The NBA saw this coming. After closing out the 2020 playoffs with its protective bubble still intact, commissioner Adam Silver moved toward an even more radical plan for the follow-up season: one that would have 30 NBA teams play in and out of their home markets in defiance of a surging pandemic. The schedule itself was left half-finished, in acknowledgment that teams were likely to be so compromised by the virus that some of their games would need to be rescheduled. A league that prided itself on closing out the bubble without any players testing positive for COVID-19 shifted its priorities to the point that Silver, in his preseason remarks, characterized player infection as an inevitability.
So far, the league already has postponed four games in the first 20 days of its season. The breaking point came Sunday, in what was supposed to be an Eastern Conference finals rematch between the Celtics and the Heat. In the lead-up to the game, Boston released an injury report that looked the part of a Russian novel. Nine Celtics players in all (including Jayson Tatum, who reportedly tested positive for COVID on Friday) were declared unavailable, leaving only the minimum eight required to play. Mercifully, the Heat couldn’t muster even that many healthy bodies; after Avery Bradley was ruled out by the league’s health and safety (read: COVID) protocol, the NBA called off the game, leaving both teams to tend to their sick and their injured before attempting to play their next opponents on Tuesday. Players test positive, but the NBA marches on.
At least until it stumbles over its own policy. Boston’s next game, against the Bulls, already has been postponed, given that the Celtics won’t be able to field a team. The Mavericks, meanwhile, have closed down their practice facility in response to two positive tests of their own, creating a level of exposure that forced a crush of players into quarantine and another game to be rescheduled. Something has to give. The 76ers are playing with a skeleton crew after Seth Curry’s positive test results came back in the middle of a game. Curry wasn’t active at the time due to an ankle injury, but Sixers staff had to whisk him away from the bench (where he was sitting next to superstar center and new father Joel Embiid) to isolate him in the bowels of the Barclays Center.
If all of this is proof of a system working as intended, the theory behind that system feels unstable. Curry was tested twice for COVID-19 before taking his seat on Philadelphia’s bench, as Sopan Deb and Marc Stein clarified in The New York Times: first with a rapid test that returned a negative result, and later with a PCR test verified in a lab. By allowing Curry to join his team on the bench before those second, crucial results were even confirmed, the NBA banked on the illusion of safety instead of the real thing. It’s as if the league installed a home security system and, content with the idea of it, never bothered to actually turn it on.
The league’s guidelines as written put the Sixers, their staff, their opponents, and the officiating crew at risk. After the game, four of Curry’s teammates were separated from the group as a result of the NBA’s contact-tracing program and deemed unavailable for play until clearing quarantine. Rather than strain Embiid with extended minutes in the Sixers’ next game to compensate, head coach Doc Rivers opted to use a seven-man rotation of role players and reserves. “I don’t think we should [play],” Rivers said before the game. “But it’s not for me to express that.” That this entire incident stemmed from a single false negative should scare a league reliant on rapid testing. If the NBA is going to exist outside a bubble, it has to at least have enough overlapping precautions in place to imitate the basic shape of one.
Instead, teams are operating within a system where even if they follow the rules to the letter, they’re still left to sort out the confusion when a player like Jonas Valanciunas plays a full half against the Nets only to be put into the contact-tracing protocol during halftime. “As soon as we got notification in conversations with the league, we had to pull him from the game out of an abundance of caution and put him into the health and safety protocol,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. For context, most of the possessions Valanciunas is involved in are some rough-and-tumble variation of this:
Every minute he plays is a minute of armlocks, box-outs, grabs, bumps, and chest-to-chest contests. Yet when the NBA rules stipulated that it was too dangerous to keep Valanciunas on the floor due to his potential exposure, those same precautions didn’t extend to Brooklyn center Jarrett Allen, who had been wrestling with him for most of the half. Part of that reasoning can be explained by Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe: “According to the league’s research by medical experts, it’s nearly impossible to pass the virus during an NBA game because according to the Center[s] for Disease Control’s website, transmission risk is with an ‘individual who has had close contact [within 6 feet for a total of 15 minutes or more].’” The league’s studies contend, per Washburn, that players are not in the CDC’s definition of close contact for “remotely close to 15 minutes during a game.”
As one might expect, the CDC qualifies its definition beyond any application to NBA basketball. The entire premise is complicated by players shouting and breathing all over one another; by longer exposure times (like air travel, film sessions, or team meetings); by not wearing masks in play; and by playing indoors in the first place. There’s a reason the same scientists and researchers that created the 6-feet/15-minute rule of thumb also list extensive precautions that should be taken around full-contact sports like basketball. The most important guidance offered is not to play at all—to essentially practice dribbling or shooting in isolation instead.
The NBA’s rules are more nuanced than that definition alone, driven by data and an honest attempt to keep players safe. (Along with, it should be noted, an honest attempt to make money.) Yet at this point, two-thirds of the league’s teams have had at least one player miss time due to the health and safety protocols this season, adding up to dozens in total. A single player being put into the tracing protocol might represent some good processes at work, but the flood of players entering the protocol over the past week speaks to a system past its limits. Curry and Valanciunas lurked in blind spots in the health policy, the kind that should urge NBA officials to search for more.
Perhaps they should start with Tatum. Boston’s All-Star was reportedly informed of his positive test shortly after playing a game against the Wizards, which initially led Bradley Beal—who had matched up with Tatum during the game and chatted with him after—to isolate from the rest of his team based on contact tracing. He was cleared to return within a day, and is set to play Monday against the Suns. But why was Beal flagged for tracing but not Daniel Theis, who was in close contact with Tatum as they navigated pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll together? Why weren’t any of the other Celtics taken out of the lineup for quarantine after Tatum conferenced with them on the floor and sat with them in close quarters?
It’s impossible to chart COVID’s effect on the league in any sort of straight lines; there are too many risk vectors to say with certainty where exactly a player may have been exposed. Yet with this kind of undertaking, the NBA is forced to try—to trace the movement and interaction of its players so precisely as to prevent an isolated case from becoming something dire. There’s a shadow over this season that never made it to the bubble, the reality of the pandemic that has killed almost 400,000 Americans seeping in from the edges of the screen. The goal should be to create as wide a safety net as possible. So why isn’t the NBA erring even more on the side of caution?
A meeting of the board of governors reportedly has been scheduled for Tuesday. Considering that this is already shaping up to be one of the most erratic regular seasons on record—full of incomplete lineups and inexplicable blowouts—the NBA should immediately move toward a more conservative approach around teams with known positives. Put the Sixers, Mavericks, and Celtics on the shelf for 10 days. Postpone even more games; the schedule is built for it. Pause the whole damn season if you have to. The concern shouldn’t be for over-quarantining athletes in the face of a virus that can cause damage to their heart, scar their lungs, and impair their long-term brain function. It should be for taking any positive as an inevitability.
That any of this is expected does not excuse it. Let’s be honest about what the NBA protocols look like so far. The team officials who have taken up the work of enforcing safety regulations are already overwhelmed. The vast majority of coaches are pulling down their masks in the heat of the game to yell out coverages and play calls. The bench area has been spaced out into two rows for the safety of distance, but players on most teams just leave that area to stand together in the corner or lean together on the ad boards that now sit in front of the bench. Enough players have been put into contact tracing to highlight their risk of exposure, but not so many as to keep them fully safe. The NBA’s guidelines are thorough, detailing not only explicit steps for a player to return to the lineup after testing positive, but best practices for facility sanitation and regulations for traveling parties. The deeper we go, however, in attempting to stitch up every gap in the NBA’s health policy, the closer we’re drawn to the larger truth the league would rather not admit: Without the shelter of a bubble, there is no set of rules that can make basketball safe.
This story was updated after publication with more information.