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Clippings: How long can the NBA play through the pandemic?

Another game was postponed this weekend, and the rate of transmission doesn’t appear to be slowing.

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Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

On the second day of the 2020-21 NBA season, the league had to postpone a game between the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder because the Rockets didn’t have eight players available to suit up. Houston’s problem? Multiple players were ruled out due to contact tracing stemming from one positive test.

At the time, it was easy to think of that incident as an outlier. James Harden was in the throes of a public tantrum as he demanded a trade from the Rockets, breaking the league’s COVID protocol in the process, and it seemed unlikely that another team would find itself in that situation.

For two weeks or so, that was the case. But over the weekend, the NBA was forced to postpone its second game of the season, this time between Boston and Miami. The Celtics had several players out because of contact tracing after Jayson Tatum tested positive, and they only had eight players available; ultimately, an inconclusive test on the Heat’s side proved to be the final straw.

The Boston/Miami postponement came at the end of the week that saw multiple players miss time due to health and safety protocol. Kevin Durant had to miss seven days for contact tracing. Michael Porter Jr. had an additional 10-14 days tacked on to his existing week-long quarantine. Bradley Beal missed Saturday’s game because he had been in close proximity to Tatum after the Wizards played the Celtics. The Mavericks had to shut down their practice facility after producing two positive tests in three days. At least four Dallas players are currently isolating.

Perhaps the scariest incident came in Philadelphia, when the Sixers learned during the second quarter of their game Thursday that Seth Curry had tested positive for COVID-19. That put most of their team’s availability in doubt for their next game against Denver, but the team still suited up eight players (even though only seven took the floor) so that the game would go on, despite protestation from Doc Rivers that Philadelphia shouldn’t have to play.

Across the league, dozens of players have had to sit out for contact tracing, and every few hours, the number seems to be growing. There’s also a great deal of confusion about what type of exposure necessitates contact tracing. Several of Tatum’s Celtics teammates were eligible to play, but Beal, who chatted with him postgame, had to enter the protocol.

The coming days figure to bring more challenges. The Heat, Sixers, and Celtics are still thin due to contact tracing, and now the Magic could be as well after playing Maxi Kleber and the Mavericks before he tested positive. It isn’t just the players who are in the protocol who have to worry about their health; the players who suit up for depleted rosters are taking on huge minutes that could lead to unnecessary injuries. In Philadelphia’s last game, three players had to play over 40 minutes.

Despite all these difficulties, the NBA is powering through, as a league spokesman said Sunday. Part of the league’s rationale is that the positive test rate was higher when the players weren’t playing than when once the season started.

If the league is committed to keeping the schedule running even as positive cases increase, perhaps they can allow teams to carry more players on their active rosters. Marc Stein of the New York Times reported that before the season, the league had discussed 19-man rosters with four two-way players, but ultimately settled on 17. Such a change would help each team meet the eight-player minimum.

The Clippers have been lucky to avoid any coronavirus-related absences during the regular season, though Reggie Jackson missed a preseason game. Not all teams have been so fortunate.

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