Raptors taking ‘thoughtful and thorough’ approach to navigating return

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, centre, gestures while talking to team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster. (Jacques Boissinot/CP)

If the resumption of the NBA season will inevitably be measured in baby steps, maybe we should consider the news the Toronto Raptors are opening their practice facility — even just a wee crack — as something even more incremental.

Sitting up without falling over? Maybe pulling up on a coffee table to have look around?

The analogy is apt in a way, because Raptors general manager Bobby Webster — who has been overseeing his club’s first inching move to normalcy since the NBA shutdown on March 11 — has also been balancing full-time parenting duties with two infants at home.

He’s scheduling Zoom calls around naps and otherwise trying to cherish time at home during a stretch of the NBA calendar when he’d either be with the club on their road through the playoffs or keeping up with draft workouts here, there and everywhere.

“I’m learning how to parent,” said Webster of his days as a stay-at-home GM. “That probably takes up the majority of my day … it’s been, in that sense, incredibly rewarding. And who knows when we’ll ever have this chance again, so just appreciating that.”

Could his time at home be coming to a close?

There’s no indication it’s imminent, but progress is progress, and as of Monday the Raptors players that are in Toronto — about half the roster — will be able to get up shots up in a real gym rather than doing Spin classes in their apartments.

To be clear, NBA teams are no closer to playing or even practicing, but players and teams are trying to stay ready even as different states, and Canada and the U.S., have different protocols with regards to facilities being open.

The Raptors announced Friday that they would make the OVO Athletic Centre open to players, but under strict guidelines, and only after consultation with the various levels of government, given Ontario remains under an emergency order until May 19 at minimum.

The Toronto Raptors’ OVO Athletic Centre (Courtesy Toronto Raptors)

The Raptors guidelines exceed what the NBA has required of teams that are opening their gyms. While the league calls for only four players and four coaches in a facility at any one time, the Raptors have limited access to one player and one coach at a time. The team’s treatment rooms will remain closed, as will their weight room. The facility will be cleaned after each use, coaches will wear PPE gear and players will wear masks in the facility except when they’re actually training.

“I think we’ve all tried to be as thoughtful and thorough as we can with every decision that we’ve made, and so in consultation and with approval from public health — and our own doctors and internal resources, we’ve talked to some of the infectious disease experts — I think this is where we kind of came out that we felt comfortable,” said Webster. “It wasn’t, obviously, necessarily something we kind of compared ourselves to the NBA. It was almost like an independent decision that we came to based on where we want to be, based on the guidelines that we’ve all seen. And ultimately, you know, we had to submit it for approval to the government. So we thought this was reasonable.

“We thought it allowed our guys to start moving and getting out of their apartment a little bit, and kind of, at least, maybe more for mental health, for them to start shooting and doing things like that. I don’t think it was necessarily compared to the NBA rule, I think it was more something that we developed internally.”

Webster remains hopeful that the NBA can resume the season which was put on hiatus after Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert tested positive for the COVID-19 virus on March 11.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NBA Players’ Association president Michelle Roberts had a call with players on Friday addressing some of the issues and possibilities, which have reportedly included having the league centralize in a single location in a so-called ‘quarantine bubble’ — at Disney World in Florida, for example — and playing games for television without fans.

“I’ve always been optimistic [about the league returning to play],” said Webster. “It’s probably a bit of my nature, but I think that by and large we want to get back to action. And I think it has to be done responsibly and I think it has to be done thoughtfully, and I think that’s what we’re doing.”

But there are considerable hurdles, including the lack of availability of widespread testing — the league is rightfully concerned about the optics of NBA teams buying tests and jumping the line — and the logistics of keeping teams and players in one place for weeks or months at a time.

The Raptors’ status as the NBA’s only Canadian team adds another layer of complication as 14-day quarantine protocols are in effect for travellers arriving in Canada and from Canada to the U.S.

“I think we’re acutely aware of it, that we are in a different situation,” said Webster. “…It’s not necessarily our decision as far as what quarantine looks like and what crossing the border will be, and I’m not an expert on what is currently going across the border, but it’s something that is top of mind for us.”

“I think we’re acutely aware of it, that we are in a different situation,” said Webster. “…It’s not necessarily our decision as far as what quarantine looks like and what crossing the border will be, and I’m not an expert on what is currently going across the border, but it’s something that is top of mind for us.”

Ontario premier Doug Ford said Friday that anyone crossing the border any time soon will be required to quarantine.

“People that aren’t in the country right now, if they do come back, they’re going to have to be quarantined like everyone else for two weeks,” said Ford. “…I love watching any sports, be it the NHL or Raptors or the Blue Jays. But those rules will apply for all those teams. There isn’t going to be an exception.”

In the meantime there is regular business to attend to, even if it’s in an irregular way. Typically, Webster and his scouting staff would be preparing for the draft roughly six weeks from now and making plans for the draft combine which was scheduled for Chicago later this month but has been postponed, along with the draft lottery, as the league tries to resolve whether the 2019-20 season will resume or not, and when.

“We are starting to really dig in and study the players on video. Just so you know the NBA finally did release their list of players we are actually able to contact [them] so we have been going through a number of Zoom interviews like this one,” said Webster. “As you can imagine it’s different than what we are used to in Chicago [at the combine] but it does give us the opportunity with more abundant time on our hands to potentially take a look at more players.

“Maybe after the draft we will have some more insight on what was useful and what wasn’t but we are getting deep into it now.”

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