Covid is hitting the NBA for the first time: How they respond will dictate the rest of the season

Playing in the middle of a raging pandemic — which is worse now than it was when it started in March — is going to cause problems and postponements. There is no way around it. Yes, the NBA put in place a number of safety protocols to protect its teams and players, but the reality is they won’t always work because there is still so much unknown about the virus we are fighting.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the league office understood the complications and potential threats looming with the coronavirus pandemic in January.

“January is going to be the worst month,” Silver told the group, according to sources. “We are optimistic about improvements in February … after we get through the darkest days.”

This isn’t the NBA bubble in Orlando that worked flawlessly. These teams are traveling cross state boarders, staying in hotels, sharing locker rooms with the team who flew out the night before. They then return home to their families who are also out living their lives, whether it be attending school, work, or simple functions. The possibilities for any member of the team, star player down to the trainer, contracting Covid-19, then spreading it within the team and eventually to opposing teams, seems inevitable. Just look at the disaster the MLB, NFL, and college sports have endured attempting to get their seasons completed.

On Sunday, the NBA postponed its second game of the season — the Heat versus Celtics in Boston after a Miami player returned an inconclusive test. It left the Heat without the required eight dressed players to proceed with the game due to contact tracing. The Celtics themselves only had the minimum of eight required players available due to their own ongoing issues with contact tracing.

As of Sunday, over two dozen NBA players remained in quarantine or isolation due to the league’s health and safety protocols, with nine teams having a player who has tested positive, sources said. One player also tested positive recently for the second time in a year, sources said. For any sport playing games in-market during a pandemic, this is to be expected and part of the reality being encountered in the real world.

The Celtics have seven players part of the health and safety protocols: Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Tristan Thompson, Javonte Green, Grant Williams, Robert Williams and Semi Ojeleye. Tatum and one other player tested positive for coronavirus, sources said. Thompson and Grant Williams have a few days remaining on their seven-day quarantine. Three other players are expected to have to undergo seven-day quarantines due to contact tracing protocols, sources said. This would leave the Celtics with just enough dressed players to play in a regulation game.

Elsewhere due to health protocols, Denver is without Michael Porter Jr. Dallas is without Maxi Kleber, Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith and Jalen Brunson. Kleber, who was listed questionable to play Monday, entered isolation on Sunday and was expected to quarantine for at least 10-to-14 days, sources said. Philadelphia is without Seth Curry, Tobias Harris, Matisse Thybulle, Shake Milton and Vincent Poirier.

Inside the league office, there has been no conversation about pausing the season. Sources said that on the Board of Governors call on Friday, there was discussion about how the NBA’s coronavirus case rate has fared better than the NFL’s at the same juncture of the season. The status of the season was not mentioned — at all, sources said.

But should it have been discussed?

The NBA had a successful restart to the 2019-20 season amid the pandemic, conducting a bubble season from July to October, crowning a champion and, most importantly, registering a total of zero positive tests throughout.

In many ways, NBA teams and players must now behave as similar as possible to when they were in the bubble. After that experience, in which so many were asked to be isolated from the rest of the world for months on end, there is a widely held preference for all players, coaches and staffers to be in their home markets rather than confined to a closed off bubble environment. But complacency could set in as a result of this, too.

We have already seen instances of lapses in judgment and broken protocols.

There have been maskless, intimate conversations happening in close proximity, on the court both before and after games.

Around the league, there is growing belief that pre- and post-game fraternizing — albeit with right intentions — should be masked conversation with some physical distance. This was shown when Wizards star Bradley Beal was ruled out on Saturday against the Heat due to an investigation into his exposure to Tatum when the two spoke in close contact on the court after the Celtics’ win over Washington on Friday.

None of these actions are wrong, or reprehensible — but should one person test positive following those interactions, all of the remainder of individuals involved would be subject to the league’s contact-tracing policy. Players who enter the protocol for contact tracing are typically required to quarantine for seven days due to exposure.

The room for error shrinks in that instance and leaves teams and players in risky positions. It can all be so fragile. The league’s contact tracing is prudent, but could stricter behavioral changes be made soon to the protocols?

As witnessed during the NFL and MLB season starts during the pandemic, it is a rocky beginning that everyone must become accustomed to. This is a new time, a unique period in our history. If the NBA is going to get through its second season during this pandemic, they will need to have everyone involved closely follow the protocols, and even then just hope one slip up doesn’t reck the league. We have seen how quickly things can unravel with Covid-19.

It really is that simple for things to escalate with this virus. But you don’t need me or the NBA to tell you that. You already know our nation currently has the surpassed the death rate of Pearl Harbor, or 9/11, every day since late December 2020.

Every. Single. Day.

The United States topped 4,000 deaths in a single day for the first time last week.

“We’re going to be seeing more of this,” Mike Malone, Head Coach of the Denver Nuggets said. “Because we are just a microcosm of what’s going on in our country.”

Yes coach you’re right. More situations like this will occur around the league, just as more will happen in the United States. And both should be taken seriously and dealt with with an abundance of caution.

Not every situation like this should result in the postponement of the game. But Saturday’s should have. Didn’t the league leave the second half of the schedule vacant to have the flexibility to reschedule postponed games?

Some have applauded the decision to play on and make the 76ers play, despite having only seven players available, as if it is a way to condemn them for allowing a person to contract Covid. On the flip side of the same argument, it would have been unfair to Denver to call off the game. The Nuggets went through the safety protocols, passed the COVID-19 tests and made the journey to Philadelphia.

That is all valid. However, nothing should supersede the safety of the players.

The league deemed it safe, and the Nuggets took care of business in Philly. The Nuggets won by 12 points, as expected. But it’s hard to draw conclusions and concrete takeaways from a game played against seven guys, most of whom were getting the most playing time they’ve ever had.

Going forward the league needs to have a serious conversation: do they want to put their players in harms way of both the virus and injury, especially if the quality of the game is diminished because half the team is ineligible to play?

This is a fluid situation, and the NBA has been a fluid league for decades now. They generally roll with the punches and duck out of harms way when necessary. Back in March they led the way for the nation to shut down when they postponed the season due to Rudy Gobert contracting Covid-19, being the first American athlete to do so.

The NBA can adjust on the fly. If things get worse and more frequent, the NBA bubble in Orlando is still a possibility for the playoffs. If needed, the NBA can pause the season at any moment and resume when deemed safe or after a two week quarantine by everyone involved in the sport.

Point being the league has a lot of important questions that need to be answered sooner rather than later. The rest of the 2021 season, players and coaches lives, and billions of dollars weigh in the balance.

The NBA and its players union have previously-set dates in the near future to discuss updating league protocols, multiple sources said. In the meantime, the games will push on.

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