The first two weeks of the NBA season were rife with blowouts, and this past week has seen a series of coronavirus cases and resultant contract tracing that has ravaged rosters. Injuries are mounting. The rush to start the 2020-21 campaign feels more callous by the day, and yet the league is prepared to forge ahead.
In fact, “There are no plans to pause the season,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass told multiple media outlets in a statement on Sunday. According to The Athletic’s Shams Charania, the subject was somehow not even mentioned on a call between commissioner Adam Silver and the league’s board of governors on Friday.
The NBA is testing the bounds of its breaking point.
Philadelphia 76ers guard Seth Curry was pulled from the bench during a game for a positive COVID-19 test on Thursday. The game went on. Health and safety protocols wiped out half the roster, in addition to injuries to All-Stars Ben Simmons (knee) and Joel Embiid (back). Just 48 hours later, the Sixers activated the injured Mike Scott to meet the requisite eight players, despite coach Doc Rivers’ public pleas for postponement.
“COVID created this, but the concern is not COVID now,” Rivers told reporters after Saturday’s predictable loss to the Denver Nuggets. “The concern is injuries.” Think about that: The NBA has created an environment in which the coronavirus is not the chief health concern of a roster facing a coronavirus scare.
Meanwhile, two Boston Celtics have contracted COVID-19, including a positive test returned in the hours after a game against the Washington Wizards. Five more Celtics were ruled out through contact tracing, and the NBA was fully prepared to force Boston to play with only eight available players, except health and safety protocols prevented the Miami Heat from even getting to eight.
Had one more Heat player been available, the NBA would have held a game between two rosters depleted by COVID-19, despite the risks of further spread. Viewers may have tuned in just to see the train wreck, but the league has shown a willingness to push an inferior product on the public in the name of financial gain.
Just how inferior remains to be seen. The NBA did postpone Monday’s game between the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans, as well as Boston’s game against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday, both because health and safety protocols have left the Mavericks and Celtics without the requisite eight players available.
Still, the league moved forward with the rest of Monday’s slate, including a game featuring the Sixers. Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal returned against the Phoenix Suns on Monday after close contact with Jayson Tatum, who is on the Celtics’ COVID-19 protocol list, during a postgame conversation on Friday forced him to sit Saturday’s game game against Miami. His Wizards have faced three of the four teams ravaged by COVID-19 in the last week.
Injury risk increases as COVID-19 protocols sideline players
Washington has also fallen victim to one of the more underreported aspects of this rushed season: increased injury risk. Not only do players have less access to each other and their coaching staffs, their trainers are reportedly mired in coronavirus protocol compliance. The rising level of quarantines will only make matters more complicated. This past weekend alone claimed the Wizards’ Thomas Bryant (torn ACL) and Russell Westbrook (left quad). One look at the NBA’s injury report reveals a bevy of soft tissue injuries.
If this is not a breaking point, I would hate to see what is, and it sure sounds like the NBA expects worse.
“January is going to be the worst month,” Silver told the league’s board of governors on Friday, according to Charania. “We are optimistic about improvements in February … after we get through the darkest days.”
I am not sure how anyone can make a determination that February will be better. December was the nation’s deadliest month of the pandemic, January is on pace to be worse, and vaccines are not expected to be widely distributed for months. If we have learned anything, the virus does not just slow on its own.
For some reason, the Atlanta Hawks decided this NBA moment was a good time to announce they expect to start welcoming a number of fans on Jan. 26. Saturday was the deadliest day in Georgia since August. This is reality outside the NBA. Inside? Well, there is business to be conducted, for worse or much worse.
Publicly, the league may not expect a work stoppage, but privately it sure seems like there is growing concern. The NBA set calls Monday with the players’ union and the league’s general managers to discuss potential changes to health and safety protocols, including “reexamining shootarounds and practice lengths,” per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Another call with the board of governors is slated for Tuesday.
As Rivers said, the concern for the NBA now extends beyond the coronavirus. At what point do the protocols become just as invasive? The product is already inferior. Decreasing practice time is not going to improve matters, nor is it going to help mitigate the increased injury risk. This is more survival than it is a season.
As one anonymous general manager told Wojnarowski on Sunday, “They tell us it’ll be better later in the season, but I just hope this doesn't break the league in the next few weeks.” If it hasn’t broken already.
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