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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Will playing in Orlando bubble be worth risk for decimated Nets?

Nets center DeAndre Jordan looks on against the

Nets center DeAndre Jordan looks on against the Jazz during the second half of an NBA game at Barclays Center on Jan. 14. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Tuesday evening marked one year to the day that the Nets were celebrated for securing a surprising free-agent haul, agreeing to terms with Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. The team, already comprised of an overachieving group of hard-nosed young players, suddenly was being considered a contender.

But Tuesday, the Nets were opening the doors to their practice facility in Brooklyn and the excitement and expectations are decidedly lower. Durant hasn’t played a minute this season, still easing his way back from Achilles tendon surgery. Kyrie Irving got in 20 games before ending his season with shoulder surgery. This conspired to cost the coach, Kenny Atkinson, his job.

Jordan played 56 games, starting six, and announced Monday night he wasn’t going to be joining the team in Orlando for the restart to the NBA season after testing positive for COVID-19. Spencer Dinwiddie also tested positive and has been shut down, although he still is deciding whether or not he will be able to play.

What the Nets mostly are right now is an example of the risk and uncertainty of the NBA’s planned resumption of the season. While the Nets reopened their facility Tuesday for individual workouts with players, the Denver Nuggets closed their facility Saturday after ESPN reported two Denver players tested positive — and head coach Mike Malone tested positive earlier during the shutdown. New Orleans Pelicans executive vice-president of basketball operations David Griffin announced Tuesday that three members of his team had tested positive.

In the health and safety protocol put out by the NBA and in the repeated words of NBA commissioner Adam Silver, the warning has always been out there that if the virus spreads to an unpalatable number — which they have not determined yet — the league will shut down again.

Speaking at a Time 100 talk Tuesday, Silver said, “We have a panel of scientists, doctors, experts that are working with us. We’re going to see as we go. Certainly, if we have a lot of cases, we’re going to stop. You cannot run from this virus. I am absolutely convinced that it will be safer on this campus than off this campus because there aren’t many other situations I’m aware of where there’s mass testing of asymptomatic employees. So in some ways this is maybe a model for how other industries ultimately open.”

That may be true. A bubble-like environment, even if it springs what seems like an inevitable leak, seems safer than going grocery shopping these days and confronting the portion of stubborn citizenry that refuses to wear a mask.

But it also feels a little bit less than what it was wished and hoped to be when the NBA first began considering a way to restart. At that time Silver talked about the responsibility to take a leadership role with the NBA having been the first professional league in the United States to suspend its season and having the opportunity to lead the way back. But he also talked about the huge number of employees at NBA games beyond the players who are convening in Orlando. Those arena workers won’t be a part of this restart with the entire process taking place at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex (for a work staff that petitioned to not have the parks open this soon).

“Ultimately, whether it’s fighting racism or a pandemic, we’re coming back because sports matter in our society,” Silver said in a conference call Friday. “They bring people together when we need it the most, and they can show how we can balance public health and economic necessity, plus a desire for shared experiences and something to cheer for through the months ahead.”

OK, but consider what Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse told reporters Tuesday when asked what his goal was this week. “The obvious goal,” Nurse said. “Any way you can do it, get to Orlando safely.”

Does a team like the Nets really benefit by playing in this bubble without four of their planned starters if it means risking injury to one of the remaining players? Is it worth the risk of infection for a player or coach — and by extension their families? For the honor of holding off the Washington Wizards for a playoff berth and the chance to be wiped out by the Bucks, Raptors or Celtics?

If safety is the biggest consideration — and the NBA insists it is — then these next few days, weeks and months must be approached carefully. The NBA put in the safety protocols that any player testing positive would be held out of any action for 14 days and then need to not only test negative for the virus, but also undergo a cardiac screening. That is a hint of the reality — that we don’t really know everything about the virus right now.

Everyone wants to see games again, real basketball rather than that much-appreciated, but horrific HORSE competition that was staged earlier in the shutdown. And getting back in action, even without fans, at least means television contracts are honored and money flows into the league. Do you care about the players' portion of basketball-related income and salary cap reductions more than the health of your favorite player?

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