According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Bobby Marks, the NBA is mulling how to allow for replacement players while in Orlando. Once at Disney World, players will be tested daily, and all indications are that the show will go on even if someone contracts the virus. Nevertheless, if a player tests positive, they will have to quarantine for at least 10 days, so there has to be an agreed upon means for affected teams to obtain healthy bodies (so, so weird!) in order to maintain competitive balance. Under current thinking, such talent would reportedly be sourced from either signing eligible free agents (i.e. players who signed with the G League or were in the NBA at any point this season or last, including training camp) during a designated transaction window (June 22 through prior to the start of the playoffs), or making use of players on two-way contracts.
With that in mind, here’s a closer look at who the Pacers would (and would not) be able to add in the event of an emergency.
Lance Stephenson and other outside help
Prior to the league’s suspension, rumblings were circulating that the Pacers were in “strong talks” to bring back old friend Lance Stephenson for a third go-around as a salve for the loss of Jeremy Lamb while Malcolm Brogdon (quad muscle injury) and Doug McDermott (sore toe) were dealing with injuries. Since then, however, the rest of the team has been given ample time to heal up, and though Victor Oladipo gave me a glowing, and completely unprompted, review of his former teammate when I talked to him last month for an interview, Stephenson’s ball-dominance doesn’t exactly jive with the bench’s free-flowing offense, let alone alongside T.J. McConnell — especially given his pre-existing track record next to Cory Joseph.
Plus, in addition to those potential fit concerns (and the question of whether the “Lance-effect” would exist at a crowd-less neutral site), Stephenson was never on an NBA or G League roster this season, which means his rebounding prowess at the wing position wouldn’t be an option as a replacement, even in a pinch. (Update: Shams Charania of The Athletic is now reporting that players who have signed NBA or G League deals this year or in a previous year would be allowed to sign in a restarted season. Be that as it may, if the Pacers would for some reason have interest in adding Stephenson’s rebounding prowess at the wing for purposes beyond that of just a “replacement” player, they would have to clear a roster spot in order to make room for his services — and that’s pending FIBA clearance.)
Fortunately, for the most part, the Pacers have pieces they can shift around to fill almost any role, with the exception of center. If Myles Turner or Domantas Sabonis has to be quarantined, Goga Bitadze’s shaky defense would immediately be thrown into the fire without the aid of an obvious back-up — a concern, given that the Georgian big man averaged six fouls per game into two games as a starter. In that event, though T.J. Leaf and JaKarr Sampson **squints** could technically be repurposed to play nominal five, Indiana might want to consider parsing through the list of players who were roster casualties this season for outside help (i.e. DeMarcus Cousins, if healthy?), even if only for the sake of preserving the team’s traditional power forward depth.
Should they find themselves in immediate and pressing need of emergency manpower, logic would suggest that teams would benefit from calling on players who are already familiar with their system so as to flatten the learning curve. For the Pacers, their list of October 2019 training camp invites includes two-way players Naz Mitrou-Long and Brian Bowen II as well as JaKeenan Gant, Amida Brimah, Walter Lemon Jr., and C.J. Wilcox.
Among those names, Brimah, the lone option at center, suffered a torn ACL shortly after being waived last fall, and Gant recently committed to play in The Tournament for Power of the Paw (Clemson Alumni). If a guard or a wing comes down with the virus, Mitrou-Long and Bowen II would likely have the inside track as break-glass additions since, per Charania, the NBA is now planning to allow teams to bring up to 17 players into the bubble, including two-way players. However, the latter of those two has already exhausted the 45 days he can spend with an NBA team this season Granted, it sounds like the Pacers would still be able to convert Bowen’s contract into a standard deal during the transaction period (assuming no other allowance is made), but it remains to be seen if the player he replaces would be eligible to return to play. Mitrou-Long, meanwhile, sustained a Grade 3 ankle sprain prior to the shutdown which was severe enough that he was allowed to be in the team’s training facility for treatment and workouts ahead of when it officially reopened.
If worse comes to worse, Wilcox shot nearly 40 percent from three on 6.9 attempts per game in 42 games with the Mad Ants this season after working his way back from a ruptured Achilles tendon, and Lemon, who posted an anomaly year from deep as a respectable, low-volume three-point shooter, is always a threat to get into the paint. That said, once playoff rosters are finalized, the Pacers would be limited to only replacing players who test positive for COVID-19 with active two-way players.
Going 32-20 in games without Victor Oladipo, the Pacers know how to make do in the absence of key players. The level of competition will undeniably be stiffer during the seeding games than it was, for instance, when they managed to cobble together a win in Chicago without Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren, or Doug McDermott, but their mettle has still nonetheless been tested to patch holes with a depleted roster.
That’s why, especially given that two-way players will now be allowed into the bubble at the start of training camp, the Pacers might want to avoid taking advantage of the allowance altogether. Sure, weathering the 8-game slate without a core member of the rotation would be tough, but at least that player would still be eligible to return (in theory) once recovered. Not to mention there’s a potential downside to having to wait for an outside replacement to arrive on site and get up to speed in terms of schemes and conditioning. To that point, for a team that spent most of the season riddled by injuries, extra bodies will arguably be of greater benefit for the purpose of decreasing workloads during camp rather than providing makeshift band-aids in the wake of camp.
After all, if a whole string of players gets sick to the point where replacement players are necessary as full-time rotation players or (gulp) mercenary starters, then won’t the entire resumption of the season be called into question?