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Everything old, new and AWOL in the NBA

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The NBA season starts tonight with two marquee matchups. The defending champion Milwaukee Bucks take on the Brooklyn Nets, and the Golden State Warriors square off against the Los Angeles Lakers. But much of the opening night buzz is about two players who will not be on the court any time soon. Kyrie Irving, the star guard for the Nets, remains unvaccinated for COVID, and the team says he will not play until he changes his mind. Meanwhile, it's hard to describe what Ben Simmons is doing. About six weeks ago, the former No. 1 overall pick in the draft demanded to be traded from the Philadelphia 76ers. He came back last week after missing almost the entire preseason, and today he was suspended by the team for not participating in practice.

So on the eve of the NBA's 75th season, two of its biggest stars are two of the league's biggest headaches. Monica McNutt of ESPN is here to explain what's going on.

Welcome, Monica.

MONICA MCNUTT: Thank you. Thanks for having me. And we've got quite the sideshow to start the season; shall we call it?

MCCAMMON: It sounds that way. I want to start with Ben Simmons, who earlier today was suspended for one game. It seemed like this mess in Philly might have ended when Simmons came back. But could this become a real, longer-term problem for one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference?

MCNUTT: Sarah, absolutely. This could be pretty yucky for the Philadelphia 76ers. Obviously, they made the move of letting Ben and his team know that he would not be paid if he did not show up. But just because he's present does not mean that he has the intention of competing and being a part of a team that is looking to run back to a championship opportunity. And so I think what you saw today in a microcosm in terms of being tossed out was exactly that.

Legally now and by NBA rules, in fact, he could be - he will be paid because he was present. But was he adding, or was he more of a detriment to the team? And so, you know, it still, to me, behooves Philly to figure out a way to get him traded. The unfortunate part about this now is if I were a GM, I now have concerns about the type of professional that he is.

MCCAMMON: OK. And in Brooklyn, you have the Nets waiting for Kyrie Irving to change his mind about the vaccine. The Nets may be one of the best teams in the league, but how far can they go without him?

MCNUTT: You know, it's funny when folks ask this question. Sure. Can Kyrie add to that squad? Yes, he's a terrific basketball player. But they also have a roster that's pretty good without Kyrie. And I know for me personally, while this is an important story because it intersects sports, culture and the pandemic that we're all living through, it is also very much the next man up, to use that sports cliche. Kevin Durant and James Harden are still two of the best players in the league, and they've got a terrific complement of players who understand how to play alongside them. And Steve Nash, I thought, did a very good job in his first year as a head coach there.

So, yes, they would be better with Kyrie. But, again, if you were to be vaccinated, are you showing up with the full intention of participating on this team and adding to our goals? Or do you still have an attitude and resentment for it being mandated by the state of New York, or the city of New York, I should say?

MCCAMMON: I want to really quickly ask you in about 30 seconds - the Lakers play tonight. What are you expecting?

MCNUTT: Yeah, I'm looking forward to this one. I think that's an old group that has been well-documented. But you still have some of the most smartest minds in the game today. But, you know, they'll face a Warriors team that is also retooling and getting healthy. And so I think this will be a good opening night game. I expect - I don't know what I expect, actually. I expect to see teams that are still working through some of the kinks. I'll put it that way.

MCCAMMON: All right - plenty of kinks to work through. That's Monica McNutt of ESPN.

Thanks so much.

MCNUTT: No problem. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN TESH'S "ROUNDBALL ROCK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.