In the days leading up to Christmas, there were plenty of jokes made by Twitter comedians that were about as funny as Arthur Fleck in Joker about how the NBA’s Christmas slate was going to be a glorified G-League showcase due to the amount of players that were out due to the NBA’s covid protocols (seriously, look up “Christmas NBA” on Twitter; literally everyone had the same joke).
To be sure, many of the league’s brightest stars, including Trae Young, Luka Doncic, and Kevin Durant, weren’t able to showcase their talents on Christmas due to the protocols. The league itself has been suffering from this problem for several weeks now, with the Memphis Grizzlies in particular now missing players like De’Anthony Melton and Dillon Brooks, only after they lost Ja Morant. That is, of course, not ideal, and it would be foolish to pretend that the NBA is perfectly fine with many of its marquee faces constantly missing time due to pandemic protocols.
But while the situation isn’t ideal, can we stop pretending the circumstances are an absolute nightmare as far as the overall state of the NBA’s product is concerned? In fact, the circumstances are proving to have some positive consequences in that they are providing real NBA opportunities for players who probably would have never otherwise received them in a normal season.
Take the Memphis Grizzlies again for example. Due to all the players they have been missing recently due to both injury and Covid protocols, they were able to sign both Shaq Buchanan and Tyrell Terry, who have both spent extended time in the G-League and/or with the Memphis Hustle, to 10-day hardship exception deals. While Buchanan and Terry in particular, who was the 31st pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, may both have NBA upside, it’s extremely unlikely that they would receive an opportunity like this in a normal year, especially this early in the season.
“I think the opportunity allows Shaq some Grizzlies action earlier than it would in a normal season,” said Brandan Abraham, Grizzly Bear Blues associate editor and Memphis Hustle beat writer. “For Terry, it helps that a lot of free agents and G League guys have been called up to give him the chance. In a more normal season he may not get the call due to the limited roster availability.”
For players like Terry who have been castoffs or undesired for whatever reason, the NBA is truly now a newfound land of opportunity. Veteran free agents such as Brandon Knight, who hadn’t played in the NBA in 2 years but had 18 points and 5 assists in a 132-117 win for the Mavericks over the Trail Blazers on Monday night, and Lance Stephenson have the opportunity to show that they still have value in the league. And players like Buchanan and Terry have an (admittedly limited) opportunity to prove that they can have value in the league.
Jokes are enticing to make, and it’s always easy to complain. But while the circumstances may still not be ideal, the fact that professional basketball players both young and old are receiving opportunities that they may have never otherwise gotten to accomplish their dreams that they have worked tirelessly for is not something to be mocked or ridiculed. Rather, it should be celebrated.
Now there are some who would disagree with this rather optimistic assessment and even go as far to suggest the NBA take a pause for a few different reasons.
The first, and most obvious, argument is that Covid cases are obviously spiking in the country as well as clearly in the professional sports leagues, so the NBA appears to be prioritizing its financial bottom-line over the health and safety of its players.
Of course, Covid is not to be treated lightly, and it has affected me and my family directly - my mother spent a week in the hospital with it before vaccines were widely available. So I’d like to think that lends my argument some more credibility when I say it’s time that American society and the NBA in particular collectively realize how much progress we’ve made in this pandemic with life-saving vaccines and other treatments/mitigation strategies that also effectively prevent severe illness and decide to start proceeding accordingly.
To their credit, many have already done so. The CDC is now recommending just a 5-day quarantine for asymptomatic vaccinated people who test positive with Covid, which will obviously reduce the NBA’s health and safety protocols and help address its current problem.
The obvious next step for the NBA—which I won’t be shocked if they take before the start of the playoffs to greatly mitigate the possibility of the league’s marquee players having to quarantine when the stakes are highest—will be to cease testing of asymptomatic players. The inexplicable nature of testing asymptomatic vaccinated professional athletes for what now essentially amounts to an endemic respiratory bug for them specifically is something that hasn’t been lost on many top American athletes, including but not limited to LeBron James, Trae Young, and Tom Brady.
While Covid itself might be the primary reason that some have expressed doubt about the NBA’s current plan of action, the other reason is that some are concerned that with so many players unable to play at the moment, it’s causing the remaining players to be overly taxed, leading to greater risk of significant injuries. However, the hardship exception deals are meant to address this exact concern, as giving these teams extra players is meant to prevent them from overwhelming their remaining available players with minutes and roles that they don’t normally have.
The world isn’t perfect, no matter how much we wish otherwise. But even in the midst of the trying times in which we are living, the NBA has found a beneficial way forward to continue its season unhindered while maximizing unexpected opportunities it can now give to players who truly deserve them. And that is something that fans of the Memphis Grizzlies as well as the rest of the NBA in general should appreciate.