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What’s NBA Bubble Life Like for the Players Who Aren’t Playing?

While most NBA players flocked to Orlando to return to play, some went to continue rehabbing or warm the bench. But active or not, their bubble experience has been telling too.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Dwight Powell has played zero minutes during the NBA’s restart, and for as long as the Mavericks remain alive in the postseason, he’ll continue to play zero minutes. That’s because Powell is rehabbing from the ruptured Achilles he suffered in late January and isn’t yet healthy enough for competitive basketball. Still, on any given morning inside the bubble, Powell is usually up and out of bed before any other Maverick.

Powell is one of the handful of players in Orlando who—due to injury, roster constraints, or a mix of the two—are living in a basketball-focused environment without getting to play. His days, though, are often more packed than most of the Mavs players who suit up.

After making his own coffee with beans from Indonesia or Guatemala and doing a bit of yoga, Powell fills his day with workouts in one of the two Grand Floridian hotel rooms the Mavs have converted into weight rooms. There, he has the ability to replicate the exact same work he’d been doing in Dallas. He’s also been allowed on the practice court in Orlando, albeit in a limited capacity. When Powell first arrived, he wasn’t dunking or running at full speed, so he may as well have been a ball boy, resigned only to watch practice, grab rebounds, talk to teammates, and cheer them on during games. But since his rehab has gone as scheduled, he’s now more involved in practices and has partaken in morning and night shooting sessions with Mavs shooting coach Peter Patton.

“[I’m] getting used to cutting again and moving without the ball, with the ball, shooting and doing all those types of movements again,” Powell says. “I’m trying to economize my time.”

For any NBA player, the decision to commit to being in Orlando for at least a month, and potentially up to three months, was not a small one. Plenty of guys decided against it. Some, like Avery Bradley and Trevor Ariza, stayed home for family reasons. Davis Bertans opted out due to upcoming contract negotiations and a history of prior injuries. And others, like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, John Wall, Bradley Beal, and the Mavericks’ own Jalen Brunson, chose to continue rehabbing their specific injuries in their current locations.

In Powell’s case, though, the Mavs felt that as long as he could clear the league’s health and safety protocols, he should continue his work in Orlando. Powell didn’t think twice before saying yes. And he’s not the only player in that position who decided to make the trip.

“There was not really any hesitation or question for me,” Powell said. “I was definitely going to be here and do whatever I had to do to make myself eligible to be here, so I could support my teammates and be along for this ride, for this journey.”

Tyson Chandler’s reason for not recording a single minute in the bubble is a little different from Powell’s. As the 2019-20 regular season went along, the Rockets’ evolution took a sharp turn and they doubled down on playing small. This development left Chandler, a 7-foot center, without a path to the court. When the restart became official, Chandler took some time to think about whether he wanted to be part of the Rockets’ bubble roster. He decided to join, knowing full well that his chances of seeing playing time were slim.

“I didn’t want things to end this way,” Chandler, who was considering retirement at the end of last season, said a few days after the Rockets arrived in Orlando.

Chandler is a 19-year NBA veteran, and he said it was occasionally difficult to find the motivation to stay in shape during the hiatus. But even though he may not see time on the court, he believes there’s a role for him on the Rockets. “I think my presence, especially with this team, it’s a lot in the locker room,” he said. “A lot of the day-to-day things, a lot in practice.”

It’s not just practice where Chandler’s presence factors in. During games, he has been one of the more vocal players from the bench, calling out coverages and keeping guys engaged.

“He is like having a sixth defender on the floor,” Houston GM Daryl Morey says. “He is constantly reinforcing the habits and effort needed to win a championship.”

Inside the Rockets’ locker room, Chandler’s voice carries. Despite the shape-shifting nature of Houston’s team, with players coming and going as Morey tinkers with the roster and Mike D’Antoni changes the lineups, Chandler has remained. He is the only player on the roster who has won a title, a trait both D’Antoni and Morey have cited as important to their overall project.

“We rely on him to talk us through things,” D’Antoni said. “He’s a valuable piece, whether he’s in the rotation or not.”

Heat captain Udonis Haslem fills that same role for Miami. Before the hiatus, Haslem’s place on the roster was more ceremonial than anything. But to not have Haslem with this team was never an option, especially in an environment as unique as the Orlando bubble, where his veteran leadership would be crucial. As Haslem told the Miami Herald last week, his approach coming into Orlando was about balancing personal growth while also continuing his work as the team’s soul and voice.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time. I kind of get a feel of what I need to bring and where I need to step in. Some days I don’t need to say anything,” Haslem said. “There’s so much other stuff that I can get done while I’m here in the bubble. I never get time alone, I never get any peace and quiet.”

Haslem did get 23 minutes of game time during the Heat’s seeding game against the Pacers, and while Chandler isn’t exactly holding his breath waiting for his name to get called for a few token minutes, that doesn’t mean he isn’t prepared should the Rockets want to give opponents a different look.

“You know, I always tell Coach, if you want to switch it up I’m right here,” Chandler said with a laugh. “And I’m ready.”

Powell isn’t the only player in Orlando who is rehabbing. Courtney Lee is recovering from a calf injury he suffered during the stoppage, but the Dallas wing was still “eager” to join the team in the bubble. In the East, the Pacers’ Jeremy Lamb, who is recovering from a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, felt similarly, and said he wanted to continue working with the Indiana trainers who would also be in Orlando.

“I didn’t want to be in Indiana by myself,” Lamb said. “So I felt everybody being around, it’s good energy for me, it’s helping me progress even more.”

Unlike Powell, Lamb didn’t participate in practices, but he was able to run and, more importantly, be around his teammates. Likewise, Powell says spending time with the rest of the Mavs players is something he would have missed had he stayed home. But beyond what Powell himself has gotten out of being in Orlando, the Mavericks have also been beneficiaries.

“He’d been such a positive guy for our team, really for the entire year and a half that he’s been here,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “It was really great to get him immersed into what we’re doing, even though he’s not practicing, to get him back around our guys again.”

Once games began, Powell started working with players in auxiliary gyms before tipoff, rebounding for guys so they could get extra work in. And as Powell has gotten healthier, he’s been able to step onto the court during practice and provide an additional body to help game-plan. He’s even been able to do some light live work.

“I’ve been able to bang with the guys a bit,” he says. “Nothing too high-intensity, but I’m able to help provide an extra body out there to give something to resemble what we’re going to see in these games to come.”

From the bench, Powell is an extra pair of eyes and another voice. He says his presence in Orlando has allowed him to relay certain things he sees while watching games to the players who are playing power forward and center—his positions.

Powell had already started to settle into his role as a bench supporter before the hiatus. In some ways, he says, he almost felt like an extension of the Dallas crowd. Now, in Orlando, he continues to be a voice, even if he doesn’t have an accompanying choir of 19,000 fans behind him.

“I feel like I am taking this as an opportunity, mentally, to be out there,” Powell said. “To be with the guys.”