No Bubble for the N.B.A. Season? It’s a Problem

As long, costly and emotionally draining as 2020 was for the N.B.A., beyond the universal strain of a global health crisis, not every one of those 366 days was dour. The league was applauded often for how it responded to the challenges.

Twelve days into a new year, and just three weeks into a new season, echoes of that smartest-league-in-the-world praise are faint. The N.B.A.’s attempt to stage a high-intensity, face-to-face indoor team sport during a pandemic has quickly proved to be as complicated as feared. Five games from the first 23 days of the 2020-21 schedule have been postponed because teams had too many players unavailable, either because of the league’s coronavirus health and safety protocols or injuries.

League officials had an inkling it might go like this. For the first time, they released a schedule for only the first half of the season, to build in flexibility to cope with coronavirus-related interruptions. They anticipated turbulence after opening night was moved to Dec. 22 and braced for criticism for returning to play less than three months after completing a season in a bubble. Yet there was an unmistakable sense of rising anxiety leaguewide as general managers, players’ union representatives and team owners held meetings Monday and Tuesday in the wake of multiple postponements, even though a review of the league’s protocols had been planned between Jan. 6-13.

“This is the N.B.A. in 2021,” Stan Van Gundy, the coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, said Monday after his team’s game against the Dallas Mavericks was called off. “I know it’s cliché, but in this year, it’s absolutely true: It is literally one day at a time.”

Van Gundy also spoke about how the situation “scares me,” noting he is 61 years old. The coach’s candor, which doesn’t always land softly, will surely be appreciated by others in the game who don’t feel as emboldened or secure to speak up.

The league office, to be fair, would have preferred returning to a bubble like the restricted campus used to complete the 2019-20 season at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla. Officials initially proposed playing in regional bubbles, at least at the start of the season until vaccines were widely available, as a compromise. When pretty much no teams or players wanted to do any of that again, largely because of the isolation and mental toll, it was agreed to start play in their home markets in December. That was the timetable favored by the league’s television partners and, according to N.B.A. estimates, worth at least $500 million in preserved revenue versus waiting until January to give players more time off.

The league is determined not to pause the season, despite the mounting postponements, in part because officials believe even more players would be infected if they were not subject to the N.B.A.’s health protocols. Money must be assumed to be a key factor, in addition to any protective motivations, but the league’s ability to stick to that stance and avoid at least a temporary pause is being severely tested. While January lives up to the dire projections of health experts who said it would be the pandemic’s worst month yet, multiple teams (Boston, Dallas, Miami and Philadelphia) are struggling to meet the minimum requirement of eight players in uniform for games.

“We are committed to proceeding with our industry, and we’re doing it with all the best science and adherence to the protocols, but ultimately we’re not in control,” Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra said.

The league and players’ union announced changes to the N.B.A.’s nearly 160 pages of health and safety guidelines on Tuesday, including instructions for players and team personnel to stay home “at all times” for at least the next two weeks outside of team and essential activities. For all the understandable unease at the moment, league officials have maintained that amendments were always likely.

“We have a lot of protocols in place, but the protocols are kind of our starting point,” said John DiFiori, the N.B.A.’s director of sports medicine. “We made a lot of adjustments in Orlando and, really, it’s the lesson that we learned. This is an evolving situation — always — from the medical and scientific side, as well as just the experience of not being in a bubble and trying to manage the logistics of travel and people living in their communities and having life events that occur.”

The conversation with DiFiori took place on Thursday, before Sixers guard Seth Curry was hustled off Philadelphia’s bench at a Nets game in Brooklyn when his coronavirus test result that was expected to arrive on Friday came back early — and came back positive. To that point, there had been only one postponement: Houston’s season opener on Dec. 23 against Oklahoma City, when the Rockets could not field eight players in uniform.

Since the Sixers-Nets game, it has been chaos.

A lot of that stems from how thoroughly the league insists on contact tracing after a positive test to try to prevent spread. The time-consuming nature of the tracing was a primary factor in postponements on Sunday (scuttling Miami’s ability to play the Celtics in Boston) and Monday (preventing Dallas from hosting New Orleans). But Tuesday’s new measures requiring team personnel to stay home and outlawing guests at team hotels were essentially an admission that previous efforts to get everyone in a 46-person traveling party to behave as if they were ensconced in a bubble have fallen short.

A new set of stricter masking regulations was implemented as recently as Jan. 5, but the league mask policy on benches and flights and in team meetings was stiffened again Tuesday. The league also warned against “extended socializing” in a bid to curtail pregame and postgame greetings between players on opposing teams.

Whether these prove to be any more than cosmetic changes depends on each team’s vigilance in enforcing them, along with the protocol officer assigned to each team by the league from a private security firm. Skeptics will point out that it has always been against protocol for coaches to routinely pull down their masks to relay instructions to players, but it happens anyway.

Philadelphia Coach Doc Rivers revealed recently that he was fined $10,000 by the league for doing so and called it “the right thing to do.” He has since asked one of his assistant coaches, Eric Hughes, the athletic trainer Kevin Johnson and “whoever else is behind me on the bench” to warn him when he is in violation.

“I bet 20 times they had to remind me to put the mask back on,” Rivers said. “The players can’t hear me through the mask, so I’m taking it down to talk and I forget to bring it up.”

One team I spoke to this week said that the benches, locker rooms and planes had been identified as prime trouble spots for keeping players distanced. That’s in addition to the potential problems on the floor.

One that Rivers has mentioned frequently is the risk for overuse injuries on teams that have to play with skeleton squads, since the N.B.A.’s eight-man minimum was not designed with a pandemic in mind. Another possible issue is the league’s contention that the virus is unlikely to be transmitted during live action unless players spend at least 15 minutes within six feet of each other. It is fair to wonder whether those guidelines for close contact properly account for the amount of shouting, heavy breathing and chest-to-chest grappling that takes place on a basketball court.

So much to think about, then, as the N.B.A. tries to cope with even meaner curveballs than its outdoor counterparts faced, from Major League Baseball’s coronavirus outbreak with the Miami Marlins in July to the N.F.L.’s need to postpone or move several games because of the virus en route to the playoffs. N.B.A. rosters, compared with baseball’s or football’s, are much more likely to take an irreparable hit when multiple players are lost.

“It’s a lot,” Washington’s Bradley Beal said Monday night. “But this is what we agreed to do.”

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.

(Questions may be lightly edited or condensed for clarity.)

Q: The N.B.A. made a deal with the Capitanes de Ciudad de México to become the 29th G League franchise and play this season. What is their status? — @JDogindy from Twitter

Stein: Capitanes won’t be one of the 18 teams in the forthcoming G League bubble at Walt Disney World, but I’m told that the team is expected to begin playing in the 2021-22 season. The assumption, if we dare, is that neither the N.B.A. nor the G League will be gripped by a pandemic by then, making it easier to finally embark on this long-anticipated grand experiment with the league’s first franchise outside the United States and Canada.

The G League bubble will feature 17 of its 28 current franchises and the Ignite select team, which gives elite draft prospects like Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga and Daishen Nix a different path to the professional ranks than playing in college or overseas. There is a fee of about $500,000 for the N.B.A. teams that are sending their G League affiliates to the bubble. Some parent clubs balked, because of the cost or because they intended to use their players on two-way contracts at the N.B.A. level for the entire season to mitigate potential roster shortages caused by injuries or virus protocols.

On the players’ side, there is added incentive for those aspiring to reach the N.B.A. Participation in what some are calling the “glubble,” or the “gubble,” not only showcases them in a well-scouted league but puts players into the N.B.A.’s coronavirus testing program. That will shorten the quarantine-related delays all new players face when they are signed by an N.B.A. team. Monday’s G League draft attracted nearly 200 players for less than 30 available roster spots.

Q: We need a better name than “baseball-style series” when a team plays two road games in a row against the same host. They don’t play two-game series in baseball. — @MackMachine80 from Twitter

Stein: Agreed. I’ve had similar thoughts every time I type the phrase.

Sadly that is also an admission that I haven’t come up with anything better. The description stems from baseball’s distinction as the only major team sport known for parking its teams in the same city for three or four days, but I’m with you — and open to suggestions. Send them in.

Unclear, though, is whether these are schedule anomalies we will be discussing beyond this season. It’s something the league is studying after the absence of travel was frequently cited as one of the pluses of the Disney World bubble. The reduction in travel these two-game sets provide is sensible this season, when teams are trying to protect their traveling parties from the virus, but I am not a fan because they are yet another factor in teams’ dwindling home-court advantage these days.

Mostly empty arenas, the added comfort road teams are finding on those two-game excursions and sudden player absences have contributed to home teams’ underwhelming records through Monday’s play: 41-39 (.513) in the Eastern Conference; 34-39 (.465) in the West. These are obviously small sample sizes, but the early pace is worrisome. In the N.B.A.’s most recent season with teams playing exclusively in their arenas in 2018-19, Eastern teams went 341-274 at home (.554) and Western teams went 388-227 (.631).

Q: Are you a big Marvel guy? — Adam Howes

Stein: Not really. I posted a tweet Sunday praising the San Antonio Spurs for their use of the popular Spider-Man vs. Spider-Man pointing meme from my favorite animated series, but I really didn’t consume much animated programming in my youth (or thereafter).

I was infected with extreme sports nerdity so early that, even by age 9, I was already obsessed with playing Strat-O-Matic baseball — to the point that I turned a big white toy chest in the garage into a faux manager’s desk so I could pretend to be Billy Martin or Bob Lemon.

Yet I do still love the original “Spider-Man” animated series (especially Season 1) that debuted in 1967. The episode that produced the meme of Spider-Man and his impostor pointing at each other, “Double Identity,” is a top-three episode in my personal rankings. So I applaud any time someone on N.B.A. Twitter finds a well-crafted reason to bust it out.

The No. 1 episode in those rankings, for the record, is “To Catch A Spider.” That’s the one in which Spider-Man has to defeat several of his arch enemies, including my beloved Electro, after Dr. Noah Boddy breaks Electro, Vulture and the Green Goblin out of jail.

Washington’s Bradley Beal guarded Boston’s Jayson Tatum for 8 minutes 22 seconds on Friday night, and Tatum guarded Beal for 3 minutes 45 seconds, according to advanced tracking data from the league. The friends from St. Louis spent a combined 12 minutes 7 seconds in proximity to each other without masks during the game and had an extended postgame discussion, leading the N.B.A. to place Beal in its health and safety protocols after Tatum later tested positive for the coronavirus.

Guarding another player during a game is typically not considered close contact by the league for the purposes of contact tracing. The N.B.A. has taken its cues from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to define close contact as spending at least 15 minutes within six feet of another person while not wearing a mask. The league said its research showed that it was rare for two players to spend that much time within six feet of each other during game action.

Only 29 players have scored at least 60 points in an N.B.A. game. The most recent two — Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Washington’s Beal — did it three days apart last week.

Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers shot a mere 44.4 percent from the field (48-for-108) in the six games he played wearing a clear shield over his face. Leonard is a career 49.0 percent shooter and had 35 points Sunday (including a career-high-tying seven 3-pointers) in his first game after shedding the mask. The protective gear was required after Leonard took an inadvertent elbow from his teammate Serge Ibaka on Christmas Day that required eight stitches in his mouth.

The Toronto Raptors had averaged 3,663 fans for their first three home games in Tampa, Fla., before it was announced Saturday that fans will no longer be admitted through at least Feb. 5 because of a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in the area. That leaves five N.B.A. teams currently allowing reduced crowds for home games: Cleveland, Houston, New Orleans, Orlando and Utah. There was a maximum capacity of 3,800 at Tampa’s Amalie Arena, which the Raptors are using as their temporary home this season because of travel restrictions between the United States and Canada.

Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to [email protected].

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