As rosters thin, NBA has no plans to halt season

As coronavirus-infected players, contact tracing quarantines and ancillary injuries thin rosters of available players, the NBA has no plans to pause the season, a league spokesman told ESPN.

“We anticipated that there would be game postponements this season and planned the schedule accordingly,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass told ESPN in a statement. “There are no plans to pause the season, and we will continue to be guided by our medical experts and health and safety protocols.”

Some team executives have privately raised concerns in the turbulent past several days, but commissioner Adam Silver has remained committed to pushing through games with a minimum of eight available players per team and trying to complete as much of the schedule as possible prior to widescale access to vaccinations that could start to bring normalcy back to the league and country.

“They tell us it’ll be better later in the season, but I just hope this doesn’t break the league in the next few weeks,” one general manager told ESPN.

While the NBA has had a significantly lower percentage of positive tests than the national numbers of a pandemic that’s killing 4,000 Americans a day, the league appears to be currently amid its most prolific week of positive tests among players.

The Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics were nearly unable to meet the requirements of playing with eight available players this weekend because of players quarantined due to positive tests and contact tracing; and the Miami Heat, left with seven eligible players on Sunday, had its game with Boston postponed.

As difficult as the season’s been, the league has still avoided a single widespread outbreak within a team and had only two games postponed thus far. The NBA built a shortened schedule with the expectation of postponements and the flexibility to make up games.

Nevertheless, teams are learning what the NFL did this season: The loss of key personnel to positive tests and contact tracing quarantines severely impact results, and franchises are still learning to grapple with it.

Since the league started releasing weekly numbers of positive tests among players, including its most recent data on January 7, there have been 63 confirmed cases out of roughly 550 players. League sources point to a minimum of seven new cases in the past week — as well as more than 20 players losing as many as 63 active days of time to contact tracing protocols in this period.

That’s taking a toll on rosters, and it could get worse before it gets better for teams.

But the league sees evidence of an even greater risk of infection when the league’s shuttered, which is another reason health and medical experts advising the NBA aren’t pushing for a stoppage now, sources told ESPN. When players were tested upon returning to team training camps, the NBA saw spikes in positive tests — including 48 cases on December 2.

Against the backdrop of thousands dying a day and millions more infected and facing severe personal and financial hardship, the NBA’s obligated to find a level of context within its own daily frustrations.

Executives and coaches are frustrated that quality of play and preparations have suffered, and competitive balance is being compromised. Teams are struggling for ways to build camaraderie and chemistry when staffs and players are constantly being separated, and rituals once as simple as shoot-arounds became pointless when players sometimes have to wait an hour-to-90 minutes for the return of test results before they are allowed inside the facility.

What’s more, organizations are concerned with how contact tracing protocols that isolate players for several days are impacting conditioning and injury-risk upon their return to teams.

“We are having to throw players onto the court and play them back into shape,” one GM said Sunday. “It’s leading to more injuries, and more missed time.”

Before the season, the NBA had discussed expanding rosters to 19, including the ability to keep four two-way contract players on rosters, but that change wasn’t adopted.

ESPN’s Tim Bontemps contributed to this report.

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