Four months after Covid-19 sent basketball into an unprecedented shutdown, the NBA takes a leap into the unknown on Thursday as the league bids to resurrect its season at Disney World in Florida.
The Utah Jazz launch the rebooted campaign against the New Orleans Pelicans before LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard go head-to-head in a heavyweight Los Angeles derby between the Lakers and the Clippers.
The two games mark the start of a painstakingly crafted plan to stage the remainder of the basketball season safely in the midst of an ongoing pandemic which has already claimed around 150,000 lives in the United States.
To mitigate the risks, the NBA is basing 22 teams within a tightly controlled “bubble” inside Disney World’s sprawling 40-square mile campus in Orlando.
Teams will play games at three venues inside the ESPN World Wide of Sports complex inside the park, with no fans in attendance and only a smattering of journalists at each game. Just over 350 players will be housed at three hotels located throughout Disney World, with access to each location severely restricted and visits from outsiders strictly forbidden until the playoffs start.
Players arriving in Orlando were required to spend 48 hours isolated in their hotel rooms until they had received two negative tests for Covid-19. Testing will continue inside the bubble but it is not known how frequently this will take place.
Practice games have passed off without a hitch, and the most recent round of testing found zero positive cases out of 346 players tested.
“It requires significant sacrifice from our players,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told the New York Times this week.
“From my standpoint, it’s going very well, and I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re on the right track,” Silver added. “But I also recognize what we’re doing has not been done before, and the competition is just beginning. The real test will come when players are commingling, playing basketball without masks and without physical distancing.”
There have been some early glitches however as players adjust to the relatively spartan surroundings of the bubble.
Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams was forced to quarantine for 10 days after being photographed at an Atlanta strip club during a trip to attend a family funeral. The Sacramento Kings’ Richaun Holmes also landed back in quarantine after he left the bubble to pick-up a delivery of take-out food.
Inside the bubble’s three arenas, meanwhile, the legacy of the tumultuous protests which erupted in the weeks following the death of George Floyd in May will be on full view. Giant “Black Lives Matter” slogans have been written on each court, while players will be allowed to wear jerseys adorned with social justice messages ranging from “I Can’t Breathe” to “Justice Now” and “Education Reform.”
LeBron, Giannis on pole
On the courts, all eyes will be on James and his Lakers teammates as they attempt to return to the pinnacle of the NBA when the season wraps in October.
After a disappointing first season in Los Angeles, where the Lakers failed to reach the playoffs, James returned with a vengeance this season, leading the team to the top of the Western Conference before the pandemic erupted.
The Lakers and five other Western Conference teams – the Clippers, the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets have already assured themselves of spots in the playoffs, which start on August 17.
The biggest threat to James’ hopes of winning a fourth NBA championship is expected to come from the Eastern Conference, where Giannis Antetokounmpo is aiming to guide the Milwaukee Bucks to their first title in nearly half a century. The Bucks had ran away with the Eastern Conference before the hiatus, opening up a 6.5 game lead over the Toronto Raptors.
Antetokounmpo, who grew up in poverty in Greece as the son of Nigerian immigrants, smiles at the suggestion NBA players are facing hardship in their confined environment in Orlando.
“It doesn’t matter where you are in life, there’s always something to complain, there’s always a problem and an issue,” Antetokounmpo said. “My apartment in Greece, when I was younger, with my four brothers, was way smaller than the suite that I have in the hotel, so I’m just trying to enjoy the moment.”
Antetokounmpo’s viewpoint was echoed by Oklahoma City Thunder’s Steven Adams. “Let’s be clear mate,” the New Zealander said. “This is not Syria. We’re living in a bloody resort.”
How the NBA bubble works
Here’s a look at some of the key questions and issues surrounding the unprecedented restart:
WHAT IS THE BUBBLE?
From the moment the NBA season was halted in March after the pandemic brought the United States to a standstill, the NBA began looking at the question of how or if the season could be restarted safely.
The logistical challenges of restarting the season in its existing format, with large travelling groups of players and support staff jetting in and out of multiple cities at a time was deemed a non-starter in the era of Covid-19.
Instead the NBA began exploring the feasibility of basing all teams at a single location, creating a giant quarantined safe zone or “bubble” and completing the season there.
Las Vegas and Orlando quickly emerged as the front-runners, with the NBA eventually opting for the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida as the best venue.
Twenty-two teams are now based in the campus, with players requiring to test negative for COVID-19 twice after arrival before being allowed to enter
WHO IS ALLOWED IN?
Team and NBA personnel are staying in three hotels dotted throughout the complex, with a small number of media, sponsors and inactive players. Games will take place without fans at three different venues on the complex.
In the early weeks of the restart, no guests will be allowed although those rules will be relaxed once the playoffs start.
After the first round of the playoffs, players will be allowed to reserve one hotel room each for guests, who will be required to self-quarantine for seven days. Any guests entering the bubble must also test negative twice for COVID-19 in the 72 hours before entering. Any guests testing positive will not be allowed to enter.
Those guests who are admitted will be required to undergo daily testing.
CAN PLAYERS LEAVE?
Players are allowed to leave the bubble in exceptional circumstances but face a mandatory four days in quarantine before being readmitted. Players must also undergo daily testing when they leave the site. The regulations have already tripped up two NBA players.
LIFE IN THE BUBBLE
LeBron James joked that leaving his home to enter the bubble was like “heading to do a bid” – a slang term for starting a prison sentence.
But since arriving in Orlando, most players have adjusted to life in their tightly controlled environment. Many have installed creature comforts from home including giant televisions and video game consoles.
A Twitter account – @nbabubblelife – which documents the daily activities of NBA players based in Orlando has quickly amassed a large following, depicting players doing everything from getting haircuts to playing golf or fishing.
Despite being inside the bubble, players are still required to follow conventions such as social distancing and wearing face coverings. Players are also barred from entering each other’s rooms.
WHO IS PLAYING?
Twenty-two teams will complete the season – 13 from the Western Conference and nine from the Eastern Conference.
Invited teams include the 16 franchises who were in the playoff positions when the league halted play in March, plus six teams that were six games or fewer behind the eighth seed in each conference.
Teams will start off with seeding games to determine the final playoff line-up, with the playoffs starting on August 17, when each round will be best of seven.
Eastern Conference teams: Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic, Washington Wizards
Western Conference teams: Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns
With AFP Inputs