Taking Its Toll
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA reporter
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was being especially terse.
Before a game last week against the LA Clippers, Popovich told one reporter that he could've answered his question himself. He sarcastically told another reporter that he'd be overjoyed if he could come up with a more specific query.
It was obvious that Popovich was in a crummy mood. And he soon explained why.
"Four days in your hotel room in L.A.," Popovich said with a laugh. "My gosh."
Before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the rules of engagement, Popovich had long used road trips as an opportunity to promote team bonding. He often took his players and staff out to fine restaurants and spent hours with them conversing and laughing over expensive bottles of wine.
But this season, the 71-year-old has been relegated to eating his meals by himself in his hotel room, even in his favorite cities.
"COVID makes it a little strange obviously because you're not used to just sitting in your hotel room for three days or four days and getting your meal and walking back to your room by yourself and eating," Popovich said at the time. "So the chances for socialization and camaraderie, exchanging ideas, all of the things we usually talked about that are going on in the world – doesn't matter what it is – we can't do that. So it's a totally different environment.
"It's not the same closeness or the same sort of process you're used to to develop the team."
With the NBA operating outside of a protected bubble in the middle of a pandemic, teams are struggling to balance how to effectively prepare for games and bond while also trying to remain safe.
There have been six games postponed since Sunday, seven in total this season, because rosters were stretched too thin following players' testing positive for the virus or needing to quarantine because of the league's contact tracing policy.
That led to the NBA and the NBPA agreeing on even stricter health and safety protocols on Tuesday afternoon.
The new regulations have already posed some unique challenges.
Philadelphia 76ers coach Doc Rivers said his team had to get creative during its film session Tuesday to follow the league's rule that pregame meetings in the locker room are limited to 10 minutes for at least the next two weeks.
"We're trying to do it in little snippets. Like today, we do a three-minute film session, go out and walk on the floor and go through your stuff, then come back and do a five-minute film session just to separate," Rivers said. "You definitely have to think outside of the box."
For teams to remain on the court, they have to make sacrifices.
The Los Angeles Lakers, for example, celebrated LeBron James' 36th birthday last month in their hotel in San Antonio because they didn't want to risk violating the league's protocols and being forced to quarantine.
But not all players are being so careful.
Houston Rockets star James Harden was fined $50,000 and had to serve a four-day quarantine after attending a private indoor party without a mask last month. The NBA is currently investigating a video that surfaced of the Brooklyn Nets' Kyrie Irving attending a family birthday party without a mask.
First-year Nets coach Steve Nash acknowledged Tuesday that nothing is easy right now.
"This season is so challenging, so demanding that we have our hands full," Nash said.
The NBA knew things would be tricky this season.
In an interview in December, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told reporters that the league wanted to press ahead as safely as possible, knowing that "literally tens of thousands of jobs" depend on the NBA.
The league currently doesn't have any intention of pausing the season, despite the surge of COVID-19 cases.
Some might wonder why the league is taking any risks, considering it executed a bubble at Walt Disney World last summer, keeping the virus away from the players while crowning a champion.
Not among them are the Lakers, who spent nearly 100 days there en route to winning their first title in a decade.
In fact, they're still a bit traumatized. Lakers coach Frank Vogel recently said that he still tries to use his watch to gain access to rooms and open doors. LeBron James joked Tuesday that he easily gets triggered.
"You continue to give me PTSD every time you ask me about the bubble," James said. "I start shaking and start thinking about 96 straight nights in that place."
That said, even though the league doesn't have any plans of playing in a bubble, Kyle Kuzma said the Lakers would do whatever necessary to defend their title, including returning to one.
"Obviously, that would be the kind of last-resort type of ordeal for everybody in the league, especially for us being there for so long," Kuzma said. "But this team, this organization, if the championship is on the line, then that’s what we’re going to do is compete anywhere."
Players and coaches are still adjusting to their new reality.
In the NBA bubble, many players felt lonely and isolated while away from their families and friends for long stretches. Now players get to spend time with their loved ones, but that comes with its own set of complications, including having to monitor their spouses and kids to ensure they remain virus-free.
"Having a conversation with your wife about her friends, that’s more stress," Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said last month. "It’s a lot."
For Rivers, who is in his first season coaching the 76ers, the biggest challenge is trying to impart his game plan to a new group of guys without getting to spend as much time with them as he'd like.
"We went through the bubble, where we practiced literally for hours a day," Rivers said. "It felt amazing. As much practice as you could get. Now, they almost don't want you to practice as much and limit practice. Even film watching, you have to be careful. You can't do it long."
All things considered, players and coaches alike acknowledge that safety comes first.
The restrictions might sometimes make them frustrated – or, in Popovich's case, grumpy – but they've overwhelmingly expressed trust in the league and the medical experts guiding it.
Popovich, who has led the Spurs to five championships, has a unique challenge this season without his usual team dinners and guest speakers to motivate and unite his players.
"It's a little bit more difficult to feel the group, to get them where you'd like them to be as far as respecting each other, falling in love with each other, wanting to play for each other," he said.
But he's up to the task.
After all, he now has hours alone in his hotel room to strategize a new plan.