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NBA Staffers Can’t Stick to Their Day Jobs Inside the Bubble

With traveling parties limited to 35 people, NBA teams are having to pitch in and get creative with limited resources. “This is like a weird, unique summer camp.”

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Daryl Morey isn’t a normal fixture of Rockets practices during the season, but things are different now, to say the least. It’s mid-July, normally the time when the Rockets general manager would be trying to wrap up free agency and spend time at summer league in Las Vegas. Instead, he found himself on a basketball court inside the Orlando bubble last week rebounding for Eric Gordon. All of Houston’s coaches were busy, so Morey made his way over, picked up the ball and took on the role that’s usually reserved for ball boys and assistants on the lower rungs of an NBA team’s hierarchy.

“I’ll be frank, I think he probably wasn’t thrilled because I wasn’t making the best passes,” Morey said in a phone call last week. “My playing career is long gone. It wasn’t a James Harden pass into the pocket, let’s put it that way.”

Morey says he traveled down to Orlando with the intention of pitching in however he could help. He was put to the test right away. Before the Rockets’ first practice, the team had to change facilities at the last minute, and Morey noticed that meant all of the chairs and equipment the team had set up also had to be moved. Soon, he, along with the rest of the Rockets’ traveling party, were carrying chairs and relocating.

There’s an “all hands on deck” mentality to the Rockets’ approach and around the NBA campus. It’s become a catchphrase among coaches, executives, and players on the ground who realize what kind of shorthanded situation they’re dealing with. It’s why, despite not every head of basketball operations making the trip to the bubble (every team does have at least one front office rep), Morey never thought twice about tagging along.

“Normally, I’m not super useful,” Morey said. “But it’s very hard to relate if—and I think things are going well—but if things weren’t going well and you’re not here, it’s extremely hard to address it. You can’t get a first-hand experience of what they’re going through.”

Each NBA team’s traveling party is limited to 35 people, including about 17 players, which meant that various teams around the league had to make hard decisions about who to bring and who to leave behind. For some teams, medical personnel was the priority, as some front office employees could work remotely. And while there are normally two rows of coaches and trainers on an NBA bench, most teams had to trim down on those valuable behind-the-scenes contributors before heading to Orlando.

“We’ve cut our staff in half, and that’s really tough,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We do Zooms every day with the guys that aren’t here, but everybody has to pitch in.”

Not every team is the same, though. While the Clippers had to cut a substantial part of Steve Ballmer’s beefed-up staff, the Rockets—who Morey says have one of the smallest organizations in the league—only left behind a handful of staffers, some of whom stayed to work with the late-arriving James Harden and Russell Westbrook. The Blazers were able to bring their entire health and performance department, as well as two equipment managers and two video coordinators. And while head coach Terry Stotts said the team has everyone it needs in Orlando, he acknowledged that head athletic trainer Geoff Clark has had to stretch to do more work than most in what has been an uncertain time.

“He is the main connection between the league and what our party does,” Stotts said. “He’s done an incredible job over the last two months of just coordinating the logistics of the practice facility, or the testing, or arranging meals, or making sure everything is running smoothly.”

Other teams like the Nuggets and the Pelicans had no choice but to adapt to their new reality after leaving core support staff behind.

“We had to leave home a few valuable pieces of my staff,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “Guys like [player development coach] Stephen Graham, [player development coach] Boniface N’Dong, [head video coordinator] Travess Armenta, and [assistant video coordinator] Jordan Bickerstaff.”

Malone, who was also without Nikola Jokic until last week and is still reportedly down Michael Porter Jr. and Monte Morris, has said the absences have forced him and his limited staff of coaches to get creative with lineups and practice plans. Last week, he gave the team the day off, but he still wanted them to do a team activity together, so he had head strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger organize a pool workout that eventually turned into a team lunch.

“Anything the players are doing, we’re doing as coaches,” Malone said.

Jeff Bzdelik, the Pelicans’ 67-year-old associate head coach, did not travel to the bubble due to health concerns. And while Alvin Gentry has said that he talks to Bzdelik, the team’s unofficial defensive coordinator, every day, the team has given a lot of the on-the-ground defensive responsibilities to assistant coach Fred Vinson.

“They talk and they exchange ideas,” Gentry said of Bzdelik and Vinson. “They also exchange clips from the practices so that we have an opportunity to sit down to maybe have some clips for the guys.”

Kings coach Luke Walton said his organization knew before Orlando that the situation would require everyone pitching in, and he’s been hammering home that point since arrival.

“If you’re a trainer and you see that a basket needs an extra rebounder, get out there,” Walton said. “If you’re a coach and you see the equipment manager is trying to carry seven bags down the hallway, grab a couple of those. We all know what our primary jobs are, why we were brought out here, but with the limited numbers we expect everyone to double up and help wherever possible.”

Multiple teams mentioned rebounding duties as something seemingly small, but very significant to the flow of practice, with everyone from medical staff to GMs manning the glass at one point or another. Morey isn’t the only executive rebounding, either. Last week, a video of Lakers GM Rob Pelinka emerged of him doing the same thing for Anthony Davis. Head coach Frank Vogel later said he and Pelinka had to take on new roles during a recent practice too: “We served as cones during practice, which was new for both of us.”

Jason Chinnock holds a secret. Somewhere buried deep in his video files, he has proof that the Luka Doncic trick shot from Orlando you’ve likely seen a handful of times—yes the one where he kicks the ball in from the 3-point line—wasn’t a one-time deal. How did he get it? During the regular season, Chinnock primarily worked for Fox Sports in the production truck, but in Orlando, his jack-of-all-trades skill set allowed him to parlay a side gig with the Mavericks into a full-time role, running around the Orlando campus recording anything and everything from behind the camera.

“Luka’s been trying these trick shots at the beginning of practice, and occasionally, I don’t see all of them, because I’m one person trying to look at the entire team,” Chinnock told me in a phone call last week. For this one, though, he was locked in. “The thing that was fun was the reaction shot. I had shot him running off, and then I held enough of a pause to get the shot, and then I busted my ass to run over there.”

All 22 teams brought a digital or social media staffer of some kind to document the sights and sounds on the ground. But as those departments have grown exponentially around the league over the last few years, downsizing for the bubble forced some adjustments too.

The Clippers’ director of operations Max Reza tweeted about how he’s taken on the roles of the team’s social director, photographer and videographer, as well as digital content creator and PR staff while in the bubble:

“From Dennis [Rogers, director of communications] to me,” Rivers said in a Zoom interview last week, “there’s nobody above doing something different, and I think everybody is willing to do that.” Rivers then turned to Rogers, off screen, and laughed, realizing he had inadvertently put him at the “low point” of their traveling party.

Chinnock, who goes by “Chopper” to all the Mavericks staffers, has gone from being a part-time employee with mostly broadcast production experience to a one-man digital band in Orlando who wishes he could clone himself to get all the angles. When Mike Marshall, the head of Mavs’ digital called him in mid-June, he said he thought he was going to be let go from his part-time gig with the Mavs, “because, well, 2020” he said. Instead, he found himself having a week to prepare to undergo the NBA’s coronavirus protocols and be the team’s sole digital content creator in the bubble.

“I’m the eyes on the ground. I’m the lens on the ground,” Chinnock said. He takes video on one of the handful of cameras he brought, takes pictures with one of the five lenses he packed, and then records vertical video for social on his phone. If any Zoom calls are having technical issues, he’s also the guy the team calls. At the end of a practice, Chinnock returns to his room, where he downloads files onto a PC tower he brought (“not overhead compliant,” he says with a laugh) and sends them back to the Mavs’ remote digital team who do all the thankless editing. “If I didn’t have them back at home working, I would spend more of my time here editing as opposed to shooting.”

Despite his many roles, the unique environment has also made it a dream scenario for Chinnock, who said that during the season’s suspension, he could only take pictures and videos of his dog. Now, his playground is Disney World, with players and coaches more willing to let him tag along for Doncic’s fishing trips and Rick Carlisle’s golf rounds, or even volunteer to wear GoPro cameras during practices, like Tim Hardaway Jr. recently did. Once games begin, Chinnock’s on-the-ground footage will be for both the Mavs’ digital team and the Fox Sports broadcast.

Chinnock is not the only one having to fulfill multiple roles on his team. He says he’s seen players stay on the court after cooling down and shagging balls in order to help the team’s equipment manager put them away, or assisting with passing drills. Other players have also helped carry bags to and from practice, and everyone from the equipment staff to the Mavs’ PR guy, Scott Tomlin, have offered to help Chinnock lug equipment around Orlando.

“This is like a weird, unique summer camp,” Chinnock said. “You definitely get the feeling everyone is in this together.”

For Wizards coach Scott Brooks, his usual vantage point during practice has been altered. As he told reporters last Thursday, he must actually participate in drills like he’s one of the assistants rather than stand on the sideline and watch. In a video that the Sixers released last week, some coaches were seen acting as referees during the team’s 5-on-5 sessions.

“People have had to think laterally,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “The people that are here have to multitask.”

Most teams seem to be embracing the nature of the setup, which is part camaraderie, part necessity. (Granted, it’s early.) If anything, some believe it’s been part of the initial bonding experience of being stuck in a bubble together. And with a potential three-month stay on the horizon for at least some squads, lending a hand might be one of the better habits to establish off the bat.

As Morey puts it, “There might be more rebounding and chair moving in all our futures.”