COVID testing priority a potential issue for NBA

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NBC Sports

COVID testing priority a potential issue for NBA

With teams making their way into the Orlando bubble this week, the NBA is surely crossing its fingers, or perhaps even looking for some divine assistance.

“There are no atheists in the league office right now,” one team executive told NBC Sports.

Months of planning have led to this moment. All 22 teams have successfully arrived in Orlando. The early arrivers have started practicing and the others hope to follow shortly. Inter-squad scrimmages are set to begin in less than two weeks. The season officially resumes by the end of the month. It may be one of the most critical times in NBA history. 

If the coronavirus seeps into the Disney World campus and spreads throughout, the NBA will have no choice but to shut it down, commissioner Adam Silver confirmed on Tuesday. A shutdown could activate a force majeure clause in the collective bargaining agreement, negating the current CBA and leading to a potential work stoppage. Yes, the 2020-21 season could be in danger as well if this doesn’t work. 

With so much riding on this resumption, I spoke to  public health experts and epidemiologists about the core issues at stake with the NBA going to the bubble. 

Said Dr. Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University: “If I was Adam Silver, I’d be white-knuckling it this week.”

Is the NBA being prioritized over the general population in a time of crisis?

The entire NBA operation sits on a foundation of daily testing and then processing results of those tests quickly. Early in the pandemic, the NBA was concerned about having enough tests to administer that daily regimen. While supply issues appear to have been resolved, processing those tests is not quite as simple.

Unlike Major League Baseball, so far teams have not seen significant delays or problems receiving test results, according to sources that spoke with NBC Sports. But there have been hiccups here and there. In the 24 hours before departure for Orlando, one NBA team had its tests accidentally sent to the wrong lab, according to league sources. The mistake forced the entire team to retake the coronavirus tests later in the day, delaying their trip to Orlando by several hours. 

“This is the new normal,” said one official of a team dealing with testing blips.

This space can be tricky at a time when the demand for tests is skyrocketing around the country and delays are becoming prevalent. The testing provider is central to everything. The NBA began using BioReference Laboratories to run their tests once they arrived in the bubble, sources told NBC Sports. That’s a different provider than their previous arrangement for in-market testing prior to the bubble. In the 113-page Health and Safety Protocol handbook distributed to teams last month, the league listed only one provider, Quest Diagnostics, as a preferred vendor. The league used Quest for the bulk of its tests around the country during Phases 2 and 3 of the resumption of the season. Phase 3, which is the transition into the bubble, concludes this Saturday, according to the document.

The shift away from Quest is notable considering that on Monday, Quest Diagnostics issued a worrisome press release. Quest stated a recent surge in demand for coronavirus testing had caused delays in processing, with 4-6 day average turnarounds on COVID-19 tests for populations that do not fall into their “Priority 1” group. That group includes “hospital patients, pre-operative patients in acute care settings and symptomatic healthcare workers.” Average turnarounds for Priority 1 would be one day, the lab company said.

It’s difficult to see how the NBA and its personnel would be considered Priority 1 in the Quest designation. Being put in the normal population group, with 4-6 day turnarounds, would lead to significant delays and could jeopardize the league’s entire testing operation.

“Let’s say you’re defending Stephen Curry,” Binney says. “If you take your eyes off Curry for one second, maybe you can still recover and stop him from scoring. But if you take your eyes off him for three seconds and you give him time to move around, he’s going to wreak havoc on you before you know what’s happened."

The hope for the NBA is that BioReference would be able to facilitate their testing in quicker order. So far, it looks promising. The MLS, a league that has also formed a closed campus on the Disney World resort in Orlando, is also using BioReference Laboratories for processing its results, per the official MLS website. MLS is facing issues of their own (more on that later), but it appears that testing delays aren’t one of them.

For folks inside the bubble trying to resume a professional sports season, that’s good news. 

But for those outside the bubble mired in a public health crisis, the swift processing for MLS and NBA may be problematic.

BioReference is experiencing serious delays with the general public. As of Thursday morning, patients attempting to access test results on the BioReference website would be met with an alert that reads: “If you are looking for your COVID-19 PCR (swab) results please note that these may not be available in the patient portal for up to 5-7 days after collection. As always, we appreciate your business and thank you for your patience during this unprecedented time.”

The local stories in Orlando involving BioReference are alarming. Last week, Central Florida’s CBS affiliate WKMG reported that a 74-year-old cancer survivor, along with several senior citizens at a nursing home, waited over a week for their results after being tested at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), one of the busiest testing sites in the state of Florida. The OCCC’s testing provider: BioReference.

In response to backlogs, the Florida Department of Health provided a statement confirming BioReference’s testing and that the state was informed by BioReference that the lab was experiencing serious nationwide delays. The state made the decision to switch from BioReference to a lab called Genetworx “to prevent a further delay in individuals receiving their results.”

A separate report from Orlando’s ABC affiliate WFTV9 confirmed the state chose to find reinforcements once BioReference saw widespread delays.

“In my professional opinion, and this is a personal opinion, a test that takes five days in infectious disease to come back, it becomes irrelevant,” Dr. Raul Pino, an Orange County health official, told WFTV9.

Sports leagues looking to get games going need quick turnaround times, much faster than a week. As of now, it appears that the MLS has jumped to the front of the line without issue.

“We are honored to be providing testing solutions to Major League Soccer as it prepares to restart its season,” said Jon R. Cohen, M.D., executive chairman of BioReference Laboratories said in a press release on Thursday. “The leadership of MLS worked diligently with us to develop a COVID-19 PCR and antibody testing strategy with the goal of providing the safest possible environment for the players, coaches and staff to begin to play again.”

For Dr. Binney, prioritizing sports leagues over the public health at a time when the virus is “exploding” is a troubling development.

“We should be thinking very, very carefully about whether that's something we want to be doing right now,” Binney said. “Diverting desperately needed testing capacity to support pro sports, which is what seems to be happening right now, is extremely questionable.”

The NBA has not officially announced their testing provider for the bubble and the Health and Safety Protocols document only mentions a provider (Quest) for Phases 2 and 3. For testing in Orlando, the document only says “All testing (through the duration of the season) will be conducted through a program coordinated by the league.”

It’s unclear if the NBA is being placed in a Priority 1 group or a similar class ahead of the general population. Dr. Angela Rasmussen, a Seattle-based virologist at the Center for Infection and Immunity at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, expressed caution about using testing capacities for sports leagues.

“Certainly, we’re not in a good place (as a country), especially in the hardest hit areas,” says Rasmussen, a season-ticket holder for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. “And this is where, to me, the question of sports becomes an issue.

“At what point does it become unethical to reserve tests that would be available to the public otherwise for professional sports players just to facilitate having an NBA season? In Florida right now, that’s an especially relevant question.”

To Rasmussen, the optics of the NBA and MLS using BioReference as its provider while the general population waits on the sidelines is troublesome.

“You’re putting an additional burden on an already burdened testing system,” Rasmussen says. “That’s probably not going to go over very well from a public relations standpoint, at the very least.”

There are elements in the NBA’s resumption plans that could offer public health benefits. For one, the NBA and National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) have partnered on a research study using Yale University’s SalivaDirect test, which could have positive implications on the NBA’s future and the overall national public health. It is less invasive, less expensive and less taxing on healthcare workers, but the test needs more validation from a research standpoint.

The SalivaDirect test, which requires an individual to spit into a tube as opposed to using a nasal swab, would be secondary to the NBA’s testing protocol and it is not mandatory for players to participate. Rasmussen is hopeful that NBA players opt in.

“It has the potential to actually speed up the testing process and address some of these backlogs but not all of them,” Rasmussen says. “In my opinion, that’s what makes the NBA’s plan beneficial and kind of overrides any ethical concerns I have over, ‘Why are using these tests for professional athletes that don’t need to play?”

In addition to the Yale study, the NBA is planning to offer community testing, according to the Health and Safety Protocol handbook, but it’s unclear what form that takes.

For Binney, the moral quandary around testing should give the NBA serious pause about its plan.

“If BioReference or Quest is unable to return tests to the general public in less than 3-5 days, then I think the NBA (receiving priority) is causing a problem,” Binney says. “The NBA has only two choices. One is to jump to the front of the line with sick people in the hospital or they have to wait an unsatisfactory amount of time to get their results that gives the virus space to move throughout the bubble. Neither of those choices are acceptable.”

With the virus surging around the country and, more importantly for the NBA, in the Orlando area, the league could outsource its own partnered labs or own privatized lab for the general public.

“If you’re setting up your own internal lab, then the only question you really have is could the testing capacity you’re using for NBA players be more morally or ethically used elsewhere?” Binney asks. “Could you assist BioReference or Quest? Could you redirect all of that testing to the community rather than some of it? Is that something morally or ethically you have to do? I think that’s a value judgment. That’s a moral judgment.”

It remains to be seen where the NBA, which has at least $1 billion on the line, goes from here.

What about hospital and ICU beds in Orlando?

Beyond testing capacity, there is another critical issue in the NBA’s resumption. Hospital beds are filling up in the areas immediately surrounding the NBA bubble. If a player or staffer gets seriously ill or needs medical attention, where do they go?

A reporter posed that question to Silver, the league office and the NBPA on a call late last month. The NBA’s lawyer, David Weiss, stepped in and answered that the league will have an on-site clinic through the league’s partnership with AdventHealth.

“If someone gets sick and needs to go to that clinic, and needs to go to the hospital, they’ll be able to go to AdventHealth,” Weiss said.

What happens if that clinic isn’t equipped to deal with a specific injury or illness inside the bubble? In the two weeks since Weiss’ remarks, the situation around the bubble has turned grave.

Dozens of hospitals across the state have maxed out their ICU capacity. Locally in Orlando, it’s dire. As of Thursday morning, two local AdventHealth hospitals’ ICUs -- AdventHealth East Orlando and AdventHealth Winter Park -- have reached full capacity with 39 total beds filled, according to data from the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA). 

The largest AdventHealth hospital in the area, AdventHealth Orlando, is at 80 percent ICU capacity, with only 40 of its 191 beds open. Overall, Orange County hospitals are at 83 percent ICU capacity and 87 percent hospital bed capacity. 

Just as NBA players are flying into Orlando, hospitals are being pushed to the brink, AdventHealth included.

If the on-site clinic can’t handle an NBA-related emergency, does the NBA feel comfortable about taking a bed from someone in the general public?

“It’s not so much that everybody who gets COVID is going to die from it,” Rasmussen says, “it’s that when the hospitals are overwhelmed and there’s no place for people to go, more people are going to die that wouldn't have necessarily died otherwise.

If you have more people dying because they can’t get an ICU bed because they were in a car accident, or they can’t get on a ventilator because they had a severe asthma attack or bacterial pneumonia, then you’re going to see a lot of other deaths not because of COVID but because the hospital system being strained to the breaking point. That’s really, really scary.”

There’s another issue here. If AdventHealth has provided staffers, facilities and resources for the NBA and those resources are going unused in the bubble, can the NBA allocate those resources to the public?

“The idea of having an on-site clinic with Advent Health is in theory a great one,” Binney says. “It limits the number of times that players and staff can leave the bubble; You have everything they need inside the bubble. That’s admirable and that makes sense. The problem would be if you’re taking away resources from the community that are desperately needed to care for COVID-19 patients.”

Binney says there could be a time when the league should not have an on-campus clinic dedicated solely for NBA personnel. In April, nurses and doctors were flown across the country to New York City to assist overwhelmed hospitals. That moment could be coming for Florida. 

“We’re not there yet,” Binney says. “They’re trending in a very concerning direction, but they’re not there yet.”

Is the NBA quarantine long enough?

Putting aside the testing backlogs and dwindling hospital beds, there’s a third concern that the NBA has on its hands. Is the league’s opening quarantine enough to prevent an outbreak? 

Transporting and isolating hundreds of players and staff on over 20 teams into the bubble is an enormous operation. This is a critical juncture in the bubble’s efficacy. If one step isn’t done correctly along the way, an outbreak could sneak in.

The MLS found out the hard way that outbreaks are hard to keep out. On Wednesday, the league kicked off its “MLS Is Back” tournament without one of its clubs, FC Dallas, who was forced to withdraw from the tournament after 10 players and one coach tested positive for coronavirus. On Thursday, a second club, Nashville SC, was eliminated after at least nine players on its squad tested positive. 

How did that happen?

MLS had been testing players since early June, when training began in clubs’ home markets. The league then ramped up testing before departure on June 28. Prior to going to the MLS bubble, all personnel were required to complete two tests 24 hours apart within a 72-hour time period before traveling to Orlando. Upon arrival, another test was administered. Still, FC Dallas and Nashville SC brought infections to Orlando.

Again, how did that happen? The incubation period for coronavirus can last somewhere between 3 to 5 days, meaning that a person could be infected and not show enough virus load to test positive for several days.

Three weeks ago, in a correspondence for a different story, Binney outlined potential problems in the current entry quarantine protocol being used by the NBA and MLS. His thoughts turned out to be prescient. 

“Consider a player on the Houston Rockets and let’s say Houston is experiencing an explosive increase in cases,” Binney wrote in an email. “If Rockets players are living at home with their families, then you're relying on the honor system for both them and their families to really limit their time outside of the house. If they don't, there's a very real risk they could get sick just before they leave; that infection may not be picked up by pre-travel tests but could reveal itself in Orlando. 

Binney continued.

“To guard against this you could require players to move into a hotel in their home market and undergo daily testing a week before they leave to decrease the chance they pick up an infection right before traveling.”

Binney sent that email on June 16, a week before the NBA began testing players in-market (16 came back positive, with several more in the coming days). On June 16, Houston’s Harris County had seen a total of 17,282 cases in the prior three months since the first test, according to official state data. Three weeks later, the total is now 39,311, meaning that Houston cases doubled in that short amount of time. With Texas seeing a massive surge in cases, Binney’s example proved to be more applicable than he thought.

“I’m a scientist and so I try to be honest when I’m right and when I’m wrong,” Binney said over the phone this week. “When I wrote that email, I didn’t think (needing an airlock) was likely. I thought an airlock would be a nice addition, not a must-have.”

Binney has since changed his mind.

“But now, with the amount of virus circulating in so many places in the U.S. and we’re seeing twice now in MLS, how teams imported outbreaks into the bubble, that has made it clear to me that an airlock is far more important than I initially thought,” Binney said.

To protect against an outbreak being brought into the system, the NBA implemented a 36- to 48-hour quarantine in which the players and staff would have to return two negative tests spaced out by at least 24 hours. Then, they can resume practice and group workouts. 

To Binney, that’s not enough time to ensure as much as possible that the virus is at bay. As the MLS example showed, multiple tests over a three-day span weren’t sufficient in preventing at least two clubs from bringing the virus into the bubble.

The NBA and NBPA did not agree to any sort of in-market airlock system for its players in their home markets. In the health and safety guidelines, players and staffers participating in team activities were required to undergo coronavirus testing every other day starting July 1 and both of the two days prior to travel. 

“MLS has shown that the most delicate and tricky part is making sure everyone who's entering is uninfected,” Binney says. “We haven't seen any evidence of widespread within the MLS bubble yet, but we're not out of the danger zone at all. I'll be holding my breath for the first week or so after each NBA team enters the bubble.”

Binney’s colleague, Dr. Neel Gandhi -- an infectious disease expert and associate professor of Epidemiology at the Emory University Rollins School of Public Health -- thinks the situation has worsened just as the NBA needed it to improve. 

“We are pretty close to the worst-case scenario from the point of view of the surrounding community,” Gandhi says. “For me, we are getting close to as scary a place as we were in March. Back then, we didn’t know what we were fighting against. Now it worries me that we know, but many segments don't want to face up to that reality.”
 
The NBA shut down in March after one test, Utah’s Rudy Gobert, showed up positive. How much would it take before the NBA feels it needs to shut down operations again? In talking to Fortune, Silver would not say. But he did stress the importance of this quarantine period and right after it.
 
“It would be concerning if once (NBA players and staffers) sit through their quarantine period and then were to test positive, we would know that there is in essence a hole in our bubble. That our campus is not working in some way. That would be very concerning … Certainly, if we had any sort of significant spread at all within our campus, we would be shut down again.”
 
As the situation unravels outside of the bubble, the NBA awaits its results. Amid a global pandemic and testing crisis, the NBA certainly won’t be insulated from the environment around them. “If there’s any commissioner I trust to do the right thing,” Binney says. “It’s Adam Silver.”

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons look to spoil Bucks' reign over the East

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NBC Sports

Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons look to spoil Bucks' reign over the East

You can exhale now. After a nearly five-month layoff, the NBA is back.

The bubble is holding tight so far. The daily testing regiment and strict quarantine protocols appear to be working. Unlike Major League Baseball, the NBA hasn’t faced an outbreak within its locker room. Knock on wood.

We still have a long way to go before the NBA crowns a champion in October, but it’s safe to actually focus on basketball again. So, it’s time to get reacquainted with every roster and identify the storylines to keep an eye on. 

Here’s one thing to watch for every Eastern Conference bubble team. To add a little spice to this endeavor, I’ve sorted the teams by my likelihood of them winning the 2019-20 NBA championship. See the West preview here.

Buckle in, folks. This is gonna be a ride.

Milwaukee Bucks: How will Eric Bledsoe look?

As long as Giannis Antetokounmpo was on the floor, the Bucks looked like their unbeatable selves in the preseason. The Bucks are plus-21 in the 61 minutes with Antetokonmpo on the floor this preseason and minus-13 in the minutes he’s riding pine. 

But the Bucks will need starting point guard Eric Bledsoe to be in top form if they want to take the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to Milwaukee. Right now, we don’t know what kind of shape he’s in after testing positive for coronavirus and missing the team’s scrimmages, though Bledsoe says he was asymptomatic and feeling fine. 

For a team with championship aspirations, that’s an undeniable question mark. Bledsoe has some question marks about playoff performance heading into this restart anyway. After lighting up Detroit in the first round last postseason, Bledsoe’s production cratered. Over series against Boston and then Toronto, Bledsoe averaged just 11.6 points on 35.7 percent shooting from the floor and 20.8 percent from deep. By the end of the Eastern Conference finals, Bledsoe just couldn’t get past anybody. It’s been a concern for two postseasons now.

Dante Divincenzo has been a solid stopgap with Bledsoe sidelined, but they need Bledsoe to rediscover some of that magic he displayed in the Detroit series last season. Against top defenses, the scoring can’t solely fall on Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton’s shoulders. Bledsoe has an enormous postseason ahead of him, and that was before the coronavirus infection.

Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons, stretch 4?

OK, I’m kidding. But seriously, Simmons taking two corner 3-pointers in the scrimmages (and making one), is maybe the biggest development in the Eastern Conference. Simmons’ trifecta in the right corner during Friday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies was particularly notable because his defender, Kyle Anderson, left him wide open in order to smother Al Horford in the post. Tobias Harris saw Anderson cheating and threw the skip pass to Simmons, who confidently stepped into the jumper. Anderson didn’t even raise a hand.

Simmons needs to shoot if for no other reason than to keep the defense honest. If he knocks down a couple in the seeding games, opposing defenses will at least have to pay attention to him when he trots out beyond the arc. And that will free up Joel Embiid and Horford to get cleaner looks in the paint.

But the best thing I saw from the Sixers this past week came in the third quarter of the Sixers’ scrimmage against Oklahoma City. Josh Richardson held the ball on the left wing and Simmons strolled into the right corner. As Richardson surveyed the defense, Simmons raised his hands in the air, looking for the catch-and-shoot jumper as his defender Danilo Gallinari sagged to double the post. Richardson didn’t make the pass, but the bigger story is that Simmons wanted it.

The Sixers are the second-best team in the East if Simmons is willing to space the floor. It doesn’t mean he has to make them all, or even at an average clip. Case in point: Giannis is about to win his second MVP while shooting just 28.5 percent on his 474 3-point attempts over the last two seasons. That can be Simmons if he wants it.

Toronto Raptors: Champs In The Zone

If you listened to the Habershow pod with Adam Schefter -- yes, that Adam Schefter -- you know how I feel about Raptors coach Nick Nurse. He’s the Coach of the Year, in my book. Despite losing Kawhi Leonard in the offseason, the defending champs have the No. 2 seed in the East all but locked up as well as the No. 2 defense in the NBA.

They do it unconventionally by mixing in zone defenses that you rarely see at the NBA level. After going zone for 6.8 possessions per game in the regular season, we didn’t see it much in the scrimmages. According to Synergy Sports tracking, the Raptors only went zone for six total possessions, with all of them coming in the third quarter against the Phoenix Suns. Notably, it came when the Raptors’ A-team was out there, suggesting it was a tune-up for the seeding games and beyond.

What’s so fascinating is how Phoenix beat it. The Raptors gave up two corner 3-pointers to Mikal Bridges in those six possessions (more on him in Thursday’s West preview). Analytically, that’s not a shot a team should want to give up given its high success rate. But the dominant Raptors defense has picked its poison, walling off the paint at all costs and living with snipers from the corner. In fact, no defense this season has given up more 3-pointers from the corner than the Raptors, per Basketball Reference.com tracking.

Luckily for the Raptors, the best corner 3 teams all hail from the Western Conference (I could see Harden and LeBron carving them up that way). The zone will certainly throw some teams off in the playoffs, but there are ways to beat it. Knowing Nurse, he will probably find a bulletproof counter by then.

Boston Celtics: Is Kemba Walker’s left knee a long-term concern?

There’s no two ways about it: Walker’s knee issues should make Boston queasy. Smaller point guards that depend on lightning-quick movements can’t afford any breakdowns in the kinetic chain. With Rajon Rondo, Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas’ injury issues at point guard over the years, we don’t need to belabor the point about smaller guys having flat tires.

That said, I loved what I saw out of Walker in his re-season debut, finishing with six points on six field-goal attempts in nine minutes. He was aggressive running in transition and looked undeterred by his chronic knee issues. On his first scoring attack, he drove straight into Suns big men Deandre Ayton and Dario Saric and drew an and-one. He looked as zippy as ever. 

It was good to see him out there, even if for just one scrimmage. For any star player, there’s a fine line between durability and overuse. After missing just six games total in the 2015-16, ‘16-17 and ‘17-18 seasons, last season was an absolute marathon for Walker. He played all 82 games for the Charlotte Hornets, including playing host for the All-Star Game, and then played for Team USA in the summer. 

The hope is that his mileage isn’t catching up to him, but there is real concern here from my perspective. With so much of Walker’s value tied up to one end of the floor, he can’t afford to be a step slow or limited in any fashion.

Luckily for Boston, almost every team at the top is dealing with an ailing key member, so the Kemba situation isn’t uniquely worrisome in Orlando. But with $107 million due to Walker over the next three seasons and three surgeries on that knee since his UConn days, the medical staff will have to make sure that Walker’s knee doesn’t get too ragged on this playoff run.

Miami Heat: Are Bam and Jimmy ready to go?

Bam Adebayo has been one of the best stories of the 2019-20 season, vying for both Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved. I don’t think he’ll win either award, but that doesn’t take away from how important he is to the Heat’s bubble chances.

After testing positive for COVID-19, you wouldn’t know Bam Adebayo missed any time if you watched his game on Tuesday. The very first play of the game, he and Jimmy Butler made music in the pick-and-roll for Adebayo’s first bucket of the bubble. From there, Adebayo looked strong, finishing with 16 points, four rebounds, three assists and a pair of blocks in just 25 minutes of action. 

He toyed with Jonas Valanciunas throughout the scrimmage. First, he finished through the Memphis big man for an and-one, then later Euro-stepped around him for a finger-roll layup and then finally blew by him for a reverse dunk. Yeah, I think Bam’s feeling good. Defensively, he gave Jaren Jackson Jr. fits throughout the day.

Though Adebayo and Butler didn’t play much at all in the Heat’s scrimmages, I’m not too worried about their wind. The Heat’s conditioning program is famously top-notch and they’ll be champing at the bit to do their thing. The Heat’s first four games in the bubble? Denver, Toronto, Boston and Milwaukee. They better be ready.

Indiana Pacers: Worries about Victor Oladipo 

Victor Oladipo might be the most interesting player in the bubble format. The 28-year-old guard initially didn’t want to participate in the Orlando bubble out of caution for his rehabilitated quad tendon, but the two-time All-Star reversed course and decided he was going to make the trip. 

What I’ve seen is someone who’s still nowhere near 100 percent. Oladipo has no lift right now. He settled for long jumpers (half his 38 field--goal attempts in Indiana’s scrimmages are from beyond the arc), rarely ventured into the paint and earned only one trip to the free-throw line in 76 minutes of action. Looking at the film, not once did the two-time Slam Dunk contest participant even try to rise up for a dunk.

Domantas Sabonis being out indefinitely due to a significant foot injury puts more pressure on Oladipo as Indiana’s go-to scorer, but he’s just not himself right now. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported that the NBA and the players union are discussing what to do with the $3 million remaining on Oladipo’s contract if he opts not to play in Orlando. If Oladipo sits out the bubble action out of precaution, I wouldn’t blame him -- but he might be forfeiting his salary this season. He’s entering a contract year and has a long way to go before he re-establishes himself as one of the game’s top guards. Nonetheless, the Pacers’ immediate future suddenly looks much dimmer.

Orlando Magic: Jonathan Isaac back?

Some rehabbing players didn’t benefit from the long layoff (see: Oladipo). Some look completely re-energized. That would describe Orlando big man Jonathan Isaac, who was in the hunt for Defensive Player of the Year when he went down with a severe left knee sprain on New Year's Day. 

Isaac had been sidelined for over six months before his return in Monday’s scrimmage, finishing with 13 points, seven rebounds and two steals in just seven minutes. Isaac was a tour de force, splashing 3e-pointers (even completing a four-point play) and taking guys off the dribble.

The Magic may want to bring the 22-year-old along slowly, but his scrimmage performance was legitimately one of the biggest feel-good stories of the bubble so far. I’m bullish on Isaac long-term. His ceiling is Andrei Kirilenko.

Washington Wizards: Rounding out Rui

Let’s be honest, the Wizards should really treat the restart like Summer League. With Bradley Beal, John Wall and Davis Bertans sitting out the bubble, Washington should be in full-blown development mode in Orlando. In that sense, all eyes are on Rui Hachimura, the Wizards’ 2019 first-round pick and the No. 9 overall selection, who is now Washington’s only reliable go-to scorer.

If he wants to blossom into a player above the Marcus Morris/Markieff Morris mold, he needs to focus on becoming more of a team player in the halfcourt. With great size and a knack for scoring, he can get his shot off on just about anyone, especially in post where he seems to be most comfortable. In the bubble, I’d like to see how he gets his teammates involved. His backdoor bounce-pass to Isaac Bonga against the Lakers on Monday was beautiful. More of that, please.

The passing element of his game should only improve when he plays alongside All-NBA weapons like Wall and Beal. Hachimura can get buckets on the elbow, that much is clear. Hopefully, he’ll be able to work on rounding out the rest of his game in the seeding games. If he can develop his 3-point shooting, dishing or defense into a plus, he can get into the All-Star discussion one day. 

Brooklyn Nets: Can Caris LeVert average 30 points?

Things are going to get weird here. Nine Nets players have contracted COVID-19 (that we know of), including Michael Beasley, who was signed as a substitute for a COVID-19-infected player and then later contracted the novel coronavirus himself. The Nets’ Orlando roster is one giant “Who He Play For?” exercise.

Brooklyn scored 68 points in their first scrimmage. They put up 124 points a few days later. Who knows what to expect team-wise? What I do know is that Caris LeVert will be feasting like it’s Thanksgiving. The 25-year-old shooting guard posted the bubble’s third-highest usage rate in scrimmage play behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic, per NBA.com tracking (minimum 20 minutes per game). LeVert might take all of the shots.

LeVert posted a 50-piece on the Celtics a week before the league shut down, so don’t be surprised if he averages 30 points per game in the seeding games. If you’re playing daily fantasy, make sure he’s in your lineup. Jamal Crawford, too. Yes, he’s on the Nets now. Let’s get weird.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Zion Williamson, Alex Caruso headline Western Conference storylines

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NBC Sports

Zion Williamson, Alex Caruso headline Western Conference storylines

You can exhale now. After a nearly five-month layoff, the NBA is back.

The bubble is holding tight so far. The daily testing regiment and strict quarantine protocols appear to be working. Unlike Major League Baseball, the NBA hasn’t faced an outbreak within its locker room. Knock on wood.

We still have a long way to go before the NBA crowns a champion in October, but it’s safe to actually focus on basketball again. So, it’s time to get reacquainted with every roster and identify the storylines to keep an eye on. 

Here’s one thing to watch for every Western Conference bubble team. To add a little spice to this endeavor, I’ve sorted the teams by my likelihood of them winning the 2019-20 NBA championship. The East preview will run on Friday. 

Buckle in, folks. This is gonna be a ride.

Los Angeles Lakers: Welcome to Caruso Mania

The Lakers will be reigniting their title quest without the services of Rajon Rondo (thumb surgery) and Avery Bradley (opted out of resumption), but I’m not sure they’ll miss them much. This is Alex Caruso’s time to shine.

I’ve long felt that Caruso is a far better option than Rondo at this point in their careers (ahem). The numbers point to Caruso’s snug fit next to the Lakers’ MVP candidate. LeBron James-Caruso lineups have outscored opponents by a whopping 20.8 points per 100 possessions, which is the Lakers’ best two-man pairing featuring James (minimum of 200 minutes). Meanwhile, James-Rondo lineups have seen the lowest returns among LeBron lineups at a solid 8.1 net rating, per NBA.com.

Caruso has become a cult hero because of his “sneaky” hops, but Caruso’s defense is highly underrated. His ability to create turnovers as a disruptor -- Caruso wields the highest steal rate on the Lakers -- should shore up much of the void left by Bradley, who is more of an on-ball pest. 

The Lakers surely lost some depth in the backcourt and I’m not ready to place faith in J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters quite yet, but more of Caruso is a boost to their championship hopes. When Rondo comes back sometime in the playoffs, the Lakers should look at the 2011 Miami Heat as a cautionary tale. James’ failed 2011 Finals quest was largely on his shoulders, but it didn’t help that the Heat insisted on playing a washed Mike Bibby over up-and-coming Mario Chalmers. Even with a healthy Rondo, the Lakers would be wise to hand the keys over to Caruso.

Los Angeles Clippers: Can Kawhi Leonard’s shake off the rust?

If Kawhi Leonard wants to stake claim to being the game’s best player, he first needs to get his legs back. In three scrimmages, Leonard is shooting 1-for-10 on 2-point jumpers and 6-for-27 (22.2 percent) on 3-point jumpers, per Synergy Sports tracking. He might need a software update.

Look, chances are, Leonard is just toying around and he’ll ease back into championship form soon enough, but we can’t just ignore that the reigning Finals MVP hasn’t looked sharp at all. Leonard’s scoring output has dipped all the way down to 15.5 points per 36 minutes in the scrimmages with only two free-throw attempts in three games. Those are Landry Shamet numbers, not Kawhi freaking Leonard.

Watching the film, most of Leonard’s jumpers are falling way short, which suggests his legs just aren’t there yet and the smart bet is that he’ll power up once he gets more reps. The Clippers aren’t losing sleep just yet, but among superstars in this league, Leonard’s bubble performance is the most concerning of all.

Houston Rockets: Does Russell Westbrook have his wind?

Russell Westbrook is back in the bubble with more clarity on his situation, much to the delight of Vegas insiders. However, his box score stats aren’t pretty, with 13 turnovers to 14 assists in 68 minutes of action. He finally knocked down a 3-pointer on Tuesday night, making his first of six tries during the exhibitions.

But considering he is coming off a coronavirus infection, I’m more interested in how he looks getting up and down the floor. In the halfcourt, he was able to initiate the nitro boosters, slice into the teeth of the defense and find some open 3s for teammates, which is what makes Westbrook so deadly for the Rockets. 

And if you doubted his burst after the long layoff, the sky-high lay-in during the second quarter of the Toronto scrimmage was vintage Westbrook -- blazing through the defense and looking like he’s going to obliterate the entire basket with a tomahawk. Westbrook softly laid it in, but the point was made: Westbrook is still Westbrook.

Westbrook needs to sharpen up in the decision-making department, particularly on some lazy passes in the halfcourt, but he’ll get his timing right soon enough. We don’t fully understand the pulmonary implications of the coronavirus -- and that’s scary -- but Westbrook’s high-octane attack remains part of the Rockets’ arsenal even after he battled COVID-19. With Eric Gordon’s ankle injury, Westbrook’s health only becomes more critical.

Dallas Mavericks: Please, Seth Curry, stay healthy

You thought the Mavericks were hard to guard with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis? Good luck defending them with Seth Curry finally healthy and mobile. It feels strange that I have to mention this, but the 29-year-old sharpshooter is second all-time in 3-point field goal percentage behind Steve Kerr. Yes, better than his older brother, Stephen.

Seth Curry has looked phenomenal in the restart so far and it’s sort of odd we don’t talk more about Curry in the context of the Mavs’ unstoppable offense, which, by the way, pulled itself away from the rest of the NBA this season at a league-high 115.8 points per 100 possessions. Here are Seth’s 3-point percentages by month with the Mavs since November: .364, .397, .434, .591, .526 (three games in March). He’s a 6-foot-2 flamethrower.

Curry, like his brother, has battled ankle injuries over the years and it’s great to see him healthy thus far. The Mavericks have been running off-ball actions involving Porzingis and Curry with ridiculous results. When Porzingis dives toward the rim, both defenders in the action sink to the paint to thwart the 7-foot-2 Porzingis, leaving Curry open for the long-ball. How do you guard that? The NBA doesn’t have much of an answer. Since Jan. 1, the Mavericks have a blistering 124.1 offensive rating with Doncic, Porzingis and Curry on the floor. This is going to be fun to watch.

Denver Nuggets: Is Bol Bol ready?

Credit to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps for clarifying whether Bol Bol’s play in the seeding games would exclude him from the 2020-21 Rookie of the Year race (it won’t). Trying to follow what counts and what doesn’t in this resumption feels a bit like climbing the Penrose stairs

The Bol Bol bubble (bolbol?) hype train slowed down a tad after his 16-point, 6-block debut last week, but he’s still the breakout star of the scrimmage play. The 20-year-old, who slid to No. 44 overall in last June’s draft, possesses other-worldly skills on a 7-foot-2 frame that can’t be ignored at this point. He hilariously didn’t have any assists in eight G-League games this season, but at that size, I’m not going to blame him. The bigger question is whether his body can withstand the rigors of the NBA.

We had the same questions about Porzingis, and he’s thriving at the five for the Mavericks after playing a lot of forward in New York. I could see a similar trajectory for Bol, who has been playing the three-spot for the Nuggets. With the NBA trending to small-ball for many teams, Bol won’t be crushed in the post by many teams. He’s long enough that he can probably block shots from out of bounds anyway. I can’t wait to see how he does when the games count. Or don’t. I can’t remember.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Andre Roberson back

Andre Roberson is battling Jusuf Nurkic for the comeback story of the bubble so far. On Friday, Roberson made his first appearance in an NBA game since he played the Detroit Pistons on January 27, 2018. Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley started for the Pistons against OKC’s Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Yeah, it’s been that long.

And what a return it was. Before his knee surgeries, Roberson (pronounced ROBBER-son, by the way) was regularly receiving the Tony Allen treatment on the perimeter, but the former All-Defense team member has been willing and able to shoot in his three scrimmages. In Tuesday’s scrimmage against the Blazers, Roberson not only took the game’s first shot -- but it came in the left corner. Later in the game, he hit a deep ball straight away as a trailer in transition, showing again that he is launching with confidence. The form is much improved, so this isn’t just blind luck.

Even before Roberson’s return, the Thunder were already a sexy pick to win it all in this wonky bubble. If you’re a Vegas bookmaker, you have to be sweating a little bit. I’m told by Jeff Sherman, the VP of risk management at Westgate’s SuperBook, that the sportsbook took multiple bets back in October on OKC to win it all at 1000-1 odds. If Roberson can be half-decent from beyond the arc, the Western Conference got that much tougher -- a confident Roberson is a game-changer.

Utah Jazz: The renewed Mitchell-Gobert connection

The rest of the NBA will be watching closely to see if the next disgruntled star on the trade market will be coming out of Utah, or if there will be two of them. If I’m Utah, I do everything in my power to thaw the icy relationship between Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert that took a turn for the worst after Gobert’s COVID-19 infection in March.

Opposing teams hoping that Mitchell would freeze out Gobert in Orlando have been sorely disappointed. In the scrimmages, Mitchell has been feeding Gobert consistently to the point that the guard is sometimes over-probing for the big man underneath. Credit to coach Quin Snyder and the squad for putting that behind them. At least so far.

It’s a good sign for Utah that the two have gotten back to being a terrifying pick-and-roll lob threat. Mitchell and Gobert have already connected for four alley-oops in the bubble and the Jazz have treaded water offensively without Bojan Bogdanovic, who’s out for the entire restart after wrist surgery. Now if they can keep Mike Conley hot, that’ll do wonders for the team’s morale. Don’t count out the Jazz just yet.

New Orleans Pelicans: The Zion now vs. future dilemma

The New Orleans Pelicans certainly want to make the playoffs. Playing Zion Williamson as much as possible will help them achieve that objective, but considering his injury history and zero scrimmages ahead of Thursday’s kickoff, is that the smart move?

To steal a Pat Riley line, the Pelicans have to keep the main thing, the main thing. And that’s to win a championship one day with Williamson hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy. In all likelihood, that’s not happening this year, so I get why the organization has been mum about Williamson’s availability for the season restart. 

I’ve already outlined why Zion makes the Pelicans the most compelling team in the bubble, but with no scrimmages under his belt, I have a hard time seeing the Pelicans pushing Williamson beyond 20 or 30 minutes per game in the early going. With his immense impact on the scoreboard, a few Zion minutes here and there might move the needle enough for New Orleans to earn a play-in opportunity. The margins are that small in the West. 

I fully expect a “Are the Pelicans holding Zion back too much?” debate to be raging in the next week or so. I don’t envy coach Alvin Gentry’s job at the moment. Restricting a player’s minutes -- even if the player stays successfully healthy in those minutes -- never seems to be a popular move in this microwave society. Even if it is better for the long haul.

Portland Trail Blazers: The Triumphant Return of Jusuf Nurkic 

Bol Bol may be the story of the bubble, but Jusuf Nurkic should be a close second. Nurk has been phenomenal. In his first game action following a gruesome compound fracture last March, Nurkic has been tremendous in three games, averaging 20.4 points, 14.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists per 36 minutes. Most notable? The 7-footer has taken eight 3-pointers and splashed two of them.

That last thing is essential for the Blazers, who have boldly relied on a twin-tower attack in scrimmages. Nurk has taken turns bludgeoning smaller defenders in the post, feeding teammates with nifty passes and launching from deep with confidence. The Bosnian Beast is a career 3-for-42 from downtown, but coach Terry Stotts has genuine belief in his floor-spacing abilities or else he wouldn’t be trotting him out there alongside Hassan Whiteside and Zach Collins. Nurk is extremely skilled for a player his size. (We talked more about this on the Habershow with Blazers president of basketball ops Neil Olshey.)

Damian Lillard’s foot issues remain a little unsettling heading into the restart, but the return of Nurkic should have Portland feeling extra bullish about next season. Hell, with Nurkic looking this good, I wouldn’t want to face a healthy Portland team in the first round. The Nurk story is remarkable.

Memphis Grizzlies: Is Ja Morant already the best passer in the NBA?

I’m not willing to go there yet -- maybe not until Chris Paul and LeBron James hang ‘em up for good -- but some of the passes that Morant pulls off just melt my brain. He catches the defense sleeping before their eyes even get heavy. His innate sense of timing and touch are just insane.

Morant is one of the few players that use a no-look pass to great advantage. It’s gotten to the point that defenses are sometimes starting to shade off players that he’s actively looking at so they can try to anticipate the fake-out pass. And he’ll take that extra beat to feed the easy target. 

The kid registered 29 assists during the Grizzlies’ three scrimmages compared to just four bad-pass turnovers. It’s unfair what he’s able to do at such a young age. He’s White Chocolate Jason Williams with Derrick Rose’s bounce. He turns 21 in, like, two weeks.

Sacramento Kings: Is Buddy Hield a foundation piece?

Man, Luke Walton has some stones for demoting Hield to a supersub role just months after the Bahamian-born scorer signed a four-year, $94 million extension. Not many head coaches would do that in their first year with a new club, but here we are.

In the Orlando scrimmages, the Kings have continued to start Kent Bazemore and Bogdan Bogdanovic on the wing even though Hield has been their most reliable scorer this season. With the pandemic tightening budgets around the league (see: Phoenix selling off their G-League team), the Kings will have a tough decision this fall when Bogie becomes a restricted free agent. 

WiIth $46 million due to Barnes and Hield, the Kings may be hard-pressed to match a big offer for Bogdanovic, considering neither of those three players are All-Star caliber. These things add up and Sacramento could find itself in a Charlotte Hornets West situation if they can’t pair De’Aaron Fox with another star co-pilot.

The Kings’ front office felt that Hield could take another step toward star status this season, but the move to the bench makes it hard to see how Hield fits into their long-term plans. With the NBA allowing non-bubble teams to send scouts to Orlando, I suspect Hield is one of the more interesting players to watch. If I’m Hield, I’m busting my tail defensively in Orlando to try to prop up my trade stock.

San Antonio Spurs: Who are the Spurs?

I don’t know what the Spurs are doing in the bubble. They might not know what they’re doing there either. LaMarcus Aldridge is not in Orlando. Patty Mills is there but not playing. Dejounte Murray is the only player on the roster with guaranteed money past the 2020-21 season. If Gregg Popovich weren’t in line to coach Team USA next summer in Tokyo, I wouldn’t be surprised if he just hung it up this summer and lived on a vineyard for the rest of his days.

Alas, they’re in Orlando, with little to play for beyond the experience itself. I don’t know who the next Spurs All-Star will be. DeMar DeRozan can leave as a free agent this summer and we aren’t sure how good Murray is yet, even 21 months after he tore his ACL. While I like Derrick White’s game, he just turned 26 years old. I don’t know if you can classify him as a prospect anymore.

It’s hard to get excited about the Spurs right now. I guess after 22 straight years of playoff appearances, they’ve earned the right to just … be.

Phoenix Suns: The Mikal Bridges Breakout

Um, what did the Suns do to Mikal Bridges during the shutdown? The guy is playing out of his mind during the scrimmages, averaging 25.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.1 3-pointers every 36 minutes. Did he steal Cam Johnson’s shooting ability Monstars-style? In those scrimmages, he shot 7-for-13 from downtown including 5-for-6 on corner 3s. 

Seriously, this guy has been a revelation, or maybe this is just a continuation of where he left off. In the 15 games before the break, the defensive stopper made 43.5 percent of his 62 3-point attempts and started really filling up the scoring columns. His dribble-drive game has been really impressive in Orlando.

It’s weird to say but Orlando Mikal Bridges is basically what I’ve always wanted to see Otto Porter become. Let’s see if Bridges can keep this up once the seeding games begin. At this point, if I’m running a front office, I’m trading back and just drafting all Villanova players. 

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.