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NBA faces a new challenge from players that could threaten its return-to-play plan

Lakers coach Frank Vogel, left, talks with forward Anthony Davis during a game.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel, left, talks with forward Anthony Davis during a game against the Philadelphia 76ers in March.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

On Friday, the NBA outlined the plan for a return to play.

International players would need to return to their teams by Monday; everyone else must be back a week later. Teams start mandatory testing for the coronavirus June 23, required individual workouts begin July 1, and then they head to Orlando, Fla., for training camp as soon as July 7 with games beginning July 30.

That’s the NBA’s plan. But the players? They might have different ideas.

According to multiple players, agents and executives, the belief is that the season is not in serious peril — not yet, at least. But fueled by several concerns, perhaps most prominently that a return to play would serve as a distraction from the Black Lives Matter movement and steps toward racial equality and police reform, there are players considering the possibility of not returning when the season reconvenes.

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The NBA’s potential new roster rules could see two-way players play a valuable role for their teams once the season restarts under quarantine.

Much of the NBA remains in favor of playing. By not playing, not only would players forfeit pay for the remainder of this season, but they also would give owners the opportunity to use the “force majeure” clause in the league’s collective bargaining agreement, undoing the CBA at a time when players would be significantly weakened in their bargaining position because of the coronavirus and the impact it’s had on the economy.

For some, the decision to play (or to not) isn’t about money.

Portland star Damian Lillard said he thinks that as the NBA prepares to resume a season halted since March 11, the biggest issue giving players pause is the possibility a return could distract from the wave of social change triggered by the ongoing protests against police brutality and systemic racism.

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That’s the message Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn guard who previously supported a return to play, brought to a conference call Friday night with close to 90 players on it, according to sources, including the Lakers’ Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard and NBA Players Assn. president Chris Paul. Irving has shifted his stance, advocating for players to consider not returning because of the protests. However, he said he will stand with whatever decision the players make.

Players on the call expressed a variety of concerns, including Utah’s Donovan Mitchell speaking about the potential for injury with an abbreviated ramp-up to playoff action. Mitchell is eligible for a contract extension next offseason; he also tested positive for the virus in March.

Other players have concerns about returning to play in Orlando, where it’s not clear how much freedom players will have once they’re on the Disney campus. Sources said the plan is for players to have access to shared spaces like outdoor pool areas, but things as simple as dining with friends on other teams might not be feasible.

And current plans call for Disney staffers to largely continue living off site. Coronavirus cases are spiking daily in Orlando’s county, leading players like New Orleans’ J.J. Redick, Orlando’s Evan Fournier and Memphis’ Tyus Jones to wonder how successful a “bubble” could be if it had a hole in it.

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For the feature documentary, Magic Johnson has granted crews ‘unprecedented access,’ filmmakers say. The project is expected to air in 2021.

“Wouldn’t that defeat the purpose?” Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie tweeted.

According to sources, Disney workers will wear masks any time they share space with anyone who is part of the NBA campus. Those workers also will always maintain at least six feet of distance. Employees also would receive temperature checks.

Housekeepers will provide less frequent service and never enter an occupied room. They’ll also work the same specific floors instead of rotating from resort to resort. The same goes for employees in restaurants.

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Some players and agents believe the health concerns are the least prevalent among those questioning whether to play in Orlando, with the movement restrictions being a bigger problem for players. While NBA Players Assn. team representatives voted unanimously to approve the plan for 22 teams to return for the season’s reboot, other details such as health and safety guidelines still are being discussed.

“I know players are fighting for a lot of different things,” Lakers guard Danny Green said in an Instagram chat Friday.

Friday’s announced timeline made it clear the kind of commitment players could be making this summer. For the two teams that make the Finals, their time in Orlando easily could eclipse three months. For the 16 playoff teams, the stay will be almost two months, with families and limited guests eligible to enter the campus only after the first round is completed.

“Some of us want to hoop and compete,” Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma tweeted. “Don’t get that twisted.”

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Clippers forward Patrick Patterson, who has been acting as the team representative on union calls, used Instagram to share his simple, two-word message.

“Let’s play,” he posted Friday.


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