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The NBA in crisis

And not because of James Harden.

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NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a uniquely tragic phenomenon that we’ve come to discover about American people in the 10 or so months since COVID-19 became the most oppressive societal event of our time.

Back when quarantine first began, people were genuinely terrified of this insidious virus, and most complied with the orders to stay at home. Of course, there will always be stragglers who refuse to be like the “sheep”, but for the most part, people generally did what they were supposed to do. I didn’t see my friends at all for the first month or so of quarantine.

However, people gradually began to lose interest in health and safety, even as the situation is now far more dire in many places than it was many months ago. Those same friends I have who were afraid to leave their homes now gather in large groups with impunity. Covid search traffic on the Internet has basically fallen off a cliff. To be sure, there just isn’t the same level of concern that there once was when that worry may be needed now more than ever.

Now I don’t say all of this to make a political statement or a point about American selfishness. There has just clearly been a change in the way that most American people approach this crisis. And that fact is indubitably true for the NBA in particular.

Back in June, the NBA unveiled its plan for a bubble system at Disney World in Orlando to finish the 2019-20 NBA season. As difficult and costly as it was to plan, Adam Silver and the Players’ Association viewed it as the only practical remedy to finish the season in a world ravaged by a pandemic. While their hotels may have been luxurious, many players struggled with mental health issues since they had to undergo separation from their families. Yet as difficult and complex as it all was, most agreed that it was the best and only true viable way to maximize player safety. And to their credit, it proved to be so, as the number of positive COVID-tests merely totaled in the single digits after nearly three months in the bubble.

So you can understand why it’s disconcerting that as of this writing, which is three weeks into the 2020-21 NBA season, the NBA has postponed seven games and had 16 total players test positive, with many more being held out for “health and safety protocol” due to contact tracing. The Memphis Grizzlies experienced this when De’Anthony Melton and Jonas Valanciunas missed five games and a single half, respectively.

Even without fans in the stands, the transition back to a normal-ish season from the bubble has definitely not been kind to the NBA. And that might unfortunately be deserved. Again, the NBA’s public messaging back in the summer was that the bubble was the only safe way to proceed. And now they’re attempting to move ahead like a normal season when the pandemic is worse. From the outside looking in, the optics in that regard are not great.

I don’t have all the answers, which feels dirty even for me to type. How the NBA is approaching this season isn’t necessarily wrong, and there isn’t a perfect solution. Having another bubble was never an option, since there were reportedly entire teams that would have opted out if that had been the plan. You can shake your fist at how the NBA is obviously prioritizing money over player safety by having a season at all, and to that I say: welcome to the real world. The ongoing tension between financial security and health/safety isn’t just limited to the NBA.

However, it’s becoming obvious that the NBA can’t just continue on its current course. That’s not necessarily because of health reasons, although that’s definitely a concern, but rather because the product itself is suffering due to short-handed rosters.

Here are some of the comically absurd things that have happened in the last week due to missing players:

  • Tyrese Maxey scoring 39 points on 33 shots for the Sixers.
  • Danny Green attempting 21 threes in a single game for the Sixers
  • Dwight Howard playing point guard for the Sixers (pray for Philadelphia)

As funny as the thought of John Konchar potentially putting up a 25-10-10 stat line in 40 minutes may be, this isn’t good for the sport, the teams affected, or the players who have had to play extremely increased minutes. The teams who are affected obviously suffer from a competitive disadvantage, and it’s increasing the risk of injury for players who are forced to play far more minutes than they are accustomed in roles they don’t usually fill.

To me, the imperfect solution is for the NBA to expand team rosters to 20 players. This would give teams a greater cushion in preparing for games when they’ll be short-handed and also give marginal players more opportunities to make NBA rosters. But what makes it imperfect is that it could complicate the actual health and safety problem at hand, in that having more people on the roster obviously increases the risk of spread/transmission of the virus. The cure should obviously not be worse than the disease.

Make no mistake, the NBA is not going to find a perfect solution for its current predicament. That’s just the state of our current world. There are simply going to be logistical issues with having a full season in the middle of a pandemic, no matter what the NBA tries to do. But regardless, it must adapt to find a more successful way forward.

And with the current state of our society, we should probably do so as well.

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