Opinion: How MLB outbreak reinforces confidence in NBA setup amid uncertainty ahead
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The news reached the NBA campus as quickly as a fastball over the plate.
Major League Baseball postponed two games on Monday after 14 Miami Marlins players and staff members tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Should that leave the NBA worried it could strike out on trying to resume the season? Or should it make the league feel more confident it can hit a home run?
"I don’t even compare the two," Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "What they’re doing and what we’re doing is so different. I like what we’re doing."
Why is that? While MLB teams are still traveling by plane, NBA teams are all playing at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex. While the Marlins reportedly decided by player text vote to resume despite having a handful of positive COVID-19 cases, the NBA has determined how teams will handle both positive tests and broken rules. NBA players are subjected to daily COVID-19 testing while MLB players are tested every other day. And with social-distancing protocols in place and by playing without fans, the NBA designed a plan that would reduce the chances it would whiff at the plate as MLB has.
"I wasn’t sure if I was going to feel safe here, and I feel super safe," New Orleans Pelicans guard J.J. Redick said. "This is an environment here I feel has been really good. The protocols are in place. It’s hard to compare what baseball or the NFL is doing because it’s not what we’re doing. We’re doing something completely different. But obviously we’re all watching to see how baseball and football work given the uncertainty of next season as well."
The NBA has tentatively slated next season to start Dec. 1, but that date remains subject to change for many reasons. The league’s players' union believes that gives the participating 22 teams too little time to recover since the current season resumes Thursday and extends through mid-October. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said it is not sustainable to play in a campus bubble for all of next season because of the finances and extended time all participants would stay away from family. So the league will monitor how well the NFL and major college football can host games with or without fans in their own venues before proceeding.
Though our country could have mitigated this damage with proper long-term planning, it has also exacerbated its problems with too many short-sighted solutions. So in the NBA’s case, there is little value in fretting over when next season might start. It should just worry about making sure it can pull off this season restart first. In that respect, the MLB’s sluggishness should not foreshadow an NBA swing-and-miss, too.
What happens with MLB should not influence how the NBA handles its operations. If it did, Silver, the league’s owners and the union would not have agreed to restart the season in the first place. Not with the rising infections and deaths around the country. Not with the area outside the NBA’s campus representing one of the country’s biggest hot spots. The NBA created an alternative universe that hardly resembles how the rest of the country operates. The league subjects everyone to daily testing. It requires and enforces face coverings and social-distancing rules. It has extended quarantines to anyone who has left the campus with or without permission. So when the NBA announced last week that zero out of 346 players tested positive for COVID-19, Rivers joked that "maybe we should send our plan to the White House."
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"It didn’t really do anything to me," Washington Wizards guard Troy Daniels Jr. said of MLB’s development. "Obviously the corona stuff has been going on for a while now. But I think the NBA has done a great job with putting together the bubble. All we can do is stay within our guidelines, make sure we’re staying sanitary and wish for the best."
Despite Rivers’ quip, though, those in NBA circles are not ready to run a victory lap. And why would they? No team has any clairvoyance it will win a championship in October when it is just trying to knock off rust in July. The NBA remains aware it could take one isolated case or a small series of events to completely unravel everything in August, September or October after it executed its plans in July.
"What we’re doing is working. Adam, the staff and the league have done a phenomenal job with keeping us safe and healthy. But we can’t relax and let our guard down," Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. "You have to do it every day. You can’t have an off day. Fortunately, I have not seen anybody without a mask or not social-distancing with non-members of our team."
Unfortunately, other NBA teams cannot say the same thing.
Not all teams have seen their players wear masks. About two weeks ago, someone called the NBA’s campus hotline to report Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard had not worn a mask. While he acknowledged the value in wearing one out of the campus bubble, Howard questioned the need for it here while contending the issue took focus from the league’s racial justice efforts. He then held an Instagram Live chat where he still did not wear a mask while admitting he does not believe in vaccines. Howard held this attitude despite the Lakers’ repeated attempts to inform him about the league’s protocols.
Not all teams have seen their players follow other rules, too. Two weeks ago, the Sacramento Kings’ Richaun Holmes and Houston Rockets’ Bruno Caboclo left the campus to seek alternative food delivery options. After the Clippers approved Lou Williams to leave the campus to attend the funeral of a friend, he then stopped at an Atlanta strip club apparently because he loves their wings. It did not matter if Williams wore a mask. Williams still exposed himself to those not subject to the league’s safety protocols.
"He made a mistake, but it wasn’t intended to be a mistake," Rivers said of Williams. "We’ll get over it quickly."
Rivers is not excusing Williams’ behavior. Over the weekend, Rivers admitted "that’s something we obviously didn’t enjoy seeing or like." That incident showcased, however, that the NBA formulated its protocols to address human behavior.
To ensure Williams, Holmes or Caboclo would not expose the campus, they had to complete an additional 10 days of quarantine. For any players that receive approval to leave the campus for personal reasons, they will have only a four-day quarantine so long as they continue to test negative every day. When Dallas’ Kristaps Porzingis and Denver’s Paul Millsap forgot to take their COVID-19 test this week, they had to miss their respective scrimmages and spend a day in quarantine.
Every person on campus has to report symptoms, their temperature and oxygen levels shortly after waking up. If a person has concerning or incomplete results, they will not be able to pass the security checkpoints at the campus venues. To reduce any boredom, the NBA has given teams access to the campus golf course and fishing spots as well as the hotel’s pool areas and lounges.
"You can tell there’s a lot of structure," Clippers forward Joakim Noah said. "These are some of the sacrifices we have to make right now in order to play basketball. It’s not easy for anybody. But at the end of the day, we understand why we’re here. It’s a blessing to play basketball."
And the NBA has received that blessing partly because it planned for this pandemic better than MLB did. Now the NBA has to prove it can protect its lead in crunch time.