Can the NBA Really WFH?

With the season on hold, the league now is closing practice facilities to its players, raising concerns about how fast everyone could get back to playing form, if at all, when things return to normal.
photo of Ric BucherRic Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterMarch 20, 2020

The first hope among NBA personnel, fans and media alike is that concerns over the novel coronavirus can be quelled in time for the league to resume play and at least have some form of postseason action to crown a champion.

The second, as suggested by former NBA player Matt Barnes, is that the hiatus will amount to a vitamin B12 shot for all the participants, resulting in, as Barnes speculated on ESPN, "the best playoffs we've seen."

Given the scenarios the league is facing, though, let's just roll with the first hope, shall we?

"They actually might be the worst," said Memphis Grizzlies veteran forward Anthony Tolliver of potential playoffs this season. "If it was just two weeks and we're back, yes. But if it's two-and-a-half, three months, which is what it's looking like, it's going to be like the start of the season. This is all assuming we play again this season. How it goes in the world and the country will decide that."

What teams and players are allowed to do during the hiatus is what makes epic playoff action a Steph Curry-level long shot.

Which is: not much.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver updated on Sunday night the guidelines provided to all 30 teams last week, league sources say, as far as what players can and can't do to stay ready if or when play is resumed after the league's self-imposed 30-day hiatus that began March 11. (Silver, appearing on ESPN on Wednesday night, seemed to indicate the hiatus could very well be extended into the summer.) The biggest change Silver outlined in his memo is that players are free to leave their team's home market to stay elsewhere during the shutdown, although the league recommends that each team arrange a daily electronic visual check-invia Skype or FaceTime, for example—with every player regardless of their location.

For now, it appears most players are staying put; of the 20-some teams that responded to a query from Bleacher Report, none reported more than two or three players going elsewhere. But that could change when, as league sources say, all team facilities are closed this week on the recommendation of health authorities. The Atlanta Hawks, a source said, voluntarily shut down their practice facility Thursday, and every other team was expected to follow suit.

Some had temporarily already done so. Local authorities implemented policy that left the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings no choice, team officials confirmed. The Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors elected to shut down their facilities and directed all their players to quarantine themselves for 14 days; the Washington Wizards, Dallas Mavericks and Chicago Bulls, league sources said, had kept their facilities closed but planned to open them next week.

Anthony Tolliver has tried to keep working out at home during the NBA's hiatus but wonders how much other players around the league will, or have the access to, do the same.
Anthony Tolliver has tried to keep working out at home during the NBA's hiatus but wonders how much other players around the league will, or have the access to, do the same.John Amis/Associated Press/Associated Press

As of Monday, the Florida teamsMiami Heat and Orlando Magicwere open for business, team sources said, and had nearly their entire rosters coming in on a staggered schedule to work out. The New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns and Charlotte Hornets also had their facilities open and available to players, league insiders said.

Then again, it's not as if players with team practice sites available could do anything remotely similar to their usual routine, thanks to strict protocol outlined by the league office. Nothing beyond individual skill workouts with a coach were allowed, which meant no scrimmaging of any kind. Any type of group workout or film session was prohibited. Only one player was allowed in the weight room at any given time, and those on the court were limited to one player and one coach per basket; it was also recommended that the player be paired with the same coach for every workout during the hiatus. After each player finishes on the court or in the weight room, all equipment has to be "properly and thoroughly disinfected," according to the memo.

Tolliver opted to leave Memphis and return to his offseason home in Texas, in part because he has what he needs to stay in shapenot only weightlifting equipment and cardio machines but also an indoor regulation NBA half court, complete with a shooting machine that collects balls and spits them back out to the shooter.

"I started working out exclusively at my house last summer," Tolliver said. "I always dreamed of having my own gym. That's why I live in Texas; my money goes a lot further. But most guys don't have a setup like mine."

Most guys also don't have the discipline, which is going to be doubly tested by these circumstances. Not having team oversight or the latest equipment readily available or a specific restart date could reduce the urgency to stay in game shape for a lot of players, league insiders said.

"You're usually training for a purpose and a particular start date," one prominent agent said.

Tolliver hasn't done any training with a basketball since the hiatus began, but he said he has been diligent about maintaining his strength, flexibility and cardiovascular condition by lifting weights, using his cardio machines and stretching. Developing that discipline early on is what he credits for carving out a 12-year career and earning more than $30 million despite being undrafted after leaving Creighton University in 2007.

"I'm going to treat this like a mini-offseason," he said. "But I've always been a little different. It's never been about getting in shape for me. I've always tried to maintain my fitness. As a shooter, it's more about needing time to get into a rhythm."

Tolliver estimated that most players will need a two-week notice to ramp up their conditioning before starting any sort of team activity. Once teams are reassembled, they'll need "five to seven days back on the court" to find a collective rhythm, he said.

"It's not as if you're starting up with eight or nine new teammates, so it shouldn't take that long," he said. "I might've forgotten half the plays and need a refresher on those, but other than that, everybody should be able to get back on the same page fairly quickly."

Though the Miami Heat were one of a handful of teams still welcoming players to work out at their facilities, they, along with the other 29 teams, were forced to keep players away by the end of this week.
Though the Miami Heat were one of a handful of teams still welcoming players to work out at their facilities, they, along with the other 29 teams, were forced to keep players away by the end of this week.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press/Associated Press

All that said, the injury factor is sure to be escalated. "I wouldn't be surprised if there was a 25 to 30 percent increase in injuries because we've never seen this before," he said.

Silver also floated the idea in his ESPN interview of playing an exhibition game to provide some relief for basketball-starved fans and potentially as a "giant fundraiser" as well.

"I love the idea, but I think it's a pipe dream," Tolliver said, largely because health authorities are recommending that people not congregate in groups larger than 10. "You'd have to break the rules. You need at least 10 players and three referees. Maybe in a month, after all this has died down a bit, you might be able to have another All-Star Game or something."

Tolliver is more concerned about spreading the virus than contracting it, but he's acutely aware of how unsettling the current climate is for everyone. His wife's aunt, he said, is in the hospital after falling ill last week.

"I'm actually waiting for a day where I don't audibly say, 'Holy crap!'" Tolliver said.

"Sports has been the escape for everybody from real life. This is unprecedented. There's no discretion here. It's worldwide."


Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.

Bucher hosts the podcast, Bucher & Friends, with NFL veteran Will Blackmon and former NBA center Ryan Hollins, available on iTunes

Two-time NBA champion, and current Los Angeles Laker, Danny Green joins The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss the Lakers coronavirus testing and subsequent quarantine, his hopes for finishing the NBA season, his thoughts on how the playoffs should be structured and how he’s spending this unexpected downtime.