It's time to end the Anthony Davis charade

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NBC Sports

It's time to end the Anthony Davis charade

Anthony Davis plopped onto the bench and began unwrapping the black tape from his fingers on his left hand. It was midway through the third quarter in a tight game against the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Pelicans’ franchise player had just gotten the word from his coach Alvin Gentry. Davis was finished for the night. 

To the casual fan just now tuning into the NBA season, this must’ve been an unthinkable decision. Davis was marvelous and hadn’t suffered an injury. He had 22 points and eight rebounds in just 21 minutes. Why were the ESPN broadcasters saying he’d be done? Are the Pelicans trying to lose?

This is where we’re at in the league’s most confusing soap opera. The Pelicans are playing Anthony Davis, but only for 20 minutes because, well, it’s not entirely clear. It could be because they’re protecting their best asset from catastrophic injury (sort of) or they’re imposing punishment against their player for demanding a trade earlier in the month or they’re following orders from the league. But why would the league want this? Why play him at all?

Davis’ situation is fanning the flames of a raging debate in basketball circles: To play or not to play? The conversation has engulfed Davis during this most-awkward New Orleans debacle. The once-favored son finds himself under fire and facing boos from his half-empty home crowd. Meanwhile, facing discipline from the league office for violating rules against competitive integrity and sitting healthy players, the Pelicans have agreed to play Davis but not in fourth quarters.

The compromise is the worst of both worlds. Davis risks a career-altering injury to himself and, by benching him in critical moments, it sends the message loud and clear that the Pelicans, as an organization, are not trying to win games. 

The half-measure is a bad look for everyone involved and it’s time for NBA commissioner Adam Silver, the Pelicans and Davis to come together and shut Davis down. Before it’s too late.

* * *

Do you remember the pit in your stomach when Zion Williamson went down? 

Moments after Williamson’s left foot burst through his Nikes and caused him to fall to the Cameron Indoor floor clutching his knees, social media began to mourn en masse. Reports surfaced. Out for the game: Knee. It was as if we all witnessed a basketball death. On the local Raycom broadcast in North Carolina, the play-by-play announcer solemnly offered “thoughts and prayers” to Williamson and his family.

Remember how that felt in the moment? That it all seemed so cruel? The nauseating sense of dread didn’t arise solely from the injury itself, or the fear of the unknown diagnosis. The financial backdrop compounded the unsettling nature of it all. A fluke play in an amateur (see: Unpaid) regular-season game could have derailed Williamson’s imminent professional career and jeopardized the millions of dollars he had coming to him as the expected No. 1 overall pick in June’s draft. 

And then, the good news came. After further evaluation, it appears Williamson avoided serious injury and is considered day-to-day with a mild knee strain. It’s unclear when he’ll play again this season.

Basketball is a high-velocity contact sport. There’s a risk of injury every time a player steps onto the court. When the benefit of lacing up outweighs the risks, the player plays. When it doesn’t, he sits.

Most of the time, those risks are determined by the medical team. But the rubric is changing. Basketball is a billion-dollar business and the financial part of the equation looms larger than ever. In some eyes, the financial risks for Williamson may be too large to roll the dice. Scottie Pippen, a Hall of Famer and father of a four-star recruit in the 2019 high school class, appeared on ESPN’s “The Jump” and argued that Williamson should sit out the rest of the season -- before the injury.

"I think he's locked up the biggest shoe deal, I think he's definitely going to be the No. 1 pick, I think he's done enough for college basketball that it's more about him personally," Pippen said. "I would shut it down. I would stop playing because I feel he could risk a major injury that could really hurt his career."

Then the shoe blowout happened. The calls for Williamson to shut it down only got louder. 

Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins knows first-hand about the risk-benefit analysis of playing basketball. In 2018, five months away from a free-agent market that could have netted him a nine-figure deal, Cousins suffered an Achilles tear. The market went dry and he signed a one-year, mid-level exception with the Warriors for $5.3 million. One injury meant that more than 200 players would have a higher 2018-19 salary than a two-time All-NBA player in his prime.

With that experience, it’s no surprise that Cousins passionately advised Williamson to sit out

“College is bulls*** … get ready for the next level,” Cousins exclaimed. 

Denver guard Isaiah Thomas also pleaded for Williamson to rest up for the NBA. In 2017, in the midst of an All-NBA campaign, Thomas suffered a torn labrum in his hip just weeks before he was eligible for a max-contract extension with the Boston Celtics. That offseason, the Celtics shipped Thomas to Cleveland, which later traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers, who decided not to keep him. 

He’s now playing on a veteran minimum deal. 

“One injury could change somebody career,” Thomas tweeted

They were talking about Williamson, but it might as well be for Davis, too. 

More from Haberstroh: AD sweeps have to wait | Davis would be LeBron's best partner

Look, The Brow is not Zion. While the NCAA doesn’t allow Williamson to be paid, Davis is earning $25 million in salary this season and is due another $27 million next season before he can become a free agent (Davis also has a player option for $28.8 million in 2020-21, which, according to agent Rich Paul, won’t be exercised.). Davis will have secured over $100 million in salary before his 28th birthday. If something goes wrong, plenty of people won’t feel the same empathy for Davis as they did for a teenaged Williamson.

And yet, the same conversation -- to play, or not to play -- has engulfed the NBA, Davis and the Pelicans, raising thorny questions about the integrity of the game against the backdrop of legalized sports betting.

There’s no pain-free answer. The Pelicans could sit Davis and maximize their 2019 draft pick, a logical strategy that I highlighted last month given the NBA’s draft incentive structure. Even after instituting draft reform that flattens the odds somewhat at the top, the system still indirectly encourages teams to lose games to improve their chances of landing a franchise star in the draft. The Pelicans, who shipped out Nikola Mirotic and acquired-and-waived Markieff Morris at the trade deadline, have made it clear which direction they’d like to take.

From the Pelicans’ perspective, sitting Davis would also protect him as a trade asset until this summer when he’s expected to be traded. Sure, Davis could suffer an injury while training or, say, slipping in the bathroom as fellow Klutch Sports Management client John Wall reportedly did earlier this month. Even then, some have a tough time being convinced that a player the caliber of Davis could see a precipitous drop in value in the case of a major injury.

Sitting Davis to protect him from injury (or as an asset) poses its own problems. For one, it would be a clear sign of tanking. In general, benching healthy star players is not good for business, nor the integrity of the game. Thus, after a string of high-profile “DNP-Rest” games in 2016-17, the NBA implemented a league policy against healthy scratches in 2017 and remains in effect. According to the league memo, “teams are prohibited from resting healthy players for any high-profile, nationally-televised game. Any violation of this provision shall constitute conduct prejudicial or detrimental to the NBA, and shall result in a fine of at least $100,000.”

Muddying the waters even more is Davis’ desire to play for the Pelicans now despite openly wanting to leave the organization. Sources close to the situation indicate that Davis has always wanted to play regular minutes but also wanted his contractual intentions to be known to the front office so they could plan for the future. Davis has left decisions about his playing time up to the team and, after fearing a severe fine from the league office, the Pelicans and Davis decided to meet in the middle, multiple sources confirmed to NBC Sports. 

The solution: Play Davis only in limited minutes and not in the second half of back-to-back games. 

It’s a tortured existence. The Pelicans are much better off with Davis on the floor, even with the outside noise. In 160 minutes with Davis on the court since he returned from his trade demand, the Pelicans have outscored opponents by 22 points, or a rate of plus-6.6 every 48 minutes. When the superstar is on the bench, the Pelicans are a minus-56 in 224 minutes, or minus-12 points every 48 minutes. Duh, he’s Anthony freakin’ Davis. But what’s most troubling is that in the last five games he’s played, Davis has sat out each fourth quarter in their entirety.

This league-approved tanking method has bewildered the rest of the league. Executives are left to wonder where the league draws the line on widespread practice of healthy scratches in the name of injury prevention. Household names such as Chris Paul, Joel Embiid, Blake Griffin, De’Angelo Russell, Gordon Hayward, LaMarcus Aldridge and Cousins have been “DNP-Rested” this season at one point or another. It’s all in the name of strategically avoiding injury that could alter their respective franchises. How is Davis’ situation any different?

Davis is not injured enough, it seems. Kawhi Leonard has missed over a dozen games this season in “load maintenance” recovery protocols after missing most of last season with a leg/thigh issue. LeBron James recently sat out a coveted Saturday night ABC matchup against the Warriors due to “load management” even though he played a game on Thursday and had the day off before the game. According to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation, the league office sent out a reminder memo to all teams on Feb. 20 that re-emphasized proper reporting of injuries relating to load management or return from injury management. The Lakers had not followed the proper protocol, sources said, which called for the team to indicate James was out for load management relating to a recent groin injury. The league felt the semantic oversight, sources said, was not worthy of the $100,000 fine.

Davis, on the other hand, has been deemed healthy by the Pelicans’ training staff. But still, there are plenty of examples of extensive healthy scratches not being disciplined by the league. Front office executives have privately brought up several analogous cases to NBC Sports. One is J.R. Smith, who was the Cavs’ starting shooting guard until he was suddenly healthy-scratched in late November after he described to The Athletic what he saw as blatant tanking by his organization: “I don’t think the goal is to win. The goal isn’t to go out there and try to get as many wins as you can.”

The Cavs and Smith have agreed it’s best to have Smith away from the team. Same with Carmelo Anthony and the Houston Rockets (and the Chicago Bulls). Other examples: Enes Kanter and Chandler Parsons were both medically cleared with their respective teams, both were starters and both were very public about wanting to play. Neither teams faced fines for resting their healthy player. After Parsons was not traded at the deadline, he has suddenly been playing for the Grizzlies, who are all but eliminated from playoff contention and need their 2019 pick to fall in the top eight to keep it from going to the Boston Celtics. After sitting as a healthy scratch 10 times since January, Kanter was waived following the deadline and signed by Portland where the 26-year-old has thrived off the bench. In both cases, rival executives believe the teams had kept their players on ice to protect a potential trade asset.

“It begs the question,” wondered one longtime general manager to NBC Sports, “why were those situations not met with the same requirements as the Davis one?”

It’s a question shared by many frustrated team officials around the league. One possible and rather obvious answer: Davis is much better than Kanter, Anthony, Parsons and Smith, and therefore is held to a different standard. Some might argue that it’s a double standard. Why have a rule if it’s not going to be enforced? 

Another name raised by league executives is Kristaps Porzingis. Over 12 months have passed since Porzingis suffered a torn ACL and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban already indicated he’d miss the rest of the 2018-19 season to continue his rehab from the injury he suffered with the Knicks last February. 

That’s an abnormally long absence. According to one NBA team’s internal study on the injury, the average return to play for a torn ACL in the NBA is 293 days, or 9.8 months. We’re at 387 days with Porzingis. If Porzingis returned on the final day of the regular season, he would miss 428 days, or 14.3 months. The study also eliminates any height correlation, noting that fellow big man J.J. Hickson returned in 211 days and Kendrick Perkins, 224.

This wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows around the league if it not for the fact that the Mavericks, who at 27-34 have the ninth-worst record in the league, keep their 2019 pick if it lands in the top-five slots on draft lottery night.

“Why is (Porzingis) allowed to sit,” a high-ranking team official asked, “so the teams he’s been on can tank?”

The Mavericks have not heard a peep from the NBA in this case, multiple sources say, because it is an injury-related instance and Porzingis hasn’t been medically cleared to play anytime soon. It’s an open secret in league circles that Porzingis’ recovery has not gone as smoothly as many initially hoped.

This is the gray area that makes Davis’ situation so problematic. In response to an inquiry by the New York Times, NBA spokesperson Mike Bass denied an ESPN report that the Pelicans were told the league office would levy a $100,000 fine for each game that Davis missed. Instead, Bass says, the league intervened due to rules that ensured the integrity of the game.

“The NBA did not tell New Orleans that it would be fined $100,000 per game if Anthony Davis were held out for the remainder of season,” the league said in a statement. “The Pelicans were advised that the team had not identified a proper basis for making that determination at this time and league rules governing competitive integrity therefore require that he be permitted to play."

But where was the league on the Phoenix Suns and Eric Bledsoe, another one of agent Rich Paul’s clients, back in March 2017? Bledsoe was averaging 21.1 points, 6.3 assists and 4.8 rebounds and was the team’s go-to scorer in clutch situations before he was shut down with 14 games to go. Then-coach Earl Watson said it was a “management decision” to sit the Suns’ best player even though he was healthy. 

“The front office made a decision and I had to live with it,” Bledsoe told the AZ Central. “I wasn’t OK with it, and I don’t know what basketball player would be. I want to compete.”

Phoenix lost 12 of its final 14 games, securing the NBA’s worst record over that span. 

The Suns ended up with the second-best chances at the No. 1 pick, but, as luck would have it, they slid to the No. 4 pick in the draft lottery (and later selected Josh Jackson). The Suns avoided discipline from the league despite their conspicuous tank, league sources say, likely due to the fact that the healthy scratch rule hadn’t been implemented until later that summer. 

However, it stands to reason that shutting down Bledsoe, a borderline All-Star, had violated the “competitive integrity” policy that had seemingly already been in place. Yet the Suns avoided punishment, a fact that makes it hard to reconcile with the current situation. How is the Bledsoe situation any different than the current saga with Pelicans and Davis?

It has puzzled the major stakeholders in the league who have to navigate uncomfortable disputes with players and teams. Said one prominent player agent, who doesn’t represent Davis: “It can’t keep dragging on like this. It’s not benefitting anybody.”

* * *

The league has put the Pelicans in an impossible position. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry has valiantly tried to answer constant questions about playing his best player amid a public trade demand, but he has understandably lost patience lately, calling it “a dumpster fire.” The front office must follow the league’s mandate and play Davis even if it leads to injury and a worse trade package this summer. 

The trying situation was on full display before the Pelicans’ game on Monday night against the Philadelphia 76ers. Speaking with the local broadcast for the first time since taking over as the Pelicans interim general manager, Danny Ferry sat down with FOX Sports’ Jennifer Hale for a series of questions, one of which was a very direct query about Davis and the front office’s approach this summer.

“I appreciate that you have to ask the question,” Ferry said smiling. He then deftly sidestepped the question and talked about free agency and scouting the draft instead. The interview lasted four minutes with Ferry never mentioning Davis’ name even once. When asked about the goal for the rest of the season, Ferry was stern in his response.

“Competing every night,” Ferry said. “I think that’s really the focus.”

Later that night, the Pelicans benched Davis in the fourth quarter of a close game, in which Davis scored 18 points in 21 minutes. The Pelicans lost by one point as Davis looked on in warmups.

“Yeah, I’ve never been a guy who sat in the fourth quarter,” Davis said after the game. “It’s a little tough.”

Yet, there was Davis again on Wednesday night, in L.A. of all places, not long after Lakers fans cheered Davis’ pregame introduction, sitting quietly on the Pelicans’ bench as LeBron James nailed a game-clinching fade-away 3-pointer. 

This isn’t just poisonous optics. It can dictate the playoff picture. With Davis looking on from the bench, the Lakers, of all teams, pulled out the win and moved within one game of the ninth-seeded Sacramento Kings, who lost in an overtime game that saw rookie Marvin Bagley III carried off the court with a knee injury. 

The only way this situation gets worse is if a similar scene befalls Davis. And the longer this drags out, the more transparent it will be that the Pelicans are not trying their best to win games. It’s a bad look for everyone involved. If sitting James, Bledsoe and others didn’t violate league rules, it’s not much a rule at all. Let the Pelicans sit Davis and let’s all move on from this damaging situation.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Steph Curry, NBA world facing harsh reality of coronavirus lockdown

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NBC Sports

Steph Curry, NBA world facing harsh reality of coronavirus lockdown

Brandon Payne is looking at RV rentals. Daily rates, weekly rates -- anything to help him get through the NBA’s COVID-19 hiatus. 

Since 2011, Payne has been Stephen Curry’s personal trainer and coach for Curry’s Underrated international tour, staying by the star’s side and coaching him through the highs and lows of his storied career. When Payne can’t be with Curry in person, the 40-year-old father of two sons, Carson, 12, and Collin, 9, uses text messages to stay connected from across the country. 

Payne doesn’t know when he’s going to be with Curry again. Payne’s company, Accelerate Basketball, is based in the Charlotte suburbs of Fort Mill, S.C., where Payne and his family live, just outside where Curry grew up and attended college at Davidson. Curry is currently following California’s stay-at-home order at his Bay Area home, a mandate that will likely last beyond April, according to California governor Gavin Newsom.

It’s a rainy Monday night in Charlotte and Payne can’t believe how quickly things have deteriorated. Less than four weeks ago, Payne had flown out to San Francisco to help prepare Curry for his return from a broken hand and then to Dallas for Curry’s next Underrated tour stop. 

Now, Payne is thinking about how to keep the lights on at Accelerate. 

Over the years, with Payne having to spend more and more time in Oakland and San Francisco working with Curry, hotel stays stopped making financial sense. In 2016, Payne signed a lease on a no-frills, one-bedroom apartment in Walnut Creek, Calif., that costs him about $3,000 a month -- a relative steal in the Bay Area, home to some of the priciest rental markets in the country.

With the NBA season in jeopardy and money getting tighter, Payne is trying to break that month-to-month lease and recover his belongings, a transaction that must be done in person. Months ago, that task seemed simple and straightforward. Get in an Uber, go to Charlotte International Airport, hop on a cross-country flight, snag a hotel. 

But in this climate, each stop on that itinerary makes Payne’s skin crawl. How do I get across the country without potentially exposing myself to the pandemic? 

To Payne, airports, planes and hotels are out of the question, so he’s researching RV rental rates so he can have a place to sleep on the 2,700-mile trek from Charlotte to the Bay Area. 

“I’ve learned very quickly, it’s not a cheap venture,” Payne says of the RV option.

The economic realities of the coronavirus pandemic are setting in. Curry is just one of Payne’s clients, ranging from six-year-olds to NBA draft prospects to NBA superstars. On a typical week, he and his staff will train hundreds of local young athletes at the small halfcourt gym housed inside a nondescript warehouse district. But with coronavirus spreading around the country, Payne had to take precautions to protect his clients from getting sick.

Normally, Payne supplies jump ropes, basketballs and tennis balls for his athletes. But on Monday, he texted, emailed and made phone calls to parents about an updated protocol. If anyone in a client’s household had traveled in the past 14 days or gotten sick in any way, Payne kindly asked them to stay home. He assured them that their paid sessions and packages would be honored in full at a later date.

If they were able to come, he wrote to them, be prepared for a different environment.

“We had a staffer standing at the door with hand sanitizer so that every person that walked in was hit with hand sanitizer,” Payne says.

The athletes were instructed to bring their own basketball, their own jump rope and be ready to do drills in a socially-distant manner, separated 6-to-10 feet from other athletes and receiving hands-off instruction from trainers standing across the room. Under normal circumstances, the players would train with two basketballs, dribbling with each hand. 

These weren’t normal circumstances. Only one ball, your own, to be safe. After each training session, Payne closed the gym and his staff wiped down every inch of the place to disinfect it. Then, they opened up the doors and repeated the process for the next round of workouts.

That was Monday night.

On Tuesday morning, after seeing the coronavirus spread in his county and news of a shelter-in-place rule being enforced in 48 hours, Payne closed his doors. He laid off four of his six staffers. Temporarily, he assured them. He’d reassess every two weeks.

“Very tough, emotional day,” Payne texted me.

The Walnut Creek apartment never seemed so far.

* * * 

Ask NBA athletes and coaches about whether they’ve experienced anything quite like this and most will point to the 2011 lockout. For months, players waited in limbo as the league and the NBA Players Association negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement. 

During the lockout, players were free to engage in grassroots pick-up games, train with personal coaches and work on their craft as long as they weren’t using NBA facilities. They stayed in shape by playing in regular five-on-five charity games around the country. At one point, LeBron James and Kevin Durant faced off in a “Team LeBron vs. Team Durant” flag football game at the University of Akron that was streamed online.

That’s actually when Curry and Payne first met at Accelerate, introduced by one of Payne’s clients and former NBA player Gerald Henderson, who was a member of the Charlotte Bobcats at the time. Curry has been with Payne ever since.

Of course, “social distancing” wasn’t exactly part of the cultural lexicon in 2011.

Players these days can only dream about such gatherings. Late last week, after several NBA players and staffers tested positive for COVID-19, the NBA sent a league memo to its 30 teams ordering them to close their training and practice facilities to all players and staff. The league also prohibited players from using public facilities like high school or college gyms to train. 

The NBA is not a social-distance friendly sport. As such, the basketball world has been in the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic. For at least one epidemiologist, the NBA’s decision to suspend its season on March 11 became a pivotal moment in the United States’ battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, signaling the severity of the crisis. NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s decision at least partially inspired other leagues, including the NHL and MLB, to put their seasons on hold, while the NCAA canceled March Madness entirely.

On Sunday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo spoke at a press conference and urged New Yorkers to exercise outside in solitude rather than participating in team sports.

“You want to go for a walk? God bless you. You want to go for a run? God bless you,” Cuomo said. “There (should be) no group activity in parks. All sorts of kids playing basketball (on Saturday). I play basketball; there is no concept of social distancing while playing basketball. It doesn’t exist. You can’t stay six feet away from people playing basketball. You can, but then you’re a lousy basketball player and you’re going to lose.”

How do basketball players stay in shape when the simple act of playing basketball violates nearly all social distancing rules?

It’s a riddle that Payne is trying to solve for his NBA clients, most notably Curry. 

* * *

Inside the confines of a reported $31 million home he purchased last summer, Curry is keeping busy. 

Alongside his wife Ayesha and three young kids home from school, Curry is using his platform for philanthropic and civic causes. On Thursday, he hosted an Instagram Live Q&A with NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, who may be the most sought-after doctor in the country (Barack Obama, Justin Bieber, Andre Iguodala and Common were just some of the names who dropped by). Two days after the NBA suspended the season, Curry and his wife Ayesha posted a video announcing their donation through their Eat Learn Play foundation to help ensure 18,000 Oakland children would have meals after schools were shut down. 

But Curry’s athletic pursuits have been minimal. Last Friday, while wearing a hoodie, sweat shorts and house slippers, Curry holed a trick shot with a wedge, ricocheting a golf ball off the inside of his front door and into a clear, plastic cup -- a video that generated almost 2 million views. Basketball hasn’t been on his mind much, according to Payne.

“To be honest with you, we’ve talked more about the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback situation than we’ve talked about anything else,” Payne says with a laugh. “We talked a little bit about workouts and what he can do, but it’s not a whole lot right now.”

Curry does have a workout-friendly basement that rivals a luxury hotel fitness center, but he doesn’t have an indoor court on which he can do basketball-specific training. Contrary to popular belief, almost no NBA players do. 

According to league sources, players are scrambling to find private indoor gyms in their cities during the lockdown. One NBA team, multiple league sources say, had to reprimand one of its players after seeing a social media post of him working out with several athletes in a private gym over the weekend, a violation of the league’s and public health officials’ social-distancing guidelines.

“Stephen is fortunate because he’s got a larger home with a workout area with some pretty nice equipment in it,” Payne says. “He’ll be able to maintain things physically pretty well because he’s got the tools to do so. Some of the other guys I’ve been talking to? They’re a little bit more challenged.”

Most of Payne’s NBA clients are younger and live in luxury apartment complexes or condo buildings in their team’s city, not in spacious homes in the suburbs. Payne has asked his clients to send photos and videos of their living areas in order to customize workout programs for their limited space. 

One young NBA player sent him a video of his apartment complex’s fitness room. Not an option, Payne told him, strongly discouraging him from using that space due to concerns of infection. To try to compensate, Payne has been on the phone with players’ agents working to get his clients the athletic equipment they need during the layoff. At the top of the list are home-friendly TRX resistance bands and stationary bikes “where they’re able to get some hard cardio in without disturbing the people under them.”

“Even if you have a common area where you can get shots up, we’re learning that this thing can live on surfaces, sometimes days at a time depending on the type of surface,” Payne says. “You don’t know who’s been in there and who they’ve been around. It’s just very uncertain.”

Across the NBA, it’s becoming clear that the biggest obstacle -- beyond being limited to the space in your own home -- is uncertainty. Not just in the nature of the virus, but also the NBA’s undetermined schedule. 

As the coronavirus crisis unfolds across the country, players have no idea when the season will restart -- if at all. Silver said last Wednesday it was too early to speculate on a return date. Looking at other top basketball leagues around the world dealing with the pandemic, prospects of a quick return aren’t good. 

The Korean Basketball League canceled the rest of its season and the Chinese Basketball Association has pushed back its possible return date again to May 15, which would make for a four-month hiatus from play. For perspective, such a layoff would mean a mid-July return for the NBA. 

It could also be sooner. ESPN recently reported that NBA owners and executives viewed a possible mid-to-late June return “as a best-case scenario.” One such owner, Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks, said on Tuesday he was hopeful the NBA season would resume in mid-May based on his conversations with the CDC. 

Without a hard return date in mind, players trying to stay in shape are essentially shooting in the dark.

“The target date is what sets everything,” Payne says. “It’s your North Star. It’s what you base everything off of. You set your work schedule, your rest periods, how heavily you load, how lightly you load, how many days off you get. Everything is based off that date.”

* * * 

There was speculation that Curry wanted to return during the regular season so he could prepare for the Summer Olympics, but Payne insists that wasn’t a factor. Curry has never participated in the marquee global event, which was set to take place in Tokyo from July 24 to August 9, but has since been postponed to 2021. Curry did win gold medals with two World Cup teams in 2010 and 2014 but sat out in 2016 Olympics in Rio to fully recover from ankle and knee issues.

This time around, Curry is rehabbing back from a different kind of injury, luckily not to his ankle and knee joints. In October, Curry broke his hand and required surgery and an additional procedure to make sure his bones were in place. He has since experienced mild numbness as a result of some lingering nerve damage.

It was hard to tell that it affected him at all in his Mar. 5 return from a 58-game absence. Curry tallied 23 points, seven rebounds and seven assists in just 27 minutes of action against the Toronto Raptors.

“For Stephen, the silver lining for him is that that hand gets a little bit longer (time) to round back into form and get that thing feeling exactly how he wants it to feel before he gets back out there,” Payne says. “And he gets more time with his family. That’s what we all really need to be thinking about.”

Payne has been splitting his time between taking care of his sons and getting to the Accelerate office, where he’s working to digitize his business. 

Last Friday, he gave a 75-minute Powerpoint talk on a virtual basketball coaches clinic site detailing Curry’s workout regimen, focusing on neuromuscular development, proprioception and strategies to game-ify workouts. Beyond virtual clinics, Payne is putting together workout video breakdowns on social media of Curry’s past training sessions with Luka Doncic and other star players. Everything is going online.
 
“As a coach, you’ve never had this amount of time to sit down and improve,” Payne says. “For most (coaches and trainers), this is going to be a really difficult time. It’s going to be extremely difficult. The hard point is, there’s going to be the temptation (to hold workouts and practices) because there’s going to be some players that are going to want to work out no matter what. And you have to balance the responsible decision with the decision that most affects your pockets.”

On Thursday morning, Charlotte-Mecklenburg county implemented a stay-at-home order, ensuring that most of Payne’s Charlotte-bound clients would be limited to virtual sessions, none at Accelerate. It’s not certain when they’ll be allowed to return to the gym or when Payne can re-hire his staff. Or when he can get to Walnut Creek to retrieve his things.  

Or when he can train Curry again in person.

“There’s so much uncertainty right now, not only with my business, but are NBA players going to get paid past this next pay period? What does that look like? What do my clients have (in their savings)? Will they continue to pay me? Those are the questions I have. If I can save that money for the next three to six months, then that’s what I need to do.

“For the foreseeable future, with what’s in front of us right now, money coming in is going to be pretty tight. That’s reality.”

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

Why the NBA cancelled Kings-Pelicans amid coronavirus chaos

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NBC Sports

Why the NBA cancelled Kings-Pelicans amid coronavirus chaos

When the sun rose over Sacramento last Wednesday, thousands of local residents woke up with little idea that the NBA world was about to change. 

For Kings fans, the date had been circled on their calendars for months. NBA sensation Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans were in town to play the hometown team, and on national TV no less -- the only time this season the small-market Kings would be broadcast to the entire country. And then there’s this: With only a month left in the regular season, the Pelicans and the Kings were both jockeying for a playoff spot. The winner of the game would move into ninth place, just three games back of the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies.

This game was big, but something way bigger was happening all around them. 

At roughly 9:15 a.m. local time Wednesday morning, news began to break on a global scale. World Health Organization chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus held a press conference at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, announcing that the global COVID-19 outbreak, also referred to as the coronavirus, was officially a pandemic. The WHO announced that, in the previous two weeks, the number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold.

In Sacramento, the WHO’s statement suddenly put the state of that very important Kings-Pelicans game into a different focus. Would the game -- scheduled to tip off about 10 hours later at 7:30 p.m. PT -- even be played?

The possibility of going on hiatus had been rumored in recent days as the NBA sent numerous memos to teams about its plans surrounding the evolving coronavirus situation. The day before the Pelicans-Kings game, the Golden State Warriors announced that they’d play their next game, a Thursday tilt against the Brooklyn Nets, in an empty Chase Center -- the first team to take that step. Sacramento’s arena, the Golden 1 Center, was only 85 miles up the road.

Later that afternoon, an answer: The Kings announced at 4:25 p.m. that, after consulting with local public health officials, the game would go on as planned -- with fans in the arena. 

The Kings would not take the same measures as their NorCal neighbors, but the announcement did carry the following warning: “Sacramento County Public Health guidance states that individuals considered high-risk, those over 60 years old, and anyone with an underlying chronic health condition or compromised immune system should avoid large public gatherings.”

In other words: game on, but be careful. So, the Pelicans and the Kings arrived at the arena as normal. Ninety minutes before tipoff, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry took questions from the media as part of his normal pregame routine and was asked about the possibility of playing in front of empty arenas.

“You don’t want to play a basketball game with empty seats,” said Gentry, who, at 65 years old, was above the Sacramento County Public Health department’s recommended age threshold. “However, I think it’s also important to understand this isn’t a minor thing by any stretch of the imagination. Not just in this country, but in the world, you have to do whatever you have to, to contain it or to manage it as much as you possibly can. It’s going to take some drastic measures and this may be one of them.”

Outside of the press room, fans began to fill the Golden 1 Center. For those inside the arena, it became clear that the 17,600-seat arena was going to be packed -- coronavirus scare or not.

Only one small thing: The New Orleans Pelicans never emerged from the tunnel for pregame warmups. Instead, Pelicans players, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation, were still inside the visiting locker room, digesting what they just saw. 

* * *

At 6:27 p.m., just over an hour before the scheduled tipoff, a bombshell hit the NBA world via Twitter and reached the Pelicans’ locker room within seconds. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus and the game between the Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder, which had been delayed for unknown reasons, was immediately called off. As the Pelicans began to wrap their heads around what was transpiring, it occurred to them that their next stop on the road trip was, as luck would have it, Utah.

Things moved too quickly for that thought to linger much longer. Four minutes later, the NBA announced a monumental decision to suspend the season indefinitely. Madness ensued across the league. 

The league statement said the NBA would close its doors at the conclusion of the night’s remaining games. Four games were ongoing, including Nuggets-Mavericks, which, at the time, was on the TVs in the Pelicans’ locker room. It was the ESPN lead-in for their own game.

With Utah-OKC nixed, the Pelicans realized that only one game remained on the night’s schedule, their own. 

In effect, the league decided that Pelicans-Kings was worth playing despite the positive test. Twelve minutes after the NBA announced it was suspending the season, the Pelicans’ official Twitter feed announced the game would still go on, citing the league’s statement.

But behind the scenes, something was awry. Fifty-five minutes after the Pelicans’ tweet stating that the game was on, the Pelicans tweeted that the game was off. 

* * *

NBA referees have a demanding schedule. Like players and teams, they jet around the country during the season working multiple games a week, totaling up to 60-plus games a season. But  NBA officials aren’t afforded all of the luxury accommodations that teams and players have. NBA teams fly via private charters; NBA referees fly commercial. 

On Wednesday night, Pelicans-Kings would be staffed by three referees who flew in for the game: crew chief Marc Davis, Courtney Kirkland and Justin Van Duyne. Referees stick together on the road and largely keep to themselves. In every NBA arena, the referee crew is given their own private locker room and are collectively ushered to, and from, the court by local police for security purposes. 

Inside the bowels of the Golden 1 Center, news about Gobert’s positive test began to spread as staffers stood around discussing what it meant for the night’s game. Multiple sources confirmed that shortly after the Gobert news broke, two referees emerged from the referee locker room and it was communicated that a third referee hung back because he had officiated the Jazz just two days prior, on Monday night. 

The Pelicans’ security personnel were alerted, sources said, and they immediately began communicating that information to the team’s front office members, who were congregated elsewhere in the arena.

Pelicans executives huddled up and grabbed their phones, quickly looking up recent Jazz box scores to confirm the information that had been relayed to them. And there it was: On Monday night, two days prior to this game, Courtney Kirkland had officiated the Toronto Raptors and Utah Jazz game in Salt Lake City.

That wasn’t just any game. In that heated contest between championship hopefuls, Gobert was ejected by officials after a late-game scuffle with Raptors guard O.G. Anunoby. When a physical confrontation between Gobert and Anunoby started to escalate, two officials, one of which was Kirkland, sprinted into action and physically intervened to separate Gobert and Anunoby, prying the two players away from each other. 

At that moment, the Pelicans’ executives weren’t aware of that ejection sequence where bodies mixed together, but in their minds, it didn’t matter. If Kirkland officiated Gobert recently, the risk of infection was too great.

“We have to shut this down,” a Pelicans executive told his fellow staffers. 

There were only about 20 minutes remaining until tipoff, according to those present. Upon learning of Kirkland’s exposure to an infected player, Pelicans staffers walked to the visitor’s locker room and informed the players. One player wondered aloud, according to sources, “What’s the point of even playing this game?” It was decided as a team that they wouldn’t participate in the game, according to sources. Remain in the locker room, team officials instructed.

Meanwhile, on the court, the Kings continued to warm up. Referee crew chief Marc Davis and his colleague Justin Van Duyne stood at the scorer’s table, noticeably without Kirkland present. Davis spoke into a cell phone while Van Duyne waited at his side. From that nucleus at the scorer’s table, word began to trickle out that the game would be canceled due to Kirkland’s exposure. Both the national and local broadcast teams discussed Kirkland and the game’s postponement openly on air.

Suddenly, Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball walked out of the tunnel and began warming up with an assistant coach, creating the impression that perhaps the game would go on. Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram later joined him on the court. Two Kings ballboys rebounded for Ball. Blue latex gloves covered their hands as they passed him the ball.

Moments later, Gentry emerged from the Pelicans’ locker room. He walked with a member of the Pelicans’ media relations team who had crossed his arms to signify to the surrounding media and game personnel. The game was off.

At center court, Kings public address announcer Scott Moak was handed a piece of paper. Moak began to read from the document, speaking into the microphone for the packed arena to hear.

“Ladies and gentlemen, out of an abundance of caution, at the direction of the National Basketball Association, tonight’s game has been postponed,” the announcement began to bellow in the arena. “We ask that you please exercise caution when leaving the arena.”

The Golden 1 Center crowd booed, nearly drowning out the audio from the on-air broadcasts. Security personnel herded the Kings players and Ball off the floor. With the announcement becoming official, the two Pelicans players walked back into the tunnel. Williamson and the rest of the team never took the court.

In the stands, a young girl in a Zion Williamson Pelicans jersey was shown in tears. There would be no game that night. Everyone went home.

* * *

How much risk is too much? It’s a question the Pelicans asked themselves inside at Golden 1 Center and in the hours and days since leaving Sacramento. It’s a question that we’re all asking ourselves. At what point does the risk of infection outweigh the benefit of proceeding with everyday life?

When the news of Gobert’s positive test was publicized, the NBA had some enormous decisions to make. NBA commissioner Adam Silver, in talking to the TNT broadcast last Thursday, described the call to suspend the season as a “split-second decision.” All of 240 seconds had transpired between news of Gobert’s positive test and the season being suspended.

But the decision to let the Pelicans-Kings game go on as planned was a deliberate one. Initially, the league felt the risk didn’t reach the critical point of canceling the game. Twelve minutes after the Gobert news became public and 47 minutes before the game was set to take off, the teams had publicly assured fans that, despite the ongoing pandemic and suspension of the season, the nationally-televised game would go on. It wasn’t until word spread of Kirkland’s involvement that things began to change. 

During an interview on ESPN on Wednesday, Silver said he communicated with Kings owner Vivek Ranadive following the news about Gobert about potentially calling off the game. Silver noted being down one referee was a factor, but he ultimately decided to cancel “out of an abundance of caution,” per the league statement. The Pelicans’ refusal to take the court and risk infection more than likely forced his hand.

Like players on the court, officials are susceptible to transmit the virus. Whistles are transferred from hand to mouth and the ball is passed through those same hands. It’s not hard to see why team staffers were concerned about Kirkland’s recent assignment.

Dr. Karen Edwards, the chief epidemiologist at the University of California-Irvine, shares those concerns.

“When you have individuals in close contact with each other where bodily fluids are shared, it certainly increases the risk of transmission,” Edwards said. “I certainly think that having people fly around and coming into contact with lots of other people, this is not going to help reduce the spread of the disease.”

The good news is that the NBA referee union confirmed an ESPN report on Saturday that Kirkland was indeed tested in Sacramento and the results came back negative for the COVID-19 virus. Kirkland reportedly stayed quarantined in his downtown Sacramento hotel room for days until he was cleared.

Since Gobert’s positive test was made public, six other organizations are known to have positive tests including the Brooklyn Nets (four players, including Kevin Durant), Los Angeles Lakers (two unnamed players), Boston Celtics (Marcus Smart), Philadelphia 76ers (three members of the organization), Detroit Pistons (Christian Wood) and Denver Nuggets (unnamed staffer or player). Gobert’s teammate Donovan Mitchell also tested positive.

On Wednesday night, Silver revealed on ESPN that he wasn’t surprised that the Nets saw positive tests, calling NBA players “super spreaders” because of their travel schedule, age and the fact that they often come in close contact with other individuals and large crowds. He indicated that eight teams have been tested at the recommendation of league doctors and public health officials. 

“We looked at that group of teams that were most proximate to the (Utah Jazz) and the circle expanded from there,” Silver said.

Plenty more have been cleared, including the Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors. Mitchell and Gobert were the only positive tests among the 58 members of Utah’s traveling party. As of now, the COVID-19 virus is known to have spread to at least seven of the league’s 30 teams, though we’ve seen varying levels of detail in those positive cases. 

There’s no word on whether other referees have been tested. Sources at the league office and referee union both declined to provide further information, indicating that tests and the results of those tests would be made public at the discretion of the applicable state and local health authorities.

Last Tuesday, the Nets and Lakers played at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the end of Brooklyn’s string of five games in eight nights against five different opponents. We now know that between both teams at least a half-dozen players tested positive. According to league data, 15 different referees officiated that five-game stretch for the Nets. And those referees went off to different arenas and worked with different referee crews. It stands to reason that the “super spreaders” label that Silver used to describe NBA players could also be attributed to officials.

When confronted with a positive test exposure, Edwards recommended that the league rewind the calendar 14 days, which is the general incubation period of the novel coronavirus, and analyze players, staffers and referees’ risk for infection across that two-week period. 

“That’s a good rule of thumb,” Edwards said. “The problem is there may have been players or referees that are positive and we just don’t know it because they haven’t been tested. But we don’t have enough testing. This is the problem: When we see a positive case, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

Untangle that NBA web long enough and you begin to see why Pelicans officials were so concerned about the league’s initial decision to play the game and why infection curves are so steep.

“This is a good example (of that),” Edwards said. “This is why we see an exponential curve where you start seeing a few cases and then it grows and grows and grows. I don’t want to be an alarmist, but I’m going to guess that we are going to see more cases in the NBA. The fact that we’ve seen some, this is just the beginning.”

Edwards believes that the NBA’s decision to suspend the season will be a pivotal moment in the timeline of the United States’ attempts to contain the virus, calling it “the right move” to cancel the Kings-Pelicans game out of an abundance of fear of a recently exposed individual spreading the disease. The silver lining of high-profile players like Gobert and Durant testing positive is that it can be a game-changing lesson for the NBA world and beyond.

Said Edwards: “The message for everybody is, nobody is safe from this. There’s no determination that stars don’t get infected and others do. It’s an equal-opportunity virus and everybody is at risk.”

NBC Sports California Kings Insider James Ham contributed to this report. Follow him on Twitter (@James_HamNBCS)Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.