The G League bubble this winter is going to derail any G League shuttle, that much seems certain.
Getting players into and out of the pared-down and concentrated NBA G League season during a pandemic is expected to significantly reduce the number of assignments and call-ups between the minor league clubs in Orlando and their parent teams.
The calendar is tight, with a 15-game regular season that began Wednesday squeezed into 25 days. A single-elimination playoff will begin on March 8 for the top eight teams, with the G Final set for March 11.
All of which makes it impossible for someone to experience a season like Toronto’s Bruno Caboclo in 2016-17, when he was sent out to the G League Raptors 905 club 33 times for a total of 105 days.
That year, 92 different players were designated for 479 G League assignments. This year, there will be some movement but the majority of players are expected to stay put — either in the bubble at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at the Walt Disney World or with their parent team.
Some players working on two-way contracts will get farmed out as is customary for the reps and game experience that makes the G League so helpful to developing young talent. Others will keep working at their team’s NBA facility, providing roster insurance if the health & safety protocols that have sidelined players and postponed games come calling.
“We are conscious about it,” Matt Riccardi, general manager of Brooklyn’s Long Island Nets G League affiliate, told reporters in a recent Zoom call from Florida. “And I think every team has a different kind of perspective on what their two-ways are used for and how they are needed on both teams.
“That is something that changes year to year, month by month, day by day, as we go through everything. COVID situation is no different. We are all still trying to figure it out ourselves.”
The Cleveland Cavaliers, for instance, have decided to hedge their bets by sending one of their two-way players, center Marques Bolden, into the bubble. The other, forward Lamar Stevens, is sticking with the Cavs as an “in case of emergency” option.
“We’re fairly healthy,” said Mike Gansey, Cleveland’s assistant GM, “but we always want to make sure we’re leaving Coach [J.B. Bickerstaff] with enough bodies.”
A long list of instructions, requirements and quarantines was provided to all 17 participating G League franchises, along with Ignite elite team of top 2021 draft prospects. And they are strict. Entering the bubble for a player sent out on assignment, or clearing it for a call-up to the NBA, will require planning and time.
There are expedited vs. general entry or exit rules that differ based on one’s “tier” of involvement, with mandated numbers of negative daily lab-based coronavirus test results required.
Previous exposure matters too. For example, a player who has recovered from COVID within 90 days must quarantine in his G League bubble — “Gubble,” many are calling it — hotel room until he has two consecutive negative tests. Those arriving without a prior case of the virus need to return four consecutive negative tests.
Then there is the geography of it all, with the entire enterprise held at the same complex where the NBA completed its 2019-20 regular season and playoffs last summer. According to the protocols set forth by the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association, arrivals and departures are different for those using commercial air travel, private air travel or travel by private car.
So these four weeks aren’t going to be simple as driving from Toronto or Chicago to the suburbs to play for Raptors 905 or the Windy City Bulls, respectively. No easy 90-minute hauls from Charlotte to Greensboro or Milwaukee to Oshkosh, either.
“We had 10 guys who we wanted for Canton come to Cleveland, and they had to quarantine in the hotel for a week,” Gansey said. “Then when they got here [Orlando], it was another three or four days. That basically meant two weeks of doing nothing.”
All of the restrictions and changes gave several NBA and G League teams enough pause that they aren’t participating in the bubble. Others deliberated whether to go.
“As a group, Mitch [Kupchak], Larry Jordan, myself, and [Greensboro GM] Cam Twiss, we tried to figure out,” said Buzz Peterson, the Charlotte Hornets assistant GM and president of the Greensboro Swarm. “We said, ‘All right, 15 games for $500,000 or $700,000 – is it worth it?’ That focused our thinking: ‘Should we do it or not.’
“In the past, what’s really helped us out [with guys like] Devonte’ Graham, Jalen McDaniels, the Martin twins [Caleb and Cody], those guys have really benefitted from playing in Greensboro and coming back. We’ve used it heavily as a development tool.
“When we didn’t have it this year, we were like, ‘Oh boy, it hurts.’ Because of the two big kids we signed in Nick Richards and Vernon Carey. We wanted them to spend time down there, just have great years developing.”
So the Swarm are in Orlando, coached by Hornets assistant Jay Hernandez.
“Very valuable guy,” Peterson said. “He’s our head guy for development. So it works out perfect to have him with this team. It’s something he wanted to do, to get some head coaching experience. So it was a no-brainer to send him down for six weeks to be with these guys.”
The audibles called across the NBA this season — for scheduling, available players and more — are every bit as necessary at the G League level. Scouting will be a challenge, with personnel either embedding in the bubble or limited to watching players and games from a distance.
“Our scouts are just like you are, wearing the sofa out,” Peterson said. “Larry [Jordan, Charlotte’s director of player personnel] has our pro scouts, Drew Parry and Gary Sacks, assigned to [the G League] games, watching everything on TV just like they were there.
“And then Larry will go down and watch. But the thing is, they won’t let you get but, like, 25 rows close to the floor.”
As scouts throughout the NBA have found, that means missing out on certain intangibles, what Peterson talked of as the communication, intensity and vibe a player brings to the court. “If I’m sitting 25 rows up, I might as well just sit here in my living room and watch the game,” he said.
To meet NBA roster minimums and prepare for an outbreak within the Hornets, Peterson said the team will rotate McDaniels, Richards and Carey in the bubble. Their two-way players, Nate Darling and Grant Riller, will be with the Swarm for the duration, he said.
Other teams will deploy their available talent as they see fit.
“But with this COVID stuff, you never know,” Peterson added. “We’ve told these guys, ‘Don’t be surprised if you get a call — boom! — and you’re out of there. Or you’re going there. We’re all dealing with that right now.’
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