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The NBA’s new Covid-19 restrictions won’t be good enough

The league’s expanded health and safety measures won’t stop the virus from tearing through teams.

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Los Angeles Clippers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Adam Silver knew it was going to happen when the NBA decided to bypass forming another bubble to instead return the league’s teams to their home arenas for a planned 72-game season. The commissioner watched MLB and NFL teams lose an unwinnable fight against Covid-19 that led to positive tests and postponed games even in the best case scenarios. Before the season’s opening tip, Silver called a similar outcome in the NBA “inevitable.”

Covid was always coming for the NBA, and in the last week it has fully arrived.

The Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Washington Wizards, Miami Heat, and Chicago Bulls are all dealing with outbreaks within the locker room. Games getting postponed have become a daily occurrence. Meanwhile, the virus just killed 4,000 Americans in a single day for the first time since it suspended life as we know it in early March. The early days of a vaccine are here, but the crisis caused by the global pandemic is greater than ever.

There was mounting pressure on the NBA to issue some sort of response as more players tested positive and entire rosters became compromised from the necessary contact tracing that would follow. Now that we know what that response is, it can’t help but feel underwhelming.

The league’s expanded health and safety measures try to double down on keeping teams away from outside infections. When playing in their home market, players are now required to remain in their house except to attend team activities or take care of their essential needs for the next two weeks. When teams are on the road, they can’t leave their hotel rooms or invite guests in. There are stricter guidelines about wearing masks on the bench, and about where players can sit on flights home. Hugs are outlawed. You can read the league’s entire memo here:

If there was speculation from outsiders that the league would pause for an extended period, it was always uninformed. For Silver and the NBA, sickness was built into the plan. The league only announced the first half of its schedule, and left the second half open in case games needed to be made up from postponements. Of course, just keeping up with the schedule should feel like a minimal concern when the virus continues to claim thousands of lives each day. It’s not just players and coaches who are at risk, it’s everyone they interact with on their way to putting on a game.

As the league tried to tighten its circle and barricade its walls, it is hard not to think of when the NBA’s plan to play amid a pandemic was hailed for its vision and safety. Despite some early reservations from critics, the bubble was a major success at keeping everyone inside healthy. The NBA could have put it on again. The reasons for why they didn’t touch every part of the business, but you have to wonder if everyone involve is starting to have second thoughts.

NBA basketball has not felt like the greatest product in the world lately. The Sixers just dressed an injured player (Mike Scott) so they wouldn’t have to forfeit for having too few available players after Seth Curry’s positive test infiltrated the locker room. Jonas Valanciunas was pulled by the Grizzlies at halftime to enter quarantine. Stars like Jayson Tatum have returned positive tests. The Heat just started Gabe Vincent in the backcourt and played Max Strus heavy minutes off the bench. There are reports that certain players have already contracted the virus for a second time.

As it happens, stars like James Harden and Kyrie Irving are having their reputations called into question for not following protocol. The situation has gotten messy, but that was always the league’s best hope. At this point, the NBA is just praying this season doesn’t kill someone in its path.

The NBA is saying that it isn’t possible to pass the virus during a game because players don’t stand within six feet of each other for 15 minutes at a time. That discounts the heavy breathing players do on top of each other, and forgets just how physical NBA basketball really is. It also doesn’t make much sense when cities have taken rims off the courts and closed down public spaces so the game of basketball doesn’t continue to spread of the virus.

While the league fights its biggest uptick in cases yet, Karl-Anthony Towns is just trying to get back onto the court from a wrist injury. Towns’ return is coming, but as he admitted earlier this season, his mind will never be all the way back. Towns’ mother was killed by the virus in April. He said that seven of his family members total have died from the virus. “I’ve seen a lot of coffins in the last seven months, eight months,” Towns said.

Fans are starting to feel like it’s hard to get invested in the games as cases around the league spike. Imagine how someone like Towns must feel as he tries to rush back onto the court knowing exactly how deadly this virus can be.

The NBA’s new protocols will not stop the virus from infiltrating the league. The powers that be will argue that pausing for two weeks wouldn’t have helped either, but feels like it would have been worth a try. Instead, the show rolls on as planned. This was always how it was going to be.