Uncovering the hidden consequences of playing in a pandemic
With the condensed schedule, postponed games, near empty
stadiums, and the new “health and safety protocols” this NBA season has been
far from normal. That being said, I can’t be the only one who is extremely
grateful for the fact that we still have basketball to entertain us while we’re
all stuck at home. Honestly, from a fan’s point of view I love the shorter
breaks between games because it means I get to watch the Celtics play more
often, even with all the ups and downs.
Adam Silver, the NBPA, and the Board of Governors spent a
great deal of time planning out how to safely allow teams to play this season
and try to retain as much revenue as possible. After successfully finishing out
the least season in the Disney bubble they opted not to go that route again for
this season, instead allowing teams to travel between markets. If you’re
curious as to why they made that decision I provided some insight in a previous
article which you can read *here*. Now we’re just about a month out from the
playoffs, and while the season seems like it’s going pretty smoothly, I’m
starting to question whether it was a smart decision to play this season out,
bubble or not.
The NBA created their plan for this season fully
understanding that without going back to a bubble there’s really no foolproof
way to play without the possibility of players contracting and spreading the
virus. CDC guidelines state that everyone should be wearing
masks, maintaining at least six feet of distance between themselves and others,
and avoiding large gatherings, all things that are extremely difficult to
adhere to while playing basketball. With players yelling, sweating, and
constantly bodying up on each other there’s a lot of opportunities to
potentially spread the virus. Knowing this, the NBA wanted to lower that risk
as much as possible, and that meant imposing some hefty restrictions and
Some of those restrictions and regulations include forcing
players to wear masks at almost all times that they are on the sidelines, restricting
who the players can see and where they can go when not on the court, having
them test multiple times a day, limiting fan attendance, and putting teams on longer
home and road stretches to reduce travel as much as possible. On top of those
there are several interactions that are meant to be limited between teams in
terms of greeting, shaking hands, hugging, etc. Despite all of these
restrictions there continue to be positive cases, and several players and staff
members still end up finding themselves missing time due to “health and safety
protocols,” meaning they either have tested positive themselves or they have
been exposed to someone who has tested positive and are required to quarantine.
Chicago Bulls All-Star Zach LaVine is expected to miss several games after entering into the league's health and safety protocol, sources tell ESPN.
My previous article which I mentioned earlier came in the
midst of those spikes, and something that I discussed in it was whether the NBA
should have taken a break to let things calm down. Much to Adam Silver’s credit
the NBA stayed pat and has had a fairly successful season so far, at least as
far as the eye can tell. If we take a look just beneath the surface there are
some serious negative implications that come with playing through the pandemic
while also trying to make up for time lost last season. These implications
become a little clearer when we break it down piece-by-piece.
Long Term Effects of COVID-19
As of April 11th, 147 different players league
wide have been listed on the injury report stating “health and safety protocols”
as the reason. In total there have been 1,449 player days in COVID protocol. While
I don’t have an exact number of how many players have actually tested positive for
the virus over the course of the season (as opposed to being put in the health
and safety protocols due to contact tracing), I can tell you that the number is
definitely not zero. Most likely for the sake of privacy the NBA has not released
concrete numbers, nor have they attached names to the players when reporting
positive cases, but by looking at the information they do provide and seeing
the players who are sidelined (along with players self-reporting) we can see
that several high-profile players have contracted the virus, including the
Celtics’ very own Jayson Tatum.
Again, the highest spikes came in January where as many as
38 players were reported to be missing time due to H&S protocols in a
single day. For the Celtics Javonte Green was the first to receive the
designation on December 30th, exactly a week into the season. It
wasn’t until January 7th that he was taken off the injury report,
but on that same day Tristan Thompson, Carsen Edwards, Robert Williams, and
Grant Williams were all listed as questionable (due to H&S protocols) with
Thompson, Rob, and Grant all being downgraded to out the following day. After
one more day passed Jaylen Brown, Javonte Green, Jayson Tatum, and Semi Ojeleye
all saw their names added to that list for the same reasons, all of them being
downgraded to out the following day.
Just to be clear, that means that Javonte Green, Jaylen
Brown, Tristan Thompson, Jayson Tatum, Semi Ojeleye, Robert Williams, and Grant
Williams all had exposure to the virus within the first three weeks of the
season. We later found out that Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams had both
tested positive for the virus, as did Romeo Langford later in the season, and just
recently Evan Fournier added his name to that list. That’s at least 4 players
on a single 15-man team. The Celtics have been the team most affected by COVID when measured by “player days in COVID protocol,” but almost every other team
has had at least one player/team personnel test positive.
Danny Ainge on @Toucherandrich chalks Celtics’ league-leading COVID woes up to bad luck. Notes team’s strict protocols at facility.
Also said team had been exploring ways to get vaccine for players that desire it but so far unsuccessful in MA.
Thankfully most of the players who aren’t still currently in
protocol have been able to get back to the court within about two to three weeks,
however that doesn’t mean that those players come back at 100%. Jayson Tatum
has been very vocal about his difficulties in returning to the court since
contracting the virus, and he says that he still feels the effects of it over
three months since having it.
Jayson Tatum says he takes an inhaler now before games after COVID. He never did before.
While the mortality rate isn’t considerably high, the virus
is still no joke and should obviously be avoided at all costs. For those of you
who don’t know, COVID-19 is a respiratory illness which has the potential to
cause long term lung damage. To read more about the damage it can do you can
refer to this Johns Hopkins article *here*. The CDC states that even after the
virus has passed, there are other long-term symptoms such as fatigue,
difficulty concentrating, dizziness, shortness of breath, joint or muscle pain,
and several others which you can read more about *here*. For athletes who make
a living off of their bodies those can be some pretty serious side effects. Several
players, including Jayson Tatum, have seen severe drops in numbers after coming
back from contracting the virus.
Jayson Tatum came back from COVID-19 shortly before February and was open about how much it impacted him. His shooting splits in every other month are so much better. pic.twitter.com/bkzrGk8NU7
It's good to see that he and the other players are managing
to get their legs back under them but there is still a lot to be learned about
the virus. It has been around for almost a year and a half, but that is not
long enough for us to understand what the long-term effects will be. While
these athletes at this age may be less at risk to face the most severe symptoms,
there’s no guarantee that there aren’t other complications. God forbid any of
their careers get cut short due to lung or other organ damage caused by
contracting the virus. Just recently Lamarcus Aldridge of the Brooklyn Nets retired
from the league due to an irregular heartbeat.
Luckily, he hadn’t been exposed to the virus, although heart conditions increase the risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19 and could
have been potentially fatal for Aldridge had he been exposed. There are a lot
of “ifs” with the virus, and no matter what there is going to be some risk. I
know a popular argument is that “we cannot live in fear of the virus”, but that
does not mean that we should live recklessly either. If we can minimize that risk,
we should take every opportunity to do so. The players likely knew that going into
the season and must have felt as if the NBA is doing enough to protect them in
that regard, however that does not necessarily make it the right decision. That’s
something that we won’t be able to determine until much later, so let’s shift
our focus away from the virus and take a look at some of the other concerns I
have with this season.
Last year’s playoffs went much later than usual thanks to
the mid-season pause caused by the corona virus. The finals would typically conclude
in June, but last year they went as late as October 11th for the
Lakers and Heat. To put that into perspective the 2019 NBA preseason began on
October 18th. Obviously that wouldn’t be a realistic start date for
this current season, but the NBA still only pushed the date back about two
months in order to make up for lost time.
The typical NBA off-season lasts about 4 months. This past
off-season effectively lasted 8 months for the 14 teams that did not qualify
for the playoffs, only about 2 months for the Lakers and Heat, and somewhere in
between there for the other 14 teams. There’s really no winning in any of those
scenarios since the teams that did qualify for the bubble had to ramp up to
play high level basketball and then come to an abrupt stop again over the
course of a month or so, the teams that didn’t qualify had 8 months to collect
rust since they couldn’t use their practice facilities for a good portion of
that time, and the Heat and Lakers had very little time to let their bodies
recover and prepare for this season.
To make matters worse the NBA is trying to end the season only
about 3 weeks later than usual while only eliminating 6 games. To fit 76 games
into that schedule requires games to be played at a higher frequency, meaning
shorter breaks and more back to backs, something which they were trying to get
rid of just a year prior due to its adverse effects on player health and team performance.
While the players are all incredible athletes, they are still human. Their
bodies still require rest so that they can recover and avoid injuries.
For only the second time in his career Lebron James is going
to play less than 60 games in a season, the other being the 18-19 season where
he had a groin strain that kept him sidelined for 27 games. The reason he’s
missing so many games this season isn’t because he’s looking to rest, but
rather because for the second time in his career he’s had a significant injury,
this time being an ankle sprain.
His co-star, Anthony Davis has also missed a considerable
portion of the season due to an achilles injury. He has only been able to play in
23 of the 57 games the Lakers have had this season. I don’t think it’s a coincidence
that both players have faced long-term injuries given how little time they had
to recover and train between seasons. While Lebron’s is a fairly common injury
in the NBA, an achilles injury is one of the worst possible injuries for
basketball players and seeing a player of AD’s caliber having to deal with it
is extremely worrying.
Naturally there have been several other players getting
injured over the course of the season, though there is a concerning amount that
have been “season ending.” Most recently Jamal Murray, someone who went deep
into the bubble playoffs, tore his ACL and will most likely be sidelined for at
least a year.
Along with Murray, Spencer Dinwiddie, Thomas Bryant, and Markelle
Fultz all tore their ACLs this season, with Johnathan Isaac tearing his in the bubble
just a few months earlier. LaMelo Ball who was the front runner for the Rookie
of the Year award fractured his wrist and will miss the remainder of the
season. James Wiseman, the second pick in this year’s draft tore his meniscus
and will miss the remainder of the season. T.J. Warren had a stress fracture in
his foot and will miss the season. Mitchell Robinson initially fractured his hand,
came back, and then in his third game fractured his foot and will now miss the
remainder of the season.
There are several other players with significant
injuries that don’t have a set return timetable. All in all, there are 102 players
who are currently sidelined with injuries, 110 if you include players in
H&S protocols, personal reasons, and sitting out due to coach’s decision
(Al Horford). That number still doesn’t account for players like Marcus Smart
who tore his calf earlier in the season but has since recovered.
Injuries are going to happen, but I can’t help but to feel
like the players are being put through extra stress this year with the condensed
schedule. Playing as many as 3 games in 4 nights is extremely strenuous,
especially on nights where the team is short-handed, and the players have to
play extra minutes. Teams have had to play games with as few as 8 active
players at times. Not only does that increase the risk of injury, but it also brings
me to my final concern with this season.
This especially rings true for the Celtics, but it’s
something that’s been present for every single team. By compressing the
schedule teams don’t have much time to practice anymore. There aren’t very many
off days, so they either have to push through with tired legs or skip practice
altogether. For teams that have young players, have had big roster turnarounds,
or have made mid-season trades or acquisitions it’s much harder to get everybody
on the same page and develop the team the way they would be able to during a
normal season. It’s only compounded when you go back to the offseason and see
that there was no summer league, shortened training camps, and a shortened pre-season,
all important events for the younger under-developed players to get prepared
for the NBA season. When you throw in the injuries and health and safety
protocols the rosters can be so different even on a nightly basis.
The Lakers were 1st in the West until AD and
Lebron got injured. Now they find themselves in the fifth spot, just two games
above the Trail Blazers in sixth. The 4th through 9th
spots in the East has been swapping hands on a weekly, if not nightly basis.
The Hawks and Celtics find themselves tied for 4th, just 3.5 games
above the Pacers who are currently sitting in the 9th spot. It’s
certainly exciting to see the league get shaken up this year, although it’s
hard to tell if the records accurately reflect the level of competition that we’ll
see come playoff time. It seems like many games are being decided by which team
is healthier that night and which team has had more rest. It certainly must be
frustrating from a player’s standpoint when their rhythm is affected by health
and safety protocols, back-to-backs, postponements, and other distractions.
Out of my three concerns for the season, this is certainly
the least concerning. The main reason I bring it up is to bring the fans back in
to the equation. So many people have been discounting the Lakers’ championship
last season, dubbing it the “Mickey Mouse ring” (since it was played on the
Disney World campus). They claim that playing every game in a neutral arena
without fans, not having to travel between games, injuries, and really because of
the pause between the regular season and the playoffs, that the championship
does not hold the same value as it would have in a normal season. Many fans
already feel like that may be the case again this year for similar but
different reasons, those being the ones that I stated throughout this article.
Last year’s NBA finals had the worst television ratings of any finals, and that
was during quarantine when everyone was (supposed to be) staying home and doing
nothing. The way this season has been going I can’t imagine the numbers will be
much better, if at all.
This NBA season would not be happening if the players,
coaches, owners, and everyone else involved was not on board. I find it hard to
believe that I’m looking deeper into this than they all did before agreeing to
it, but I’m not sure if many of the people involved are taking the virus as
seriously as they should. Either way the players can more or less look out for
themselves, so if they’re still playing then I guess I can’t be complaining. The
biggest driving factor was definitely the amount of revenue that would be lost
for this year and for years to come if the season were not played out the way
it has been, and all of the numbers and tiny details have been worked out by
brains much bigger than mine. If it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense, so
it must be making enough dollars for it to make sense to the players. Let’s
just hope we don’t see anyone’s career take a nosedive because of it.
Just a few hours ago Fred VanVleet of the Toronto Raptors made a statement in a similar vain:
On follow-ups, VanVleet is very clear that he knows players get 50% of the revenue, that NBPA voted, that he's a part of the system, and that all of that can be conflicting. He considers himself a basketball player over the business side but knows he's in the entertainment game.