A week ago, assistant Joseph Blair was quarantined at home — trying to stay active by using his exercise bike. These days, a now-healthy Blair is focused on a different task: Coaching the Washington Wizards.
Blair is now the Wizards’ third acting head coach of the season after the virus has sidelined Wes Unseld Jr. and Pat Delany, the assistant who filled in for Unseld. The situation puts the Wizards in a tough position — but one that’s not unique to them.
This season, 16 head coaches have been placed in the NBA’s health and safety protocols — just over half the league.
Currently, there are two — Unseld and Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins — sidelined.
“It’s crazy, right?” Wizards guard Bradley Beal said Tuesday. “We just don’t understand it. … We’re all doing what’s necessary. Everyone’s getting vaccinated, everybody’s getting the booster, we’re wearing masks. Maybe we need to go back to a little more space on the benches, you know people behind us or whatever.
“I think we’re doing everything we possibly can.”
Beal just exited the league’s protocols on Monday — returning after a three-game absence. Ironically, the two-time All-Star caught COVID-19 weeks after he reversed course and decided to get vaccinated. And now that Beal’s back, the 28-year-old is adapting to a new coach — a new voice.
In some ways, Beal said that Blair’s coaching style isn’t much of an adjustment. Beal said he can tell the message is “still coming from Wes.” Even though Delany and Blair stepped up, Beal said, he can tell that they’re ultimately executing Unseld’s vision. There’s also familiarity with them in place as they’ve been on the Wizards’ staff all year.
At the same time, there are differences. Beal said each coach has their own sense of style and mannerisms. After Monday’s win over the Philadelphia 76ers, Blair, for instance, connected with his team by showing off a number of basketball tricks he learned from his time with the Harlem Globetrotters — causing the rest of the locker room to erupt in celebration.
“No matter what happens the rest in my coaching career, that moment is one that I’ll take with me for the rest of my existence,” Blair said.
The Wizards aren’t alone in relying on the backup to the backup. In Denver, assistant David Adelman was supposed to fill in for coach Michael Malone — only for Popeye Jones to step into the role once Adelman also entered protocols.
The time that each coach misses too has varied. Around the league, Malone and Mavericks coach Jason Kidd missed a total of four games before returning. Lakers coach Frank Vogel, meanwhile, sat out six contests, while Portland’s Chauncey Billups missed only three. For the 76ers, coach Doc Rivers missed two games earlier month.
So far, Unseld has missed two games and he’s on track to miss a third unless he’s cleared in time for Wednesday’s contest against the Brooklyn Nets.
In the mean time, coaching staffs have been left shorthanded. When a player is out because of COVID-19, teams are allowed — and then required, depending on how many cases — to sign replacement players for their roster, with teams resorting to signing G-League players and free agents. There’s no such requirement for coaches.
If there’s a silver lining in this situation, it’s that assistants now get to oversee a team — at least on a temporary basis. For Blair, this is the first time since the 2019-19 season in which he gets to be a head coach. He last did so with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the G-League affiliate of the Houston Rockets.
“A lot of assistant coaches, when they have the opportunity to step up into the role, they audition for it,” Beal said. “It’s their opportunity to show that they can take on that task and lead a team.”
• Matthew Paras can be reached at email@example.com.
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