If There's Any Plus Side To COVID-19 In The NBA, Coaches Are Seeing It
COVID-19 has robbed NBA fans of a lot this last season and a half—we miss everything from screaming inside of our favorite arenas to, at the very least, watching star players dominate the floor from our couches at home, but even that is not for certain anymore:
Tyler Herro’s COVID-19-related absence plagues South Floridians just as much as Jayson Tatum’s inability to play probably devastated Celtics fans. Even as players return, there is no way of knowing who will be out next.
Weirdly enough, though, from a coach’s perspective, there’s actually a silver lining to be found during these unprecedented COVID-19 times. In having to adjust for key players who are no longer viable—go-to options—coaches are forced to rework lineups and, without expecting it, stumble upon secret weapons that they never knew they had—secret weapons that will prove useful later on in the season.
If COVID-19 has given the game of basketball anything, it’s the opportunity to see just how deep NBA rosters really go. More than ever in the past, glossed-over players have the chance to showcase their talent.
Take Tuesday night’s Hawks and Clippers game as an example. Stars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard were both out due to COVID-19; if they had been playing, the Clippers would have been the sure favorite, but just because they ended up losing the game does not mean that the game was a total loss for the organization. Particularly this early on in the season, the Clippers rank third in the Western Conference and can afford to lose a few games if it means something else is gained. In this case, the gain may be a new, potential threat: Terance Mann.
Mann joined the starting five for the first time of the season, and the Clippers got the opportunity to bear witness to the kind of momentum Mann could bring to the team, especially defensively. Before Tuesday night, in which Mann played a hefty 34 minutes and racked up 10 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 steals, Mann was averaging only 2.4 points across less than 10 minutes a game. Clearly, there’s more of Mann than we’ve been shown.
With only one full (and pretty tumultuous, all things considered) season under his belt, Mann showed a certain focus and athleticism against the regular Hawks starting lineup (Young, Huerter, Hunter, Collins, and Capela). Not only did Mann prove that he was in the physical shape to play that many minutes, but he showed to have the skill level to keep up with the Hawks’ best guys; the Clippers lost by only 9 points, and unlike some young players, Mann managed not to lose his head in a game that was tight until the very last minutes.
That solid of a performance by Mann will likely result in more responsibility as the season progresses, and without knowing what is to come with COVID-19, it’s probably in Coach Lue’s best interest to know early on just how much he can count on Mann to create and execute plays, so that later in the season, he has one more chess piece to use to his advantage. So COVID-19 may have taken his star players on Tuesday night, but they gifted him another player to work with in a future contentious moment during a higher-stakes game.
Now consider the Heat versus Raptors game on the 20th. Nunn isn’t exactly a “secret weapon” — after all, he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting last year — but this isn’t a player who waltzed into his professional career. People forget that he tip-toed into the NBA rather precariously, after being unsigned following the Summer League in 2018, which hasn’t been the only hardship Nunn faced this early on in his professional career, either.
Nunn tested positive for COVID-19 early in July 2020 and since his return, he had been overlooked. He hadn’t really gotten back into the swing of things until mid-January; now, calling his level of play being “in the swing of things” sounds like an insult. Nunn dropped an astounding 28 points against the Raptors to go along with his 8 rebounds and 5 assists.
Like Mann, Nunn had the opportunity to showcase what he brings to the table. Left-handed players are harder to guard in general, but Nunn has a certain quickness and intelligence to go with being a lefty that poses a genuine challenge for defenders. Even without big-time scorers Herro and Butler, Nunn managed to lead his team to victory, which not only gives Spoelstra and his teammates the confidence that Nunn can perform when they need him to, but more importantly, it gives Nunn that same confidence in himself.
In games where players fill a bigger role than usual—and when they go in their favor (like it did for Nunn last week)—it can give them a sense of reassurance that can go a long way for the rest of the season.
COVID-19 hasn’t given us much to be excited about, but seeing different players and teams manage wins without some of their biggest threats on the court hasn’t been that awful—especially not for the coaches who are clever enough to use this to their advantage.