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The NBA Is Content to “Live” With COVID—and the Effects Absences Have on the Standings

Adam Silver said Tuesday that the league will play on despite a spike of players entering health and safety protocols. But as we’ve seen already this season, those absences are hard on players and teams at large.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Bucks haven’t traveled the smoothest road in their attempt at a title defense this season. Their 19-13 record would translate to the franchise’s worst winning percentage in any season since coach Mike Budenholzer arrived in 2018. They rank eighth in the NBA in point differential after placing first, first, and third in the past three seasons. And if the season ended today, they’d be the East’s no. 5 seed and be scheduled to face the Nets in the second round of the playoffs.

Yet when the Bucks’ Big Three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday all play in the same game, Milwaukee looks like a familiar juggernaut, with a 13-2 record and robust point differential to match. The problem is that, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to roil and typical injury attrition takes its toll, the Big Three haven’t often played together. The Bucks’ leading trio has shared the floor in fewer than half of the team’s games and is on pace to play about 43 percent fewer minutes together this season than last, adjusting for the schedule length.

Bucks With and Without Their Big Three

Stars Available Record Per-Game Point Differential
Stars Available Record Per-Game Point Differential
All 3 13-2 +9.9
0, 1, or 2 6-11 -3.5

Holiday missed six of the season’s first eight games due to an ankle injury. When he returned, Middleton was in the middle of an eight-game absence after testing positive for COVID. Two weeks went by without a hitch, only for Giannis to miss a couple of games with calf soreness—and then, after a week back on the court, to enter health and safety protocols at the same time Middleton hurt his knee. Finally, with both Giannis and Middleton out, Holiday played 44 minutes and scored 40 points on the first night of a back-to-back; he took a rest day for the Bucks’ latest game, when, starting a lineup of George Hill, Javonte Smart, Jordan Nwora, DeMarcus Cousins, and Sandro Mamukelashvili, Milwaukee predictably lost by 29 points.

The Bucks aren’t the only team suffering from this sort of rotation chaos. Other key players across the league—from Anthony Davis in Los Angeles to Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in Miami—are currently out due to injuries, and many more are being forced to sit out because of COVID: The count of players who have entered health and safety protocols in December alone has reached triple digits. Even in Milwaukee, the Big Three aren’t the only Bucks who have missed time: Brook Lopez played just one game before undergoing back surgery, and others like Bobby Portis and Donte DiVincenzo are currently in health and safety protocols.

Commissioner Adam Silver confirmed on NBA Today Tuesday that omicron is now the dominant variant among NBA players, counting for 90 percent of positive cases. But the schedule progresses as planned: The league has implemented new roster and salary cap rules to ease the signing of replacement players in case teams have a COVID outbreak, and Silver said that—unlike the NHL, which announced a shutdown through Christmas—the NBA has no plans to pause the season.

“​This virus will not be eradicated, and we’re going to have to learn to live with it,” Silver said.

Living with the virus means also living with its drastic effects on the standings. Even a simple statistic like the number of unique starting lineups a team has used this season is a strong indicator of its performance. The three best teams this season, by both record and underlying metrics, are the Warriors, Suns, and Jazz—and in addition to their inherent talent, those squads are benefiting from relative health compared to the rest of the league. Golden State has used only five different starting lineups this season, while Phoenix and Utah have used only four—tied for the fewest in the league.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Bucks have used 14 different starting lineups, and the 76ers and Lakers have used 16 in just 31 games—meaning they’re changing to a new set of starters, on average, every other game. It’s no surprise that all three teams have underperformed expectations.

This graph shows the relationship between each team’s number of starting lineups this season and its performance relative to preseason expectations, per the over/unders stored at Basketball-Reference. The correlation between the two variables is negative-0.4, meaning that as teams use more lineups, they’re more likely to perform worse.

That’s not a new or surprising takeaway; better health should produce better outcomes. But it’s worth noting the scale of the differences this season. The Lakers and 76ers have needed four times as many starting lineups as the Jazz and Suns (and underperforming Hawks). That context is worth remembering when thinking about why some teams have leaped to the top of the standings while others are stuck around .500.

On a team-by-team basis, it’s also easy to see how the absence of key players is hurting teams’ records. The last-place Pelicans are 6-3 with their most-used starting lineup, but 4-18 with all other starting configurations. The Timberwolves are 8-2 at full strength but 7-13 with a different starting group. The surprising Cavaliers are also 8-2 with their most-used starting unit but just 11-10 in other games—they’d look even better if the likes of Evan Mobley hadn’t missed time.

Overall, when the league’s 30 teams play their most-used starting lineup, they’re a collective 224-164, good for a 58 percent win rate. When they start any lesser-used lineup, however, that record falls to 233-293, or a 44 percent win rate.

Not every starter’s absence is created equal—the Lakers obviously miss Davis more than Kent Bazemore—so we can also look at salary as a proxy for the quality of players missing from each team. According to Spotrac’s figures, the teams that have “lost” the most salary to injury, rest, or illness this season have all underperformed, while the teams that have lost the least salary have all won more games than expected. (For these calculations, we excluded players who have missed the entire season, like the Warriors’ Klay Thompson or Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard, because their absences were baked in to preseason expectations.)

Salary “Lost” to Injuries, Illness, and Rest

Team Salary Lost Winning Percentage vs. Expectation
Team Salary Lost Winning Percentage vs. Expectation
Bucks $16,121,026 -7%
Heat $11,344,390 -1%
Lakers $10,785,695 -12%
Celtics $10,073,024 -7%
... ... ...
Warriors $3,128,010 +21%
Spurs $3,028,012 +5%
Jazz $1,961,192 +6%
Thunder $1,146,902 +6%
Figures from Spotrac. Players who have missed the entire season so far are excluded.

In some cases, even a single player’s entrance into health and safety protocols can wreak havoc on his team’s chances of winning games. The 76ers rank seventh in “lost” salary, largely because of Joel Embiid’s 11 missed games: Philadelphia is 13-7 with a plus-3.3 per-game point differential when Embiid plays but just 3-8 with a ghastly minus-8.4 differential when he doesn’t. Andre Drummond is a worthy backup, but the ripple effects of his entrance into the starting lineup and the ensuing reorientation of the 76ers’ entire game plan on both sides of the ball are too extreme to overcome.

Sure, some of these splits are exacerbated by scheduling imbalances. The Bucks, for instance, have benefited from facing worse opponents with all three stars available; in one four-game stretch the trio beat the Thunder, Magic twice, and Pistons all at home. On the other end, the 76ers struggled without Embiid in part because his longest absence coincided with a tough Western Conference road trip. But overall, the trend is clear—and maybe only poised to worsen, as more and more players enter COVID protocols.

For one final case study of the effects of the shuffling of players on and off the injury report, consider the Lakers. The prospective title contender is just 16-16 with the hardest remaining schedule in the league, but they don’t have a single five-man unit featuring LeBron James that’s played even 50 minutes this season. Their most-used lineup overall, which includes Davis, Carmelo Anthony, Talen Horton-Tucker, Avery Bradley, and Russell Westbrook, has played only 53 minutes. Every other team has a lineup that’s played at least 97 minutes, and the median team’s most-used lineup has shared the court for 170 minutes—more than three times the Lakers’ most-played group.

On the other end of the spectrum, once again, reside the Jazz, Warriors, and Suns: the only three teams with a lineup that’s played at least 300 minutes this season. Talent is a necessary component for team success; talent plus continuity plus health is a recipe for greatness.

The Lakers can’t hope to optimize that formula now, as the team’s only remaining continuous members from its title two seasons ago are LeBron, Davis, and Horton-Tucker, and the newcomers can’t possibly generate continuity as they enter and exit the lineup with such frequency. Even now, Davis is out for a month with an MCL sprain, while four more Lakers are in health and safety protocols.

“Of course there’s a certain amount of unfairness that comes with playing in certain cases,” Silver said Tuesday, when asked about the competitive imbalance sparked by COVID absences. “But the other advantage is we do have an 82-game season and we have a long playoffs, and my sense is things will work out by the end of the season.”

That sentiment might be true looking ahead to the spring—but with the NBA intent on playing through the crisis, the unfairness and differences between teams may grow only more extreme in the interim.

Stats through Monday’s games.