In less than three weeks, the NBA will embark upon its most challenging endeavor yet: holding a full season in the midst of a global pandemic.
The league successfully held its playoffs in the Orlando bubble earlier in the year. But Adam Silver was adamant throughout that the bubble was not a tenable solution in the long-term. It cost the league hundreds of millions and put immense strain on players, coaches, and staff as they isolated, largely without their family, for the duration. It worked out as well as possible, but holding a full-season bubble was never a realistic option.
Over the last week, details have slowly emerged from the NBA about what the COVID protocols would look like for the 2020-21 season. Today's news brought some more clarity in the form of how exactly the NBA is taking the NFL's protocols and attempting to improve upon them.
The NFL is 12 weeks into the season, and it has been a success in the sense that no one outbreak has been so serious that the season had to be put on hold. Good for them. But otherwise, it hasn't exactly been fool-proof. It's impossible to contain coronavirus completely, but the way the NFL has chosen to handle rescheduling games has been a bit of a mess and their adamant refusal to alter the schedule in any significant way has resulted in debacles like the one we just saw with the Ravens and the Steelers. The NBA, thanks to its longer season, has more flexibility in terms of how easy it is to reschedule games if an outbreak tears through a team.
Bu the NBA is also far more vulnerable to those kinds of issues because the teams are so small. Losing one player for 10-14 days if they test positive for COVID is a much bigger deal for basketball teams than football teams. Given that games are played in arenas rather than big football fields and there are no pads to add an extra layer of protection, it also feels more likely that the NBA could face problems with players from different teams transmitting the virus during play. Should a player play in a game and test positive afterwards (as has happened a few times in the NFL this season), both teams involved would probably be considered high-risk contacts.
Obviously the league has thought of such things, which is why they sent a 158-page document to the 30 teams with all the information necessary. Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania tweeted out the particularly notable segments for those of us who will be watching from the sideline. Or our couches, I guess is more appropriate for this season.
The twice-a-week testing for members of team members' households stands out as an innovation on the NFL's testing protocols that could pay dividends. Testing does not prevent coronavirus, but the quicker teams figure out who could be a high-risk contact, the smoother everything else will go. The vaccine notes are also interesting; the NBA has two players (Michael Porter Jr. and Dwight Howard) who were rather openly voicing their doubts about the legitimacy of vaccinations while they were in the bubble, causing quite the hubbub. The NBA cannot force anybody to get a vaccine, and while you would think taking a vaccine for a virus that has shut down the world is a no-brainer, people have their own thoughts on the matter. Additional safety restrictions makes sense as a safety net of sorts there.
Overall, it's going to take a monumental effort to pull this off. The NFL, for all of its overt rigidness, only plays once a week and has a fair amount of wiggle room with positive tests. The NBA's schedule is stacked up with a lot of back-to-back games in the first half of the season. If one member of any team tests positive, it could derail one or two series' worth of games, even if nobody else tests positive. It's a dance that will go on for six months if all goes well. It isn't impossible, but damn if it won't be hard.