It’s only been about three months since Chris Paul last played in an NBA game, but things have changed pretty drastically for the 35-year-old over that span. The last time Paul suited up, his team was the Oklahoma City Thunder, and they were playing in a bubble in Orlando—a mere 82 feet above sea level. Now, though, following a November trade, he’s a member of the Phoenix Suns, a team that started its preseason 4,226 feet above sea level in Salt Lake City. Suns coach Monty Williams made sure to look that number up in between games against the Jazz this week and relay it to Paul, who said it felt fitting to begin this unique season in a place that adds another layer of difficulty to the game.
Specific altitudes and the status of his game-shape both reside in the back of Paul’s mind. But the forefront is reserved for getting acclimated to a new team while also taking in how the rest of the league is doing at the start of a season that’s as unprecedented as the last. Paul is playing point guard for the Suns, but as the president of the NBA Players’ Association, he’s also playing the role of middleman, responding to players’ concerns about the league’s protocols this season. Right now, his phone is a buzzing box of unforeseen realizations.
“We’re all trying to figure this out on the fly, you know, so I don’t know everything,” Paul said. “I can talk to other guys on other teams, [but] there are so many things you don’t think of because this isn’t usually our normal. … This is a situation no one’s been through.”
Without the bubble and its tailored logistics, every NBA team is figuring out how to operate in a new world that involves travel, no fans in giant arenas, little time for acclimation or development, and the looming reality that each team will probably be affected by COVID-19 sooner or later.
“We’ll just try to prepare, stay healthy,” new Lakers’ addition Dennis Schröder said last week. As a player who changed teams during the shortened break, he normally would have had months to settle into Los Angeles, find a home and move his things. But in this shortened timeline, he still has plenty to do—and plenty of questions about how this is all going to work. “Nobody knows [what] this season is going to look like.”
The regular season hasn’t even tipped off yet and the Dallas Mavericks have already spent more time in Milwaukee than they have in any other season. Dallas’s first preseason opponent was the Bucks, and under the new scheduling structure the league has adopted to limit travel, the Mavs played the Bucks a second time, with an off-day in between.
These “baseball series,” as Mavs coach Rick Carlisle calls them, are the new normal in order to try and limit exposure to COVID-19. Travel is one of the main changes from last season’s bubble experience, and it opens teams up to a higher risk of contracting the virus. The NBA’s protocols on this and other measures are stringent, and as of this week, when the league started daily rapid testing, players said that the rules were still being updated with small changes and additions.
“We gotta wait till we get our rapid test in the morning to even go hang out with other guys,” the Mavs’ Dorian Finney-Smith said. “It’s different because we’re obviously not moving around, going out to eat, stuff like that.”
The Mavs spent their time in Milwaukee playing video games and using an open theater to watch football. Finney-Smith says he watched his alma mater, Florida, lose to LSU and endured the trash talk that came after. Carlisle says he discovered that the pizza place on the first floor of the team’s hotel was “pretty good.”
“NBA teams aren’t used to staying in the same city for three, four days,” Carlisle said. “There are some good things—after the game we’re not rushing to get on the plane, you come back and get a good night’s sleep. There are advantages, but there are some challenges as well.”
Carlisle pointed out that teams will have to adopt a mental edge in regards to staying in one place for an extended period of time, and some teams will likely opt out of it when they can. The Warriors, for example, decided to make two day trips to play two preseason games against the Sacramento Kings this week in order to still do testing at Chase Center and not have to go through the hotel protocols.
Of course, limited travel is still travel, and with it comes potential exposure. Multiple players and coaches have pointed out that you can take all the precautions possible and still not fully eliminate the risk, especially when each city teams visit will have its own protocols.
“Adjusting from city to city where each local health department will have different sets of rules, that’s what is going to be a little bit of an adjustment for us,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “Where we’re going, how bad is the virus, the pandemic in that spot, and their local restrictions.”
As some teams, including the Lakers and Clippers, have already experienced, there are bound to be players who have to miss practice and game time due to COVID-related issues, which coaches and teams are referring to as “excused absences.” Vogel says the expectation he’s set with his team is that it will be “abnormal” to be at full strength this season.
“The bubble was, you know, tough and demanding in different ways, but it was safe,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “Well, now we’re outside of that bubble, and it’s not nearly as safe. Things are going to happen, games will be postponed, players will get COVID. Who knows what’s going to happen?”
Some players have shifted focus to the things they can control. Kyle Kuzma said he still did his pre-pandemic pregame routine of napping and walking his dog before heading to the arena this week and it made things feel “kind of normal.”
Another thing players feel they have to control is their energy as they go from the fan-less, smaller venues of the bubble to the empty, cavernous, 19,000-seat arenas. “We got to bring our own energy,” Jamal Murray said. “There’s going to be less momentum.”
So far, players and coaches are split. Some say playing in these arenas is just like the bubble, and that once they enter the heat of competition, they don’t notice a difference. Others, like Carmelo Anthony, said it’s very different from the more “intimate” environment of the bubble. Portland coach Terry Stotts believes that the effect of playing in a bigger arena could be a positive one for players who are used to that. Kawhi Leonard, for his part, called the fanless new environment “awkward.”
The night before they played in their first preseason game, the Nuggets were finally able to get every player and coach in one room. The team’s annual training-camp dinner took place the night before tip-off inside a hotel in San Francisco, and Malone and GM Tim Connelly spoke, as did players, about the goals they wanted to achieve this season. But they all also agreed that sacrifices would need to be made.
In general, teams haven’t been able to spend much time together. New players, coaches and draftees have been tossed into the training-camp blender and asked to play in preseason games almost immediately. The process of getting into game shape and creating cohesion between players and lineups is happening at a rushed pace, and the learning curve will certainly spill into the regular season.
“I think league-wide, there will be sloppiness the first few weeks,” Vogel said.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to getting the best out of the limited time teams have before the games begin to matter. The Hawks, for example, have players who barely had an offseason teamed with those who haven’t played in nearly 10 months. New Pelicans head coach Stan Van Gundy said he wasn’t able to gauge players’ conditioning until the Sunday that training camp opened. He added that practices will be a lot of 5-on-5 play rather than drill work. Likewise, Malone said the Nuggets have been mostly scrimmaging during practices. The Raptors’ Nick Nurse said the setup will lead to deeper rotations, at least to start the season, while Hornets head coach James Borrego said the fact that the team hasn’t played together in nine months may force him to give certain lineups more minutes.
Even teams’ daily routines are being shifted. Brad Stevens took the Celtics to scrimmage at the TD Garden this past week instead of the team’s practice facility to get a change of scenery, and Vogel said the Lakers are going to try to conduct shootarounds at both Staples Center and their practice facility, depending on what the team needs. The Magic and Hawks coaches even discussed a joint game plan ahead of their preseason contest on Friday to help both squads get extra reps on certain concepts.
When it comes to the players, approaches and reactions have also varied. Joel Embiid said he’s been in the gym and that he’s glad the NBA returned quickly because he wants to get the bad taste of last season out of his mouth. Meanwhile, LeBron James and Anthony Davis haven’t played in any of the Lakers’ preseason games, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope told reporters he got in the gym just once during the offseason, and spent most of his time in the weight room and with family instead.
But where game shape may falter, chemistry and familiarity could be what buoys teams early on. A group like Denver, which has maintained the same core, hopes that’s the case, and yet Malone is wary about feeling too comfortable. “My message to our team has been, ‘We cannot ease into this. Unlike the bubble, we have not clinched a playoff spot,’” Malone said. “If we think we can just show up and we’re just automatically gonna be in the postseason, we’ll be in for a rude awakening.”
“You have to be ready to adapt,” Marc Gasol said. “That’s something we’ve learned the last seven, eight months, how to adapt as fast as possible.”
The regular season begins in less than a week, and things will not get any easier from there. Squeezing 72 games into just over six months will require many other adjustments and restrictions, not to mention the issues the virus may cause. When asked if his team would be able to have practices during such a packed season, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra responded with what may as well be the tagline for every team this season: “We’ll find a way.”