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Maybe the NBA’s Return Won’t Be As Easy As It Seemed

Not to burst your bubble, but players are beginning to voice unease over restrictions and health protocols in the “campus environment” at Disney World

NBA/Ringer illustration

The NBA may have declared its triumphant return last week, but with less than two months to go until the proposed tipoff date, the real work to get the league safely running again has only begun. As new details of the plan emerge, cracks have begun to show, not only in the proposal itself but among the NBA’s players too.

A month ago, superstar players got on a Zoom call and reportedly created a united front to support a safe return to play. A lot has changed since. Last week, the 28 NBPA player representatives all voted in favor of the league’s proposal (which was approved by the board of governors the day before). But a closer look at the NBPA statement shows that the vote was strictly an approval of “further negotiations” with a caveat that “various details” were still to be negotiated.

Now that we’ve arrived at those various details, different parties have started to speak up with dissenting opinions. Last week, commissioner Adam Silver was fielding concerns about whether older coaches would be allowed to sit on the bench. On Wednesday, ESPN reported that a faction of players is hesitant to restart the season because of a policy that wouldn’t allow visitors until the first round of the playoffs, as well as a lack of motivation for teams unlikely to compete for the championship. Yahoo Sports reported Friday that a “significant” number of players were upset about not having a vote in approving the proposal and that some were reluctant to express their opinion to star players who want to play. Kyrie Irving, who is a vice president of the players union, was reported to be pushing for players to reconsider the planned restart.

One of the main concerns is that some players believe a return to play would detract from the current protest movement prompted by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Some players have already participated in the nationwide protests, and many have spoken out against police brutality on social media, including LeBron James, who yesterday announced plans to form a voting rights group with other athletes and celebrities. Malcolm Brogdon said on The JJ Redick Podcast that there are players who are interested in sitting out the rest of the season as part of a protest. Garrett Temple, meanwhile, told The Ringer that he believed going to Orlando was the right move and that being there a month before tipoff would give players the opportunity to come up with a plan to send a message.

“When you take a stance on things, you do that to bring attention,” said Temple, who is also an NBPA VP and represented the Nets in the player vote. “Then, after that, you have to actually do something to cause change … so whatever we do, it needs to be something that can cause tangible change in our community, in our game, in our country.”

As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski pointed out on Friday, there are many factors at play, including the proposed restrictions inside the Disney World “bubble.” Then there are the health risks. NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh reported Friday morning that, according to a Disney official, the company’s staff workers will be free to go in and out of the NBA campus and would not be subject to the same bubble protocols, including daily testing and quarantine, that teams would be subject to. A handful of players responded to the report with confusion:

Hours later, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported what the protocol would be for those Disney staffers:

The various format proposals the NBA was considering for its return played out in public, as every detail was reported and debated. Now it appears that the health protocols for the league’s proposed “campus environment” in Orlando will go through the same process. But back in the proposal phase, the discussions were centered on how many teams would be invited or whether there would be a play-in game. Now, the details that are playing out in public are health protocols that carry far more weight. In Florida, as in much of the rest of the country, coronavirus cases are starting to rise again: The state reported 1,902 new cases Friday—its highest daily total since the pandemic began.

There’s a health risk in going to Orlando, but there’s also financial risk in not going at all. As Yahoo Sports’ Vince Goodwill reported, “high profile players” are trying to “educate” other players about the fact that a lost season would mean an immediate renegotiation of the CBA, during which the players would have little to no leverage in the middle of a pandemic and would likely end up losing money in the long run.

At this point, it’s unclear just how many players are upset and about what. Regardless, it appears that this situation will at the very least test what has been painted as good relationships between Silver, team owners, and players.