COVID-19 will be the ultimate wildcard in NBA season


NBA players will get tested daily — and even their families will get tested twice a week. Coaches will wear masks on the sidelines, muffling a few choice words for officials and players who miss a defensive rotation. The NBA sent out a 158-page set of health and safety guidelines to teams to try and keep the virus at bay, including saying things like players should wear a mask when not playing. The guidelines state players should not go to clubs or casinos — essentially the opposite of everything James Harden did this week.

It will still not be enough. Players — and likely franchise players, or maybe multiple players on a team — will come down with COVID-19. Just returning to training camp, 8.8% of the players tested positive, and then there were another eight players this week. Portland had to shut down its practice facilities for a deep clean after positive tests. All that before preseason games even started.

The NBA has left the bubble behind to travel and play in home arenas, and as we have seen with the NFL/MLB/college sports, players will come down with the disease.

Then what?

“We have to really focus… more on our top guys learning what we are doing, knowing that we are trying to work everybody in because, let’s be honest, the chances of nothing happening is not very high,” said new Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers about installing his system in a pandemic-shortened training camp. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s the problem. We’re living in scary times.”

“We got those eight or nine, let’s get out there and compete,” new Pelicans coach Stan Van Gundy said of what would happen if he were short a few players. “Let’s not get distracted by outside stuff. Let’s not make excuses. Let’s compete every night.”

That “next man up” approach is the only thing a coach can say or do, but Van Gundy and everyone else around the league knows one thing:

COVID-19 is the biggest wildcard in an unpredictable NBA season.

In the Orlando restart bubble, the NBA as a league came up with a way to keep the virus at arm’s length. It worked. That is simply not possible this season with players going home after games or traveling to other cities and arenas to compete. The League has its protocols, but now the teams have to become the enforcers and get their young players to wear masks and follow the rules.

“The players, I guess us as an organization, are going to have to be just as diligent,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said recently. “We’re going to have to be just as mindful of wearing our masks, and the decisions we make, when and where and how we eat, all those things that go into, hopefully, mitigating this virus…

“So I think, organizationally, we’ve got to take some of that burden that the NBA took in Orlando.”

Even with all that will be positive tests, game postponements, and maybe some cancelations (the league has not laid out hard-and-fast criteria on game postponement, wanting the flexibility to adapt to different situations).

Those coronavirus-forced changes will impact wins and losses.

When an NBA player tests positive this season, they have to isolate and quarantine for 10 days (that’s 10 days from the test or the onset of symptoms). Then players can workout in isolation for two days, during which time they must pass two negative coronavirus tests and a heart stress test. That’s a minimum of 12 days away from the team, although in reality teams expect players who test positive to be away from the team for up to three weeks.

Injuries are always part of the unpredictability of a season, but COVID-19 adds another layer.

If a team in the thick of the playoff chase loses its best player for three weeks — probably at least eight games, maybe 10 — it easily could fall two or three seeding spots. Suddenly a team that looked like it would host a first-round playoff game is on the road against a much tougher opponent when the playoffs start.

“You certainly know you’re gonna deal with things to keep guys. It’s just all a part of it,” Van Gundy said.

One part of it, eventually, will be the vaccine. When it is widely available and players can get it — likely sometime next spring — the NBA wants to have educated players on why they should take it, and have made steps to ensure that players get the vaccine. The league sees the vaccine as important to having fans at playoff games in June and July this year (even if not a full house), and more importantly for next season. The league’s ultimate goal is to get back to a traditional format for the 2021-22 season — games start in October and run through June, with arenas full of fans.

First, the NBA has to negotiate this season, adjusting as they go to get through it.

COVID-19 will make this the most unpredictable NBA season in recent memory…except maybe for last season.