How NBA teams may use replacement players

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How NBA teams may use replacement players

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How NBA teams may use replacement players

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As the NBA prepares to resume the 2019-20 season in July, more details about the league’s plan are coming to light. In the event of an injury or a positive COVID-19 test during training camp or the regular season, teams will be able to sign replacement players from the free-agent pool. 

The NBA will allow each team to bring 17 players (including their two-way guys) to Disney’s Wide World of Sports. There won’t be a limit on how many replacement players a team can sign, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Once the playoffs start on August 17, teams won’t be able to add any replacement players. 

Every night, players will be tested for COVID-19; if a player tests positive, they must self-quarantine for 10-14 days while their team continues playing.

Not only will replacement players be necessary in the event of positive tests, they also could be called upon if a player is injured. Most teams will arrive in Orlando healthier than usual at this point in the season thanks to the four-month break, but a number of trainers and players have expressed concern that there could be more injuries than usual when the season resumes. After all, players have been working out on their own since mid-March and it’s hard to mimic game movements and intensity while training alone. Ramping back up slowly with a training camp (and potentially two or three exhibition games) should help, but there’s still increased injury risk. 

Because this is an unprecedented situation, people around the NBA have no idea how teams will approach this transaction window and how many replacement players will be signed.

“I’m not sure if teams will rush to sign guys,” an agent said. “NBA rosters are already the biggest of any major sport in terms of the ratio of players on the roster to players on the court/field,” the agent explained. “In the NBA, it’s 15:5 (or 3:1) whereas it’s 25:9 (or 2.8:1) in MLB and 53:22 (or 2.4:1) in the NFL. And that doesn’t even include two-way players. I’m sure every team is aware of all the available G League guys and free agents. But in the playoffs, most rotations shrink to nine or 10 guys anyway. So, if you have 15 players, you should have five extra guys.”

“I’m curious to see if teams will sign free agents,” one Western Conference executive added. “I have no idea what will happen. At the end of the day, we’re just talking about a 15th man most likely, right?” 

One Eastern Conference general manager pointed out that some teams may not consider signing replacement players at all, even if there is an injury or a positive COVID-19 test. Since a replacement player would have to quarantine for 10-14 days before playing, the team’s injured or sick player may be close to returning by the time the replacement player is finally able to take the court.

“I think as long as a team doesn’t have multiple players who get sick at the same time, they won’t sign anyone,” the general manager said. “I think most teams will just wait for their sick player to return.” 

Some NBA teams with an open roster spot may decide to sign a free agent prior to arriving in Orlando rather than waiting until an injury or positive test occurs to address their depth. Technically, this player wouldn’t be a “replacement player,” but he’d be stashed on their roster in case of emergency. This would allow the player to go through training camp with the team as well as the initial quarantine period in Orlando. Then, if there is an injury or positive test, he would be able to play right away rather than having to quarantine for 10-14 days upon arrival like a replacement player would have to do.

Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about how some players may choose not to play when the season resumes in Orlando. In recent weeks, a number of executives brought up this possibility and openly wondered what would happen if their players decided to sit out because they didn’t want to be in the bubble for months and risk their health. Now, some players are also concerned that resuming play would shift the public’s focus away from the Black Lives Matter movement. Players who choose to sit out must notify their NBA team by June 24, according to an NBPA memo obtained by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

While it’s possible that enough NBA players speaking out would force the NBPA to back out of the plan to resume play, it seems more likely that the NBA will just allow each player to make their own decision when it comes to participating. If a player chooses to sit out, their team will resume play without them. These players wouldn’t face any consequences (aside from not being paid) and NBA teams would be allowed to sign a replacement player to take their place, according to a recent article by Wojnarowski. 

There’s also some concern that players on fringe playoff teams will opt to play, but then want to leave the bubble or sit out as soon as their team is mathematically eliminated from the postseason. Players won’t want to put their health at risk and stay in the bubble if they aren’t playing for something. Some players (such as Damian Lillard) have already said that they wouldn’t risk their health to participate in meaningless games, and who could blame them?

“I feel like the eighth seed and the ninth seed could partially be determined by whose schedule sets them up against teams who are ‘tanking’ at the end,” said one Western Conference executive.

DeMarcus Cousins is one of the free agents who’s eligible to be signed. (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

Interestingly, not all free agents are eligible to be signed as replacement players.

In order to be eligible, a player had to be on an NBA or G League roster this season or last season. Players who were overseas as of March 11, 2020 (when the NBA season was suspended) are not eligible to be signed, which rules out some notable free agents such as Lance Stephenson, Donatas Motiejunas, Greg Monroe and Miles Plumlee. If a player started the season overseas but got a FIBA clearance before March 11, they are eligible to be signed as long as they were on an NBA or G League roster in 2019-20 or 2018-19 (like Willie Reed, for example, who was in Greece to start the season but then got his FIBA clearance and signed with a G League team). 

There are plenty of of notable free agents and former G League players who are eligible to be signed including DeMarcus Cousins, Isaiah Thomas, Darren Collison, Jamal Crawford, Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, Nik Stauskas, Kenneth Faried, Tyler Zeller, Jerian Grant, Corey Brewer, Tyler Johnson, Jodie Meeks, Michael Beasley, Nick Young, Trey Burke, Allen Crabbe, Jordan Bell, Justin Anderson, Tim Frazier, Tyrone Wallace, Ivan Rabb, Jarrod Uthoff, Amile Jefferson, Jonah Bolden, Tyler Ennis, Josh Magette, JP Macura, Ryan Broekhoff and Yante Maten among others.

While it’ll be interesting to see how the 22 NBA teams in the bubble utilize the replacement players, the eight teams who aren’t resuming play will be allowed to sign players during this transaction window too. Don’t be surprised if some of these teams take advantage of this opportunity to add a free agent and acquire their Bird rights.

“I would be on the lookout for a smart non-bubble team to add someone during the transaction window,” one NBA agent said. “Any team can sign guys from that same pool of talent and, I assume, pay guys the same pro-rated amount.” 

In Wojnarowski’s article about replacement players, he confirmed that “the eight teams left out of the Orlando resumption are allowed to waive or sign players during the transaction window,” although “they cannot sign a player to a two-way contract.”

It’s worth noting that a lot of these details are still being worked out and nothing is official as of yet. Several agents and executives pointed out that they’re receiving these updates through social media, just like the rest of us, and awaiting further instruction from the league or NBPA.

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