True case of the Mondays
On what is supposed to be an upbeat occasion, it was difficult not to dwell on the bad news bulletin out of New Orleans on Media Day ... and the various COVID-19 vaccine tensions elsewhere
Philadelphia at New Orleans on Oct. 20 did not make the NBA's list of marquee TV games for the opening week of the season. The league’s Wednesday night network partners based in Bristol, Conn., might want to rethink that.
Thanks to a thunderbolt from the Pelicans on Media Day Monday, when they revealed that Zion Williamson sustained a fractured right foot during the offseason that they managed to keep secret until now, Sixers-Pels is suddenly a matchup teeming with drama.
Is there any feasible way for Zion, as the Pelicans suggested in finally disclosing the fracture, to actually be ready to return to the lineup in time for Opening Night given his injury history?
Also: Will Ben Simmons, whose long-anticipated holdout is officially underway, be on Day 24 of that holdout by the time the Sixers start their season in The Big Easy?
Those are two pretty massive question marks before we even get to the broader source of tension from a wild round of interviews across the NBA map on the eve of Tuesday's opening of training camp practices. The Los Angeles Lakers haven't even conducted all of their media sessions yet, preferring to delay them until today, but the season is off to tetchy start in several cities — mostly thanks to rising concern about (and dismay with) the estimated 40 to 50 players who have yet to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.
One after another, Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving, Golden State’s Andrew Wiggins and Washington’s Bradley Beal tried to either stifle or joust with reporters about their vaccination status, stealing much of the Day 1 spotlight in a league where an estimated 90% of the playing population has been vaccinated.
My belief is that, dire and dispiriting as these standoffs come across, pressure from teammates and the threat of lost wages will ultimately lead Irving and Wiggins to relent, since neither will be allowed to play home games unvaccinated according to mandates in New York City and San Francisco. That reality was put to Wiggins during his contentious Monday session with Bay Area reporters, in which the Warriors' swingman repeatedly declined to discuss his vaccination status but left the clear impression that he prefers to resist the local ordinances that require it.
Asked if he realizes the vast amounts of money he would potentially forfeit if he can't play in the Warriors' games at Chase Center, Wiggins said: "I know. And it’s my problem, not yours."
Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone neatly spelled out the conundrum teams face, no matter how badly they want to push unvaccinated players to comply, saying: "It's a delicate balance. It is not my place to tell somebody that they have to be vaccinated."
The league insists that it can’t make vaccinations compulsory without union approval, even when coaches, staff members, front-office officials, referees and all other team and league employees who can get near an NBA player this season must be vaccinated.
“A vaccine mandate for NBA players would need an agreement with the Players Association,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass said Tuesday. “The NBA has made these proposals, but the players’ union has rejected any vaccination requirement.”
Luckily for all parties, peer pressure will almost certainly bring a halt to these remaining staredowns sooner rather than later.
Appearing remotely via Zoom at Nets Media Day — presumably because he was not allowed in their practice facility — Irving repeatedly asked for privacy in rebuffing questions from reporters about his vaccination stance and his availability to play in home games in a city where inoculations are mandated by the local government. The news media is obviously obligated to ask these questions — legitimate basketball questions — because A) this is a public health matter and B) Irving's murky stance has a direct impact on his team, the whole league and myriad on-court matters.
Yet Irving has to know that, eventually, there will be no dodging Kevin Durant and James Harden.
He will soon have to look Durant and Harden in the eye and tell them he’s either in or out after their first season as a trio was ravaged by so many injuries that they appeared in only 13 games together. Ditto for Wiggins with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and the Golden State officials who liberated Wiggins from five-plus seasons of lottery purgatory in Minnesota.
In the interim, we refer you to a more eloquent Substacker: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Monday published a sternly written challenge to NBA players and athletes everywhere to lead the vaccination crusade.
Athletes and other celebrities have a public platform to help alleviate this crisis and to save lives. To not take on that responsibility harms the sports and entertainment industries, the community, and the country. Those who claim they need to do “more research” are simply announcing they have done no research, because the overwhelming consensus of immunologists and other medical experts is that the vaccine is effective and safe. And will prevent the unnecessary deaths of thousands. As I’ve said before, this position only perpetuates the stereotype of the dumb jock who’s only in sports for the money. It dehumanizes the victims as nothing more than political fodder.
The anti-expert stance that anti-vaxxers take reveals the fuzziest of thinking. Everyone expects scientists to solve all of our main problems: global warming, cancer, Alzheimer’s, etc. Unless these same experts tell us we have to actually do something to help fix the problems. Then we stop trusting them. But I assure you that when an athlete has a broken leg or heart attack or their child is in an accident, they don’t say to the doctors, “Don’t do anything until I do more research.” They beg the medical experts to help.
Abdul-Jabbar also called for “the NBA and every other league governing body” to step in and mandate vaccinations for those who refuse them.
“Players are free to choose not to get vaccinated, but they should have the courage of their moral convictions to sit out the season, sustained in the righteousness of their choice,” Kareem wrote. “They’ve already proven they are not team players.”
Portland’s CJ McCollum, elected in August as the union’s president, tried to change the tenor of the conversation Monday evening with a valid tweet reiterating “the fact that 90% percent of the league is vaccinated” and retweeting this column critical of Irving, Wiggins and Beal from my Yahoo! Sports colleague Vincent Goodwill. Yet it was too late to redirect attention.
Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operation David Griffin tried something similar hours earlier, when he suggested that Williamson’s latest injury setback was not the “very big negative” for New Orleans that the media would surely assert because he and his staff have “been dealing with it all offseason.” Given the immense pressure on Griffin and everyone else in New Orleans to make some tangible progress before Williamson becomes eligible for a contract extension next summer, how could the news be received in any semblance of a positive way?
On Media Day Monday, which is supposed to carry a spirit of renewal and Back To School energy, it was hard not to ask these things and harder still, in too many places, not to gravitate to the gloom.
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If you’ve had enough of the dour tone, let’s try something else. Here are 10 quotes from Media Day that jumped out at me, mostly about basketball even, to dissect and discuss:
New Orleans’ Zion Williamson (to potentially soften the blow somewhat for nervy Pelicans fans) on the oft-questioned state of his relationship with the franchise and executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin:
How I feel about the organization? Per me, I love it here. I love the city of New Orleans. Don't want to be anywhere else. My relationship with Griff? … It’s all love with me and Griff. It ain’t much to dive into. It’s just love between us. We’re both competitors. We both want to win. Do we disagree on some things? Yeah, who agrees on everything? We don’t. But I think that’s what makes our relationship great.
The LA Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard on signing a four-year deal that gives him some security if he wants to try to come back from knee surgery without sitting out a full season rather than a short-term deal that might have created “storylines that I’m going to leave” Clipperland:
I wanted to secure some money and I wanted to be able to come back if I was able to this year. If I would have took the one-and-one, I probably would have not played [this season] just to be cautious. … But I'm here. I'm here to be a Clipper. I'm not going to another team unless something drastic happens. I'm here for the long run.
Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns on last week’s stunning firing of Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas less than a week before the start of training camp … making Rosas’ successor, Sachin Gupta, Minnesota’s fifth head of basketball operations in Towns’ seven seasons:
Just add it to the list. It's just the same thing every single time. It's something that always leads to instability. And I joked it about the day before, that I was like: “Man, it's been a real quiet offseason for Minnesota. It's very different.” Boom. Made sure they had one left in the hat. … I've been through death of a head coach [Flip Saunders], who gave me this ability and this chance to play for Minnesota and I'm forever grateful to the Saunders family and I owe ‘em my life in a way. I've been through numerous front offices, I've been through numerous regimes. While being blessed to have so many great teammates to play with, I also didn't have a chance to really build any true relationships with anybody because [there’s] always instability, always change. I mean, I've been through a lot. I think about it in my mind: I've really been through everything you could think about.
Golden State’s Bob Myers on the timetable for Klay Thompson’s return from two full seasons lost to major knee and Achilles injuries:
He can do a lot. He just can’t do contact and he’s not doing 5-on-5. Then it will progress to how does he feel doing that. Then I think the hardest part is going to come sometime — maybe in December, maybe in January, I don't know when — when Klay probably says: "I'm ready, I can play now." And that will mean he will have been playing 5-on-5. And we have to decide: Do you let him do that for a couple more weeks or has he been doing that a couple weeks? But until we kind of know that part, I could guess a day just like you could, but it's just a guess and I don't want to put him or us in a position of, “We said the wrong thing, we said it too early.” As soon as he can and as soon as it's safe, he'll be back.
Portland’s Damian Lillard on the mindset that has kept him from asking the Trail Blazers to trade him after winning just four playoff series in his nine seasons:
The woman that I married is the woman I met in college. That was something that I stuck with. … I do [USA Basketball] at the beginning of my career and then I walk away from it, don’t really have interest in it. Then … gold medal. More music. I had twins earlier this year. Things like that. It just kind of centered me. … That’s part of me saying I’ve always seen everything through. Whether it was relationships, whether it was people telling me you shouldn’t be doing music, whether it was I don’t know how much I really want to compete in the Olympics and then I ended up doing it — it was all a part of where I am now. I’ve always been a person that, I go out on my shield. Every time I’ve had a fight, every time I was a part of something, I go out on my shield. Those things that I stuck with and these were the end results of it, that’s what keeps me here. What keeps me here is, I want to see it through. I want to see it happen. I mean what I say.
Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid on his seemingly futile wish that Ben Simmons will rejoin the Sixers and his insistence their relationship, which seems irreparable, can be salvaged:
I hope he changes his mind. If I didn't like playing with him, I promise I would say it. But I do love playing with him because he adds so much to our team. We've been building this thing around us. This is not … I don't say, like, this is my team. I don't care about any of that. That has nothing to do with me. I'm not trying to live in the spotlight. I got my family. I'm just trying to play basketball and have fun. I'm disappointed that we're in this situation. … I know probably you guys say maybe my comments [critical of Simmons after a Game 7 loss to Atlanta in June] have something to do with it, which I don't think it is, because when you look at it, when you listen to the whole quote, it has nothing to do with calling anybody out. So I'm just disappointed he's not here because he knows it, too. He knows we can win together.
Boston’s Dennis Schröder on resisting contract extension talks with the Lakers last season on a four-year, $84 million deal and settling for a one-year, $6 million deal with the Celtics instead:
For me, my family, I signed a pretty good contract [four years and $70 million with Atlanta] after my fourth year. My family and myself, we're gonna be good. I’m 28 years old and I’m still playing in the NBA for a long time. Money is not everything at all times. I want to be comfortable in a situation where I know people appreciate me. At the end of the day, that’s it.
Sacramento’s Buddy Hield on the weight of knowing that, after he was nearly traded to the Lakers, his Kings will set a new league record if they miss the playoffs for the 16th straight season:
I don't want to play regular-season basketball every day for the rest of my life.
San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich on what led to Manu Ginobili’s return to the organization as a special advisor in basketball operations:
I’ve never been one to give up a whole lot of personal information and locker room stuff, but his wife needed him gone.
Utah’s Joe Ingles on the pressure his team faces to hush critics who have dismissed the Jazz as a regular-season team that wilts in the playoffs:
We’re almost at the point where it’s like: “Let’s just get going and start to figure it out on the court.” Cause we can do [Media Day] and take beautiful photos out there, but we have to win basketball games at the end of the day.
The rosters of eight of the NBA’s 30 teams have been publicly confirmed as fully vaccinated against COVID-19: Charlotte, Detroit, Houston, New York, Portland, San Antonio, Utah and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Zion Williamson has appeared in only 59% of the Pelicans’ games (85 of 144) in the two seasons since they selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. After his rookie season was severely curtailed by an October knee surgery and his second season was brought to an early halt by a fractured ring finger, Williamson recently underwent an operation to repair a fractured right foot that puts the start of the 6-7, 284-pound forward’s third NBA season in jeopardy.
Manu Ginobili moves into San Antonio’s front office as one of only two players in basketball history to win an NBA title, EuroLeague title and Olympic gold medal. The other? Bill Bradley. (More good trivia: Ginobili and Bradley also share July 28 as a birthday.)
Because Gersson Rosas’ two seasons in charge of the Timberwolves were both pandemic-shortened, his reign as president of basketball operations in Minnesota lasted only 136 games rather than 164. In 2013, Rosas and the Dallas Mavericks parted ways after just 99 days following Rosas’ hiring as general manager to work alongside then-president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson.
I knew that the Timberwolves’ overall winning percentage had taken a serious hit over the past 17 seasons, with only one playoff appearance in that span, but I didn’t realize that it had nearly sunk below Rod Carew’s historic success rate at the plate (.388) for the Minnesota Twins in 1977, which was the first flirtation with a .400 batting average that I remember as a young baseball fan. As I recently tweeted …