The NBA got through the first month-and-a-half of the 2021-22 season largely unscathed. A handful of players wound up in the league’s health and safety protocols after testing positive for Covid-19, but no games had been postponed, and outbreaks had largely been contained.
Then came the omicron variant, which has thrown the entire NBA into disarray in recent weeks.
As of Thursday morning, 123 players had landed in health and safety protocols this month alone, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Baxter Holmes. With many teams struggling to field the eight healthy players required to play a game, the league and the National Basketball Players Association agreed to temporarily amend the rules governing which teams are eligible to sign players via a hardship exception.
Piecemeal rosters will be front and center during the NBA’s marquee Christmas Day slate, as stars such as Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant and Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic all remain in health and safety protocols. That’s only the beginning of the league’s problems as omicron takes more of a foothold in the U.S.
Under the rules approved Sunday, teams are now allowed to sign a replacement player to a 10-day contract via the hardship exception for every player on their roster who tests positive for Covid-19. Teams who have two players test positive for Covid-19 must sign at least one replacement player, teams with three positive Covid-19 tests must sign at least two, and teams with four or more positive cases must sign at least three.
Players signed via the traditional hardship exception do count against a team’s yearly salary and factor into its luxury-tax payment, but players signed under these special hardship exceptions will not. That’s especially key for hard-capped teams who are bumping up against the apron and otherwise would not have been able to sign replacement players.
During an NBA board of governors call last week, “there was an overwhelming sentiment among NBA owners to do whatever is necessary to avoid postponements and cancellations this season,” according to Wojnarowski and Holmes. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told ESPN’s Malika Andrews on Tuesday afternoon that the league has “no plans right now to pause the season,” adding, “We have of course looked at all the options, but frankly we are having trouble coming up with what the logic would be behind pausing right now.”
With players entering health and safety protocols by the dozens, teams are pillaging the G League for temporary call-ups. The signings have ranged from stars of yesteryear such as Joe Johnson and Isaiah Thomas to unheralded young prospects looking for their big break.
“Guys are getting an opportunity to get back in,” nine-year NBA veteran Greg Monroe told Sean Highkin of Bleacher Report. “I think it’s great. It’s not normal circumstances, but that’s what we’ve got.”
For the time being, teams can’t focus their sights on playoff chases or title odds. They just need to take this season one day at a time until the omicron surge passes.
Trades On Hold
Dec. 15 is typically the unofficial start of trade season in the NBA. Most free agents who signed with teams this past offseason become eligible to be traded on that date, which widens the scope of potential deals for teams to negotiate.
However, the rash of omicron cases popping up across the league has put trade chatter pause for the time being.
Many teams are struggling to cobble together enough healthy players to avoid postponements. They can’t afford to make a blockbuster deal that will further deplete their roster, no matter how temporary those personnel losses may be.
“All those trade conversations I thought I’d be having with league sources this week at the G League Showcase in Vegas? LOL,” John Hollinger of The Athletic wrote Monday. “Every executive, every last one of them, is either actively managing a crisis of finding enough players to field a team for the next game or parsing through contingency lists of whom exactly they will call when their club’s turn inevitably comes.”
Trade talks should pick up steam after the holidays, particularly as more players begin exiting the league’s health and safety protocols. The league and the players union are nearing an agreement “to reduce the 10-day quarantine period for Covid-positive players,” according to Wojnarowski, which could soon help front offices turn their eye toward bigger-picture roster makeovers.
Until then, expect trade buzz to be at a minimum until teams can put out the five-alarm Covid-19 fires that have ripped through their rosters.
While teams scramble to field enough healthy players to avoid postponements, the league needs to keep its eye on the bottom line.
The NBA told CNBC’s Jabari Young that attendance “is down 5 percent on a two-year basis, its last normal season.” Golden State Warriors chief operating officer Brandon Schneider told Young that Covid-19 was largely to blame for the decline in attendance, citing the number of unvaccinated fans who are unable to attend games in certain markets depending on whether their cities have vaccine mandates for indoor arenas in place.
The Toronto Raptors have already reduced fan capacity at Scotiabank Arena by 50 percent as of mid-December. Other teams or local municipalities could impose similar restrictions in the coming weeks to prevent their hospitals from getting overwhelmed with new Covid-19 cases, particularly if large family gatherings over Christmas lead to a surge.
With attendance falling, the NBA has pursued alternative revenue streams to help make up for any decline in basketball-related income. On Wednesday, the league’s board of governors began allowing teams to “include sponsor patches on both team shooting shirts and warm-up jackets,” according to ESPN.com’s Nick DiPaula.
Between the modifications to the hardship exception and the reluctance to postpone games or pause the season, it’s clear that the NBA is focusing extensively on the bottom line this season. How it weathers the storm over the coming weeks will have major ramifications for the salary cap next season, which is tied to the amount of BRI generated this year.