The NBA expected some games would be postponed.
Without a true bubble, the thought of zero COVID-19 cases among 30 teams flying all over the country and playing a contact sport was a wild best-case scenario.
But this week—one that saw 16 new players test positive and nine games postponed—has the league scrambling to rethink how to keep the season going. And increasingly, players and coaches are uneasy about how the protocols are working and changing on the fly.
"It's definitely not on solid ground," Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins said Monday.
On Tuesday, after a series of discussions with the league's general managers and the players union, the NBA's Board of Governors announced a new set of rules for players and team staffers to follow. In the short term, the measures hope to curb a widespread outbreak around the league.
New protocols range from off-court rule changes to on-court tweaks. Non-team guests in players' hotel rooms are banned, as is unnecessary person-to-person contact before games, such as handshakes or hugs. But the league is still vulnerable to other potential oversights, such as flight crews on chartered planes who aren't required to be tested for COVID-19, B/R has learned.
Reactions around the league to the new rules have been mixed, to say the least.
"I'm a grown man," Oklahoma City Thunder guard George Hill told reporters Tuesday. "I'm gonna do what I want to do. If I want to go see my family, I'm going to go see my family. They can't tell me I have to stay in a room 24/7. If it's that serious, then maybe we shouldn't be playing. But it's life; no one's going to be able to just cancel their whole life for this game."
The frustrations of players like Hill bring to mind the contradictions of the summer's bubble.
The NBA's Disney campus experiment did its job, keeping the virus at bay long enough to finish the season and crown a champion. But it was also tremendously taxing mentally on everyone involved. LeBron James joked this week about having "PTSD" from the 96 days he spent in Orlando, and no one—not the league office, not the players, not the team governors—showed any appetite for repeating the experience for an entire season, or even just a few months until they're able to get vaccinated.
And so the NBA is forced to muddle through a season in the outside world that attempts to recreate the safety of the bubble as best it can. The league's initial 150-plus-page set of safety protocols was as comprehensive as it gets, but it wasn't bulletproof. Players were still permitted to have outside guests in their hotel rooms on a limited basis. There were still a handful of approved restaurants where they could eat in most cities.
The league and players union hoped to maintain a safe-enough environment to play while keeping players sane and engaged. But as the postponed games and positive cases have piled up, it's become obvious that even those small loopholes left everyone vulnerable.
More concerning, 28 of the NBA's 30 teams have a partnership with Delta Airlines, which has not mandated that its flight crews get tested for COVID-19 despite repeated requests from the NBA's medical leadership. Delta directs its crews to wear masks and does not permit them to be within six feet of any NBA personnel, but several teams contacted by B/R still refuse to eat on team planes.
These holes in the league's setup call into question the utility of the other small changes the league has made.
As one assistant coach put it: "We can't sit next to someone who's being tested every day, but are on a plane with at least four people that are out mixing with the general public and not getting tested?"
The league has yet to trace any of its recent string of positive tests back to air travel, but it appears this oversight in the NBA's health and safety protocols will persist until the airline acquiesces to its requests.
Hill isn't wrong that policing players' on-court interactions is a half-measure that doesn't do much to protect them from a pandemic that's far worse now than it was when the league suspended its season in March. The NFL, MLB and college sports have normalized the idea that players getting sick is just the cost of doing business.
Not everyone feels the same way as Hill. His Thunder teammate, third-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, took a more sympathetic view of the new protocols.
"It's what's necessary, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get rid of this COVID thing," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "If it means I have to wear a mask on the bench the whole time, it is what it is and I'm gonna do it. I want to get back to normal living, and whatever it takes to get back, I'm going to do it."
In shutting down at the start of the pandemic and constructing a bubble to keep it out, the NBA was a leader. In the outside world, however, it's been a follower. Until the vaccine becomes available to the league, these tightened restrictions are all it can control.
"I'm not sure how much more can be tweaked," Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard said this week. "I feel like I'm living my life in a box. I go to practice, I go back home, I don't go anywhere else. It's not like we can go to dinner or go to a movie or go hang out with our family or nothing like that. Our family members have lives. The rules that we've got to play by put us in a box. We travel, go to the hotel room, play, come back home."
In the NBA, as in the rest of the country, holiday gatherings have coincided with spiking COVID-19 numbers. This was part of the league's thinking in instituting these new protocols: short-term solutions to mitigate the anticipated worst stretch of the pandemic. Buy time until the vaccine becomes more widely available.
It's not a perfect plan, but it's the one they've got.
"I think we all have to be a little uncomfortable with what's going on with the virus in our country," said Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce. "I'm not just thinking of what's going on in our league. We were told a month ago that January was going to be the hardest-hit portion of the virus because of the holiday and the travel and the family gatherings and the movement. We're seeing that as a direct result of holiday travel and family gatherings."
On the court, in addition to the postponements, teams have been forced to play shorthanded, which has resulted in some ugly, lopsided basketball.
Even putting aside the risk of catching COVID-19, there is widespread concern among players, coaches and front-office executives that players missing weeks of team activity to quarantine—and little-used end-of-bench players being unexpectedly asked to play more minutes—will lead to a greater risk of injury.
"You have some teams that have to play with five guys, six guys, seven guys, and that's hard to do," said Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony. "Because guys' health is most important. If you've got to play with only six or seven guys, then yeah, I think the games should be canceled. They should have an opportunity to wrap their arms around what's happening and trace it and test it."
As of now, the league's stance is that it won't postpone games unless absolutely necessary. And so players and coaches are grappling with what it will take to get through the season.
"In somewhat of a traveling bubble, I feel safer than the general public," said Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams. "We get tested every day. All of our guys get tested every morning. If you don't have the right outcome, you're going to be removed. I'm in the safest spot in the world, to be honest with you, because pro sports is taking so many precautions to keep us that way.
"Unfortunately, guys are getting it around the league. It does make you think, I have a family that I'm responsible for. You understand my situation. If I ever felt like I was going to put them in harm's way, I've got to go stay somewhere else for a few days, or maybe even a few weeks, to keep my family safe."
Williams spoke Monday about feeling safe in an insulated team environment on the road. Since then, the Suns have had three games postponed as a result of contact-tracing concerns. They won't be the last team to have its season affected.
The two arguably safer options seem like non-starters: Pulling the plug on the season would cost everyone too much money, and returning to a bubble is a bridge too far for the mental health of everyone involved. As it is, the restrictions the league has in place are hard for some players to swallow, even though they're fully necessary.
"I live on my phone because I can't interact with people in person," Lillard said. "It's definitely tough. But if we don't accept that that's the way it has to be, we lose out on a lot of things. Our season, our health, our contracts, everything goes downhill if we don't play by these rules. We're going to make it work to the best of our abilities."
It's not outside the realm of possibility that things could get so bad that the league has to shut down, at least for a while. The NBA is in a race to prevent that from happening before the vaccine catches up.
"What we're dealing with is serious. It's very serious. It's bigger than us, it's bigger than basketball, it's bigger than the NBA."
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R app.