In NBA’s suite life, the ‘Yacht Club Six’ seek respect and a lifeline
By Marc Stein
Only one of the 22 teams invited to Walt Disney World for the NBA restart arrived with a worse record than the Phoenix Suns. Then Phoenix won its first five seeding games here, including a buzzer-beating upset of the Los Angeles Clippers, and completely changed the tenor of interactions with the other teams at its hotel.
“Stares are getting colder getting on and off the elevator,” Suns coach Monty Williams said.
What Williams described stems from a unique tension inside the Yacht Club Resort, which was already considered the least desirable among the three high-end Disney properties that are housing teams in the NBA’s so-called bubble. The teams were assigned to the three properties based on the NBA standings in March, but something more acute than lingering hotel envy now afflicts the Suns and the five other teams that took up residence at the Yacht Club starting July 7.
New Orleans, Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio and Washington have felt it, too, because they all share such a narrow path to the playoffs. Once games began, on July 30, the competition injected a reality-show, “Survivor”-style desperation that has intruded upon strolls through the Yacht Club lobby, hallway encounters and community pool time among this sub-.500 sextet.
“You’re rooting against everybody you see,” Frank Kaminsky of the Suns said. “At the end of the day, this is big for us. We need people to lose, and we want them to lose so we can get into position.”
“Every day you see guys battling for the same spot as you,” Kent Bazemore of the Sacramento Kings said. “It’s cool, but when you play that same night, it’s kind of an awkward interaction.”
The palpable anxiety that comes with playing to survive has only added to the Yacht Club’s less-than-glamorous reputation — at least when the resort is compared to its fancier counterparts. The league’s top eight teams as of March 11 were booked into the Gran Destino, Disney’s newest luxury tower. The next eight teams, all of which held playoff spots when the coronavirus pandemic brought the season to an abrupt halt, were sent to the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, Disney’s flagship resort.
Nothing in terms of amenities offered at the more remote, five-story Yacht Club quite compares to the Gran Destino’s 123-foot water slide recently tested by the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma and JaVale McGee or the Grand Floridian’s lakefront dining and clear view of the Magic Kingdom’s Cinderella Castle.
A trying trip for Sacramento and coach Luke Walton has been marred by injuries, late arrivals for players recovering from the coronavirus and Richaun Holmes’ being ordered back to quarantine for an extra 10 days after he strayed beyond a campus border outside the Yacht Club without authorization to meet a food delivery driver. Winning is naturally the best antidote: While the Kings started 1-4 and were eliminated before they finished their game Sunday against Houston, San Antonio opened at a surprising 4-2 despite playing without three injured starters, including the seven-time All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. The Spurs’ win Sunday over New Orleans eliminated the Pelicans from the playoffs and essentially ended their prized rookie Zion Williamson’s first pro season.
“We can’t worry about our setup,” Rudy Gay of the Spurs said. “We’re here, we decided to come and we’re going to fight, no matter where we’re staying.”
A scrap is required because there’s a strong likelihood that just one of the “Yacht Club Six,” all of whom but Phoenix were scheduled to play Sunday, will advance to the NBA’s new playoff play-in round. The format calls for up to four additional play-in games to be played, but only if the West or East’s No. 9 seed finishes the regular season Friday within four games of the No. 8 seed.
Washington was the only nonplayoff team from the East invited to the NBA restart, but the Wizards were quickly dumped from playoff consideration after an 0-5 start (before losing again to Oklahoma City on Sunday) without their top three players: Bradley Beal, John Wall and Davis Bertans. In the West, Memphis’ 0-4 start briefly filled the bubble air with hope that two Yacht Club teams could advance to the play-in round — but it now appears unlikely that the eighth-seeded Grizzlies, whose Sunday loss to Toronto guaranteed a play-in round in the West, will slip all the way to 10th.
Yet even if the worst has passed for the Grizzlies and they overcome the injuries sustained by Jaren Jackson Jr. (knee) and Justise Winslow (hip) to hang on to the eighth seed, this race to unseat Memphis has been widely billed as the most exciting aspect of Bubble Ball to date. That’s mostly because of the Suns’ unforeseen 5-0 start and the potential flashed by the 4-2 Trail Blazers, as well as the corresponding woes that have engulfed the disappointing (and soon-to-be-departing) Pelicans and Kings.
Damian Lillard’s 11 3-pointers in a victory over Denver on Thursday enhanced the Blazers’ rising reputation as a possible first-round opponent that could trouble the Lakers, who have clinched the West’s No. 1 seed and, like other top teams, have prioritized rest for their stars as much as rhythm as the playoffs approach. Lillard followed that outburst in problematic fashion, with two late missed free throws in a damaging loss to the Kawhi Leonard-less Clippers, then atoned with 51 points Sunday in a must-win game against short-handed Philadelphia.
Just having this first-of-its-kind opportunity, with the frontcourt duo of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back from injury, is why the Blazers’ CJ McCollum insisted he would not lament the Yacht Club’s supposed inferiority compared to the Gran Destino and Grand Floridian.
“We don’t need any more motivation, man,” McCollum said. “You know what needs to be done as a professional. The Yacht Club is not that bad anyway.”
The Suns adopted a similarly stubborn outlook and have emerged as the early darlings of the bubble. Phoenix arrived in Florida with a record of 26-39 — and the league’s second-longest playoff drought, behind Sacramento, at nine seasons and counting — but then assembled the first five-game winning streak of All-Star guard Devin Booker’s NBA career. Like McCollum, Booker scoffed when it was suggested that the Suns’ address was some sort of slight.
“Some would take it that way, but it’s all how you deal with it,” Booker said.
The NBA initially absorbed considerable criticism for not capping its field at 16 teams and keeping its bubble population as small as possible as it tries to ward off the coronavirus. Cynics readily concluded that the 22-team format, beyond the financial benefits from additional games to televise, was a measure conceived purely to give New Orleans and its rookie sensation, Zion Williamson, every chance to bump Memphis out of the postseason.
Undaunted by such critiques, his team’s losing or the accommodations, Washington’s Ian Mahinmi insisted he would head home feeling sorry for the eight teams that were not invited.
“It is such a unique experience,” Mahinmi said. “Honestly, if you want to reflect on it, it would have been tough to be back home and be like, ‘Man, I wasn’t part of this.’”
Yet it can be a grind even when things are going well — even at a high-priced, nautical-theme resort that features a restaurant, the Ale & Compass, that is enticing enough to routinely attract players from teams that are staying at the other two hotels. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made that clear after a victory Friday over Utah, saying: “Would you like to go be sequestered someplace for weeks on end? The answer to that is no.”
Williams brought two fishing poles from home to give himself a relaxation outlet, but the Suns’ coach has noticed that the crowds at the lake adjacent to the Yacht Club have steadily dwindled as the stakes have risen. With the resort scheduled to reopen to the public later this month, after the NBA playoffs begin, a move to the more lavish surroundings at the Grand Floridian awaits Phoenix, Portland or San Antonio — if one of them can snatch the West’s final playoff berth away from the Grizzlies.
“It’s different,” Williams said, “when you have all these teams in one hotel and you pretty much know only one or two of us can make it.”