SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Mark Medina discusses the difficult decision facing players to resume the season and how teams have reacted to the few who have already opted out.
The Los Angeles Lakers opened their season hoping that Dwight Howard could restore his NBA career and help them win a league championship. Howard had the same ambitions.
Once the NBA halted the season on March 11 because of the novel coronavirus, though, varying circumstances have shifted priorities. In a conference call on Tuesday, Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka said that Howard has not yet informed the team on if he will play or sit when the NBA resumes its season July 30 in Orlando.
Melissa Rios, the mother of Howard’s 6-year-old son David, died on March 27 near her home in Calabasas, California, because of a seizure after fighting epilepsy. Amid protests the past month, begun after George Floyd died while in police custody in Minneapolis, Howard has said publicly he may sit out the season to help ongoing efforts to address racial inequality.
“We are going to continue to work through those extenuating circumstances with Dwight, support him, support his 6-year-old son and hope for the best that he would be a part of our roster in Orlando,” Pelinka said. “But that will be a continued process.”
The Lakers already know they won’t have a full roster to open the resumed season. Last week, Lakers forward Avery Bradley opted out of playing out of concerns for his 6-year-old son’s history with respiratory illness. Pelinka said he had ongoing conversations with Bradley and his family, and “wanted to support him in his journey.”
Yet, Pelinka acknowledged that “it’s tough to lose Avery,” citing his toughness, defensive efforts and overall presence as a starter.
“We completely understand his decision. That’s a decision of mixed emotion from a basketball standpoint,” said Pelinka, who once served as Bradley’s agent. “I was really hoping for them to have an opportunity to compete for a championship. But I understand that in this instance, safety and family is first and that’s where things landed.”
The Lakers have been finalizing a deal to sign free agent guard J.R. Smith, but that move cannot be officially made until Wednesday. According to the NBA’s 113-page health and safety protocols, Smith would have to complete a medical history questionnaire, undergo a medical history review and then be tested for the coronavirus. That testing procedure includes taking at least three negative PCR tests over at least five days prior to when that player begins any workouts.
The Lakers’ other players began that procedure on June 23, but Pelinka declined to say if any player’s tests came out positive because of privacy concerns. He also mentioned the NBA already announced last week that 16 out of 302 players initially tested positive for COVID-19. The Lakers had two players test positive for the coronavirus in March after they were initially tested. Pelinka declined to say if those players have since tested negative.
“What we’re seeing in the league is some people choose to step forward and talk about a positive test and their journey and we want those rights to come from those individual,” Pelinka said. “If they choose to step forward and share their journey, I’d rather have that come from them since that’s the best source for that.”
Pelinka admitted the Lakers were “still working through” determining if they will have a full roster once mandatory individual workouts begin on Wednesday, since they were still awaiting more test results. Pelinka said the Lakers have not finalized who will be on their 35-member traveling party, though he plans to be in Orlando assuming he remains healthy. He also said the team will impose “flex staffing” to account for varying absences among staff members.
As for the team itself, Pelinka said “it’s too early to really start talking about rotations.” The Lakers (49-14), who have the best record in the Western Conference, will rely heavily on LeBron James and Anthony Davis, obviously. But to account for Bradley’s absence, the Lakers have varying options in Smith, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, Alex Caruso, Dion Waiters and Markieff Morris.
“We’ve had such a strong chemistry, such a strong team chemistry, that I think that platform is going to be seamless in terms of guys jumping on and being part of that identity and chemistry that we already had formed,” Pelinka said. “I don’t see that changing at all with the new additions, just because it’s such a strong identity.”
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