The Milwaukee Bucks Are Ready for a Long Stay in the Bubble

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The shift was seemingly slight and went unannounced, but it was undeniably significant for the N.B.A.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, memos from the league office had been titled “HIATUS.” The N.B.A. sent 97 of them to teams from March 12 through July 29, while the season was on an indefinite hold.

That finally changed last Thursday, hours before the Utah Jazz beat the New Orleans Pelicans in the first N.B.A. game that had counted since March 11. Memo No. 98 had a new title: “RESTART.”

Four months is a longer hiatus than the N.B.A. ever envisioned when it began using the term, but there were also times in April and May when many around the league feared that the 2019-20 season would not resume. Friday marks one month since the 22 teams that qualified for the restart began arriving at Walt Disney World, and the steady flow of real games has spawned some optimism throughout the N.B.A. campus.

An occasional coronavirus test has been missed, and many teams are spooked by the prospect of false positives sidelining key players, but the league has thus far kept the coronavirus from infiltrating its village. In addition, players are duly seizing the platform of the rebooted season to amplify their social justice messages, while the quality of play has received unexpectedly good reviews after five days of games.

“In all honestly, it’s better than I was expecting,” San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said. Many teams, Popovich said, look “more in rhythm that I ever expected” after such a long layoff.

In an interview before the restart, N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver told me: “We continue to approach it with humility and recognize that there’s a fair amount that’s unpredictable. We have a long way to go, but we’re learning every day.”

A few more items from my bubble notebook:

Upon arrival at Disney World, Milwaukee’s coaching staff backed off for the first week and let its players engage in the sort of pickup games commonplace at team practice facilities after Labor Day in a typical year.

The idea was to ease into structure. Tempting as it surely was to zoom right into practices after such a long layoff to make up for lost time, I’m told that the Bucks wanted to move cautiously and pace themselves in the belief that, if things go right, they will be in Florida for three months chasing a championship.

I was alerted to the Bucks’ concept by an admiring rival who found their patience “smart.” Time will tell, of course, but my reaction was the same.

As an assistant coach under both Larry Brown (in San Antonio) and Don Nelson (in Golden State), Popovich watched as these coaching giants used baseball-style hand signals to call out plays and became a fan. Hand signals have since become a staple of Popovich’s playbook to an even larger degree. In a story I did years ago on Popovich’s enduring partnership with Tim Duncan, the former Spur Robert Horry said Popovich could have been “a great third-base coach.”

In the bubble, Popovich is coaching games with a mask on, in a nod to warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people 65 and older are at greater risk for complications from the coronavirus. Popovich, the league’s oldest coach at 71, uses his extensive array of signals to overcome the limits on projecting his voice caused by the mask.

“It really helps — big time,” Popovich said.

Credit…Kim Klement – Pool/Getty Images

From Nelson, he said, Popovich learned to script numerous plays on index cards to then communicate via hand signals for specific players against a particular opponent. The challenge in Florida, Popovich has found, is finding pockets to store all of his cards because coaches are not wearing suits to bubble games.

“Since I was with Nellie, I’ve done it every single game of my career,” Popovich said.

Missing three starters, San Antonio has been one of the surprise teams of the restart, relying on younger players and playing at a faster pace. The Spurs could have moved to within a game of No. 8 Memphis in the West had they completed an impressive second-half comeback attempt Monday night in what became an agonizing 132-130 loss to Philadelphia.

(Footnote that is actually a huge deal at the Stein household back in Dallas: Shake Milton, who sank the game-winning 3 for Philadelphia, went to the same high school in Owasso, Okla., as a certain newsletter curator’s wife.)

This Mills tale I was not able to include in Sunday’s feature about the San Antonio guard and his emerging activism will explain why: At his first Olympics in 2008, with great pride, Mills hung Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islands flags from the balcony of his room in Beijing in the Olympic Village. One of the flags was given to him by his uncle Danny Morseu, who had taken it to the 1980 and 1984 Olympics as a member of Australia’s team.

“My two identities,” said Mills, whose mother, Yvonne, is Aboriginal and whose father, Benny, is a Torres Strait Islander.

At the 2012 Olympics in London, on a much lower floor, Mills repeated his ritual with the two flags representing Australia’s Indigenous populations, only to be ordered by a few Australian Olympic Committee officials to take the flags down. An argument ensued, Mills said, before he turned to Brown, who doubles as Australia’s head coach. Mills was distraught after the federation officials ignored pleas from Matt Nielsen, Mills’ teammate and Australia’s white captain, to let him keep the flags displayed.

“Brownie absolutely squashed the whole thing in 10 minutes,” Mills said. “Before Brownie and Pop, I never really had support like that from someone of authority to help me educate people on my environment on who I am.”

Some of that reluctance admittedly stems from the uncertainty that reigns all over the N.B.A. map after Golden State’s five consecutive years representing the Western Conference in the finals. Yet it’s also another example of the struggle to mentally connect the restart to the season that was paused so abruptly nearly five months ago.

I agreed with the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard when he said recently that “basically it’s a new season” after such a long break. But that’s only how it feels. Rosters are essentially the same as they were on March 11 — unless you’re the Nets. The standings were not reset. There isn’t much to go off in terms of making new predictions.

So I stuck to my usual rule, stubborn as it may sound, that the predictions I lodged in October remain in effect. I had the Bucks beating the Clippers in the finals when the whole staff did the crystal-ball thing 10 months ago. And that indeed remains a very plausible finals matchup — so long as you overlook my two conference finals picks (Bucks over Sixers; Clippers over Jazz) that instinct tells me have not aged terribly well.

A fresh round of highlights and reflections from my third full week inside the N.B.A. bubble:

  • I have written much about the considerable restrictions members of the news media face in Florida, but there are two unquestioned perks. Having 22 teams in one place, for starters, enables reporters to see much more variety than they would on a typical N.B.A. day. The other biggie: With no fans to buy courtside tickets, our seats are much closer to the court than usual, reminiscent of when I got started in the mid-1990s.

    This is especially true at the VISA Athletic Center, where I sat right on the floor — at midcourt — for San Antonio’s win over Sacramento on Friday. The ambience, if only for selfish me, was scrumptious.

    You can get a true sense of how impossibly fast the Kings’ De’Aaron Fox moves when you can watch up close as numerous Spurs defenders flail at him. Fox scored a career-high 39 points.

  • Members of the media have access to what is known as “The Snitch Line” — the telephone number players and coaches have to anonymously report protocol violations on campus to N.B.A. security. I have thankfully not yet been scolded for a violation someone called in on me.

  • I insist that I have behaved pretty well, but there was one instance over the past three weeks in which it took particular resolve to stifle the following thought: Should I risk it all here?

    I covered an Orlando Magic morning practice near the Boston Celtics’ meal room. The Celtics were being served from the sort of big breakfast station you would expect at a resort. When the Disney staff started breaking down breakfast to get ready for lunch service, I fixated on a massive bowl filled with the most alluring crispy bacon I have seen since this adventure began July 12.

    As the bacon was being removed from the serving station, presumably to be disposed, it took considerable discipline not to, um, ask for my own portion.

  • Beware the raccoons.

    On multiple occasions, I have left neatly bagged trash outside my door after an evening visit from room service. But our rooms at the Coronado Springs Resort are exposed to the outdoors, and I am on the ground level.

    On two consecutive mornings, I awoke to a widespread mess after the bags were ripped apart, and I couldn’t initially figure out how that could happen at a hotel. The next night, I was taking a late walk when our presumed culprit soon appeared. As a neighbor at Casitas 4 who was also enjoying the evening air pointed out, it was a raccoon absconding with the leftover scraps.

  • That horrible feeling when you leave the house without hand sanitizer? This is the place to do it. Buckets of hand sanitizer and spare masks — the same mask Lou Williams was photographed in during his ill-advised detour to the Magic City gentleman’s club in Atlanta while on an excused absence from the bubble — are plentiful around campus for the forgetful.

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Credit…Jerome Miron/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line. Responses may be condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

Q: I know it is very early to ask this, but could Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis (especially Doncic) surpass Dirk Nowitzki’s legacy with the Dallas Mavericks if they win a title together? Or has Dirk already established sort of an unreachable apex? — Taylan Ozdemir (Istanbul)

Stein: Doncic has so quickly emerged as a top-10 player that it makes me reluctant to say any achievements are unattainable. He just turned 21 in February. Yet it seems, given how you worded the question, that you already have a sense of how high the bar is given what Nowitzki means to both Mavericks fans and the city of Dallas.

Doncic has plenty of time to surpass the lone championship on Nowitzki’s résumé, but Dirk’s record 21 seasons with a single franchise essentially carry the weight of at least one more ring. Throw in the Mavericks’ 1990s laughingstock status that Nowitzki had to overcome, along with the revolutionary impact he had on the power forward position as a European import, and you can see how I reached my oft-cited claim that Nowitzki is more popular than any Dallas Cowboy you wish to nominate — even in a noted football town.

Doncic, in other words, would likely need multiple titles and Most Valuable Player Awards to usurp all that. He also just might be good enough to do so, but I don’t get the sense that he is expending a lot of mental energy thinking about chasing Nowitzki’s legacy.

Q: Maybe somebody could steal his regular jersey(s) before the game. @jcolton31 from Twitter

Stein: In a reference to Jimmy Butler’s attempt on Saturday to wear a jersey without a name, @jcolton31 tweeted the famed picture of Michael Jordan from Valentine’s Day in 1990 that showed His Airness wearing an otherwise blank No. 12 after his No. 23 went missing that day.

It’s one of the most enduring tales from the Jordan archive, but the circumstances won’t help Butler, who, as a statement of equality, tried to wear a jersey with no name or social justice message.

Butler, though, was required to switch jerseys before the Heat tipped off or risk ejection because it is against league rules to wear a jersey that has been altered. The league office, on this violation, was unwilling to yield, though Commissioner Adam Silver announced last week that he would not enforce the league’s policy requiring “dignified” standing during the national anthem.

In Jordan’s days, furthermore, teams didn’t travel with as many extra jerseys as they do now. On that occasion, Jordan had to wear No. 12 because it was the only extra one the Bulls had on that road trip. As seen Sunday, Miami’s bench had a No. 22 with Butler’s nameplate affixed to it ready as soon as he was told to remove the No. 22 that was otherwise blank.

Jordan, for the record, scored 49 points (on 43 shots) in his lone outing as No. 12.

Q: As a fan of both the English Premier League and N.B.A., or soccer and basketball more broadly, I’m wondering if you can envision some form of the soccer’s loan system ever being used in the N.B.A.? It might be better suited to Major League Baseball, where a big-market American League team could loan a top prospect to a smaller-market team in the National League, or vice versa, but I’m curious whether some approximation of the same system is possible in basketball. — Alex von Nordheim (Baltimore)

Stein: We’re on a roll lately with the questions that inject soccer into the basketball discussion. Kudos, Alex.

But I’m sorry. No chance.

It’s not just, as you hypothesized, that the N.B.A. lacks baseball’s American League/National League structure. Our sporting culture is just completely different than soccer’s, and the loan system, even more so than promotion and relegation, is impossible to imagine in North America’s traditional major team sports.

Soccer loans are an offshoot of buying and selling the rights to players, both of which are foreign concepts to N.B.A. operations. Soccer clubs also have a number of leagues all over the world, at a variety of levels, to send players out on loan. Where else could N.B.A. teams realistically loan players except to other N.B.A. teams? Such a concept would be fraught with potential conflicts of interest and assorted complications.

I feel safe saying you will never see N.B.A. teams engaged in the loan business, buying a player’s rights or selling them for a hefty profit like Premier League teams can. This league, remember, has used a salary cap since the 1983-84 season that, at least theoretically, is intended to give all 30 teams a shot at the championship and avoid the sort of parity gulf we usually see between soccer’s elite and the chasing masses.

The reality, of course, is that North America’s major sports leagues have their own chasms between the haves and have-nots, just like soccer, but the financial models that govern these worlds remain dramatically different. Giving teams the sort of control that soccer clubs worldwide hold in terms of player rights would be a dramatic concession that the various players’ unions on our shores would never allow.


Credit…Pool photo by Kim Klement

It is a small sample, but the first dribbles of evidence are in to start measuring how much home-court advantage is missed (or not) at the N.B.A. restart. Games, of course, are played on neutral courts at Walt Disney World and without fans, but teams designated as “home” went 9-2 on Saturday and Sunday despite the comforts lost such as playing in front of a partisan crowd and familiarity with the venue. “Home” teams were 15-10 combined in the 25 games played through Monday.

T.J. Warren scored 53 points for Indiana on Saturday night, five short of the franchise record. George McGinnis scored 58 points in an overtime win for the Pacers in 1972 when they were in the A.B.A.; Reggie Miller holds the club’s N.B.A. record with 57 points.

Remember last week when we pined for dunks and dunk stats? League leaders in dunks, amazingly, have only been tracked for the past 23 seasons. Utah’s Rudy Gobert set the league’s single-season record last season with 306, but it’s obviously a disappointing hole in the records that we can’t conclusively say how many dunks Michael Jordan or Dominique Wilkins threw down in any one season in their primes.

Houston’s James Harden scored 23 points in the first quarter of the Rockets’ first game at the N.B.A. restart. It was the 24th time Harden had scored at least 20 points in a quarter, according to Basketball Reference.

Harden arrived in Florida needing 68 points to become the highest-scoring left-handed player in N.B.A. history. It took him just two games to get there and surpass the San Antonio Spurs legend David Robinson’s 20,790 career points, as shown in this expansive list from my pals at Stathead. Robinson played 14 seasons in the N.B.A.; Harden is in his 11th season.

Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to [email protected].

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