In the COVID-tinged NBA, much is difficult and uncertain. The last time the world went through a health crisis at this scale, the league didn’t exist. We have nothing to reasonably compare this to. There is, nevertheless, an analytic tendency to pretend that what we’re seeing is normal. Far from it. But the ways in which it is not normal have begun to crystallize, at least, and we can start to form a sort of rubric for how we watch this unprecedented season of NBA basketball. Often, the results feel random—and often they might as well be. Some obvious trends and impacts have developed, though.
An even more dismal Eastern Conference is among them. Like the Dallas Mavericks out West, two of the East’s major competitors were hit with an outsized COVID tax through the first month of the season, and are now playing catch-up: the Miami Heat, who won the conference last year but have had frighteningly little rotation regularity, and the Toronto Raptors, whose entire franchise had to rapidly relocate to Tampa Bay for this season, to sneak around their home country’s more careful approach to the pandemic. Unlike the Mavericks, though, the Heat and the Raptors play in a conference with fewer true contenders to spare. The result is that, right now, the East is fielding just four teams with above-.500 records. And while the Raptors look to be on their road to adjustment and recovery, Miami remains mostly in the hole they dug themselves; certainly one compounded by making the 2020 Finals and thus having just two months of an offseason.
Elsewhere, the infamous competitive factor that is Load Management has grown even larger. The compressed playing schedule, in combination with the short turnaround for teams that played into the Fall in the Orlando playoff bubble, has created greater bodily stress and injury risk. As such, we see more and more games between contenders that we think are about to tell us something about the playoffs and the championship picture ahead, but then don’t. A major player is scratched the afternoon before the game, or maybe doesn’t join the team for a road trip. Soreness, rest, you name it. Over the past two nights, we have seen the Los Angeles Clippers without Kawhi Leonard, the Philadelphia 76ers—often without Joel Embiid—sit Ben Simmons, and the Brooklyn Nets take the court without Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving. These types of measures are nothing new in a league increasingly aware of the fundamental disagreement between the length of the regular season, the stakes of the postseason, and the human body, but we’re certainly seeing more of it this season.
In the case of the Nets, who are perhaps the most frequently load-managing team, the issue of continuity is also glaring. Unlike the many other more recently assembled teams, who have had to figure out how to play together with a comically brief training camp and almost no time to practice between games, they have three Hall of Fame level offensive players, whose pure productivity can often outrun the team’s lack of cohesion. The same cannot be said for the many other teams who are, like the Nets, experimenting in ways during games that would previously only be seen during untelevised scrimmages. How much of this gets ironed out depends largely on how long of a nominal “All-Star” break teams get—bear in mind that NBA schedules go dark in about two weeks, at the halfway point of the year. The second half of this season has yet to get negotiated between ownership and players, so we don’t know what kind of time teams will have to better figure out what they’re doing out there.
Those negotiations are, it must be said, coming to a pretty ugly head. As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported, there is tension between the league and its stars over whether they will lend their celebrity to TV spots advocating for wider trust and use of COVID vaccines. It stands to reason that players just hoping to keep their bodies together, loudly and broadly protesting the need for any kind of All-Star ceremony this season, are not really in a place where they want to do P.R. favors for other powers that be. Draymond Green, rising voice of his workforce, articulated the growing beef between players, owners, and media as the NBA hits its latest COVID wall. In a lengthy post-game statement, unrelated to his latest contest and focused instead on the general state of the sport, Green passionately outlined the double standards and hypocrisies beared by players, but not by organizations. Green was not explicitly speaking to the increasingly strained conditions of the sport during COVID, but it seemed obvious that his level of emotion was informed by his frustration with a league that, in pushing a season through during a pandemic, has unwittingly exposed many of the gross dynamics typically operating just under its surface.
It was known from the jump that it might be like this. No one involved in this season, at any level, would tell you that this is how they want it to be. Players, owners, and media alike are proceeding nonetheless, because none are immune from the financial pressures that the pandemic has brought, and there is no real way to respond to those pressures without doing the damn thing. It has been, and likely will be, a sloppier, more austere, less predictable and ideal product than the one that we’re used to. The same can be said for essentially anything done at scale during COVID, a once-in-a-century biological threat to safely doing things together. Here’s to hoping that, in the case of the NBA, the COVID experience shows us ways to do them better afterwards than they were done before.