As the Lakers went back to work this week, things — for the first time in months — started to seem a bit more normal in the world. Social media was filled with photos and videos of players working out and getting up shots, and it really started to feel like basketball was back... at least on a surface level.
But one didn’t have to squint too hard to spot how different this new, pandemic-necessitated normal is. For every shot of LeBron James and Anthony Davis putting up threes, there’s video of Rob Pelinka and Frank Vogel having a physically distanced discussion while wearing masks. It doesn’t take long to notice that all the clips are of players doing individual workouts, with teammates rarely in sight and the coaches assisting them wearing masks and mostly keeping their distance.
But aside from setting a good example, all those protocols have had another affect, too: Giving everyone involved confidence that the NBA’s return to play can be done safely.
“I keep trying to tell people, man, at the end of the day, I don’t think anyone fears, like, death,” said Jared Dudley, emphasizing that last word during a Zoom conference call with reporters this week. “I think they fear potentially getting (COVID-19), and I think they think it sucks that they’re going to quarantine seven days in a little house that they don’t know nothing about.”
The entire time the NBA has been getting closer to a return to play, this has been the subtext of the remarks from the Lakers players who have spoken to the media. Most have not said it quite as explicitly as the perpetually candid Dudley, but from reading between the lines, it’s pretty obvious that many players are more worried about the restrictions they’ll be under than their own safety.
This is even true for players who might be at risk, as JaVale McGee — who has asthma — has called the limitations players will be under “concerning” and said he’s not worried about his health. Even Avery Bradley, the only Laker to so far opt out of Orlando, did so out of concern for the health of his young son, not himself. If teammate Dwight Howard joins him, it’s expected to be due to situations he’s dealing with in his family life or because of his quest for social justice, not out of concern for his own safety.
What players involved with the Lakers have said will be the toughest part is the isolation and rules they’ll be subjected to when resuming the campaign.
“That’s the biggest concern for the bubble, is (players) not being able to see their families for two months, or have any visitors or friends, and being locked in this place without having any interaction with our outside world,” Lakers guard Danny Green said in an interview on CBS New York.
“That could have a big-time effect on play, depending on the time of the season or the time of the playoffs that some guy may get a little claustrophobic or homesick, or just want to have that human connection of getting outside and being with their friends and family, or their close ones, their loved ones,” Green continued. “I think that’s probably the biggest task, is staying in the bubble and keeping guys focused in the bubble.”
The restrictions players are under in Orlando will be strenuous, to be clear. Players will be tested for COVID-19 every day that they are at Disney World, and that’s after being placed into a minimum 48-hour quarantine in their hotel upon arrival, not being allowed to leave their rooms until they test negative for coronavirus twice. Given that the Lakers are traveling on July 9, that latter rule will leave Dudley without much of a way to celebrate turning 35.
“Reminder, it will be my birthday July 10, I’ll be quarantining in a hotel,” Dudley said.
If Dudley (or any other player) tests positive for the virus at any point, that initial quarantine won’t be the only time they’re locked down. Players will have to be isolated for a minimum of seven days if they test positive for the virus, and if anyone leaves the bubble, they will face the pseudo punishment of the far-less-pleasant deep nasal swab, rather than the oral version of the test they’ll be receiving every day. Haley O’Shaughnessy of The Ringer summarized many of the other regulations well in a recent story:
Players and staffers are not allowed to visit each other’s hotel rooms. They can use the pools, trails, and golf courses on campus, and can socialize in their hotels’ “players’ lounges”—but not without restrictions. No doubles in ping-pong (I would like to see who enforces this and how). No using the same pack of cards twice.
But while those rules are clearly not something anyone is excited about, they have given the members of the Lakers going to Orlando a sense of safety and security.
“I do have a great deal of confidence in this bubble set up, and the process. Those (positive) tests, to me were something I really expected. You’re seeing it in all sports: As they begin testing, there’s going to be a handful of positive cases,” Vogel said when asked about players testing positive for the virus as the league started individual workouts again.
“I think that’s the reason they began testing several weeks before we go down there, so we can identify who is positive and go through the necessary isolation and quarantine, and hopefully put us in a position where when we get to Orlando, those types of scenarios are minimal, or hopefully none at all. I have confidence in what we’re going to be entering into in Orlando.”
Vogel’s point about the process gets at what Pelinka views as the central question of the NBA’s restart efforts.
“I think that the fundamental tenet of the plans around the NBA restart on campus in Orlando are ‘can we create an environment there that is safer than an environment just in the real world?’” Pelinka asked on his Zoom call with the media this week. “All of us see the reports and the numbers and the spikes in the various cities we live in, and in parts of Florida. And yes, of course those numbers are daunting, but the whole purpose of creating this environment is to not have the virus be there, or to try to keep the virus on the outside.”
As of Thursday, 7.12% of NBA players had tested positive for the coronavirus since returning to facilities. That is already lower than the current positive test rate in the United States over the last week (8.7%, according to CDC data), and as one epidemiologist pointed out on a recent podcast from Howard Beck of Bleacher Report, it would honestly be hard for the NBA to do worse than that with the restrictions they have in place, especially while testing before going to the bubble and keeping those who test positive out until they’re cleared.
“This level of testing & oversight is so many levels more than any other community that I find it hard to imagine that there will be uncontrolled transmissions.”— Mike Singer (@msinger) July 4, 2020
Dr. Lisa Miller, prof. of epidemiology at Colorado School of Public Health on NBA’s plan. https://t.co/4lk4WXOxIS
Pelinka credited the NBA for the “hundreds and hundreds of hours of work” with the National Basketball Players Association to establish the “extensive” and “thoughtful” health protocols, and said he’s optimistic it will be safer inside the bubble than outside of it. Still, he said the Lakers will be re-evaluating whether they feel that’s the case every step of the way.
“We will as an organization listen with the highest voice to our players, because they’re the ones who are going to clearly be on the front lines of playing basketball,” Pelinka said. “We’re going to be sensitive to their needs there, how they’re feeling when they’re there, if there’s changes that we can make... That will be at the center of what we do.”
Right now, the players’ level of concern may be minimal, but it’s not at zero.
“I would be lying to you if I told you everyone was completely comfortable and had no ill feelings towards how it’s going to be. I think we all know it’s a risk. I think right now we all are watching all the news, and we keep seeing all the corona cases in L.A., in California, in Arizona, Miami, in Florida,” Dudley said. “We see what’s going on.”
Still, Dudley is also acutely aware of — and has been vocal about — the economic risks of the league not finishing its season, and he also knows that NBA players aren’t the only ones putting themselves at risk by going back to work right now.
“Every day people that work... you go to your office, some people do restaurants. Sometimes you’ve got to ride for your family. Now, we do make a lot more money than people, but we understand the risks of basketball,” Dudley said. “I think it’s also a duty to be able to entertain. For me, I’m comfortable going there.”
The bubble is clearly not completely safe. The Lakers don’t have to look far to see that, either, as Lionel Hollins, one of their top assistant coaches, will be working from home after being red-flagged as a health risk. The team had to make difficult decisions while cutting its entire traveling party down. If the NBA didn’t have some level of concern about the coronavirus penetrating into it’s Orlando atmosphere, none of that would be necessary. There is no Disney pixie dust to protect from COVID-19.
That noted, nothing is fully safe right now. Businesses, both worldwide and around the country, are having to weigh the same risk-reward equation as they try, with far less resources for safety, to return for economic reasons. As much as the league would have you believe this is out of some sense of altruism, the NBA is no different. They’re going to try and do this in as low-risk a fashion as possible, of course, but resort staff and others coming in and out of the bubble, in addition to how contagious this virus is, make a no-risk scenario impossible.
It’s clear that players around the league are comfortable with that trade-off for financial reasons — or this return-to-play plan never would have been approved by the union — and for the Lakers, there is another, added motivation to buy into the sense of safety the league is selling.
“For me it’s about winning a championship. Are we still getting a parade here? If we get a parade... that counts for me. That’s all I’m saying. I’m just excited to be able to go through that process with the Lakers,” Dudley said.
A Lakers player talking openly about competing for a championship. Just another little nugget of normalcy returned... As long as one doesn’t look too deeply at where and how they’ll be doing it.