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NBA faces sobering reality as it starts to postpone games over COVID-19 protocols

The Orlando Magic and the Dallas Mavericks play in an otherwise empty American Airlines Center in Dallas.
The Orlando Magic and the Dallas Mavericks play in an otherwise empty American Airlines Center on Saturday in Dallas.
(Jeffrey McWhorter / Associated Press)

As the Lakers prepared for this season, LeBron James and his teammates were fully aware that it would be only 71 days between their championship celebration and their opener, a compressed offseason that disrupted rhythms and recoveries.

Departing the NBA‘s bubble environment wasn’t that far in the past for the Lakers. And for the psyche of most in the NBA, it wasn’t that long ago when the league could stage important games with no fear of interference.

When the NBA scooted through the preseason and two weeks of its schedule, it seemed like some of the magic dust sprinkled over the league in the bubble still was working. Only one game had been postponed because of the COVID-10 pandemic — Houston’s opener — and that was more about violated protocols than the virus.

But in the last three days, the NBA has found itself back in the real world, where things are getting rough. The darkest days of the pandemic have, unsurprisingly, cast a shadow on a league trying to operate in the middle of it.

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Three teams are dealing with widespread instances of either COVID infections or contact tracing, so much so that the Boston Celtics have had multiple games postponed. Last weekend, Philadelphia played with only seven healthy players, forced to dress an injured one in order to avoid a forfeit.

The NBA postponed a game Monday between Dallas and New Orleans. It also pushed back Tuesday’s game between Chicago and Boston. Sunday’s game between Boston and Miami also got postponed. The NBA will try to reschedule postponed games during the second half of the season.

There are factions of executives around the NBA who believe an expanded player pool could help the league navigate a wave of coronavirus-related postponements.

The realities of playing sports during a pandemic have reached the NBA, just as they impacted the NFL and college football, and now people around the league have to figure out if they want to face what that really means.

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The league’s general managers discussed a variety of solutions Monday. The NBA’s Board of Governor’s will convene Tuesday to discuss options.

There are further restrictions the NBA can put in place to avoid transmission, from limiting shootaround and practice frequency to limiting the number of guests allowed in players’ rooms on the road — currently two family members or close friends.

There also are league executives who believe the NBA would be best served pausing for four to six weeks, committing to return once a sizable number of players and staff have received the COVID-19 vaccine. One executive who floated the idea said he believed the NBA wasn’t at the point where that would have widespread support.

Executives have discussed the possibility of expanding rosters to help teams meet the eight-player minimum available for a game. Team rosters could handle more robust contact tracing if teams were allowed to add two players (their salaries wouldn’t count against any the salary cap), bringing the maximum roster size from 17 to 19.

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The push-back, though, has been from those who believe adding players to the league’s pool is in direct opposition to the strategy of mitigating risk. More players means more potential exposures, cases and spreaders.

More players probably also means larger traveling parties and more support staff, which again, means more risk.

“There are no good solutions,” one NBA executive said.

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The NBA and the union that represents the players were scheduled to meet Monday to discuss alterations to the NBA’s health and safety policy. Changes to visitations on the road would need to be approved by the players.

Contact with the wrong person at the wrong time can land a player in the health and safety protocols, like it did with Lakers guard Alex Caruso, who missed five games after having a close contact test positive.

“It was really an unfortunate timing, kind of unlucky in a way,” Caruso said after returning this week. “Moving forward, I think the league has done a good job of getting it right so far. That’s kind of the whole point of the contact tracing. … So, I understand the policy. It’s a little frustrating that I got caught up in this early in the season. I’m trying to get my rhythm and get back into things. But I’m going to learn from it and move on and be better.”

That seems to be the NBA’s strategy to this point, to learn and improve its approach, nimbly adapting as challenges arise. The bubble has burst. It remains a worst-case option because players do not want to isolate again for months at a time.

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Playing in a pandemic is going to mean batches of postponements and teams that have to deal with outbreaks and contact tracing. It happened in Major League Baseball as well as pro and college football.

Those leagues put their heads down and forged ahead, reshuffling schedules and playing with fifth-string quarterbacks.

With things as bad as they’ve been, does the NBA have the stomach to do the same?


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