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If Hornets get wish with second NBA bubble, free agency creates as big a hurdle as COVID

Part-time, hourly Charlotte Hornets employees affected by loss of games due to the coronavirus...
Part-time, hourly Charlotte Hornets employees affected by loss of games due to the coronavirus pandemic will be provided financial assistance, thanks to a fund established by the Hornets and its players.(Charlotte Hornets/Twitter (custom credit) | Charlotte Hornets/Twitter)
Published: Jul. 2, 2020 at 9:28 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego may get his offseason wish — some actual competition for his young roster to break up eight months of inactivity.

ESPN first reported Thursday that the NBA is discussing alternatives — possibly a second “bubble” in Chicago — that could provide group workouts and possibly scrimmages for the eight teams not going to Disney’s Orlando-area campus for the season restart.

League officials spoke Thursday with general managers from the affected teams about where such an event could be held, a source with direct knowledge confirmed to the Observer. Any such event would require approval from both the players association and NBA owners.

No decisions have been made, the source said, and health and safety would be the top priority in any future determinations.

The Hornets weren’t included in the restart. Borrego said last month it could be a “major disadvantage” if the Hornets and the other seven teams aren’t allowed to at least practice during an off-season that will stretch from mid-March to early November.

NBA teams aren’t normally allowed to hold group practices in the off-season. Currently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hornets players can only work out individually at the practice gym in Spectrum Center.

“That’s my biggest worry — how to get those guys live reps,” Borrego said. “You’ve got to feel success, you’ve got to feel failure, and all that happens in that live (competition) environment.”

Any plan would need approval from the players association. Union executive director Michele Roberts said June 26 that practices or scrimmages involving those eight teams (Charlotte, Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, Chicago, Minnesota and Golden State) would have to employ the same stringent health protocols the NBA will use at Disney.

Establishing a second quarantine bubble in Chicago would be doable, but could be very expensive, according to epidemiologist Alvin Tran of the University of New Haven.

“Whatever is going to happen with these eight teams, it’s going to be costly,” said Tran, an assistant professor of public health. “If they do have a mini-league, the NBA or somebody is going to have to pay up.”

The NBA plans to restart the season July 30. Players from those 22 teams will be quarantined in three hotels near Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex, where the games will be staged, hopefully through a championship round ending in early October.

The NBA and players association created a protocol document of more than 100 pages, detailing everything from every-other-day COVID-19 tests to rings that constantly monitor players’ vital signs, to an anonymous hotline to report players or staff who stray from quarantined areas.

There is a compelling financial reason to restart the season — fulfilling the national television contracts with Turner and ESPN/ABC, which pay the league about $2.7 billion each season.

But staging a second “bubble” likely wouldn’t generate revenue. It could, however, mitigate the competitive disadvantage those eight teams feel.

‘HUGE DISADVANTAGE’

Billy King, who has run the basketball operations for the Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets, said Borrego’s and others concerns should be addressed.

“When you don’t play from when the season was stopped (Mar. 11) until November — if you can’t get guys together for that whole time period — that’s a huge disadvantage,” said King, a former Duke player.

ESPN front office insider Bobby Marks, who was assistant general manager of the Nets, said at minimum, the NBA should find a way to let the eight teams practice, if not scrimmage each other.

“There has to be some type” of offseason activity, Marks said, “whether they are mandatory or voluntary.”

THE NEW CHALLENGE — FREE AGENCY

Beyond health concerns, the problem with creating a mini-league in a second “bubble” is free agency.

Marks said it’s a given not all players would participate, particularly free agents-to-be, who would be wary of injury risk. The start of NBA free agency has been pushed back from July 1 to Oct. 18.

The Hornets have three impending free agents — centers Bismack Biyombo and Willy Hernangomez and guard-forward Dwayne Bacon. Some teams, such as the New York Knicks, have several rotation players on team options for next season, so it could be hard for them to field an offseason roster.

Marks said allowing some lesser players, seeking training-camp invitations, to sign summer contracts could be a way to fill out those rosters.

Participation by veterans would probably vary greatly among the eight teams. Young rosters like the Hornets, Hawks and Cavaliers might get strong participation. A more veteran team, such as the Warriors, might not have great participation for something comparable to summer league.

Marks said whatever the NBA might do this summer with the eight teams not going to Orlando could serve as a trial run for how all 30 franchises will hold training camp in November.

“This would kind of be your practice round for that,” said Marks. “You could do that with (COVID) testing, whether those are players staying in their own homes or at a hotel. You could control the situation.”

Tran said the physical nature of basketball — players breathe, sweat and sometimes bleed on each other — adds to the challenge of health-safety in the pandemic. But he thinks the NBA has an opportunity to set the course for other high-contact sports’ return.

“If they are allowing these 22 other teams to play, then I think there’s a possibility to get creative with these eight teams,” Tran said.

“Basketball is a close-contact sport. There need to be strict protocols in place,” Tran concluded. “There’s an opportunity for the NBA to set precedent for those other close-contact sports, in what protocols to enact.”