SEVENTY-TWO HOURS before the NBA shuttered its practice facilities to players, Denver Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly decided to streamline rounds of telephone conversations and text messages with his front office peers into a conference call. Most executives were working out of their homes, crisis managers on the front line for families and franchises.
Eleven executives were on the call, including the Golden State Warriors’ Bob Myers, who received word of a San Francisco shelter in place order moments before dialing in. Commissioner Adam Silver had been talking with the board of governors, discussing the health and financial implications of a long NBA hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic — including the possibility of enforcing the force majeure provision in the collective bargaining agreement, which would allow owners to withhold players’ salaries for canceled games.
The league’s top basketball executives found themselves in an unfamiliar crisis, yet still working amid a familiar middle ground between the owners and players and between the league’s establishment of guidelines and front offices’ execution of them within organizations.
As games stopped and a restless country moved closer to the full wrath of the coronavirus pandemic, silos of executives with contenders and non-contenders, big market and small market, huddled close together.
“There’s an overwhelming sense of fraternity,” Connelly told ESPN. “It isn’t about competition right now, but what’s best for the NBA.”
NBA season suspended
The NBA announced that due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the 2019-20 season would be suspended effective March 12.
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Front offices pooled details on team quarantines, player and staff coronavirus testing, facility protocols and consultations with infectious disease specialists. Team executives had been studying the data the NBA had shared on the virus’ outbreak in Asia and Europe, talking to its doctors and experts, and were bracing for its impact several weeks before the White House acknowledged its threat to the American public.
In a world spinning with unknowns, this has been a test rooted in the most basic responsibility attached to the GM’s job: How do we best protect, prepare and manage the finest basketball players in the world? Between now and the resumption of play, organizations are facing the most pressing crisis in the sport’s history.
“We are seeking answers that no one knows,” said Myers, the Warriors’ president of basketball operations. “In a lot of ways, it’s simply, ‘What’s the least-worst thing to do?’ It’s hard to find the best thing, but it isn’t stopping us all from trying.”
Asked what his message was to players on their way into this hiatus, Myers told ESPN: “Follow the rules. Be a person. Be a civilian. Be a member of the community. Take care of your families. Prioritize that. We will get to basketball later.”
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ONCE THE LEAGUE office delivered news that practice facilities were shut down and players began exiting team cities, the job of running organizations became further complicated.
Front office executives want the league to provide tentative contingencies on a return to play this season, but league officials have been reticent to share those estimates with teams.
The loosest of drop-dead dates on completing the NBA Finals is Labor Day weekend in early September, sources say, which teams say necessitates games starting back up by July 1 — and practice facilities reopening weeks before that.
No one in the NBA wants to be tied to Labor Day weekend, because no one — not the commissioner, not the teams, not the NBPA — wants to limit the possibility of the NBA salvaging something of a season. If the NBA season could start later in July and finish later in September, well, no one is ruling out that idea, either.
Between now and then, organizations are teeming with priorities — keeping players physically and mentally fit, preparing for a draft that will likely not allow teams access to prospects and uncertainty on free agency timetables and a shrinking salary cap. The Philadelphia 76ers ownership started what would have been the first of several teams to cut salaries, but the 76ers have since made plans to change course. Other NBA owners are now weighing the public relations fallout versus the desire to reduce salaries.
For now, front offices are working in isolation, on conference and video calls throughout the mornings and afternoons. Last week, some teams didn’t want practice facilities reopened during this volatile coronavirus climate; some didn’t want them closed.
Several teams closed practice facilities as soon as Utah Jazz All-Star Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus on March 11, which prompted the NBA to suspend the season within minutes.
“Our decision was simply based looking at the enormity of what was coming,” Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard told ESPN. “We were three weeks behind most countries, and the data told us what was ahead. We were going to be conservative with our players and staff.”
Many teams kept facilities open and assistant coaches available to players for daily, 30-minute on-court workouts. Players were able to work with strength coaches, too. Almost immediately, this was a decision some teams and the league office began to second-guess. In different circumstances, a sanitized, controlled environment — which included team chefs preparing meals — makes sense for players.
Nevertheless, the NBA felt compelled to honor the recommendations of the CDC and infectious disease specialists, and treat the NBA like every other industry: doors shut, employees out.
The league is making case-by-case exceptions for team medical staff to attend to rehabilitating players. Some players need team facilities to rehab injuries; some need team trainers to travel to them to provide therapy.
Some executives and coaches believed that players are conditioned to find gyms to stay in shape, so why not under the supervision of the team? Perhaps, but teams are left to trust players to stay isolated the way the rest of America and parts of Europe and Asia have been asked to do. As one owner told ESPN, “Of course, it would make all the sense to have our players in the facilities, but if someone were to get sick there, the league and the team would get hammered. The league has no choice right now.”
One Western Conference GM told ESPN that his team made coming to the facility to work with players voluntary for assistant coaches, but he felt queasy that some staffers would interpret voluntary as mandatory — and also worried that the practice went against every prescribed protocol of isolation. One head coach told an assistant that he wouldn’t allow him into player workouts so he could protect the assistant’s pregnant wife from the possibility of infection.
Across several days of work with players, a coach participating in the one-on-one workouts was one of several assistants who told ESPN that they found themselves increasingly uneasy with that contact amid the coronavirus pandemic. In the end, the league only let those workouts occur for a week.
“It was mind-boggling,” one assistant coach told ESPN. “We were talking about social distancing in a room with 30 people. Then we were working out four or five different guys, catching the ball, rebounding and passing it back to them, for 30 minutes. We were disinfecting the ball, and doing it again. It seemed like such an unnecessary risk for such a non-reward. We are seeing players like Donovan Mitchell testing positive but showing no symptoms — so you don’t have any idea if the guys you’re working out have been infected. All downside, no upside. All I’m thinking is, ‘How are we going to gain a competitive advantage doing this for 30 minutes a day?'”
Several executives made the point, too, that it was easier for draft-lottery-bound teams to shut down and think less about an eventual return this season than those organizations that remained in pursuit of the playoffs.
Rockets executive VP of basketball operations Keith Jones
For teams, letting players leave their markets felt inevitable. The NBPA had pushed hard for player movement during the hiatus, and the league never believed it could do anything but recommend players stay close to their respective organizations. Many players’ families live outside of the markets they play in, and the possibility of three months apart before restarting — or the possibility of a canceled season — was a non-starter. The NBA has set up testing and treatment protocols in cities where NBA players live, including one non-NBA city: Las Vegas, a league source said.
Each team has a hiatus coordinator. Many are high-ranking officials on the business side, and the responsibility is largely to funnel the reams of information between the league office and the team.
In the end, these are still basketball organizations. The front offices and coaching staffs will be responsible for shepherding the players through a season restart — or be left with a lost season, and an uncertain summer regarding the NBA draft and free agency.
“The messaging consistently comes from us, whether it is something minor like a change in the dress code or critical like a change in the policy on the current health crisis,” Portland Trail Blazers president of basketball operations Neil Olshey told ESPN. “We’re not responsible only for conveying the messaging, but also the execution and oversight.
“This is a fluid situation, and we know the shoe could drop on any of us with the next call or update from our medical staffs. As such, we need to rely on each other for guidance on handling issues on a team level, be it a quarantine, which some teams are dealing with, or best practices as it pertains to ongoing rehab and conditioning efforts.
“There have to be open lines of communication and trust among our colleagues that while this is something bigger than basketball, understanding still that this is our industry and we want to protect it as best we can.”
ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, Tim Bontemps and Bobby Marks contributed to this story.