Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Lakers, NBA

The awkward joy of the NBA’s COVID-19 hardship allowance contracts

A lot of memorable NBA players are getting a second chance…due to a new wave of a deadly pandemic. Can any joy be found here?

For the third straight season, the NBA has been thoroughly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. While the season was able to start on time, and the league has managed to avoid a stoppage in play, the Omicron variant has wreaked havoc on things, often finding teams scrambling for players. As a result, we’ve seen more players play in the NBA this season than in any previous year, and we’ve only just crossed the halfway point.

Teams like the Chicago Bulls and Memphis Grizzlies have had nearly half their rosters in COVID protocols, while a game between the Denver Nuggets and Golden State Warriors had to be postponed because the Nuggets didn’t have the minimum eight players necessary to play an NBA game. After thinking that just maaaayyybe the pandemic was effectively over, the last month has been a rather intense reality check for basketball fans.

The harsh realities of this situation led to the creation of the COVID Hardship Allowance, which lets NBA teams expand their rosters beyond the usual 15 in this time of extreme need. It’s through the hardship allowance that we’ve seen things like Greg Monroe playing his first ball in three years, Isaiah Thomas getting shots with the Lakers and Mavericks, and Lance Stephenson re-joining the Indiana Pacers, and turning the clock back to 2014 with a shocking 20 points in the first quarter against the Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 5. Joe Johnson played his first NBA ball since 2018 and will go down in history as a member of both the 2001-02 Boston Celtics and the 2021-22 Celtics. Despite being the result of a uniquely difficult circumstance, the COVID hardship exemption has created some of the most memorable moments of the season so far.

Can we enjoy the brief joy of the NBA’s COVID Hardship Allowance players, knowing the reason they’re actually on the court?

This raises a tricky question: exactly how much should we able to enjoy this? On the one hand, a strong case could be made that Adam Silver is being stubborn by keeping the season going, making a decision motivated by profits over player safety. On the other hand, it’s undeniably fun to see players whose careers you thought were over prove they still have a little left in the tank, while also giving unsung G League players a chance to prove they can hack it at the highest level.

Put it this way; over the span of one evening in late December, I went from seeing Greg Monroe’s name on ESPN’s ticker and thinking “if they’re bringing him back in the league, they’re way too desperate to keep going” to “oh, wow, Greg Monroe still has some hops!”

So…can we make the best of a bad situation here, and enjoy watching some of our favorite players of the 2010s come back and show they aren’t quite washed just yet, or is the fact that all of this is happening because of a global pandemic that just won’t end render it too severe to wring any joy out of? That question is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.

I’ve found myself thinking that the purely rational thing to do would be to put the season on hold for at least a week, and hopefully return if cases have calmed down. That said, it appears wildly unlikely that Silver would ever consider doing that. He’s not alone; all four major American sports commissioners have seemed utterly desperate to avoid having another stoppage in play once they returned from hiatus in the summer of 2020. They hated canceling sports the first time; getting them to do it again would be like pulling teeth.

At the risk of being more honest than I should be, while the rational side of my brain says pause the season, the basketball nut in me remembers how much I missed the NBA during those brutal first four and a half months of the pandemic and is afraid of how long another stoppage might end up lasting. So, while I’m tempted to fault Silver for being an unrepentant capitalist, I couldn’t really do so without being a hypocrite.

There’s also the question of what it would mean if sports were put on hold again; it’s one thing to have to wear masks at the supermarket again, but if there are no sports on, then it would feel like we’ve really gone all the way back to the spring of 2020; back in the same place we were when the whole thing started, even after lockdowns, masks, two vaccine doses (well, if you had Pfizer like I did) and a booster shot. There’s no denying how discouraging that would be. I would have to imagine I’m not the only basketball torn between thinking the NBA season should be put on hold, but not actually wanting it to.

As long as Omicron is around, the COVID hardship exemption is going to exist alongside it. And while I wouldn’t fault anyone for refusing to derive enjoyment from a situation that exists largely because The Show Must Go On, even when the evidence suggests that perhaps it shouldn’t, I also wouldn’t blame anyone for unabashedly enjoying Stephenson’s 20-point outburst against the Nets, or Isaiah’s 19-point debut with the Lakers, which reminded us what a ridiculously fun player to watch he was before injuries took all that away.

It’s a difficult, awkward time we’re living in, so we might as well enjoy the genuinely exciting moments that come as a result of it, even if our guilty conscience is always lingering in the background. Hey, the 10-year anniversary of Linsanity is coming up, and I think we all know what would make it extra special…

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