Haberstroh Article

Why the NBA cancelled Kings-Pelicans amid coronavirus chaos

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.

Nightmare scenario: NBA in uncharted territory as coronavirus hits league

Nightmare scenario: NBA in uncharted territory as coronavirus hits league

It’s almost impossible to keep things quiet in the NBA. Players and coaches have multiple press conferences on game days. With the touch of a finger on their smartphone, hundreds of front office executives and staffers can reach a reporter and get their message out. Just about every player has a social media platform to share what’s on their mind.

But on the topic of coronavirus, just about everyone went silent in recent weeks. In talking with executives, coaches and players around the league, the past couple weeks have been an exercise in uncertainty.

How bad is this virus? Would games be canceled? Could they be postponed? Could games actually be played with fans not permitted to attend?

All of these questions had complicated and largely unknownable answers. Almost every stakeholder stayed out of the public view and kept their thoughts private. Except for Tilman Fertitta.

On Friday afternoon, Fertitta, the billionaire owner of the Houston Rockets and Golden Nugget Casinos, joined CNBC’s Power Lunch program to discuss the coronavirus’ impact on the financial markets, the oil industry and of course, the NBA.

The face of the “Billion Dollar Buyer” cable TV show, Fertitta has certainly earned his right to speak on business matters. Fertitta is worth $4.9 billion, according to Forbes, and in 2017, bought the Rockets for a cool $2.2 billion. 

When asked on the show about whether the Coronavirus scare was impacting attendance, Fertitta took an opportunity to joke that “the only no-show was us last night against the Clippers. Our fans were all there.”

Fertitta went on.

“That’s what I like to see because we’re not panicking, and we shouldn’t,” Fertitta said. “And this is just my opinion: I would hope that we would just suspend for a week or two weeks. But you don’t want to play games with no fans. That’s never going to work.”

Four days later, at roughly 2 p.m. ET on Wednesday afternoon, the Golden State Warriors announced that they would play its March 12 game against Brooklyn with no fans inside Chase Center. 

It was the first sign that the coronavirus situation was starting to unfurl, but it was far from the last domino to fall Wednesday.

By 9:30 p.m. ET, the NBA announced it was suspending the season. An NBA player had tested positive for the coronavirus. Sources confirmed that Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert was the infected player. 

“The N.B.A. will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic,” the league said in a statement.

The question on everyone’s mind: How and when did Gobert get infected? 

We may never know the exact details. The NBA is a cross-pollination league with teams jetting around the country for multiple games a week. We’re about to find out just how tangled that web really is and why this virus is so terrifying for the parties involved.

* * *

On March 5, much of the NBA world descended upon Boston. I was among them.

It was time for the 14th annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, which draws hundreds of sports media and top executives from all around the world for the two-day event. The Sloan Conference, co-founded by Rockets GM Daryl Morey, has become a tentpole networking event in the NBA schedule sandwiched between the All-Star Weekend in February and the NBA combine in May.

Top executives from the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Rockets were set to speak at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center this year. Players such as Oklahoma City Thunder forward Danilo Gallinari, Boston Celtics forward Jaylen Brown and Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter were also scheduled to attend. Media from just about every national outlet was expected to be present.

But on that Thursday night, concern rippled among the attendees following an ominous public announcement from MIT: 

“Effective immediately, if you are planning any in-person MIT event with more than 150 attendees that will take place between now and Friday, May 15, on campus or off campus, you must postpone, cancel or “virtualize” it.”

Panic began to set in. Attendees quickly pinged each other about whether to make the trip. Eventually, word trickled in that the Sloan Conference -- with over a thousand attendees expected -- would be an exception to the decree. Friday and Saturday’s events would go on as planned, despite MIT’s alert on Thursday night.

And so Friday’s events kicked off with a full slate of panels beginning at 8 a.m. ET and ending at 6:15 pm ET. Hundreds and hundreds of rows of seats would be occupied by attendees, most of them packed close together. In hallways, people awkwardly elbow-bumped each other in lieu of handshakes. Convention workers wiped down handrails on escalators and door handles throughout the day. 

Following a dozen panels on the first day of Sloan,, a horde of NBA media hopped in Ubers and traveled across town to cover the Boston Celtics’ Friday night game.

Boston’s opponent?

The Utah Jazz.

Gobert played in that game and finished with nine points and seven rebounds in 33 minutes. It’s not clear if Gobert was infected or contagious at that point. But the NBA’s new media rules, which banned media in locker rooms as a temporary precaution, wouldn’t go into effect until days later on Monday. At that point, the media was free to visit with players in the locker room. 

And visit they did. At least one Sloan attendee talked directly to Gobert up close on Friday and possibly more. After that game in Boston, Gobert and his Utah teammates flew to Detroit and the writer returned to his hotel ahead of the next day’s slate of Sloan events.

On Saturday, the conference went on as planned, with several attendees having been around the Jazz the night before and mingling with the hundreds of conference-goers the very next day. By nature, a conference is a networking event, a chance for strangers to get to know each other, exchange business cards, shake hands and travel back home. But now, it feels like something very different.

The Jazz played the Pistons on Saturday night. They played the Toronto Raptors on Monday in Utah. They were supposed to play the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday before the game was called off at the last moment.

On Wednesday night, the Raptors told their players to self-quarantine for 14 days, according to The Athletic’s Shams Charania. The Celtics, the team that hosted Gobert's Jazz, were also told to self-quarantine, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst.

And now all I can think of is those thousands of people at those games and at the conference. Surely, they’re wondering the same thing I am: When did Gobert become infected? Am I next?

* * *

It’s far too early to speculate about when the NBA will resume games, if at all this season. The NBA is in full-blown information gathering mode. The scope of the spread may not be known for days or even weeks.

On Wednesday, the NBA discussed with the Board of Governors the plan going forward in case the situation escalated, deciding whether to play in empty arenas or go on a temporary hiatus. Leading up to that meeting, I spoke with one of the Governors about the possibility of playing in empty arenas for the rest of the season in light of the Warriors’ announcement. The long-time executive downplayed that likelihood.

“We will move games to neutral courts in Idaho where there aren't any cases before we went to a nuclear option,” the high-ranking team official said, who wasn’t authorized by the league to speak publicly on the issue.

Obviously, things have changed.

As a rule of thumb, the source said, the NBA makes an average of $1.2 million in gate revenue per regular season game and $2 million for each playoff game. With 259 of 1,230 regular season games remaining, that means roughly $300 million of ticket revenue lost if fans couldn’t purchase tickets. Over the past decade, on average, there have been 83 playoff games in each postseason, which would lead to another loss of about $166 million. 

That’s nearly $500 million in estimated lost ticket revenue if the NBA doesn’t allow fans to attend the full slate of games. But according to sources around the league, crowds were already dwindling with some teams seeing 60 percent the normal capacity on Wednesday’s games. 

Even if the NBA allowed fans to attend, would they?

* * *

We’re in uncharted territory here. At this point, there are way more unknowns than knowns as the NBA attempts to untangle the web.

But we do know that China and Italy have essentially shut down. It’s not out of the question that the United States, at some point, follows suit.

One person who has first-hand knowledge of the Chinese infection trajectory is Tilman Fertitta, whose global businesses have been greatly impacted by the coronavirus, which began spreading in early December in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. By late January, it reached Beijing. 

And now it’s in Fertitta’s league. 

“You just got to take care of yourself,” Fertitta said on CNBC. “There’s no reason to panic even when they announce that another 100,000 people have it, OK? People are going to get this. People are at home with it, just don’t go to work and you don’t give it to other people, don’t go to a ballgame and give it to other people. Everybody just needs to take care of themselves and we all need to have good habits right now.

“We’re going to find out every day that more people have this, but we’ve got to go on about our lives. But you’re not going to die from this. You can take your rarest diseases that you get in America and not as many people are going to die from the Coronavirus as die from these [rare diseases].”

It’s at this point, whether intentional or not, that the CNBC host cut off Fertitta mid-sentence and changed the subject to Fertitta’s restaurant businesses under his Landry’s empire.

Landry’s owns and operates more than 600 properties including Landry’s Seafood, Bubba Gump Shrimp, Morton’s The Steakhouse and McCormick & Schmick’s, among others. Some of them have locations in China. 

One such establishment is a Morton’s Steakhouse in Beijing located on the popular Jinbao street, a 220-seat restaurant that its website boasts “has become a venue of choice for many influential businessmen aiming to impress clients and the discerning new Chinese elite.” 

Fertitta was asked how his Chinese restaurant businesses were faring after a rapid spread that only hit Beijing less than two months ago. 

His answer is ominous for the NBA, which has only just begun this fight.

“Let me use just one word: bad,” Fertitta said while chuckling. “You know, it’s so funny. I’m going to tell you something funny, is the fact that -- and it’s not funny -- but we were finally able to reopen a Morton’s in Beijing the other day and this has never happened in all my 30, 40 years with any of my restaurants, but we (re)opened the restaurant …”

Fertitta continued.

“And the sales for the day were zero.”

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

Steph Curry showcasing how injury caution helps stars, hurts NBA

NBC Sports

Steph Curry showcasing how injury caution helps stars, hurts NBA

SAN FRANCISCO -- If you didn’t show up early, you missed it. About an hour before tipoff on Sunday, Stephen Curry put on a show with Golden State Warriors assistant coach Bruce Fraser, running through his signature pregame warmup and dazzling the fans with his effortless swishes from just about every spot inside halfcourt.

After about 20 minutes of the Curry show, it was John Wall’s turn. The Wizards’ five-time All-Star worked up a sweat on the other side of the floor, running through dribbling drills and jump shots before walking across halfcourt toward the tunnel. Once he reached the Warriors’ side of the floor, he looked around to see if any of his opponents in blue and yellow were coming around.

With the coast clear, Wall put the ball in his left hand, trotted toward the rim and skied for a left-handed tomahawk jam worthy of a dunk contest reel. That would be the last we’d see of Wall and Curry in action on Sunday.

With that, Curry and Wall -- two of the top four highest-paid players in the game -- went to their respective locker rooms, showered up and dressed in their street clothes to watch their teams play from the sidelines in a Sunday matinee. The Wizards won 124-110, giving the Warriors a league-high 48th defeat, another reminder of the void left by Curry’s increasingly long absence.

This is the new normal in the NBA. While many expected Curry to play on Sunday, the Warriors are taking extra precaution to make sure he’s ready. The same goes for Wall, who, in all likelihood, won’t return from his Achilles injury until next season when he’ll have accrued a staggering 21 months away from the game. Caution has become one of the NBA’s sexiest buzzwords, with star players seemingly taking longer and longer to suit back up.

* * *

When Curry makes his highly-anticipated return this season, it’ll be a refreshing statement that the regular season does matter.
When it comes to major injuries to star players, it seems the timetable for return keeps getting stretched further and further in the regular season. Rather than have players return for the final month or two of the season like in Curry’s case, teams have often elected for the gap year. Here’s a quick summary of extended timetables to big-name players over the past couple years:

• Kristaps Porzingis took 20 months to return from his torn ACL suffered in February of 2018, an injury that typically comes with an 11-month recovery time. Porzingis is a bit of an anomaly at 7-foot-3 and transferring teams in the midst of his rehab, but it’s still nearly twice as long as what we normally see.

• Victor Oladipo, who suffered a torn quad tendon, was out for 12 months, more than five months longer than Tony Parker’s timetable in 2017 with a similar injury.

• John Wall, who hasn’t played in an NBA game since 2018 and suffered an Achilles rupture in February of last year, is still projected to miss the season. If he returns next October, 20 months will have passed since his Achilles procedure, 21 months since his last appearance in a game.

• Zion Williamson was projected by the New Orleans Pelicans to miss six to eight weeks after meniscus surgery. He ended up missing 13 weeks.

• DeMarcus Cousins took almost 12 months with his Achilles tear, slightly longer than the average timeline of 9.8 months. A 10-month timeline would have Kevin Durant returning sometime in April, but he’s expected to miss the season. Klay Thompson has already been declared out for the season as well.

• Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers’ starting center, has been sidelined 11 months with a compound fracture in his right leg and still has no timetable for return. The only comparable injury in recent NBA history was Paul George’s horrific injury in Las Vegas. It sidelined him for eight months. (You can quibble with Nurkic’s star designation here, but the Blazers’ spot in the standings say otherwise).

So, what’s going on here? Polling some executives over the past few weeks, it’s clear that the league over the years has shifted the power structure to appear more player-centric, erring on the side of caution to protect their star player and also demonstrate a certain appreciation for the player’s long-term career.

As for the origin of this recent trend, several pointed to a single event: Kawhi Leonard forcing his way out of San Antonio in 2018 after a disagreement over how to handle his quad issue.

“Kawhi scared the living hell out of everyone,” said one GM. “If it can happen to the Spurs, it can happen to anybody.”

Kawhi Leonard winning the 2019 NBA Finals after an aggressive rest strategy in Toronto also gave teams more validation in taking their time with a player’s injury recovery. Last week, the Minnesota Timberwolves were fined by the league for violating the league’s resting policy after resting a healthy D’Angelo Russell in the first night of a back-to-back set on Feb. 23. The Wolves issued a statement, defending their action:

“We are a player-centric organization that's focused on learning and optimizing our players' bodies. As a new player in our program, we chose to rest D'Angelo in order to learn his body better and to optimize his health during a difficult stretch of games and travel.”

* * *

You couldn’t blame fans who were watching Sunday’s pregame performances and wondering why Curry and Wall couldn’t play. By the untrained eye, they certainly looked capable. Recovering from a broken hand, Curry had been eyeing this game for quite some time as his highly-anticipated return from four months of rehab. But late in the week, the Warriors decided to hold off at least for a few more days, sending Curry to scrimmage with its G League affiliate Santa Cruz Warriors. On Friday, the Warriors said they expect Curry to play “at some point in March.”

Perhaps it was destiny that Curry would sit Sunday out; the Warriors and Wizards rank No. 1 and No. 2 in most games lost due to injury this season, each logging over 250 player-games worth of unavailability, according to Man Games Lost injury tracking. Thompson, recovering from a torn ACL suffered in June, wasn’t in attendance and, like Wall, isn’t expected to return this season.

Curry coming back will be a huge lift for not just the Warriors, but the NBA as a whole. Ratings across the board have been in a tumble this season. The reasons for that audience decline can be debated ad nauseum, but it’s hard to get past Sunday’s Chase Center scene. The league’s best players were in street clothes or, in the case of Draymond Green (knee) and Thompson, not there at all.

The NBA needs the regular season to matter. Fair or not, each time a star player sits out in the regular season, it’s a signal to fans that regular season games just aren’t worth the risk. Over time, it’s worth wondering what that will do to trust in the product.

The Warriors certainly could have held Curry out for the season, protected his body from harm and maximized their draft night ping-pong balls. But instead, it’s expected Curry will suit up for the bulk of the final two months. It’s a little later than many expected, but the Warriors should have around 20 more games with their two-time NBA MVP this season.

Curry has been itching to come back. He privately targeted this game against the Washington Wizards as his return to the court and has been preparing as such behind the scenes. Whispers about the March 1 target date reached the public in mid-January and when reports surfaced a week ago that Curry would come back March 1, the Warriors weren’t exactly thrilled.

Shortly after the injury on Oct. 30, the Warriors sat down with Curry and his camp at Chase Center with an extremely detailed spreadsheet outlining the day-to-day rehabilitation schedule with specific target metrics and plans for each progression. Brandon Payne, Curry’s longtime trainer, was in that room and came out of it with confidence that Curry would be back stronger than ever.

“Really well planned out and detailed,” Payne said.

The Warriors’ medical staff has endured a brutal several months with high-profile injuries when stakes were highest. It’s impossible to view Curry’s timetable without considering that backdrop. The team is fighting a league-wide perception that players have strong-armed the team’s expert medical opinion. In an interview with Yahoo! Sports in August, Durant scoffed at the notion that the Warriors were to blame for his torn Achilles, saying he personally targeted Game 5 before the Finals even started. He played in Game 5, and the worst case scenario played out -- a torn Achilles.

Last month, DeMarcus Cousins, who has suffered a torn Achilles, torn quad and torn ACL in the past two years and change, told the “All The Smoke” podcast that he doesn’t regret fast-tracking his rehab from a torn quad to return to the NBA Finals, but admitted that he “had no business on the floor. None, whatsoever.”

Given their commentary, it’s understandable why the Warriors have stood firm on Curry’s return and pushed back on his wishes to return sooner. Team trainers and physicians are employed to protect the hyper-competitive players from themselves and outline the most medically-sound plan of action when it comes to their health. Cousins’ and Durant’s comments put the Warriors in a tough spot, suggesting that the players were willing to override the medical opinion and lay it all on the line for the potential glory of winning the Finals.

Curry returning in March, though a little later than he hoped, is a refreshing turn of events for those who want the regular season to have some juice while gap years seem to be considered the norm these days. This is not a knock on players or teams who are operating in good faith, utilizing the best medical data and expertise that billions can buy. When it comes to player health and careers at stake, exercising caution is a noble and worthy means to an end.

The Warriors are certainly doing that with Curry, even if it makes him frustrated in the short-term. But if we’re looking for reasons why NBA audiences seem to be shrinking, the longer timetables and sitting stars simply can’t be ignored as a factor. In the long run, taking a few extra months now could mean an extra year later in a player’s career. The hope is that fans will stick around long enough to see that benefit.

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