With five games called off this week already and more teams dealing with virus-related issues, the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association enacted additional rules Tuesday in the hope of keeping the season going safely.
For “at least the next two weeks,” the league and union said, players and team staff will have to remain at their residence when in their home markets and are prohibited from leaving their hotels when on the road — with exceptions primarily for practices and games.
“I’m all for anything we possibly can do to ramp up the safety,” said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, whose team had the NBA-minimum eight players in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, missing eight for COVID-related reasons and another with injury. “Just because we want to proceed with our profession doesn’t mean that there isn’t a reality of what’s going on in the world. The virus is still very much out there.”
Utah’s game in Washington on Wednesday was postponed because contact-tracing issues among the Wizards meant they wouldn’t have eight available players for that matchup. Orlando’s game in Boston on Wednesday is also off, the third postponement since Sunday involving the Celtics.
Boston’s most recent list showed eight players as unavailable because they are adhering to the NBA’s health and safety protocols, which means they either tested positive or contact-tracing data showed they may have been exposed to someone who is positive.
“I’m for whatever the NBA wants us to do,” Washington coach Scott Brooks said.
All that is permitted in home markets, for now, is “to attend team-related activities at the team facility or arena, exercise outside, or perform essential activities,” the league and union said. On the road, team activities and emergencies are the only allowable reasons for leaving hotels.
NBPA executive director Michele Roberts said “it would be irresponsible and unacceptable” to not seek better ways to keep players safe.
“No one wants to see more restrictions imposed,” Roberts said. “No one also wants to see the infection rate increase if there are steps we can take to mitigate the risk. Our experts have concluded that these new procedures will add to our arsenal of weapons against the virus.”
The new rules add to a challenging time in the NBA, especially when dealing with the mental strain of playing in a COVID-19 world. And the flurry of virus-related issues in the last few days have only made matters tougher.
“I feel like I’m living my life in a box,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said. “I go to practice, I go back home, I don’t go anywhere else.”
When teams started testing in late November prior to the start of training camps, 48 players had positive COVID-19 tests. In the last four weeks, the league has announced a total of only seven positive tests, part of the reason the NBA has not paused play.
“This is real life, COVID-19, and taking the precautions and taking the protocols seriously is the most important thing,” Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders said.
Additional actions taken Tuesday include a new rule prohibiting any pregame meetings in locker rooms from lasting more than 10 minutes; when those meetings take place everyone must wear a mask.
Players have been told to limit on-court interactions with fellow players to elbow or fist bumps, with no extended socializing. And when a player is subbed out of a game, he can sit in a “cool down chair” without a mask — but must put a mask on when he returns to the bench and sits in his assigned seat.
There were at least 36 players in the league dealing with virus-related issues or protocols when Tuesday began, based on information released by teams. That number went up in part because of the Wizards’ situation; it was not clear how many are affected there.
Most current player issues are believed to be related to contact tracing.
Contact tracing has gotten more high-tech in recent days, with a requirement that everyone wear an electronic device that tracks proximity to one another. The data from those devices is part of the determination whether a player needs to quarantine because of possible exposure.
“I think the thing that we’re all trying to figure out is when somebody does test positive, the contact tracing, how does that work?” Chicago coach Billy Donovan said.
Counting the two new postponements and another on Dec. 23 between Oklahoma City and Houston, the league has seen six games moved because of virus issues. Boston’s game in Chicago on Tuesday was called off because of virus concerns, as was the Dallas-New Orleans game on Monday and the Heat-Celtics matchup in Boston on Sunday.
Dallas flew to Charlotte on Tuesday, indicating their Wednesday game is on as scheduled. But the Mavericks have five players out — four of them positive for the virus, including three that have been isolating in Denver since the weekend, team owner Mark Cuban said in an interview on Dallas radio station KTCK.
“My level of concern is high. … In Dallas, and the country in general, cases are going up not down,” Cuban said.
But Cuban also believes there will be ways to get fans into arenas again this season.
“Not just letting in 3,000, but as in 15,000, 20,000, before the end of the season,” Cuban said. “I mean, look, even if we just made it available to front-line workers and health-care workers to come in for free to fill the stands because they’ve all been vaccinated, I’m cool with that.”