“We’re prepared for all contingencies” is just something you say in the course of doing business. You don’t mean it literally—you couldn’t—but it’s telling that it comes out of your mouth, because it measures the gap between desire and reality. Adam Silver wants the NBA season to proceed normally, and he wants it to be safe for everybody involved. No small amount of effort has been put into the second thing—ambitious schedule rejiggering, twice-daily PCR tests, extensive contact tracing, rules that keep visiting teams sheltered in place—but the good wars are the ones you don’t fight, the best way to reduce traffic fatalities is to get cars off the road. The safety of players and staff and the revenue you get from staging games can never achieve equal priority. You have to choose one over the other. And if you choose to play, as the league’s owners and players have, you’re giving yourself over to chaos. There’s a decent possibility your gambit’s going to fail, no matter how many backup plans you’ve got.
Depending on where you’re standing, the NBA is either in the midst of a crisis or very close to one. The Sixers fielded only seven healthy players this past Saturday in a 12-point loss to the Nuggets and the Celtics’ Sunday night tilt against the Heat was postponed with both teams depleted by COVID-related casualties. Kevin Durant has missed time. So has Bradley Beal. It seems like every player is going to eventually, due to either a positive test or close contact with somebody who’s been infected. You know when you go to a bar, and you don’t remember interacting with anybody who had glitter on them, but you still somehow come home with glitter on your hands, and the next morning you realize there’s glitter on the kitchen counter, glitter on your partner’s cheek, glitter on your cat, a whole new glitter-speckled existence you picked up over five Schlitzes and some gossip at the neighborhood dive? That’s the NBA right now. Except there is everywhere a virus that we’re not sure what it does. It’s killed a lot of people, damaged lung capacities, brought on heart complications, terrifying mental illnesses, wiped out senses of taste and smell.
Silver probably isn’t as oblivious to the situation as he lets on, but the requirements of the job can make an idiot out of you. He recently told Shams Charania that he’s “optimistic about improvements in February… after we get through the darkest days.” A politician’s answer. You don’t have any good news to share, so you gesture toward a future that isn’t yet technically spoiled.
That sentiment shares something in common with the league’s definition of close contact: someone spending more than 15 minutes within six feet of someone else who tests positive for the virus. That language comes straight from the CDC, and the NBA has used it to determine that players who share a court are not technically in close contact because, according to Second Spectrum data, they don’t spend as much time standing next to each other as you might imagine. Nevermind that the close contact they do engage in is extremely close: post-ups, box-outs, picks, drives into the paint where as many as five or six bodies are collapsing on a single point. Plus the players are breathing heavily, with no protective gear over their noses and mouths. The NBA’s gloss on the CDC’s language is letter of the law nonsense. It only seems like they’re being careful.
Erik Spoelstra has a clearer read on the situation than management does: “the numbers are spiking. That is the reality. We are committed to proceeding with our industry, and we're doing it with all the best science and adherence to the protocols. But ultimately, we are not in control.”
There’s no point in breaking out the high dudgeon for this. (It’s time to give high dudgeon a break, after the past five years. It's miscalibrated and apparently doesn’t work.) I still don’t think, given the resources involved, that the NBA should have gone to Orlando to finish up last season, so you can guess how I feel about the lengths they’ve gone to not to deprive themselves of TV revenue from a Tuesday night Cavs-Hornets contest. Let’s leave it there.
But it’s important that we know what we’re talking about here, even if it persists against arched eyebrows from cautious scolds like me. Spoelstra’s exactly right: the league is carrying on, in the best way they know how, because that is what they want to do more than anything. The primary task is to bang out these games, and while they’re making an effort to do it safely, the evidence is mounting that they can’t, and they’re hoping much more than ensuring that nobody gets seriously ill. There’s certainly a point at which the virus could spread widely enough that the league and the players’ association would agree to suspend or shut down operations altogether. That point hasn’t yet been reached. Everything that’s happened up until now has been deemed an acceptable risk.
The Sixers figure to be missing eight players, including six with COVID-related concerns, for their Monday night game against the Hawks. They don’t have to, but they’ll play on regardless.