It’s been a fundamentally odd season so far. Perhaps you don’t feel it quite as strongly as I do, but even apart from the on-court oddities, of which there have been plenty, something feels off to me. It may be the fact that one cannot go to watch a game with any certainty of who will be suiting up, or even if the game will be happening as initially scheduled. Innumerable games have been missed due to players contracting COVID-19 or coming into contact with someone who has, forcing some games to go on even as one team can only dress eight or nine players. It seems as if I get as many notifications on my phone from the NBA app alerting me of postponements as I do showcasing highlights and breaking news. It’s all contributed to an uneasy feeling, like watching a facsimile of the NBA rather than the NBA itself.
The period the league spent in the Bubble at Disney was also strange, but it was treated as an interim period, a novelty that would soon be unnecessary. The inherent oddities were highlighted, treated as features rather than bugs. The league and its partners attempted to transform the whole arrangement into something to be celebrated rather than bemoaned. There were the virtual fans, the social media posts of players fishing and interacting together in ways they never would have in a normal season. It was presented by the league not as a desperate attempt to salvage the season and the money that came from doing so but as a novelty worth enjoying in all its unique glory. It worked.
The NBA has not taken a similar approach in the first month of the 2020-21 campaign, which has made this season stranger, even as things proceed in a closer-to-normal fashion. Teams are playing in their home arenas again, though most of them remain eerily empty. Players are no longer separated from their families for weeks or months at a time and games are being played in the winter instead of late summer. But by trying to act as if this is just another season, like all that have preceded it, the league inadvertently highlights how unusual this all is.
There are game operations staffs trying to entertain crowds of a thousand or so in breaks in play, with no one in the arena appearing to know the proper way to act in such a situation. There are the aforementioned cancellations and missed games, and the strange restrictions on hugging and greeting opponents before and after the game, as if it is scientifically impossible for one to contract COVID from an opponent while battling for position in the low post. The euphemistic phrase “Health and Safety Protocols,” which has become omnipresent since the season began, is meant to show that things are going as planned, that the league is top of things even though the innumerable absences themselves would seem to attest otherwise.
Every new protocol instituted by the league to make things safer for players, coaches, and staff only highlights the fundamental issue: there is no way to have a season safely without re-instituting a bubble as they did last summer. If it is impossible to guarantee safety for oneself while going to the grocery store or meeting a friend, which it indeed is, then it certainly is impossible to do so when organizing games among several hundred people spread across a continent. If the NBA is having to legislate against something as previously innocuous as the tapping of hands between free-throws, then it really seems to suggest that this is not something that can be executed safely. The question then is not “how can this be executed safely,” but rather “why is this happening at all?”
There was never any doubt that the 2020-21 season would happen as it is. A bubble was untenable for a number of practical and financial reasons, and also the players association never would have agreed to it since they (quite justifiably) had no desire to spend several months isolated once again. But with players having inherently finite careers, giving up their paychecks for a full season was never a real option either. There were reports that delaying the season by just a single month would have cost the league half a billion dollars so one can imagine how much would have been lost if the entire season was cancelled. While the league liked to talk about the Bubble as a public service of sorts, a comforting sign of normalcy in trying times, little rhetoric of that type has arisen this year. There’s no use pretending anymore.
There are two things that seem equally apparent right now. First, the right thing to do would be to shut down the league and not resume play until it can be done safely, when players, coaches, staff, and arena workers have all had the chance to be vaccinated. Second, that there is very little chance of that actually happening. There is too much money at stake for both players and owners for either to eagerly give it up. So now we are left with this strange season, one that feels impossible to evaluate or fully enjoy.
It’s bleak, but one of the foundational facts of American life is that financial considerations will almost always outweigh any other concerns. You could look at the players agreeing to this unfortunate set of circumstances and say they had agency in the decision, but for them, and for millions more throughout the country in far more precarious situations, was it ever a real decision?