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May 22, 2020

Sixers remain in practice facility limbo as other NBA contenders open their doors

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5_Joel_Embiid__Sixers_76ers_KateFrese.jpg Kate Frese/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid.

The change from working out on PCOM's campus to their new digs in Camden was an astronomical upgrade for the Sixers, a day-to-day quality of life change for their players and part of any sales pitch to potential free-agent signings. But although they don't have to fight for real estate with local medical students, the Sixers' return to their facility lags behind many of their peers around the league.

May 8th was the date marked by the NBA as the earliest team practice facilities could be reopened for player workouts. Numerous restrictions have been in place during those workouts, including for strength and conditioning work. Activities that require a second person to be within 12 feet of each other (as in a weightlifter/spotter situation) have been prohibited, though reports suggest rules will begin changing in the month of June.

Through Thursday, May 21st, 18 of the league's 30 teams have opened their doors for player workouts: the Cavaliers, Blazers, Nuggets, Grizzlies, Heat, Magic, Bucks, Raptors, Hawks, Pacers, Jazz, Kings, Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, Pelicans, Thunder, and Timberwolves. In other words, players from four of the five teams ahead of the Sixers in the Eastern Conference standings are already back in the gym, and Boston Celtics GM Danny Ainge has expressed his hope that the Celtics will be open for workouts in the next day or two.

As of Friday and, according to officials, through the holiday weekend, the Sixers continue to wait on the go-ahead from the powers that be to reopen their own practice facility. It is not a situation they are in control of, with New Jersey one of the hardest-hit states in the country, but the COVID-19 pandemic has nonetheless left them where they were before quarantine began: behind a lot of their competition.

Thus far, select players have found a way around it. Joel Embiid, for example, has been spotted working out in limited partner Michael Rubin's gym during the quarantine. And Ben Simmons, who has been working hard to get his troublesome back right, was cleared for a medical pass to use the Camden facility to rehab. But access to a basketball facility has been limited overall, even with the Sixers working to help them in whatever small ways they can during the hiatus, providing small pieces of exercise equipment to those who have needed it.

On Monday, New Jersey governor Phil Murphy unveiled the state's multi-staged plan to re-open the state, with Jersey currently in what they call Stage 1. The state's Stage 1 plan is described with the following language:

Phased-in businesses may include: 

— Non-essential, but easiest to safeguard, work activities at physical locations if they meet safeguarding and modification guidelines. For example, non-essential construction with protections.
— Some non-essential retail may open with significant modifications. For example, curbside pickup.
— All workers who can work from home continue to work from home even if their industry is reopening. For example, an office manager for a construction company.

In theory, something like a practice facility could fall under the category of "easiest to safeguard," provided Sixers business staffers continue to work from home and player workouts are meticulously scheduled. 

Phase 2, meanwhile, has language that includes a wider scope of business types:

Phased-in businesses may include: 
—More work activities are allowed at physical locations only if they adhere to safeguarding and modification guidelines. For example, work activities to be phased-in over the course of Stage 2 may include expanded retail, safeguarded restaurants with outdoor seating, limited personal care, and possibly indoor dining, museums, and libraries, all with significantly reduced capacity.

It's still unclear how the state of New Jersey will accommodate the Sixers, though state officials said Wednesday that discussions between the state and members of the Sixers have been ongoing as New Jersey has begun transitioning out of lockdown.

For their part, Philadelphia's brain trust has remained adamant they will not let the team fall behind as a result of restrictions, a point GM Elton Brand drove home during a recent conference call with reporters, noting that they have a facility in Delaware that might end up being useful should it come down to that.

"I will definitely make sure our players are not at a disadvantage when the season starts," Brand said. "We'll look at access in New Jersey, Pennsylvania as they're loosening the stay at home mandates. But also we have a great facility right in Wilmington, Delaware, that our G-League team, the Blue Coats, play in and practice in that's really state of the art. You know, I have backup plans ready and available for our guys when they need it, and when it's deemed safe, and if they want it...we're looking, I'm looking at everything to make sure that the players get what they need."

It's unclear if options in other states will be viable for the Sixers. Southeastern Pennsylvania's population density and proximity to New Jersey has kept it under the "red" designation of Governor Tom Wolf's plan, though some counties are expected to be moved into the "yellow" phase as soon as Friday's afternoon briefing. Options beyond their normal practice facility are possible if it reaches a point where the Sixers can't wait any longer — when they began the process of reopening leaguewide, the NBA promised "the league will work with the team to identify alternatives" to any franchise unable to open its own facility due to local restrictions.

How meaningful will this late start actually be from a basketball perspective? That's up for debate. Player workouts are still under heavy restrictions at this stage, limited in size, scope, and completely voluntary at this point. Not having access to basketball hoops for a couple of months, strange as it must be for professional basketball players, shouldn't be a death knell for their season.

Nevertheless, it's time they won't be able to get back as teams begin preparing for a potential mid-July return. As they await further instruction early next week, the Sixers have another hurdle in their way in a season that already had enough. 

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