 2008.
Leave it to my old friend @AdamReisinger to point out that March 11, the day the N.B.A. halted play in response to the coronavirus outbreak, was the 141st day of the regular season — and that the league’s target date for resuming games, July 31, would be another 141 days since play was suspended.
In his 13-year career with the Bullets franchise, Wes Unseld never averaged more than 16.2 points per game, a scoring clip he achieved in his second N.B.A. season. And he averaged only 9.4 points per game during the 1977-78 playoffs, which culminated with Unseld being named the most valuable player of the 1978 finals. Such was Unseld’s all-around impact as a team player — exemplified by the forceful screens he set for teammates, his relentless rebounding and the long outlet passes he routinely flung — that he earned Basketball Hall of Fame status in 1988 despite his modest offensive production. Unseld died Tuesday at age 74.