Opinion: NBA season was always going to be mayhem during pandemic. It’s too early to think about pausing.
The NBA and its players signed up for managed mayhem. The 2020-21 season was never going to be perfect.
Players with COVID-19, contact tracing sidelining multiple players per team and forcing teams to play with eight players, the possibility of postponed games if a team can’t have the minimum eight active players required in uniform, and in a scenario that isn’t here yet but lurking, a pause to the 2020-21 NBA season.
Houston had a game postponed because it didn’t have enough available players, Philadelphia played just seven in Saturday’s loss to Denver and then Miami didn’t have enough players for its game against Boston, which barely had enough players itself, forcing the postponement of Sunday’s game.
With the pandemic still in force – a record 4,085 people died of coronavirus-related issues on Thursday – this just isn’t an early-season hiccup for the league. It might just be the norm.
Until more people receive the vaccine – and Commissioner Adam Silver is clear the league won’t skip the line so its players and staff can get it – the NBA will deal with sub-ideal circumstances all season. That’s the nature of playing in a pandemic, and the league, teams and players know that.
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76ers coach Doc Rivers bumps fists with Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets after a game at Wells Fargo Center on January 9, 2021 in Philadelphia. (Photo: Tim Nwachukwu, Getty Images)
That’s why there’s no strong consideration to pause the season three weeks into the start. Like many others, the league is trying to operate a business under trying circumstances.
But it reminds me of what a high-ranking team executive told me in November: This season will be more difficult than last season because there were so many things the league could control inside the bubble.
He’s not alone. Sixers coach Doc Rivers used just seven players in Saturday’s loss to Denver with 10 players out due to COVID-19, health and safety protocols and injuries.
“The concern is not COVID,” Rivers said. “The concern is injuries because guys are playing so many minutes because we don’t have enough guys. … I’m looking at our stat sheet, we had, one, two, three guys plus-40 (minutes) and couldn’t be avoided. Now, we play again in two days and then we play again. That’s my concern with this, we have to have to be very careful how we navigate next week.”
Sometimes, a team is shorthanded. It happens from time to time, and that’s why the league is not overreacting. Denver beat Utah last season with seven players – before the pandemic hit.
But games with just eight available players aren’t sustainable for a team over a significant period. The league is taking a measured approach to what has transpired, but there is the possibility of extending roster sizes to compensate for multiple players missing the same game. The league doesn’t believe it is at that point.
Beyond injuries, there will be strange results. There are no level playing fields during a pandemic. Some teams will be impacted more than others. Every sports league that has tried to play while traveling has encountered problems.
The NBA has postponed two games and played two games with the minimum eight players available. The NFL moved or postponed 18 of its 256 regular-season games, according to the New York Times.
It’s not necessarily actual COVID cases that are disrupting games. Since Dec. 2, 15 players have tested positive with at least a couple more expected in the next round of results. It’s the contact tracing that has sidelined players, and the league’s stringent health and safety protocols dictate a player who was in close contact with someone with a positive test is out for seven days.
The goal of contact tracing is to prevent the spread or outbreak of COVID, which would create far more problems than a postponed game or occasional eight-man roster.
The NBA isn’t blindsided. Silver addressed the topic at his season-opening news conference Dec. 21.
“We are prepared for isolated cases,” he said. “In fact, based on what we’ve seen in the preseason, based on watching other leagues operating outside the bubble, unfortunately it seems somewhat inevitable. But we’re prepared for all contingencies.
“The only thing I can add is that I’ve acknowledged it was a mixed sort of health and safety and economic decision to start our season, meaning that health and safety have always been our highest priority. But we recognize that if we hadn’t started the season, there’s also very dire economic implications.”
It’s naïve to ignore the economic factors, but Silver is adamant that, “If we found a situation where our protocols weren’t working, meaning that not only did we have some cases of COVID but that we were witnessing spread either among teams or even possibly to another team, that would cause us to suspend the season.”
The league is not there yet. It is following CDC guidelines with input from some of the best infectious disease experts such as Dr. David Ho and Dr. Anthony Fauci. If their views change, the league will readjust.
There will be times when the season doesn’t look good. But as of right now, the league is willing to push through those games where one team is shorthanded or a game requires postponement.
What's happening this season wasn’t unexpected, and it hasn’t risen to a level where player safety is at risk and competitive integrity is in doubt.
It’s the cost of playing sports in a pandemic.
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