James Harden’s whereabouts were finally revealed, but the mystery was hardly solved. Just before midnight on Tuesday, the 2017-18 MVP entered the NBA bubble in Orlando, joining the hundreds of NBA players already on location for the resumption of the 2019-20 season.
The public knew this bit of information solely because the Houston Rockets’ official Twitter feed posted a video of the Rockets star walking into the Disney property, paired with the caption, “The Beard has arrived!”
Other than that, Harden’s trip to Orlando was kept secret.
This was big news. The NBA’s leading scorer hadn’t been seen from, or heard from, in several days as his team practiced in Orlando without him. Rumors explaining the superstar’s absence swirled on the internet and ran throughout the insider gossip mill around league circles.
Reporters tried to get to the bottom of it. The Rockets had touched down in Orlando four days prior and had generally avoided addressing the elephant in the room. The Rockets’ other star, Russell Westbrook, was also nowhere to be seen either when practices began.
For multiple days, the reasons for their absences were not made known. Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni artfully dodged multiple questions on Zoom calls with the media.
But on Sunday night, some clarity arrived. Westbrook broke the news on social media that he had tested positive for coronavirus and was “feeling well” with hopes that he’d return to the team soon.
As for Harden? An explanation remained elusive. Despite Harden’s documented arrival, there was still no official update from the NBA or the Rockets. Was he sick? Was he dealing with a personal matter? Was he injured? Did he, like Westbrook, have coronavirus?
These are questions that bookmakers in Vegas were asking, and without answers, they had to take unusual action. As of Thursday afternoon, major American sportsbooks like BetMGM, Caesars, SuperBook, William Hill and DraftKings were not taking bets on the July 31 game between the Rockets and Dallas Mavericks game. It was the only game from the NBA’s re-opening weekend removed from consideration.
“We had to take it off the board,” says Nick Bogdanovich, the director of trading at William Hill, one of America’s leading sports book operators. “We’re waiting on more information.”
On Thursday night, Harden finally returned to Rockets practice and said his delay was due to “a family issue.”
If Harden’s absence was in any way related to the coronavirus, sportsbooks will likely never get the confirmation they seek -- unless Harden OK’s it. According to league sources, information related to COVID-19 will not be released publicly without the player’s expressed approval as part of an agreement between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association.
This new policy is already creating problems for sportsbooks that depend on accurate and timely player health information. The Rockets’ situation -- involving two of the best players in the league -- threw a wrench into sportsbook operations and demonstrated how a lack of transparency can impact league partnerships.
“I’m dumbfounded by it,” says USBookmaking president Vic Salerno, who has opened and operated over a hundred sportsbooks across America. “It’s bad for us that we don’t have transparency. It’s bad for everybody, I believe. (Contracting COVID-19) is not a stigma that you’ve done something wrong.”
Over the years, Salerno has taken issue with the league’s policy on reporting injuries. In 2018, the Sports Betting Hall of Fame member testified in front of Illinois lawmakers that bookmakers should not be required to pay integrity or royalty fees to the NBA or other sports leagues. Salerno argued that LeBron James’ hidden “pretty much broken” hand injury during the 2018 NBA Finals invalidated the league’s position of trustworthiness.
After years of staunch opposition to sports betting, the NBA has done a U-turn on the issue and collected millions in business deals with betting houses. Since the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking 2018 repeal of a federal ban on sports betting, the NBA has brokered numerous partnerships with sportsbooks including MGM Resorts, DraftKings, Bet Stars, theScore, FanDuel and WilliamHill. Financial details are scarce, but ESPN reported that the MGM Sports partnership, the first of its kind, to be worth over $25 million for the NBA.
The partnership draws greater attention to the lack of clear information. Over at SuperBook at the Westgate Casino in Las Vegas, the Rockets-Mavericks game was removed from their mobile app and their brick-and-mortar sportsbook as soon as news broke that Harden and Westbrook did not initially travel to Orlando.
“You have to read between the lines,” Jeff Sherman, VP of risk management and oddsmaking at Westgate SuperBook, said in a phone interview this week. “It’s all a unique situation for us.”
The NBA has only reported numbers of positive cases. In the latest press release on Monday, the NBA said 19 NBA players have tested positive since July 1. No names have been officially released, making it a guessing game for those inside and outside the league.
By withholding information regarding the coronavirus, Salerno believes the NBA could be creating a larger problem. If a star player tests positive for coronavirus and needs to miss time, let alone an entire playoff series, that intel could be extremely valuable to bettors. Under the current policy, the league and the union are leaving open the possibility for someone to leak that information to interested parties, even if it’s unintentional.
“It’s like insider trading in the stock market,” Salerno says. “It will become insider information if they don’t become transparent. People are out there looking for every advantage. You can’t tell me that a player in the NBA gets the coronavirus and the team doesn’t know. The team (staffers) can tell their cousins or whomever.”
With several weeks remaining until the playoffs begin, many sportsbooks continue to list odds on whether the Rockets will win the NBA or Western Conference title (generally called futures). However, it’s not hard to see how mysterious absences from star players of Westbrook and Harden’s stature could provide enormous problems for sportsbooks in, say, the middle of the conference finals. In a star-heavy league.
“A star player in the NBA is worth a lot,” Salerno says. “Even more than a quarterback in a football game.”
For example, at SuperBook, the Suns opened as 4.5-point favorites in their opening game against the Washington Wizards. With Wizards star Bradley Beal sitting out the bubble, Sherman says, they moved the Suns to 7.5-point favorites.
“Once in a while, you’ll get (NHL star) Conor McDavid out and we’ll shift the line 20 cents or something like that,” Sherman says. “It doesn’t have the effect of the top NBA players where the spread will go from two to seven.”
On July 4, the Miami Herald reported that three Miami Heat players tested positive for coronavirus. Six days later, Goran Dragic told reporters that Bam Adebayo and Kendrick Nunn didn’t join the team. The Heat have not commented on Adebayo or Nunn’s absences.
Adebayo was the Heat’s All-Star representative, along with Jimmy Butler.
“In hockey, you could fill in with a zamboni guy,” Bogdanovich says. “These NBA players that are worth five, six points … it’s huge.”
On Thursday night, Yahoo! Sports NBA reporter Chris Haynes broke the news that Milwaukee Bucks starting point guard Eric Bledsoe tested positive for coronavirus and didn’t travel to Orlando. The Bucks have not commented on the report, which seems to be par for the course. The Denver Nuggets have yet to reveal how many players traveled to Orlando, but Troy Daniels told media members they only have eight to ten players in the bubble. That means anywhere from seven to nine Nuggets players have yet to arrive.
The lack of transparency has created an awkward situation for head coaches trying to navigate unprecedented waters. At Wednesday’s Lakers practice, reporters asked head coach Frank Vogel about Lakers forward Markieff Morris’ performance in practice, but the coach sidestepped the question, citing privacy concerns.
When asked whether Morris was even in Orlando at all, Vogel declined to answer.
I asked Frank Vogel how Markieff Morris has looked. He said he won't comment on how players are looking in practice to protect their privacy. Then @mcten asked if Morris is here in Orlando. Vogel declined to answer.— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) July 15, 2020
Then, Lakers team beat reporter Mike Trudell broke the news that Morris hasn’t joined the team in Orlando due to “an excused absence.”
As of yet, no one has linked Morris’ absence to a positive test, but the veil of secrecy inevitably yields questions. When Lakers guard Rajon Rondo broke his right thumb at Sunday’s practice, the team quickly announced the injury and said Rondo would undergo surgery to repair the fracture. The lack of transparency for one player’s availability but not for another has confused industry experts, including Salerno.
“What’s the difference between COVID and somebody who pulls a hamstring, tears a knee or breaks a bone?” he asks.
It’s not an easy question to answer. The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement allows teams to divulge medical information relevant to a player’s availability so long as it doesn’t violate HIPAA laws.
Sportsbook oddsmakers were expecting to have knowledge of which NBA players tested positive, but the league’s decision to keep it under wraps caught them by surprise.
“I didn’t know that was going to be the case,” Bogdanovich says. “Eventually it’ll get to us, but we’re in a race with the bettors to get the information first.”
Taking down a game because of lack of transparency isn’t unprecedented. Sportsbooks have dealt with surprising last-minute absences due to load management over the last few years, though the league has updated its protocols to ensure that it rarely, if ever, happens so close to game time.
The difference is that a DNP-Rest only affects one game. A positive test for coronavirus has the potential to impact a string of playoff games and therefore, championship odds.
“It’s going to be a nightmare,” Bogdanovich said. “I don’t want to say it’s impossible because granted, the bettors have the same puzzle to figure out.”
Salerno worries that the NBA’s cloak of anonymity will backfire and every player who is ruled out will be suspected of testing positive for coronavirus.
“Why was that player out? Did he just have a tooth extracted or does he have the coronavirus and he’ll be out for a while? And what do we do with future bets? The totals? Future games? That uncertainty is going to create a lot of problems,” Salerno says.
The NBA bubble presents other betting issues as well. On Thursday afternoon, the Pelicans announced that Zion Williamson would leave the bubble to attend to a family emergency and is expected to return for the season resumption at some point.
Normally, Williamson would be eligible to play right away upon his return. But because of league protocols addressing re-entry to the campus, Williamson must take part in a quarantine for a duration of four to 10 days depending on a variety of factors.
As a result, SuperBook has pulled the Pelicans-Jazz game on July 30, the Pelicans-Clippers game on August 1 and its Western Conference eight-seed playoff prop bet. If the abrupt departure happened closer to tipoff, the ripple effects of a star like Williamson leaving would have been felt far and wide at sportsbooks.
“No big deal this far in advance,” Sherman says.
Everyone in the country is dealing with unprecedented circumstances. The NBA is no different. Sportsbooks having to pull games because of lack of transparency and clarity from the league is a sign of the times.
"It’s rare, obviously,” Bogdanovich says of taking games down. “But it won’t be the last one before Thursday, July 30th. I have a feeling something else will happen. And we’ll have to figure it out. That’s just the way it is.”