As the 76ers near the season restart inside the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort, the team will play the first of three scrimmage games Friday against the Memphis Grizzlies at The Arena. The Sixers kick off eight “seeding” games on Aug. 1 against the Indiana Pacers at the Visa Athletic Center.
Twenty-two of the league’s 30 teams qualified for the restart and arrived in Reunion, Fla., earlier this month to start training camp inside the Disney bubble ahead of the seeding games to determine the final standings. There’s potential for a playoff play-in series, followed by the standard four-round playoff.
Oh, and there won’t be fans in attendance during any games.
“I think it’s the richest summer camp in the history of basketball. That’s what I think it is,” Sixers guard Alec Burks said of the NBA’s restart games beginning inside a bubble without fans. “It’s basically going to be a very intense practice.”
The television audience won’t see fans, but they will see players and the league address social issues. NBA players have an option to wear phrases on the back of their jersey to bring awareness to social issues. The NBA and National Basketball Players Association provided the selection of phrases. The league and players association are also expected to paint “Black Lives Matter” on the court inside both sidelines in all three arenas the league will use for games.
This trip involves more than only playing games. The teams must adhere to stringent guidelines and regular COVID-19 testing while remaining largely isolated from the rest of the world during their stay inside the bubble.
The Sixers arrived on the Disney campus on July 9 and were confined to their rooms at the Grand Floridian for 1 1/2 days. The players only came in contact with the medical technicians administrating COVID-19 tests during the quarantine. Players and team personnel will continue to undergo testing every other day. If a player leaves the campus without permission and tries to re-enter, he must quarantine for at least 10 days.
New Orleans Pelicans rookie sensation Zion Williamson received permission to leave the bubble late last week to tend to an urgent family matter. If he’s gone for seven days or fewer, Williamson will quarantine for four days after his return. If he is gone longer than a week, Williamson will quarantine for four days if he has a negative test for each of the final seven days he is gone. He will quarantine for 10 days if he doesn’t have the required testing.
While that’s a lot to deal with, life inside the bubble can help with team bonding. Every team has played golf, and the Sixers had a few players go fishing. Ben Simmons, Kyle O’Quinn, and team security personnel Anthony Jackson were seen in photos catching fish on a boat. Matisse Thybulle is doing a video log, ”Welcome To The Bubble.” And there have been pool parties and bowling available during leisure time.
Sixers general manager Elton Brand has been running for exercise on the walking trails. And the players don’t have to worry about finding a way to get their hair cut. The barbers arrived on campus for the first time last week.
“We’re trying to just live our life,” said Doc Rivers, coach of the Los Angeles Clippers. “Have our best Disney life.”
But there are some risks with playing during a pandemic, especially in Florida, which has become a hot spot.
“Anything can happen, and you have to be able to understand the reality of the world that we live in,” Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said about the risks that come with playing sports amid a pandemic. “It’s a world with a virus right now. You can’t run away from it.
“But all the protocols and plans that have been put into place I think are extremely well thought out. Nothing is absolutely 100% guaranteed. But we do feel that it is safer here. I know you hear that all the time.”
Several months ago, there was uncertainty whether the league would resume this season after it was shut down March 11. In a statement, the league announced it was suspending games until further notice.
All that came after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. His test result was reported shortly before the start of Utah’s game that night in Oklahoma City. The game was canceled, and Gobert was not in the arena. Commissioner Adam Silver announced the next day that play would be halted for at least 30 days. By April, the expectation was that the NBA might not resume until July.
But where, and under what type of format?
Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small confirmed March 31 that he attempted to lure the league to Boardwalk Hall for the playoffs. Atlantic City, Orlando, Hawaii, Louisville, and Las Vegas were possible locations for a 16-team playoff minus fans. The Bahamas were mentioned as another potential site.
“In terms of bubble-like concepts, many of them have been proposed to us, and we’ve only listened,” Silver said April 17. “We are not seriously engaged yet in that type of environment because I can’t answer what precisely would we need to see in order to feel that that environment provided the needed health and safety for our players and everyone involved.”
Nor did he rule out resuming the season with regular-season games in April.
No one, however, could deny the financial benefit of resuming play. ABC/ESPN and TNT have a nine-year contract to pay the league $2.66 billion to show its games. Looking to fill a programming void, ESPN televised H-O-R-S-E competitions and players-only NBA 2K tournaments.
Even before the season’s suspension, the league prepared to play without fans in attendance. Then in June, the league’s board of governors approved a proposal for a 22-team format to restart the season late this month at Disney. The format consists of three scrimmages followed by eight seeding games per team, a possible play-in tournament for the eighth seed, and postseason play.
The participating teams include the 16 currently in playoff spots, along with the Eastern Conference’s Washington Wizards and Western Conference’s Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs, and Phoenix Suns.
The six teams outside the top 16 are within six games of the eighth and final playoff spot in their respective conferences. The Orlando Magic (East) and Memphis Grizzlies (West) are currently the eighth seeds.
The eighth seed will earn the playoff spot by finishing more than four games ahead of the ninth seed after the regular season. But if the ninth seed finishes within four games, it will force a play-in tournament with the eighth seed. The tournament would be single-elimination for the ninth seed and double-elimination for the eighth seed.
The time off has enabled the Sixers to get healthy and make adjustments. Simmons is back after missing the final eight games before the shutdown with a lower-back injury. The Sixers moved him from point guard to power forward. Shake Milton has been starting point guard during the Disney practices. Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid, and Josh Richardson will join them in the starting lineup. Al Horford. Furkan Korkmaz, and Thybulle could be the first three players off the bench.