Note: Michele Roberts spoke to Yahoo Sports on the injuries throughout the season, getting the calendar back on track, the future of the supermax contract and her personal future with the NBPA.
NBA arenas are rocking and have been for weeks now as the Finals kick off and the season is two weeks away from completion. But it’s not hard to harken back to the hollow sounds of balls bouncing and a general sterile atmosphere when the season started.
That’s why NBPA executive director Michele Roberts calls this season a successful one in the wake of COVID-19 and the numerous injuries to stars, even as the season limps to the finish line.
“If you asked me at the beginning of this season, if we would be able to complete the season, I would not have taken that bet. Because I didn't know,” Roberts told Yahoo Sports. “I was prepared, I think Adam [Silver] would say he was prepared to shut down the season, [if] we found evidence that this was too dangerous, being away from home and the traveling.
“[So] unequivocally, yes, for the obvious reason that we had it, right? If you don't play, if you don't work like everybody else, you don't get paid.”
Many times, games were canceled or postponed when teams couldn’t field healthy players or those free from contact tracing. The second half of the season went off smoothly with the modified schedule, but the start was shaky.
Since Dec. 1, 126 players tested positive for COVID-19 with 57 coming during training camp and the preseason as the pandemic raged through the country in the fall. Once the season started on Dec. 22, 69 players tested positive, around 15%.
“I believe we had a protocol in place that gave us the best chance, but I didn't know,” Roberts said. “I'd say secondly, that not only that we completed, we didn't complete it with a bunch of [bad] games. We completed it with some great competition. And so I could not be happier.”
Having started fewer than two weeks after the NBA Finals from the Orlando bubble, it prompted criticism from LeBron James — a vocal proponent of the season restarting in Orlando in the heart of the pandemic, it should be noted.
His team had the shortest break, along with the Miami Heat, and stood to suffer most from a shorter turnaround. James was adamantly against the NBA having an All-Star Game in Atlanta, as well.
It gave the perception that Roberts was making decisions without the input of the players, if the biggest name in the game was barking the loudest and doing it quite often. But Roberts wasn’t sending off group texts and telling 450 players or so to just roll with her decisions.
Chris Paul is the head of the union, and is close with James, so it’s tough to see James being blindsided in this instance.
“I don't run this union. I know that people think I do,” Roberts said. “But the players know better. They run this union. That was the reason my predecessor [Billy Hunter] got fired, because on some level, they thought that he was he was unilaterally making decisions that affected them.”
It was clear there weren’t great options for the players. The TV contracts couldn’t be paid out unless there was a minimum of 72 games — critical considering up to 40% of projected revenue comes from attendance at arenas, which was missing — and as Roberts pointed out, the networks placed a premium on the Christmas week games because of the monetary value.
“The recommendation to start in December came from the league,” Roberts said. “So the big ask was, could we start the games in December? And the answer was not yes from Michele. The decision to play or not to play comes from the players.”
Roberts held meetings with each team, before the decision was made to play in Orlando and before the players came back for this season.
“And we laid out what the pros and cons were. And there were incredibly interesting meetings,” Roberts said. “It's all virtual and then some of them were heated. Some of them were not.”
Although there were individual dissenters, every team voted to play. She was comfortable knowing there wouldn’t be unanimity, and she wouldn’t say if James was a dissenter.
While not addressing him directly, she did offer: “I don't have a problem with players that articulate their opposition to decisions that were made. That's their absolute right. I wouldn't have it any other way.
“I mean, no family doesn't have the luxury of saying that we always are on the same page.”
And despite the backlash, everybody showed up to play this season.
“The good news is, this isn't chattel slavery,” she said. “I've quit jobs before, too. So if you're unhappy, then you don't do it. But you can [play], but you still have the right to be unhappy.
“But the one thing I do push back against is the notion that it was something that was not decided by the players and the players had no input.”
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