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Inside the excitement and uncertainty as NBA players return to facilities

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DAMIAN LILLARD HAS never entered the Portland Trail Blazers‘ training center through the media entrance, but there’s nothing natural about May 8, the first time he walks into the facility since the NBA shuttered it March 20 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Wearing a mask, Lillard steps into a makeshift check-in area, where a member of the health and performance staff aims a no-touch, infrared thermometer to check his temperature. Next, Lillard empties his pockets — phone, car keys, wallet — and places them into a ziplock bag. He then washes his hands in the media bathroom, after which he is presented with a pair of rubber gloves. The whole process feels more like getting prepped for surgery than for a 90-minute training session.

Lillard would normally head to the locker room, but the players’ inner sanctum is off-limits for the foreseeable future. In this new, stripped-down routine, Lillard walks immediately to his assigned court, where his gear is waiting for him along with a rack containing only two basketballs, a towel, water and Gatorade.

Geoff Clark, the Blazers’ head athletic trainer, designed this air-tight, regimented schedule to conform to the NBA’s protocol for reopening. Four players will spend 90 minutes each at the practice center at an appointed time, each given a rotation to ensure they won’t come into contact with one another. For example, only one player can be in the weight room or therapy area at a time.

The Blazers were among the first two NBA teams to return to facilities three weeks ago, when eight of their rostered players showed up. Most of the league has since followed suit — the Dallas Mavericks will open their gym on Thursday, leaving only the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs and Washington Wizards shut down. The challenges and joys the Blazers have been experiencing could be guideposts for the rest.

On Day 1 of the reopening, Lillard draws the 10:30 a.m. slot and starts his session with longtime Blazers assistant coach Nate Tibbetts. Lillard has worked out with Tibbetts more than 1,000 times over the past seven years, but never before has Tibbetts worn a mask and gloves on the court.

Lillard sees longtime teammate CJ McCollum going through his routine with Blazers player development coach, Jon Yim, but the backcourt running mates won’t get a chance to chop it up, at least not face-to-face. There exists a cardinal rule: one guy, one coach, one basket.

Then for the first time in what feels like an eternity, Lillard runs through his greatest hits, the barrage of long-range bombs, the floaters, the repertoire that makes him Damian Lillard.

“The whole first week was a breath of fresh air,” Lillard says. “On a certain level, it was exciting. You’re finally back on the court and you’re seeing everyone’s faces again.”

On a typical non-game day, Lillard might stick around after his workout — hang out with teammates as everyone ices, enjoy the steam room or hydropools, grab a bite to eat in the cafeteria, maybe perform some cardio on the Alter G anti-gravity treadmill. But not today. The horn sounds at noon so the next group can enter, because only four players can be on the premises at a time. Besides, the wet areas of the facility are off-limits during the reopening period, so he isn’t even allowed to shower.

With sweaty clothes stuck to his body, Lillard leaves at noon sharp through the front door to avoid the next group on his way to his car. The parking lot is a popular place for players and staff to chat. To discourage that, an empty spot must now be left between each vehicle.

Though Lillard’s workout is abbreviated and restricted, he can finally release the pent-up energy accumulated while being locked out of the gym for nearly two months. The return for Lillard and his teammates comes with both anticipation of what he hopes will be more basketball ahead, but also some disorientation.

“There’s so much stuff you never realize or appreciate you have access to until you’re without it,” Lillard says. “But it was still good to be back.”

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Brian Windhorst details the various challenges the NBA is facing in its attempt to return to action.

FOR THE PLAYERS who work at an NBA facility, it’s an office, a health club, a refuge from the glare of the public spotlight, even a social service center where their daily needs — material, physical and emotional — are addressed. For the Blazers, it’s also a clubhouse where a team that has achieved a particularly strong cohesion during the Lillard era develops that esprit de corps.

“The practice facility is a home away from home,” McCollum says. “You probably spend more time there than anywhere else. For a lot of us, it’s really therapeutic. It’s where you find your overall balance in life. A lot of people were lacking that, and had to figure out that balance without it.”

For all the ways the May reopening has allowed players to reassemble the structure they lost when the season was suspended, the restrictions limit the true benefit of the facility: team-building.

“[The facility] is the place where the culture is built,” Lillard says. “It’s fulfilling to be in that environment. It’s part of the balance of our lives and you come to count on that. But right now, that’s unavailable, so it’s tough.”

In some respects, social distancing put a team whose social capital is its strength at a competitive disadvantage. It’s difficult to embrace teammates when they must stand at a distance.

“I don’t see how you can do it,” says Lillard, lamenting that the joy of sitting over a meal with teammates after practice is still absent. Now, players are offered a box lunch on their way out the door.

While Blazers get up shots, never closer than six feet from one another, Terry Stotts can only watch through the glass wall that separates his office from the court. Stotts, the fourth-longest serving head coach in the NBA, is not permitted to associate with his players right now. The league has determined that face-to-face interactions between a head coach and players at a training center — or even having a head coach observe workouts — would provide a team with a competitive advantage over rivals whose facilities are still closed.

“One of the best things as a coach is when you have a relationship with players,” Stotts says. “But that relationship is built on the court.”

For now, Stotts keeps himself busy in his office. Though there’s very little specifically he can do for his players as they trickle into the facility, he feels it’s important just to be around.

All 10 Blazers who live nearby are participating in the voluntary workouts in the week that followed the reopening. Though they can’t soak in a cold tub or rib one another in the weight room, a new brand of structure has asserted itself in Portland.

BY MAY 15, one week after the Blazers reopened, the novelty of returning to the facility has worn off for Lillard. While he still values the opportunity to get some portion of his work in, the restrictions are becoming onerous and, truthfully, just strange.

“The second week everyone is like, ‘All right, this is kind of weird,'” Lillard says. “The excitement is gone and now it’s, ‘What going on?'”

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Lakers assistant Lionel Hollins deemed higher-risk, won’t go to Orlando

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LOS ANGELES — Lakers assistant coach Lionel Hollins will not join the team when it flies to Orlando, Florida next week for the restart to the NBA season, a league source confirmed to ESPN on Friday.

Hollins was deemed a higher-risk individual due to underlying medical conditions, the source told ESPN. He will not be present in Orlando but will continue to be an essential member of the team and participate on coach Frank Vogel’s staff remotely.

Without specifically mentioning Hollins by name, Vogel said it was a “fairly miserable experience” putting together the Lakers’ 36-person traveling party list that had to be submitted to the league this week.

“There are several members of our staff that we’re not going to be able to bring into the bubble that, quite frankly, we need in the bubble,” Vogel told reporters Thursday. “But the environment just doesn’t allow us to do that and that’s just part of the pandemic life and the situation we’re in.” Hollins exclusion from Orlando was earlier reported by Yahoo Sports.

This is not the first instance of bubble trouble for the Lakers, the No. 1 team in the Western Conference. They are already bracing for starting guard Avery Bradley’s absence in Orlando — he cited potential COVID-19 concerns for his 6-year-old son and a continued focus on community efforts — and are awaiting Dwight Howard’s finalized plans to join the team, as they work with Howard, his agent, the NBA and the NBA Players Association to find a workable path for him to report separately to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

Hollins, 66, joined the Lakers last summer after being hired, along with Jason Kidd, by Vogel as veteran NBA minds with previous head coaching experience.

Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager, Rob Pelinka, was asked earlier this week about what considerations the team was making in figuring out their travel participants.

“I think our level of care for every individual, for every player, for every member of our staff, needs to be at the highest possible level,” Pelinka said Tuesday. “And I think that’s our goal is that everyone deserves the highest standard of medical care and safety. That’s the way we’re looking at it as an organization is every person, regardless of their circumstance, deserves 10 out of 10 attention to detail, care and measures around safety as we venture into what we are with the Orlando restart.”

According to a league memo distributed to all 30 teams last month and acquired by ESPN, a higher-risk staff member who is not deemed “protected” by their team — meaning, the team makes the decision to exclude the individual from their traveling party for the good of that individual’s health — will be seen by a league-appointed physician and will be required to sign a release and a “covenant not to sue agreement” in order to be allowed in the bubble, if the league physician signs off.

The league physician can block the staff member’s inclusion, however, after gathering information and the physician’s decision will be “final, binding and unappealable,” according to the memo.

Hollins, a one-time All-Star who won a championship as a player with the Portland Trail Blazers in 1977, entered the league as an assistant coach for the Phoenix Suns in 1988-89 and later became the head coach for the Grizzlies (as the interim in Vancouver and later the full-fledged head coach in Memphis) and also served as head coach for the Brooklyn Nets.

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New Orleans Pelicans assistant Jeff Bzdelik won’t join team; no word on Alvin Gentry

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New Orleans Pelicans assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik will not accompany the team to Orlando for the restart of the NBA season, Bzdelik’s agent Warren LeGarie told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Friday afternoon.

According to team sources, the decision was made after Bzdelik, 67, consulted with team physicians and around CDC guidelines. The e team is fully supporting his decision to stay back, team sources said. Bzdelik is in his first year as an assistant coach with the Pelicans.

Meanwhile, multiple sources tell ESPN no decision has been made yet on Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry’s status heading into Orlando. Sources say the Pelicans are supportive of Gentry, 65, being able to join the team for the remainder of the season and have been working with the league in order to ensure he can make it to Orlando.

On Monday, Gentry was asked what he thought the NBA would say about his ability to coach.

“I have no idea,” he said. “My plan right now is to be in Orlando, and I’m looking forward to it, really. I think as the season was put on hiatus we were playing really good basketball, and hopefully we can get back to that. That’s why I’m not treating it like a training camp, I’m treating it like picking up where we left off when the season went on hiatus.”

On Wednesday, Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, the president of the National Basketball Coaches Association told reporters “we’ve been assured by the league that no one will be red-flagged from going to Orlando based on age alone.”

Bzdelik retired from coaching just before the start of the 2018-19 season but ultimately joined the Houston Rockets again in November of that year. He joined the Pelicans in July of last year.

According to sources, Bzdelik will be able to stay back in New Orleans and continue to help the team with defensive strategy from afar.

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Jazz’s Rudy Gobert says challenge of coronavirus backlash ‘not easy’

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Despite making the NBA All-Star team for the first time of his career this season, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert has had to overcome his fair share of public shaming after becoming the first NBA player to test positive for coronavirus.

The two-time Defensive Player of the Year’s positive test ultimately triggered the league’s suspension on March 11 then damaged his relationship with teammate Donovan Mitchell after he also tested positive the next day.

After having time to reflect on the situation, the French native says their relationship is better and he’s ready to put this behind him to help the Jazz push for a title during the Orlando restart.

“Obviously, when you have the whole world judging you or threatening you or sending you a lot of negative energy and stuff like that, it’s something that I would say is not easy as a human being,” Gobert said. “But, at the same time, people are just judging you on the perception they have and the perception you get from sometimes it can be one picture, one video or one interview, one action. So, people don’t really know you.

“People around me, they really know me, they know who I am and that’s what matters to me,” he added. “At the end of the day, I won’t be able to control everyone’s perception of me, but I can control my actions, I can control the things I do for the people around me, the community. The things I do for my teammates on the court, off the court, all that stuff I can control it and that’s what really matters to me.”

As far as his relationship with Mitchell, the two stars say they’re “good” and can co-exist moving forward in Utah. Mitchell called it no secret that he was upset with Gobert’s initial careless behavior, such as touching the microphones of reporters following a press conference, before becoming aware of his infection, but they’ll be ready when it’s time to clock in.

“You look at all duos and for us it’s like, there’s going to be tension. There’s going to be back and forth,” Mitchell said. “Obviously, I feel like I should be right here. He feels like he should be right there, but it’s always going to happen. It happens on every team, doesn’t matter if they win championships or they’re a last place team, it’s always gonna happen. So, I feel like even in a work environment, you’re not gonna always get along or go out to eat or hang out with your teammates.”

With the NBA’s July 30 restart quickly approaching, the Jazz are set to leave for Orlando on July 7. Gobert says he’s more comfortable with the bubble concept after extensive talks with members of the NBA and NBPA. He recently regained his smell after having trouble for three months after the diagnosis.

With all he’s been through lately, he sees basketball as a way to clear his mind.

“A lot of stuff is going on and it’s been a process but I’m happy now that I’m in a good place and I’m happy that I get the joy back from playing basketball with my team and the competitiveness is back,” Gobert said. “I’m ready to try to go out there and try to win the championship. That’s the goal. To be honest, after everything we’ve been through, as a team and as human beings, it would be a great comeback.”

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