Is it over?
What a day. What a wild, crazy, landscape-shifting day in the NBA. A pair of playoff teams suffered potentially season-altering injuries (or, in the case of Chris Paul, illness), a couple of coaches are gone, a team president, too, and before the close of business the NBA’s biggest star took to Twitter to give the league another headache.
Let’s start from the beginning …
Chris Paul enters the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
This news, first reported by The Athletic, was stunning: Paul, days removed from a 25-point, 10-assist per game effort in a four-game sweep of Denver, was out. The Suns later confirmed Paul’s place in the protocols, and while not revealing if Paul had tested positive for COVID-19, an NBA release hours later announced that one new player had tested positive.
So many questions. The NBA has specific protocols for positive COVID-19 tests. A player must go through a 10-day quarantine or produce two consecutive negative tests within 24 hours, after which the player must submit to cardiac testing. But Paul is vaccinated. Will the NBA adapt its protocols to allow for a vaccinated player to return sooner? Suns coach Monty Williams shed little light on Paul’s status ("We're hoping and praying that we'll be whole again when we play Game 1,” Williams told reporters) but with the Western Conference finals set to tip-off as early as Sunday, Paul’s availability looms large.
Donnie Nelson, Mavericks part ways
Let’s be clear: “Mutually agree to part ways” is the term the Mavericks chose to describe the split from the team’s president of basketball operations, who had been the top basketball exec in Dallas for the last 16 years and a member of the organization for 24. Nelson may have a different story. Earlier in the week The Athletic detailed a power struggle inside the Mavericks organization between Nelson and Haralabos Voulgaris, a sports gambler hired by the Mavericks in 2018 who has quickly become a trusted advisor to owner Mark Cuban. Nelson, it seems, has lost that power struggle.
Nelson wasn’t perfect. He helped build Dallas’s championship team in 2011, but he wasn’t able to put the pieces around Dirk Nowitzki to win another playoff series, much less a championship, in the years afterward. Between '17 and '19, the Mavs didn’t win more than 33 games in a season. But Nelson was the driving force behind Dallas’s decision to draft Luka Dončić, who in three seasons is already an NBA superstar. He was a skilled front office exec. Now Dallas—with Voulgaris viewed as something of a shadow GM—will have to find another.
Kawhi Leonard ruled out of Game 5 with a sore knee
This was a bombshell. Leonard, who dissected the Jazz on his way to a 31-point performance in Game 4, would miss a pivotal Game 5 with a knee injury—with no guarantees he would return during this series. “Just know he has a right knee sprain,” said Clippers coach Tyronn Lue. “Being optimistic about the situation.” Putting aside how debilitating Leonard’s loss is in the short term, The Athletic reported there was concern about an ACL injury. Any ACL tear for Leonard at this stage of the season would almost certainly impact his availability next season, perhaps wiping out another year inside L.A.’s championship window. A bad Clippers situation could get a lot worse.
Pelicans part ways with Stan Van Gundy
So that’s it? Van Gundy gets one season? One pandemic-shortened, limited training camp, virtually no practice-time season? It was no secret that Van Gundy, a notorious taskmaster, was struggling to connect with the Pelicans’ young players, particularly Brandon Ingram. And the defense—particularly beyond the three-point line—wasn’t very good. But for the Pelicans to cut ties with Van Gundy so quickly was shocking. At a press conference, New Orleans GM David Griffin described philosophical differences with Van Gundy as to how the Pelicans were going to reach the next step in their development.
“We reached a point where it was clear we didn’t believe philosophically in the way we were going to progress from where we are today to where we want to go,” Griffin said.
Fine. The Pelicans will be an attractive opening, with Ingram and Zion Williamson anchoring a strong young core. But Griffin will need to get this hire right. Coaching stability is important to every young team. The Zion Era Pelicans have not had it.
Wizards, Scott Brooks part ways
Brooks, the Wizards coach for the last five seasons, wasn’t fired. His contract expired at the end of the season, and while ownership discussed a new deal with the veteran head coach, the two sides were far apart. Brooks did an admirable job in Washington. His roster was constantly injured (John Wall, specifically) or being turned over, yet Brooks found a way to develop Washington’s young players (Thomas Bryant, Rui Hachimura) while Bradley Beal developed into an All-Star and one of the NBA’s top scorers on Brooks’s watch. This season, it can be argued, represented some of Brooks’s finest work. The Wizards made the John Wall–Russell Westbrook swap just before training camp, were devastated by COVID-19 issues in January, endured multiple long losing streaks … and still rallied in the final weeks of the season to make the playoffs. Brooks certainly leaves Washington with his credibility as one of the NBA’s top leaders and player development head coaches.
LeBron James rips the NBA
With injuries racking up, James took to social media to express his displeasure over the NBA’s schedule this season.
“They all didn’t wanna listen to me about the start of the season,” James wrote on Twitter. “I knew exactly what would happen. I only wanted to protect the well being of the players which ultimately is the PRODUCT & BENEFIT of OUR GAME! These injuries isn’t just “PART OF THE GAME”. It’s the lack of PURE RIM REST rest before starting back up. 8, possibly 9 ALL-STARS has missed Playoff games(most in league history). This is the best time of the year for our league and fans but missing a ton of our fav players. It’s insane. If there’s one person that know about the body and how it works all year round it’s ME! I speak for the health of all our players and I hate to see this many injuries this time of the year. Sorry fans wish you guys were seeing all your fav guys right now.”
In a statement to multiple media outlets, NBA spokesperson Mike Bass disputed James’s claims. “Injury rates were virtually the same this season as they were during 2019-20 while starter-level and All-Star players missed games due to injury at similar rates as the last three seasons,” Bass said. “While injuries are an unfortunate reality of our game, we recognize the enormous sacrifices NBA players and teams have made to play through this pandemic.”
Couple of things here. James’s frustration isn’t solely aimed at the NBA. I’m told James’s relationship with top officials in the players union—including Chris Paul, a longtime friend—has become frayed. After last season, which for the Lakers concluded in mid-October, James was under the impression that the following season wouldn’t begin until January, and the Lakers star was irritated by the late December start, sources familiar with James’s thinking told Sports Illustrated. James wanted a longer break. He believed players needed a longer break. And he was probably right. They didn’t get it, and part of James blames the union for it. His public blasting of the NBA’s decision to hold an All-Star Game last February—a decision negotiated with the union and one advocated for by Paul—is further evidence of that.
As for James’s beef with the NBA, remember—the relationship between the league and its players is a partnership. Basketball-related revenue is split 50-50. It’s true; the NBA wanted to squeeze in a 72-game schedule in order to satisfy its television contracts. It projected a difference of $500 million in total revenue between starting the season in late December versus early January. And, yes, the league absolutely wanted to end the season before the Olympics.
But players—James, specifically—could have publicly pushed back. James is, unequivocally, the most powerful player in the NBA. If he didn’t want to start the season in December, it’s impossible to believe he couldn’t have stopped it. But that would have cost players money. A lot of money. And judging by the union’s decision to agree to a December start, the vast majority of players didn’t want to do that.
James’s frustration is understandable. Star players in these playoffs are dropping like flies. James himself is out of them in part because Anthony Davis went down with a groin injury. But the players didn’t have a 72-game season dictated to them. They agreed to it. And if James felt strongly about starting the season later, the time to voice that opinion was before the season, not as it is winding down.
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