You could certainly argue the NBA is working as intended. The league’s COVID-19 safeguards—euphemistically known as the health and safety protocols—have wreaked havoc on multiple teams during the first half of January. The Sixers played a game with only seven healthy bodies. Four games were postponed in a three-day span. The Mavericks had four players who tested positive for the coronavirus, and their practice facility was subsequently shut down. The Wizards canceled practice Jan. 12 because of COVID-19-related reasons—after the Heat, 76ers and Celtics all had players enter protocol after games against Washington in the previous week. The shorthanded rosters are a feature—not a bug—when it comes to the 2020–21 season. Playing through a pandemic means the league has to be extra diligent about avoiding a massive outbreak, so even people who’ve only been exposed to someone else with the virus are isolating. It’s an obvious practice that, even if frustrating, tries to minimize risk so games can continue to be squeezed in.
I already wrote once about the fickle nature of this season, how it was hard to separate what was real from what was a result of complicated factors. That was before teams like the Heat and Sixers had to play games with thinned-out rosters as a result of COVID-19. As the NBA trudges through a deadly period in American history, what has become real is this: The product is no longer the priority.
It’s tempting to scrutinize the NBA’s guidelines for contact tracing—a postgame conversation carries more weight than the previous 48 minutes? Players were allowed to have guests in their hotel rooms?—but those rules were made in conjunction with doctors and scientists to figure out how far out on the ledge the league could stand without falling over. It’s also tempting to figure out the “easy“ solution to make this season safe. Maybe a bubble—except a long-term one is too expensive and too damaging to mental health. Maybe a pause in the season—except that doesn’t even necessarily mean less exposure to the virus given the lack of shutdowns across the country. Maybe the players should get vaccinated—except the optics of fit athletes getting the stab while grandparents are still waiting for a website to load would be rough, even if supply appears not to be an issue.
The trick that’s easiest to fall for when trying to figure out what the NBA should do next is thinking the league is one or two steps away from unlocking a door to normalcy. The board of governors and players’ association updated the rules Jan. 12, telling players not to go anywhere except for team activities and essential activities, meaning they need to stay put at home or at their hotel when not playing. Players also aren’t allowed to see anyone outside of their immediate circle for the next two weeks. It’s the kind of lockdown more people should be doing, except for the whole going-to-work part. It’s a non-bubble version of the bubble, and the rules are so restrictive that Thunder guard George Hill was blunt when asked about the new standards: “If it’s that serious maybe we shouldn’t be playing.”
Of course, the league is hell-bent on finishing this season. The financial stakes, in the eyes of both the owners and players, are too massive to wait things out, play fewer games or cancel the season. As a country, we’ve long blown past the point of making the thousands and thousands of deaths a higher priority than money, especially as governments on every level refuse to help and/or incentivize people to stay at home. For the NBA, getting through 2021 means putting everything back on track by the ’21–22 season. If the league can just avoid catastrophe—depending on its definition of the term—next season will start after a proper summer break, with fans most likely back in stands and the financial health of the league in many ways back on the track it was before the pandemic. Getting through ’21 also means weird blowouts, added injury risks for shorthanded teams playing already compressed schedules and guys like Joel Embiid publicly complaining about the league office’s decision-making. Nothing would make the ’20-21 campaign “normal” short of waiting until things were considerably safer.
That’s not to say there won’t still be great games in the meantime. Or that LeBron won’t still be responsible for highlights every night. Or that players are going to be mailing it in. But nobody can pretend this season is about preserving what happens between the four lines of the court. What we’re watching may resemble the NBA, but it’s not that. The bubble at least allowed players to focus on basketball. What we’re watching now is oft-decimated rosters, guys who haven’t played in nine months, and fan-less games that have sucked much of the spirit out of what makes this sport great, all happening against the backdrop of a rising death toll because our institutions don’t have the stomach to take a hard stand against the virus. Calling this season a farce would be an insult to the players who are still expending every ounce of energy they have on the floor, but it would also be foolish to pretend it’s anything but a glorified bridge back to the real NBA.
There are no good options here. In a functioning society, the league would probably not have come back and the government would shut things down while helping people financially. That’s obviously not the case. Powering through means accepting that the virus will infiltrate, and that means accepting the league has to constantly contort itself to keep games happening while trying to avoid full-blown, reckless transmission.
I’m not even upset with the league. Businesses have been left to fend for themselves during this pandemic, and this is the result. But the consequences are being felt on the floor. Maybe by the time the playoffs roll around and more people have the vaccine, the play will feel more fulfilling. For now, the league’s and players’ decision to keep running through this landmine-laden pandemic means leaning on the protocols in place to keep games on the schedule. Unfortunately, while those strict protocols may work in allowing the season to continue, the longer the league lingers in this reality, the less the games feel like the NBA.