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COVID-19 is Forcing the NBA's Hand Yet Again

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

The NBA playoff bubble experience last summer was summed up best by LeBron James.

"I haven't thought about the bubble much after I left," James said to a reporter. "You continue to give me PTSD every time you ask me about the bubble. I started shaking thinking about 96 straight nights in that place."

Sure, the players did stay at Disney World, a five-star resort with world-class amenities, but it took a toll on their mental health. The Lakers and Heat spent over three months in Orlando, and it was difficult for them to be without their loved ones. Many were also frustrated with their inability to do much in terms of social justice, as they couldn't leave the bubble without serious punishment.

It's safe to say that no one in the league wants another bubble situation. The problem is that the NBA's current protocols aren't enough against an inevitable virus.

One of the arenas in the NBA playoff bubble at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.
Image via AP/Ashley Landis

One of the major problems this season has been the varied strictness of implemented protocols from city to city. Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox said on the "All That Smoke" podcast that in Denver, his team couldn't eat indoors or on the team plane. Meanwhile, in Houston, "it's like [COVID-19] doesn't exist."

There have already been 14 games postponed across the league in less than a month. The Suns haven't played since Jan. 11; their three-game homestand was wiped by the league after contact tracing dealt a blow to the majority of their roster. On the East Coast, the Wizards have had at least six positive cases and haven't played since the 11th as well. The 76ers played a game on Jan. 9 with just seven players available. Seven players! Rookie Tyrese Maxey was able to drop a season-high 39 points, but that was the only silver lining in a loss to the Nuggets, 115-103.

Last Tuesday, the NBA announced a new (and far stricter) set of health and safety guidelines in a desperate effort to slow the increasing positivity rate across the league. Players can only leave their homes for essential activities for the next two weeks, pre- and post-game interactions are being limited to elbow or fist bumps, and masks are required in the locker room and on the bench at all times. These stern guidelines have already been met with skepticism, especially by Thunder point guard George Hill.

"We can sweat 48 minutes with a guy next to us for 48 minutes, but we can't talk to them afterwards. It makes no sense," Hill claimed following a loss to the Spurs on Tuesday night. "They can't tell me I have to stay in a room 24/7. If it's that serious, then maybe we shouldn't be playing."

Oklahoma City Thunder point guard George Hill dribbles the ball up the court on offense during an NBA basketball game.
George Hill | Image via AP/Derick Hingle

Hill surely has a point. Before Tuesday's announcement, the league has certainly disappointed in enforcing their protocols. It's too often that you see players or coaches on the bench lower their masks and fail to put them back on for the rest of the game. Basketball is a social, communal game. Players have friends all over the league, and you can't blame them for wanting to catch up on this wild season.

The NBA has been adamant that players will not be skipping any lines to receive COVID-19 vaccines. At the rate that the vaccines have been distributed thus far among healthcare workers and people above the age of 75, it doesn't seem realistic for the league to receive theirs for several months.

If the current set of stricter guidelines displays increased efficacy over these next two weeks, that's excellent news for the NBA and the rest of the 2020-21 season. But without promising numbers and the assured safety of a bubble, Adam Silver might have to temporarily halt this season to recover from its damages.

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