Ben Simmons wasn’t at Philadelphia’s media day. Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving won’t say if he’s vaccinated. New Orleans’ Zion Williamson had offseason surgery to repair a broken bone in his right foot. New Minnesota Timberwolves owners Alex Rodriguez and Marc Lore said there are no plans to relocate the franchise. The Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets are 100% vaccinated, and Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer wouldn’t say how many of his team’s players are vaccinated. And Washington’s Bradley Beal said he only lost his sense of smell from COVID-19 and wondered why more people weren’t talking about the adverse reactions to the vaccine and how that impact player health.
Phew. That’s a lot to unpack.
The Nets’ Big 3 of Kevin Durant (7), Kyrie Irving (11) and James Harden are healthy to begin training camp. But Irving’s vaccination status has become a hot topic.
The NBA, same as it ever was. Rarely a dull moment. And real practices hadn’t even started yet.
Let’s take a look at the NBA’s top storylines as training camps open:
Vaccinated and unvaccinated players
From referees to coaches to scorer’s table workers, just about everyone in close contact with an NBA players, including reporters, must be vaccinated – everyone except the players themselves. The league did not reach an agreement with the National Basketball Players Association on a vaccine mandate. The league has instituted policy where unvaccinated players will undergo regular COVID-19 testing, and vaccinated players will not have to do that. The league is also trying to implement more onerous restrictions for unvaccinated players. The NBA and NBPA are expecting at least 90% of players to be fully vaccinated with that number expected to rise. It’s also possible some unvaccinated players won’t be able to play in home games where local ordinances (New York and San Francisco) have mandated employees of the home team must be vaccinated. The NBA denied Andrew Wiggins’ religious exemption, and if’s he not fully vaccinated by Oct. 7, he won’t be able to play in Golden State’s first home game on Oct. 21.
The Sixers’ Ben Simmons dilemma
No team is opening training camp with as much controversy and intrigue as the Philadelphia 76ers. Not only does All-Star Ben Simmons want out of Philadelphia via a trade, he has no interest in reporting to training camp. The Sixers can withhold salary and fine him, but Simmons is aware of the financial ramifications and still intends to stay away. This could get costly for both Simmons (financially) and the Sixers (on the court). Philadelphia has championships aspirations – it had the best record in the Eastern Conference last season – and the longer it goes without Simmons or suitable replacement in the starting lineup, the more a championship looks less likely. The Sixers don’t want to be pressured into a bad deal, and at the same time, this will be a distraction until there’s a resolution.
Did the Lakers construct a championship roster?
The Lakers believe so after pairing LeBron James and Anthony Davis with an All-Star playmaker (Russell Westbrook) along with a handful former All-Stars willing to take a reduced role (Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard). Westbrook might lack a 3-point shot, but the Lakers acquired players that have one (Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Talen-Horton Tucker, Kendrick Nunn, Malik Monk). The Lakers also have bolstered their defensive identity with promising wing defenders (Ariza, Bazemore) and interior ones (Howard, DeAndre Jordan). The Lakers also remain bullish James and Davis will be fully healthy after having an extended break following a first-round exit less than a year after winning the 2020 NBA title.
Is anyone paying attention to the defending champs?
For a championship team, the Bucks are flying under the radar a bit as training camp opens. That’s fine with them. They’ll let the spotlight shine on Ben Simmons and the Sixers, and the Nets and their vaccination issues. But the Bucks aren’t content. They want to repeat, and they have work to do given some roster changes. The core of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo are back. But Milwaukee lost P.J. Tucker and Bryn Forbes in free agency and added Grayson Allen and Rodney Hood. Donte DiVincenzo also returns from an injury training camp will be necessary for newcomers to get on the same page.
Nets start season healthy but with drama
Brooklyn starts the season healthy, which is not how they ended last season in a conference semifinals loss to Milwaukee. With All-Stars Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, the Nets – and not the champion Bucks – are the early-season favorites to win the East in Coach Steve Nash’s second season with the franchise. But the Nets aren’t without early-season drama. Last week, Nets general manager Sean Marks said not all Nets players are fully vaccinated. Kyrie Irving declined to say if he was vaccinated but he was not at the team facility for media day, conducting his availability away from another location. If he’s not fully vaccinated, he cannot play at home games or at Madison Square Garden, per a New York City mandate. So while the Nets have the talent to win a title, availability of players remains an unknown.
Where do the Timberwolves go from here?
Despite finishing with the Western Conference’s third-worst record last season (23-49), the Minnesota Timberwolves still appeared to be a team that could at least threaten to become a playoff team this season. They have an athletic rookie (Anthony Edwards), a dominant big man (Karl-Anthony Towns) and a dynamic playmaker (D’Angelo Russell) — young talent that didn’t succeed together mostly because of injuries. But despite overseeing that young talent and hiring a promising coach (Chad Finch), Gersson Rosas was fired as the team’s president of basketball operations. Executive vice president of basketball operations Sachin Gupta will lead the department but remains to be seen whether he can upgrade the roster as Rosas did. The most pressing question entails retaining Towns, whose tweet in response to Rosas’ firing (“wtf”) suggests he does not like the team’s direction with three years left on his contract.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA season training camp storylines: Vaccine status to lead way