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SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Are meaningless games worth risk for Knicks, other NBA teams left out of league's restart?

Basketballs sit on court in the first half

Basketballs sit on court in the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, in Denver.  Credit: AP/David Zalubowski

It was a fitting contrast Thursday, the NBA announcing that nine more players had tested positive for COVID-19 amid reports that the league was closing in on plans for the eight teams left out of the Orlando title chase to gather for meaningless games.

It was another case of good intentions causing well-deserved head-shaking.

There certainly are days now when it’s worth wondering just how worthwhile a venture it is for the NBA to restart a season that was suspended on March 11 because of the coronavirus.

At that time, the NBA pulled the plug immediately after learning about the first positive test. Now nine positive tests merit a shrug and a willingness to send teams whose seasons really were lost months ago into the unknown.

Even in the Orlando bubble at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex, where the league and the National Basketball Players Association have worked with doctors and scientists for months to try to close the potential leaks for the virus, players steadily have opted to sit this one out despite having a chance to win an NBA championship.

If you believe that the NBA can keep the virus out, then why do you see coaches, who are at a greater risk because of age or underlying conditions, already announcing they are staying home?

But the real question today is this — how do we explain putting the bottom eight teams in a second bubble with nothing to play for but breaking a sweat? These are teams that couldn’t even mount the argument that the Washington Wizards have to be part of the title chase. The Wizards were 24-40 when the season shut down, and they’re in. So, really, these teams didn’t exactly distinguish themselves in the first 60-some games that were played.

The Knicks are in that mix, but while the league tries to figure out a way to appease the teams that believe it’s unfair to have them enter next season without having played a game for at least nine months, they are on the other side of the argument.

Busy with a coaching search right now as new team president Leon Rose and his staff make their way through remote interviews with 11 candidates, the Knicks have no interest in slipping into this bubble.

And for a franchise that clearly hasn’t gotten a lot right for two decades, this decision makes sense.

The Knicks want to gather for workouts, but they see no reason or upside to heading into a bubble with seven other teams. Their preference is to get a coach in place this month and then put their players in a minicamp with the coach. Aside from limiting the contact, the advantage is that they can control the play, scrimmage if they like and learn the system the new coach wants to implement.

If it’s Tom Thibodeau, as many expect it will be, this will give him a head start in terms of teaching the young players how to play defense the way he wants and introducing them to the level of work he will demand. As for the veterans on the team — including eight potential free agents — it will give them a chance to show the new coach that they want to be a part of what he’s building.

Those are legitimate reasons for the Knicks to lobby for what they want — and what they’d really like is two camps, one in August as the 22 teams are playing their eight-game seeding schedule and another after the draft to serve what the summer league normally would: a chance to get their draft picks under the management of the coaching staff.

That could be particularly important for a franchise like the Knicks, who are in flux right now and are holding three of the top 38 picks in the draft, which is scheduled for October.

Still, as the COVID-19 cases soar, it’s hard to imagine that even one team can keep its players and staff safe at its practice site. The NBA tried to implement safety measures for players and teams as it headed into the first phase of the restart, and we already have seen 25 positive tests despite the guidelines for distancing.

As the league and the NBPA have attempted to appease the lower-tier teams that want to play, NBPA executive director Michele Roberts has maintained that she would not subject players to the risk unless the health protocols were identical to those being used for the teams in the Orlando bubble.

“Candidly, while I appreciate that there will be a bit of a layoff, I think there are some things these teams can do to get the guys that are not playing some [benefit] by their not being involved in Orlando,” Roberts said in a conference call last week. “But unless we could replicate in every way the protocol that’s been established for Orlando, I’d be — I’m being tame now — suspicious.

“I think there are conversations that could be had if there’s anything we can do with the other eight teams. I know there are some players, particularly young players, that seem concerned they’re not getting enough [opportunities]. I think our teams are incredibly smart and creative and can come up with ways to get their guys engaged — if not now, before the season starts.

“But I am very concerned, and frankly, my concern aside, our players, our teams are very concerned about any — in terms of play that doesn’t have the same guarantees of safety and health that we’ve provided for the teams in Orlando,” she added. “So yeah, never say never, but there’s a standard. It’s a standard that’s got to be met, and if it’s not met, next question, as far as I’m concerned.”

The polite speech from Roberts leaves out the obvious — if the 22 teams are gathering in Orlando for a chance at a championship, as well as to uphold television contracts and preserve the collective bargaining agreement, the other teams being placed together would be a risk taken for no good reason.

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