NBA Faces a Menu of Bad Options in Latest COVID-19 Crisis

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterDecember 20, 2021

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, center, looks on in the second half during an NBA basketball game between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

Las Vegas — The NBA G League Showcase opened here Sunday morning in what seemed like a widespread state of anxiety.

Traditionally, the Showcase serves as the NBA's winter meetings, where general managers get together to watch games in a casual environment and talk trades.

Instead, the NBA is ravaged by what feels like an endless list of players entering the league's health and safety protocols. Few top executives were present in Las Vegas—unofficially just Sam Presti of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Mitch Kupchak of the Charlotte Hornets—with drastically scaled-down traveling parties (although the San Antonio Spurs and Thunder were well-represented).

The Raptors 905, the Toronto Raptors' affiliate team, pulled out last minute. Rumors circulated that other franchises would follow suit and that the Showcase would get called off before a second day.

While that's probably alarmist, basketball was the secondary topic while conversation centered around two irreconcilable viewpoints:

1) The NBA cannot continue.

2) The NBA cannot stop.

The league cannot do both, and later that evening, the NBA approved allowing teams to sign a replacement player for each player out with a positive COVID-19 test, per Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Shams Charania @ShamsCharania

Sources: The NBA will allow teams to sign one replacement player for each of its players who are under contract and tests positive for COVID-19 -- effective immediately through Jan. 19.

The new rule overrides the typical 15-man roster limit and the more stringent hardship exemption requirements that require a team to have at least four players out for three games each before allowing a 10-day replacement. The amendment will stay in place through January 19.

Put simply, the show must go on.


A Subpar Product

Several executives and scouts in Las Vegas argued the league should pause until the virus gets under control. More than one suggested a mandatory quarantine for a week or two with the Omicron variant spreading like wildfire.

"Stop putting teams on the floor with a subpar product," one executive said.

On Saturday, the Orlando Magic started Mychal Mulder, Franz Wagner, Gary Harris, Chuma Okeke and Robin Lopez to beat the Brooklyn Nets 100-93. The Nets started Patty Mills, Cameron Thomas, David Duke Jr., Kessler Edwards and Blake Griffin.

No offense to the players above, but this is not what a starting 10 should look like in December. Some of the issue is the usual wear and tear of injuries, but most are because of the virus.

For the basketball purists, some of whom are in attendance at the Showcase, the NBA is prioritizing money over quality.

That's probably accurate, but it's also what the league should and probably needs to do.


It's All About Christmas

"Christmas is the NBA's Super Bowl," another executive said.

There's a common perception that Commissioner Adam Silver is trying to hold the league together with spit and glue to get through the holiday.

The NBA's network partners (ABC/ESPN, Turner and NBA TV) highly value the Christmas games. Last year's season was moved up from mid-January to late December to ensure the networks got their holiday games.

But both the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) need to protect the basketball-related income that is the league's lifeblood. Taking care of its partners is part and parcel of that arrangement.

More than a dozen different executives and scouts echoed the same mantra: The NBA needs to get through Christmas.


What Then?

The league could look to pause for a couple of weeks after December 25. Let the positive cases resolve and prevent further spread.

But that's assuming the virus will cooperate. Additionally, getting players to quarantine is not a one-sided NBA decision. The NBPA would have to sign off, and that's no easy task. Policing players into quarantine would likely be met with severe resistance.

The NBA has postponed several games in the last few days, but unlike in 2020-21, where it slowly tested the waters and arenas were generally dark, that's not the current state of affairs. For example, Staples Center (soon to be Crypto.com Arena) hosts the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, the NHL's Los Angeles Kings and a slate of upcoming concerts.

Shutting down for a couple of weeks would be a logistical scheduling nightmare. It would have consequences impacting the NBA draft, free agency, summer league and the length of the offseason. Players are still working to return from two straight short breaks. The prospect of another is generally unwelcome.


Another Bubble?

"No chance," one executive said to B/R.

The notion of another bubble was shot down by many others. "Not going to happen."

The players won't go for that lifestyle again. It was very costly to produce, and when it comes to loss of income, the NBA and NBPA can't afford to lose ticket revenue.

The consensus seemed to be the NBA can't stop, won't go to a bubble, and has to find a way to adapt to the world as it is.


Players Aren't Getting That Sick

This part of the conversation is a little more nuanced. Several executives said the challenge for the NBA is the optics more than the virus.

In an unofficial poll, not one had heard of a single recent case where a player fell seriously ill enough to be hospitalized.

According to NBPA president CJ McCollum, per Tania Ganguli of the New York Times, almost the entire player base is vaccinated.

"We were at 98, we might even be around 99 percent vaccinated right now," McCollum said.

While one of the goals of vaccines is to prevent cases altogether, the bigger goal is to prevent severe cases.

The vaccines are doing their jobs. Anecdotally, players hit by the current wave seem to have even fewer serious symptoms than they experienced in previous waves, generally speaking. Many are completely asymptomatic.

Should the NBA put billions of dollars at risk with a pause, shutdown or bubble if the players aren't facing a serious health risk?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple. Sacramento Kings interim head coach Alvin Gentry, 67, tested positive Wednesday, per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Other support staff may be more vulnerable than the players, though they too would have vaccination protection.

"It's the optics," one executive said. "It's not a great look for the NBA to continue."

But the league, once again, has to choose from a menu of bad choices. The NBA product won't live up to its usual standards, but now is the time for compromise.

The solution in play appears to be additional hardship 10-day contracts, which is why the G League Showcase needs to both end quickly but also needs to continue.

The NBA needs replacement players, and the best available talent is currently in Las Vegas. But also, so are the scouts, and they need to look at the players on the court to know which prospects to call up.

Hopefully those panicked concerns that the Showcase will end prematurely will prove unfounded and the conversation Monday will turn from the pandemic to the rightful topic of preparing for the February 10 NBA trade deadline.


Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.