The NBA is returning in about two weeks. It has been a very short offseason and not much has changed from the circumstances that forced the league to the Disney Bubble in Orlando where they played out their postseason just a few short months ago. So how realistic is it that they will put their heads down and power through this pandemic in their home markets?
When the season starts on December 22nd, Donald Trump is still the sitting president, despite the fact that he has lost multiple states, multiple times, and Joe Biden won't take office and be able to implement any sort of plan for another month. The pandemic that caused the NBA to retreat to Florida is still raging across America and things are much worse than they were over the summer when the league deemed a bubble necessary. When the NBA resumed the '19-'20 season on July 30th in Orlando, there were 69,000 new cases that day. There were more than three times as many on Friday, December 4th.
How do they consider this tenable? It's understandable that the NBA wants to try and return to their normal settings and need to make some money in front of some home fans, but how realistic is it to think they can pull off a full season under these circumstances as things show no signs of slowing?
When players returned to their teams last week, 48 players tested positive for COVID-19. The league was prepared for positive tests. They had to be, just as the NFL was prepared. And there are new protocols in place where family members will be tested regularly along with players and team personnel. New, severe punishments and sanctions will be levied when teams or players are found to be in violation of the protocols.
One team should already be bracing for the hammer. When Houston Rockets training camp started over the weekend, James Harden was not there. Harden was not allowed to practice because of protocols, and also missed an individual workout, reportedly telling the team he would "report soon."
Now, this could simply be Harden taking his time and maybe working through his feelings as he prepares to start another season following a disappointing playoff result. Maybe he's sad that his good friend Russell Westbrook was traded. Maybe he does have a wandering eye and wonders what it would be like playing with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Who knows?
That doesn't change the rumors that he's been at the club all weekend. Multiple videos have surfaced showing someone that looks a lot like The Beard out in public without a mask. At the very least, we know for a fact that Harden was out, maskless, celebrating the birthday of rapper Lil Baby on Thursday night. That looked like the exact type of scenario the league is trying to eliminate this season.
Since camp hadn't started yet, the league may be stuck letting Harden go on this one. Harden was also late arriving to the bubble, citing family issues. It is unclear if Harden ever tested positive for coronavirus as Russell Westbrook did back in July. If he has been infected in the past, he might be more cavalier about precautions, which would be bad considering enough time has passed that he could possibly catch it again. No matter what the case, the Rockets can't be thrilled! They have two weeks to figure out things with Harden and John Wall and a new coach.
Whatever is going on with Harden, he won't be the last person to get hung up with protocols this season. Again, this is something the NFL is dealing with on a weekly basis. Players are humans, who are used to large family gatherings around the holidays. They are also used to all the things that professional athletes like James Harden appear to enjoy. And then there's just life. Players are going to catch COVID because they aren't in a bubble. It's a fact. Baseball and football have dealt with it. The NBA will deal with it.
The question is, how will they deal with it? Who knows what an outbreak will look like on an NBA team during an NBA season. The Titans and Ravens were derailed for weeks because of outbreaks. There are fewer players on basketball teams, but who knows how quickly contact tracing will knock a team out for a week or what that will mean for the schedule. If you're optimistic, you assume the NBA has probably planned for that and will actually put some of their contingency plans into effect, unlike the NFL who remains committed to the appearance of normalcy.
Obviously, living in a bubble until this ends would be difficult, but you have to wonder what the NBA's breaking point will be. They've seen what it takes to do it right. Now they get to see what happens when they don't.