NBA faces major health, safety obstacles in return

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NBC Sports

NBA faces major health, safety obstacles in return

If you don’t want to ruin a public health official’s day, steer clear of NASCAR’s return-to-play plans.

The sports world has been shut down across America since early March over concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has claimed the lives of over 100,000 Americans and infected over 2 million. 

But on Sunday, NASCAR is planning to open up Homestead-Miami Speedway to 1,000 South Florida service members and honorary guests, making NASCAR the first major sport to allow fans back into the stands. On the following Sunday, on June 21, NASCAR is planning to have 5,000 fans at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama. 

NASCAR says it will practice social distancing and require all fans to wear masks, but there are still questions about how seriously they’ll be able to enforce those precautions with thousands of fans, especially if alcohol is involved.

“You look at that, as a public health professional, and you just want to cry. You really do,” said Dr. Zachary Binney, adjunct instructor in Epidemiology at Emory University Rollins School of Public Health and sports injury epidemiology consultant. 

Binney, on the other hand, feels much better about the NBA’s plan, which won’t involve fans in attendance at any time and plans to administer daily coronavirus tests to its players and staff. The league plans to return on July 30 with 22 teams living and playing at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. Unlike NASCAR, which takes place outdoors, basketball is played indoors where the virus can be transmitted more easily. 

“No plan is perfect,” Binney says. “The NBA is taking a lot of good steps here.”

The NBA hasn’t sent official health protocols to its teams yet, but there are some large strokes that have surfaced. In order to reduce possible transmission, the NBA has told the National Basketball Players Association that players are not allowed to have guests, including family members, until after the first round, likely to be at the end of August, according to multiple reports.

Will that be enough? The devil is in the details as they say. 

Regarding the NBA’s plan to combat the coronavirus, I spoke with two epidemiologists at Emory University Rollins School of Public Health, Binney and Dr. Neel Gandhi, an infectious disease expert and associate professor at the school, to address the trickier coronavirus questions.

Let’s break this down topic by topic.

NBA players may be quarantined, but what about the Disney staffers?

In some corners of the NBA, this is the most contentious point. When whispers about a possible NBA “bubble” began to circulate months ago, epidemiologists were concerned not just about protecting the NBA players and the league’s staff, but also about the hundreds of non-NBA staffers needed to clean, feed and maintain the massive operation.

Now that the NBA has planned to resume at Disney, there are now more specific questions about fully sequestering the location. Will the food servers be tested every day? The housekeepers? The custodians? More broadly: What’s the point of quarantining for several weeks and doing daily tests for 22 NBA teams if Disney staff won’t be doing the same? 

“This isn’t a bubble. This is a mesh hat,” says one high-level NBA executive who has been briefed on the NBA’s plans but isn’t authorized to speak publicly.

Disney workers have not been told to quarantine on campus, according to Eric Clinton, president of Disney’s labor union, United Here Local 362, which represents custodians and ride operators. Clinton told NBC Sports that it was “unlikely” that staffers would be subject to daily testing and quarantine measures like NBA players and team staffers.

There will be protocols in place, however. At this point, Disney staffers will be required to wear a mask at all times. Beginning June 14, per the latest labor agreement between Disney and the 38,000 members of Service Trades Council Union, Disney employees will be required to do a temperature check at a designated central location before proceeding to work. If the employee’s temperature is below 100.4, they will remain at work. If the employee’s temperature is at or above 100.4, the employee will be given “a cool-down period” and then undergo a recheck. If it remains at or above 100.4, the employee will be sent home.

Some executives and players have expressed concern about the double-standard of being held to such strict standards while Disney staffers are free to go home to their families and live at their residences. Some team officials have even suggested allowing teams to fly in and out on charter. If Disney staffers are free to come and go as they please, why can’t NBA players?

Gandhi, however, doesn’t see it that way. 

“I agree that that’s not ideal,” Gandhi says. “But I’m a little reluctant to say alright, let’s take a step even further back and allow even more people in and out. I would try to push to have the auxiliary staff in the bubble and increase the level of security.”

The NBA can limit face-to-face interactions. With some basic planning, it’s possible that housekeepers and NBA players may never meet. Payments at cashiers could be contactless. 

“The NBA players and staff will likely be in contact with each other a lot more than the Disney staff will be,” Binney says. “I think symptom checks would probably do enough to reduce it down to an acceptable risk level. This is not something I would have said two months ago, but we’re learning that the risk of person-to-object-to-person transmission is not a very common group. Person-to-person is a much bigger deal.”

What about Orange County infection rates?

The numbers coming out of central Florida are not trending in the right direction. According to the state health department, there are 2,678 total confirmed cases in Orange County, where Disney World is located, and the numbers are climbing fast. On Wednesday, the state reported 128 new cases in the county, by far the highest in at least 14 days. 

But Gandhi and Binney agree that raw totals can be misleading because a higher number of cases may be a result of simply more tests being administered. A more accurate measure of coronavirus spread may be a ratio of tests coming back positive. 

Orange County’s percent positive rate reached 6.2 percent on Wednesday, the highest in nine days. Last month, the World Health Organization recommended to governments that before reopening, rates of positivity in testing should remain at five percent or lower for at least 14 days. Wednesday marked the second time that the county trespassed that threshold.

“The more disease that’s on the ground in Orange County, the higher risk everybody is at,” Binney says.

With Disney staffers going back into their Orange County homes and re-entering the NBA’s bubble on a daily basis, the rising infections are a red flag for Gandhi and Binney and worth monitoring closely, though it isn’t high enough to pull the plug on the whole endeavor. 

At what level would the Orange County infections become too overwhelming? Gandhi and Binney both believe that hospitalization rates would be the top indicator on that front, but Florida is one of seven states that do not publish that data. The lack of hospitalization rates makes Binney and Gandhi uneasy about the NBA’s choice of Orlando, but they recognize that there’s no perfect solution here.

Said Binney: “There are two dueling forces: Who’s going to let you play and who’s going to likely not have an explosive outbreak? You have to find a balance because those two can sometimes be at odds. The places with the loosest regulations are less likely to shut it down.”

Gandhi also notes that the state of Florida faced allegations of manipulating the data in its coronavirus reports in its effort to reopen the economy and potentially attract large businesses (like, ahem, the NBA). It’s worth noting that NASCAR’s first race with fans will be held in South Florida and according to reports, the Republican National Convention is likely to be moved from Charlotte, NC., to Jacksonville, Fla.

The available metrics in Florida are not inspiring. Positive cases are up 93 percent over the last seven days compared to the previous seven days while testing over that same time period has gone up 27 percent.

“What you’d like to see is a locale to be stable or dropping. You don’t want to be on that upswing of the curve,” Gandhi says.

There’s still time for infection rates to thaw. The NBA is planning to have teams fly into Orlando in less than four weeks, but it’s safe to say that Orange County data is something the NBA and its players and staff will be keeping an eye on as the season approaches.

Who is most at risk?

There has been much debate about whether older coaches like Gregg Popovich (71 years old), Mike D’Antoni (69) and Alvin Gentry (65) should be treated differently than the rest of the NBA’s Orlando contingent. The CDC states that individuals 65 years or older are considered a high risk for severe illness from COVID-19. 

Should they wear a mask? Should they be allowed on the bench? Should they be allowed at all?

Last week, commissioner Adam Silver stated on TNT’s Inside the NBA that “certain coaches” may not be able to be on the bench when play resumes “in order to protect them.”

It’s not just those head coaches that fall in that age range. New Orleans assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik (67), Lakers assistant coach Lionel Hollins (66) and Houston assistant coach John Lucas (66) will be facing those CDC-issued concerns along with referees Ken Mauer (65) and Michael Smith (65). A source close to the situation told NBC Sports that older NBA referees have not yet been given word about whether they will be going to Orlando.

The expectation here is NBA head coaches will go to the bubble and perform their duties as leaders of the team, even if it means bypassing certain recommendations. According to ESPN, NBA team personnel are expected to volunteer medical records to a panel of physicians to assess their level of serious illness due to coronavirus. To Gandhi and Binney, it’s an important, if controversial, step toward treating each person as their own case, rather than grouping them in larger pools of people. 

“One of the things that distinguishes epidemiology from medicine is thinking about populations versus thinking about individuals,” Gandhi says. “What we’re talking about is probabilities. Among all 25-year olds, the likelihood that somebody would have a bad outcome is less than among all 71-year olds. But if you put one 71-year old versus one 25-year old, it’s true we can’t say the same.”

This echoes the point that Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, the 60-year-old president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, made to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski last week, saying Silver “admitted that he jumped the gun” in saying there might be special protocols in place for older coaches.

Gandhi says that the current scientific literature shows that age is a significant factor, even after controlling for other comorbidity factors. But it’s not enough to prohibit those 65 years old and up from going to Orlando. Binney agrees with that sentiment.

“I’d be really hard-pressed to say, ‘Hey Pop, don’t come to Orlando,’” Binney says. “I don’t know that there’s much that I would advise them to do that I wouldn’t advise everyone to do. Everybody wear a mask at all times when you’re not playing ball or in your room alone. I can’t speak to it from a legal perspective but you do want to recognize the risk and build a system that is safe for Pop. Don’t build a system that is safe for a 25-year-old but isn’t for Pop. Build one that is safe for Pop and by extension that is safe for other players.”

Putting aside the age dynamic, there is a racial component to the coronavirus that Gandhi and Binney wanted to address given that Black people are dying at a rate nearly two times higher than their population share, according to COVIDTracking. On the surface, that’s a staggering statistic, especially for a league whose player population is 75 percent Black. Does that mean that LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Russell Westbrook are inherently more at risk than, say, Luka Doncic? Hardly. In reality, according to Binney and Gandhi, it points to why many players like James, Antetokounmpo and Westbrook are protesting around America.

“Black people are not dying more because they're Black,” Binney says. “They’re dying (more) because of systemic racism. They’re dying because of underlying social, political and economic systems that are leading them to having higher comorbidities, higher rates of being uninsured, worse treatment by our healthcare system. That’s more likely what we’re seeing. I don’t look at someone and say, because you’re Black, you’re higher risk. It’s because how Black people, on average, are treated in the system versus whites.”

To Gandhi, the “why” is more important than the “who,” especially when it comes to socioeconomic factors that come into play.

“Most people who have more money have larger houses and have greater ability to separate,” Gandhi says. “When we take the construct of African-Americans seem to be dying at higher rates than other races, and try to apply it to the NBA, it doesn’t really fit. LeBron James may be African-American but his socioeconomic status and his ability to access healthcare is dramatically different than the average person. I think we need more nuance (in the conversation).”

Gandhi goes on to say that studies show that risk of becoming infected once you’re exposed is not likely to be affected by race. It’s not fair to say that Black NBA athletes are more susceptible to getting coronavirus than their white peers. But age does appear to be a significant variable in how people respond to infection, which is something that older individuals like Popovich and Mauer will have to weigh.

“The folks who are older,” Gandhi says, “are more likely to have a severe illness, more likely to be hospitalized and more likely to die.”

What about leaving the bubble?

When it comes to best practices for managing coronavirus risk, Gandhi points to the HIV epidemic as a lesson. Guidelines that insisted on total sexual abstinence did not work, at least not for long. The more effective model is to recognize human nature’s limitations and offer guidance on how to manage risky behavior -- or what epidemiologists call harm-reduction strategies.

Likewise, it’s hard for Binney and Gandhi to recommend a strict quarantine for six weeks in the NBA bubble as it’s currently constructed. Instead, Binney suggests teams outline a clear set of rules about acceptable reasons to leave the bubble and the possible sanctions or protocols that would follow. That way, players can determine the risks and benefits for themselves.

One compromise, Binney suggests, might be to have a selective program in which players can still do daily testing even when outside the bubble. In that case, if one player gets to leave, it’d be hard to imagine other players not trying to follow suit.

The NBA is planning to mandate a 10-day quarantine for any player that leaves the bubble, according to multiple reports. Gandhi believes the 10-day quarantine would not only protect players from potentially spreading the disease but that rule could also serve as a deterrent.

“I’d imagine that’s also a disincentive,” Gandhi says. “It’s one thing, ‘I’m going to miss three days to go home, but I’m going to miss all of the games in the next 10 days after I get back?’ 

Hopefully that creates a disincentive. I’d imagine there will be considerable peer pressure to say, ‘Hey, we need you, we can’t lose you for the next 10 days’.”

Like the HIV epidemic, you want to make sure players feel a sense of autonomy and control rather than feeling held hostage by the virus, which might hurt a player’s morale and overall adherence to the rules.

“Instead, you want to teach people how to reduce risk and reduce the harm from that risk, but not necessarily abstain,” Gandhi says. “We’re all in this area right now. We all are willing to take some risks, but we just have to be calculated on which risks to take.”

Leaving the bubble to tend to your family? Understandable. Leaving the bubble to go to a nightclub? Not so much. There’s a middle ground, which teams should strongly consider. 

Binney points out that he and his friends are planning to go to bar trivia on Monday night for the first time since the pandemic shut down. (Yes, epidemiologists have social lives.) But Binney says he spoke with the owner and it will be outside at spread-out tables. Masks are required and answers will be texted to the host, not delivered by hand like normal. Binney is making sure they won’t be sharing drinks or engaging in close contact with other people.

This is a harm-reduction strategy. It’s something for the NBA to keep in mind, especially if they allow players to break the bubble.

“If we’re going to restart the NBA, and you’re going to be able to be paid, then I’m sorry, you don’t get to go to nightclubs and try to meet people,” Binney said. “You just shouldn’t do that. You want to go and sit outside on the patio and dine or have a beer, or having a couple people over for barbecue outside ... keep it relatively small. I think those are some small things that we can start doing.”

Likewise, Gandhi has allowed his kids to return to youth sports, but with exceptions. Last week, his son stayed home rather than playing in a tournament that brought teams in from around the state of Georgia. That seemed prime for a super-spreader event. Meanwhile, his daughter goes to soccer practice, but only plays in games that are within their small town.

“Sporting events which bring together large numbers of people, they have a very high risk of a superspreading event,” Gandhi says. “Trivia at the bar on the outdoor patio with tables spread apart is a much lower likelihood.”

What’s worse: one infection on multiple teams or multiple infections on a single team?

The NBA has said that one positive test will not be enough to shut down the entire system, but little is known about the contingency plans around multiple positive tests.

“What I fear is the wildfire scenario,” Gandhi says. “Once something is introduced, how quickly is it going to spread? The multiple cases within a team is approximating that even more.”

Both scenarios are bad, but Gandhi believes multiple infections on the same team would be worse. This isn’t to downplay the seriousness of multiple teams having a single infection. That would suggest something different, that the league would have to tighten the bubble. Contact tracing would have to be initiated to find commonalities in those infections. Maybe a restaurant server or contact with golf course employees was the culprit.

“How is this virus getting in? You’d see if you could plug that,” Binney says.

But if the coronavirus spreads quickly within the team, it might cause a breakdown in the whole system. 

“If you see a cluster within a team, you would have to shut that team down for a couple weeks,” Binney says. “And how do you do that in the middle of the playoffs? That seems disastrous (competition-wise). If you saw multiple teams, each with clusters, that’s when you’d think things are getting out of control and you may need to bring the hammer down on everything. That would be the real nightmare scenario for me.”

Are there long-term concerns?

Playing in the NBA bubble shouldn’t be just a decision about the 2019-20 season. This should be a career decision.

“What we’re learning is that even if you don’t become so sick that you end up in ICU, there can be some very serious long-term symptoms associated,” says Gandhi. “For an athlete, that can be more devastating than for the average person.”

While the conversation of high risk is associated with older age, getting sick may have longer lasting effects. Imagine if a free-agent-to-be gets sick and misses the postseason. Uncertainty about the long-term impact may depress his earning potential on the market.

“We want to design a system that is keeping our older coaches and referees safe,” Gandhi says, “but we want to keep our younger individuals safe too, because if they were to lose a year of not being able to put up the stats they want, not being able to play the minutes they want, that could have a devastating effect.

“If you want to be cynical about the dollars and cents of it, there is a jeopardy for younger players as well, not just the coaches, referees and athletic staff.”

This is the great mystery about the coronavirus. 

“What everyone wants to know is how likely is it that an athlete would suffer long-term lung or other organ damage that jeopardizes their career,” Binney says. “My response to that is nobody on planet Earth, that we know of, has had this disease for more than seven months. It’s literally impossible for me to tell you that. I literally can’t tell you anything about what this disease does in a human body after seven months. That knowledge doesn’t exist in the universe.”

Binney adds that studies suggest that living on a ventilator for an extended period of time does have long-term negative impacts on the lungs and other organs of the body. While we don’t know what happens with coronavirus patients beyond seven months, we do know some of the life-saving treatments may have damaging ripple effects down the line. 

Finally, Gandhi mentions that blood clots also are a unique characteristic of COVID-19 compared to other infectious diseases, which is alarming for NBA players that already may be more susceptible to blood clots due to extensive air travel. Binney and Gandhi both agree that more research needs to be done to learn more about the long-term effects.

“The most important thing I want people to understand is how little we understand,” Binney says.

To that end, Gandhi offered a chilling send-off.

“We’re still very early in this pandemic,” Gandhi says. “It’s important that we be clear: we’re not bringing sports back because things are better now. We’re bringing sports back because we’re tired of not having them.”

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

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

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NBC Sports

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

The NBA recently released a 113-page health and safety protocol for the 22-team NBA restart.

Will it be enough to keep the players safe in the NBA bubble?

“There are millions and millions of people and thousands of activities that are far riskier than what the NBA is trying to attempt here,” said Nate Duncan on The Habershow podcast with NBC Sports national NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh.

Duncan, the host of a popular NBA (Dunc’d On Basketball) and COVID (Covid Daily News) podcast, does not anticipate a large spike in positive COVID-19 tests among NBA players.  

“Once we actually get into the bubble, between that point and the end of the season, I think fewer than 16 players will test positive,” Duncan said.

LISTEN TO THE HABERSHOW HERE

Here are the timestamps for Haberstroh’s interview with Duncan:

8:10  The NBA's rules for the bubble

17:20  Why Disney staffers don't necessarily need to be tested daily

32:10  The biggest threat to the bubble

42:30 Why the NBA could be in big trouble for next season

46:50  Whether the NBA should finish this season or not

For more from Haberstroh, listen to his conversation with TrueHoops’s Henry Abbott on life inside the NBA bubble

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

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NBC Sports

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

With the NBA heading to Orlando next week, there is no shortage of storylines to follow in the leadup to the league’s late-July restart. Everyone will be closely monitoring the coronavirus front. Go ahead and brace yourself for silly asterisk talk. Keep an eye on the lack of home-court advantage. The mental health aspect of spending months in a bubble will be a challenge but maybe also an opportunity

But in my mind, no storyline is more fascinating than the immediate future of the New Orleans Pelicans. Between New Orleans’ explosive young roster, led by teenage phenom Zion Williamson, potential coronavirus complications on the floor and the bench, and a run at the No. 8 seed out West, no team embodies the full spectrum of conflicting emotions heading into the NBA bubble quite like the Pelicans. 

By all indications, all systems remain a go for Williamson. The plan is for him to continue progressing toward playing in Orlando, but, like the rest of the league, the Pelicans are not yet authorized for five-on-five work with their players. How Zion or any other player’s body responds to four months without organized basketball is anyone’s guess. 

Let’s assume Williamson does make the trip. That in itself is great news for the Pelicans, for fans, and, most notably, TV partners. 

It’s not a surprise the league put Williamson and the Pelicans front and center in a 6:30 p.m. ET tip-off against the Utah Jazz on ESPN to kick off the restart. New Orleans was booked for a franchise-record 30 national TV appearances in Williamson’s rookie season -- with good reason. According to ESPN tracking, national TV ratings were 30 percent higher for Williamson’s national TV games than the average nationally televised game. 

Zion-related ticket sales saw a similar boost. In road games that Williamson played, attendance in those visiting arenas soared to 19,022 fans on average, a towering figure that would have ranked No. 1 in road attendance for any team. By comparison, Anthony Davis and the 2018-19 Pelicans ranked just 19th in road attendance.

It’s worth noting that part of the surge in excitement was due to Williamson missing the first three-plus months of the season with a knee injury. However, once Williamson took the court in late January, he more than lived up to the hype. The 19-year-old was a marvel on the boards and showed far better playmaking skills than many expected. No teenager has ever posted a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) north of 22.0 in the NBA. Not LeBron, not Luka, not Kobe, not AD. 

Zion, entering Orlando play, is at 24.2. This is rarified air among rarified air. 

Now, it’s true that plenty of stud rookies put up monster numbers without corresponding team success (Kyrie Irving’s rookie season comes to mind). And yes, the Pelicans haven’t exactly lit the world on fire this season, but they’re 10-9 in games that Zion plays and 18-27 in games that he doesn’t. If you drill down even further, a superstar-level impact -- not just box score stats -- begins to emerge.

In the 565 minutes that Williamson played this season, the Pelicans have outscored opponents by 120 points, which works out to plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions. For any player, that’s an incredible figure. Among All-Stars, only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Kawhi Leonard have higher on-court ratings. For a teenager, that’s obscene.

Worse yet for the league is the fact that the Pelicans are in prime position to maximize Williamson’s talents both now and in the future. Veterans Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors and JJ Redick helped boost Williamson’s on-court numbers this year, while Lonzo Ball and All-Star forward Brandon Ingram, both just 22 years old, feature complementary skill sets to Williamson.

Knowing what kind of once-in-a-generation talent they had on their hands, the Pelicans didn’t want to overdo it with his minutes early on. But in time Williamson regularly played between 30 and 35 minutes and produced like a top-15 player in the league in those minutes.

It remains to be seen how the Pelicans plan to manage Williamson’s workload in the seeding games. Given his injury history, the long layoff and his immense size, Williamson’s availability will be one of the most fascinating storylines of the restart.

But one has to always wonder if his head coach, Alvin Gentry, will be managing those minutes at all. CDC guidelines state that individuals who are 65 years old or older are high risk for serious illness due to COVID-19. Gentry, who is 65, remains steadfast in his intentions to be in Orlando with his team at full capacity, telling The Athletic on Tuesday: “I plan on coaching without any restrictions. We’ll see if the league comes up with a different plan.” 

The coaching situation around the league remains fluid, sources say. While the National Basketball Players Association and National Basketball Referees Association have both announced ratified agreements on a return-to-play, the coaches’ union has not publicized a similar pact. Gentry’s top assistant coach and defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik, 67, may also be in occupational limbo due his age. According to Dallas Mavericks coach and president of the National Basketball Coaches Association Rick Carlisle, the NBA has told coaches that age alone won’t be sufficient enough of a reason to keep them from going to Orlando. Coaches, along with all staffers, will have their medical records screened by a panel of independent physicians to determine their risk levels.

To give it their best shot at the playoffs, the Pelicans will need all hands on deck. Beyond Williamson and the coaching situation, perhaps the most intriguing part of the Pelicans’ restart is their playoff situation. The Pelicans are currently 3.5 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 spot, tied with the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings in the standings. Historically, a gap that wide is just about insurmountable.

But the Pelicans have been gifted a unique opportunity to punch their ticket into the postseason. New Orleans can earn a play-in series if they finish as the No. 9 seed and are within four games of the No. 8 seed. Heck, the Pelicans could supplant the Grizzlies in the eighth slot altogether.

Using win-loss records from the 2019-20 season, the Pelicans have the easiest strength of schedule of all the 22 Orlando-bound teams, with an average opponent win percentage of .495.  

They could fumble out the gate, but it will get easier. After two tough games against the Jazz and Clippers, the final six games on the Pelicans’ schedule will be against teams with losing records: Memphis, Sacramento, Washington, San Antonio, Sacramento (again) and Orlando. Even better for Pelicans’ chances, their strength of schedule pales in comparison to Memphis (.603), Portland (.601), San Antonio (.567) and to a lesser extent, Sacramento (.530). 

The path is there. If the Pelicans go 7-1 in the seeding games and the Grizzlies sputter with a 3-5 record or worse, the Pelicans would earn the No. 8 seed (barring a similarly dominant run by Portland, San Antonio or Sacramento).

At first glance, this appears to be an inside job by the NBA to get Williamson into the playoffs, but that’s not what’s happening here. With a brutal front-loaded schedule back in November and December, the Pelicans were supposed to have the easiest remaining strength of schedule down the stretch. The soft slate in Orlando actually maintains the integrity of the team’s original 82-game itinerary.

A lot can change between now and the Pelicans’ July 30 game. Medical staffs around the league remain worried about how players’ bodies will adjust to the new normal and a short ramp-up time. Four months without organized five-on-five basketball is unheard of in these players’ careers. 

And then there are the virus concerns. Three unnamed Pelicans players tested positive with coronavirus this week and there’s no telling how that might impact their health on or off the court. On Wednesday, Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie tweeted that he’s still feeling ill nearly a week after his initial positive test. The self-isolation programs may be completely prudent from an infectious-disease perspective, but it’s undeniably troublesome for a player’s conditioning and readiness to play. It’s unclear at this point if the Pelicans players who tested positive are symptomatic or expected to play without restriction in Orlando.

Raising more questions for New Orleans is the free agency side of things. Favors will be an unrestricted free agency this summ-- uh, fall and will be looking to cash in after a strong age-29 season. Meanwhile, Ingram will be a restricted free agent hoping for a big pay day from New Orleans or elsewhere. If either of those players feel significantly less than 100 percent in Orlando, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them sit out to preserve their long-term health and earning potential.

You can say what you want about LeBron James’ Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and the rest of the contenders (don’t sleep on Houston or Philly, by the way). But in my book, no team is more compelling over the next month than the Pelicans. If Williamson is playing his full minutes and they’re able to send their complete coaching staff, I’m picking the Pelicans to make the playoffs and face none other than the Lakers in the first round. After the Davis trade a year ago, wouldn’t that be fun? Come to think of it, that matchup might be the most intriguing aspect of it all.

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