NBA Notebook: Will NBA players return to play amid Kyrie Irving’s push to question restart?

(Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

The NBA restart plan is very much in the planning and negotiation stage with the players union, but there had been minimal talk of any dissension from NBA players after an initial announcement about an agreement last week. That changed on Friday night in the wake of a conference call led by Nets star Kyrie Irving that included over 80 NBA and WNBA players. The topic? Discussing the pros and cons of a potential return to play this season and the possibility of sitting out as a way to promote social justice reform, according to multiple reports.

There are all sorts of competing agendas amid reports out of the conference call over the past 24 hours, but there are important factors in play here as well as the role of NBPA Vice President Irving (one of six VPs) in all of this. Is this just a bump in the road back towards playing again in Orlando or could this movement put the league’s return in 2020 on hold? Let’s sort it all out below.

What are the players rightfully concerned about with the restart plan?

There are a number of legitimate issues at play here for the players as details have begun to trickle out about the restart plan for Orlando in a bubble. In no particular order, a few concerns that were voiced in the conference call per multiple sources include:

—Coronavirus: There is still all kinds of uncertainty about the long-term impacts the virus could have on athletes. Despite constant testing and temperature checks within a bubble environment, a positive test feels likely to happen, given the nature of the sport and the volume of players involved (22 teams) over the course of three months.

—The risk of injury with a shortened ramp-up window: A shortened training camp after a full offseason will open the door for more injuries heading into postseason play, given the lack of 5-on-5 play that guys have been able to take part in the last few months.

—The restrictions of the Orlando bubble: While the NBA will have a sectioned off area of Disney World to use (with golf courses, hotels and dining areas strictly for the players), that’s still a constricting environment for any person to be in for 2-3 months — especially teams that go on a deep run into the postseason. A player can leave the bubble, but would have to quarantine for 10 days upon returning (forcing them to miss several games upon returning).

—Family concerns: The NBA is not authorizing family to travel with players into the bubble until there are fewer teams in Orlando (second round of the playoffs). That is an understandable concern for players to leave family members behind for several weeks in the midst of a pandemic. Normally, the longest they would be away on a road trip during an NBA season is 10 days, a far cry from the seven weeks the league is asking here.

—Social justice movement: Several NBA players have already taken on leading roles in the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death last month. While there is a case to be made that protesting while playing games could lead to a greater audience/awareness to the cause, some players believe that simply not playing this season could send a greater message and help players impact communities instead of being stuck in a bubble for months.

Kyrie's role: Right message, wrong messenger?

So how exactly does Irving fit into all of this? According to Shams Charania, the point guard, who was one of the union player reps that initially authorized the return to play format last week (with negotiations still to come), organized the zoom conference call on Friday night that invited the entire league to participate. Over 80 NBA and WNBA players took part on the call (under 20 percent of the league) in what has been described as a forum for players to discuss the pros and cons of the situation about the potential return.

Irving reportedly came out against the NBA’s plan to play in Orlando but ultimately acknowledged that he would be supportive of whatever the players choose to do. While the point guard’s heart may be in the right place with this movement, the realities of his situation have opened the door for him to be questioned to a degree.

Irving will not be playing in Orlando either way after undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery in early 2020 and his track record of a leader on the court makes him a player that can be easily painted by the league and some media as the villain in this scenario. Irving has the respect of many of his peers across the league, which is why any movement led by him needs to be taken seriously, at least from afar. However, a lack of prominent names across the league that reportedly spoke out on the call against potentially playing in Orlando per the Athletic (guys like Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard are role players these days, not All-Stars) should do little to change the mind of the majority of players that want to play to avoid salary loss.

The good that should come out of this from the players’ perspective is having more voices heard. Top NBA stars took the stance early that they want to return, with most of them having millions of dollars and a chance of a title at stake in 2020. Role players have a history of not having much of a meaningful role in the NBPA when it comes to negotiations and as we described above, there is a long list of valid concerns at play here. This call should help ensure those are addressed.

At the least, this dismay could be used as leverage within the players union in current or future negotiations with the league. Whether it’s easing up the rules on letting families/guests into the bubble earlier or players demanding more guaranteed money for this season or next as a reward for dealing with the bubble environment or a stronger commitment from the NBA on addressing social justice issues locally (with financial support), there are a number of worthy causes the players could fight for here to get concessions from the league.

What happens if the players decline to play?