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NBA postponements reveal COVID challenges outside the Bubble

Can basketball be played through the coronavirus pandemic?

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NBA: Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets played on Saturday. Doc River’s rotations stayed short and resembled a preseason lineup — Tyrese Maxey took 33 shots. We’ve become used to the visuals of professional sports mid-pandemic: masks, distanced benches, and small groups of fans alongside fake crowd noise.

The invisible threat of COVID-19 has only grown since the Orlando Bubble.

The Nuggets won, Philadelphia played reasonably close for having only two bench players, and 48 minutes passed without non-basketball interruptions. The previous and following 48 hours did not — periods that’ll define the way this NBA season is remembered, for better or worse.

Will the NBA’s protocols for containing the virus, despite the alarming headlines they raise, prove a necessary evil that saves the season, or a fail to the point that the 2020-21 season is put on hold?

The league convened Tuesday to sharpen their ruleset, emphasizing no post-game hugs and pre-game shootarounds, measures of caution some teams had already imposed. Players are now barred from receiving visitors on road trips, as stunning as it is that they weren’t already. The lack of a backup roster plan remains unaddressed, with five teams recently unable to play, including the Boston Celtics. Testing results are lagging and teams are in close enough proximity regularly to have a late test result decimate a roster. The safety of playing basketball is coming into question.

“There’s a lot to adjust to,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said in December. “We have some testing requirements in the mornings that we have to all pass to be able to go to a shootaround, so shootarounds are going to be delicate for teams. I don’t know how many teams are going to just make that optional or do them at all. It may just be ballroom walkthroughs, it’s a real challenge from a timing standpoint.”

Testing concerns emerged last Thursday, when Philadelphia and league officials pulled Seth Curry from the 76ers bench after his positive COVID-19 test returned mid-game. The game concluded before the team went to quarantine in their New York City hotel. On Wednesday, the NBA introduced a third game day test teams will soon takes. According to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps:

The league plans to discuss those findings with the teams over the weekend with the goal of beginning to implement the extra tests sometime next week. The intent is to find a local provider of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that can turn around at least 40 tests — enough to handle players on both teams, as well that night’s referees — that could be collected the morning of a game and returned at least one hour before tipoff.

Under the current system, for players or referees to participate in a game, they need to have a negative PCR test from the day before the game and a negative rapid test from the morning of the game. So, for example, players and referees participating in Thursday’s game between the Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers would need to have a negative PCR test taken Wednesday and a negative rapid test taken Thursday morning.

Only seven Philly players passed through protocol immediately eligible to play against Denver on Saturday. Mike Scott sat on the bench injured to reach the mandatory eight bodies needed to not forfeit. The league reviewed the reporting of Ben Simmons’ reported knee injury and forced Philly to play on. Head Coach Doc Rivers wondered why teams should be forced to unduly strain their rosters when their benches become depleted.

“Being held up in New York, doing multiple tests, waiting for tests, contact tracing, then getting the list of guys being out. Getting back to Philly at one in the morning. Getting to your house, not knowing if you’re playing or not, on the phone with your coaches until four in the morning,” Rivers said, recounting last week.

He affirmed his faith in the protocol. Stevens trusted it too, returning from Miami and a four-game road trip last Thursday with Robert Williams III receiving a positive test, while Grant Williams, Tristan Thompson and Carsen Edwards contact-traced to the third-year Celtics center. As the health and safety absences mounted for Boston, so too did the total around the league. The NBA announced 16 positive tests out of 497 players last week, up from seven per day the week before.

Coaches cannot discuss COVID-19 cases, nor do they know enough about them to explain who’s out and why. The league’s protocol keeps the details under wraps, although there is no trigger for league-wide postponement. The arguments against that move make sense: maintaining competitive balance, the risk of more players contracting the virus during a stoppage, and rescheduling difficulties upon restart. Nonetheless, the potential pitfalls of powering ahead loom large. Five games have been postponed, with more to come, and it appears games could be causing further spread.

“Doc is a nickname,” Rivers said. “I clearly don’t know the medical part of this whole thing.”

One day after the Celtics removed four players from activity, Edwards rejoined them after initially landing in league protocol. Kemba Walker and the group rejoiced pregame in a high five line. Walker leaped to reach Tacko Fall’s hand 10 feet above Earth. Jayson Tatum stood less than six feet away, played 35 minutes and sat near teammates Semi Ojeleye, Javonte Green and Jaylen Brown on the bench. Tatum silently carried the virus that night.

Teams remain more vigilant off the court. Time together is limited, they eat meals separately and can only dine in league-approved hotels. The acknowledgement of the threat dissolves on the hardwood. But once teams are back on the hardwood, the closeness of competition — including the lack of masks on the floor and occasionally on the bench — opens transmission opportunities. Both teams and opponents gather closer than they ever would otherwise.

The fact that players receive two game-day tests and can still bring positive cases into a game, like Curry and Tatum, is cause for concern about to the league’s testing and isolation protocol. The pillar of it — a belief in a full game of basketball not being enough close contact to spread the virus between two players — was challenged by scientists this week in The Athletic:

The league’s contact tracing primarily focuses on the first definition of close contact, which requires a player to spend at least 15 minutes within six feet of another individual who tests positive. The league has used Second Spectrum player tracking data to establish that players, on average, spend no more than five or six minutes within six feet of another player during any given game. It technically falls within the CDC guidelines.

Tim Cato and Jared Weiss spoke to experts who stated that the NBA’s interpretation of a guideline does not eliminate abnormal circumstances. They used a game with surplus free throw line gatherings as an example. And every game has its physical closeness. Beyond the jostling for position and rigors of normal defense, there are the occasional skirmishes in and more often, in this friendly league, players greet each other before games and embrace after the final whistle.

The league cracked down on these additional interactions this week, but some games have more contact between individuals. Steve Nash capped Brooklyn’s win yesterday by hugging RJ Barrett at mid-court. Second Spectrum minutes are an only an average of on-court interaction within the NBA’s 48-minute clock. The gathering lasts hours.

Bradley Beal landed in COVID protocol after his post-game chat with Tatum last week. The schedule pitted Washington against three teams in the midst of suspected breakouts: Philadelphia, Boston and Miami. They played Phoenix on Monday and since then returned positive tests that traced to Suns players, postponing two of their games to impact eight total in the last week. The virus’ branching across a condensed schedule is becoming evident.

Math became as much of an issue for these teams as science and health. Three Heat injuries brought the team below the league minimum against Boston. The Celtics could’ve played this week if Romeo Langford and Walker were healthy. The caution showed by quarantining negative players who were in contact with positive cases makes the league safer. It also decimates small basketball rosters.

The league built a detailed protocol, but the pandemic rages on in the United States. Since training camp began on Dec. 1, positive cases have increased by 100,000 in the US each day. In continuing play as scheduled, the NBA must navigate both increasingly complex public health problems and the logical criticism of any business asking its employees to still come to work under increased duress. NBA COVID cases also produce consequences for coaches, staff, referees and their families. League logistics are the biggest issue right now. Health scares could rise to the top at any moment.

The NBA plan should be held to a higher standard than the bar the country set, because they built their own successful standards in Orlando as Florida’s cases skyrocketed around it. They did it again for the 2021 season.

But the Bubble’s success could not be repeated when players and owners, understandably unwilling to spend upward of seven months sequestered with 30 teams and paying millions of dollars with no stadium revenue, decided not to bubble again. That collective decision may not prove wise if this season falters, becomes a haphazard product, or worse.

“The reality is we know this is rampant right now,” Stevens said before the Washington game when asked if they should play. “We’re doing everything we can to prevent it and it’s still going to find its way into the league...we’re all assuming some level of risk.”

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