My heart is currently battling with my brain about the potential return of professional basketball as the NBA prepares to welcome back 22 teams to close out the 2019-20 season then proceed with the playoffs.
My heart desperately wants the NBA to return. I’m a sports junkie. Having sports suddenly wrenched from my life by COVID has left a large, noticeable void in my life. Sports is my favorite form of entertainment and how I stay connected to many of my friends. I’m aware enough to know the human toll COVID has taken on those who are sick or unemployed completely dwarfs how my life has changed without sports during the pandemic. That said, the enjoyment and excitement of my life will improve when the NBA returns. My heart yearns for sports.
But my brain is different. My brain keeps telling me the return of the NBA is wrong on almost every level.
First, this virus is nowhere near being under control and new daily cases continue to rise. No matter what precautions the NBA takes, it’s likely COVID will find its way into the bubble somehow. If one player contracts COVID it’s not difficult to imagine how it could spread through direct physical contact with teammates or opposing players. Key players like Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic, Marcus Smart, and Malcolm Brogdon have already tested positive. There are also a number of unidentified players who have tested positive including two Los Angeles Lakers, three Philadelphia 76ers, and three Miami Heat among others.
What happens if Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, or Kawhi Leonard tests positive late in the playoffs? What if four or five players from the same team all test positive at the same time? It could happen. The Bucks, Clippers, and Miami Heat have each had to recently shut down their practice facilities due to the results of COVID testing. Per ESPN, players who test positive will be subject to a 14-day recovery period during which they cannot exercise and will then need to be cleared by a physician before returning. In addition to the impact of their absence, how long will it take for COVID-positive players to return to full health and effective play?
The regular season resumes on July 31 and the NBA Finals won’t begin until September 30th. Players will likely test positive during that two-month window. It would be a pity to see a champion crowned because of what happens in a COVID testing lab instead of what happens on the court. The NBA may end up crowning an illegitimate champion.
The hurried restart to the season could also make injury an even greater factor than in regular playoffs. After an extended layoff players will have just eight regular season games to prepare for the intensity of the postseason. This seems like a recipe for soft tissue injuries. Even under ideal circumstances Anthony Davis always seems to have some type of muscle strain. LeBron James has dealt with a lingering groin issue this season. Kawhi Leonard has dealt with an ongoing injury to his left patella tendon. Would anybody be surprised if one of the league’s marquee players suffered an injury that shifts the title odds from one team to another? There is always a risk of injury in sports and only time will tell if injuries impact this year’s playoffs more than they have in times past.
Lastly, with the voluntary nature of this year’s playoffs, some players have already opted not to play, including Lakers starter Avery Bradley and Indiana Pacers two-time All-Star guard Victor Oladipo. The Lakers Dwight Howard is still considering his options. The Lakers currently hold the No. 1 seed in the West and could be restarting the season without two of their key players. If the Lakers fall to the Clippers or Bucks (or any other team), there will always be a “yeah, but...” associated with the 2019-20 title. Throw in the lack of a true home court advantage for the teams that earned it and this postseason could be made illegitimate pretty quickly by the fans of the 29 teams that don’t win it.
So why is the NBA and its players so willing to rush to restart? It’s money, of course, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Both the owners and the players are better off by generating the basketball related income of having this potentially fraught postseason. Money is moving this thing forward, and that’s just the world we live in.
In the end, I’m conflicted. I truly can’t wait to have professional sports back in my life, but I also think this postseason could end in disaster. Players will likely test positive while others may deal with lingering injuries from rushing back to play. Resuming the NBA season is a short-term move with long-term consequences. I wouldn’t be surprised if in five years, or 10 years, or 20 years when COVID has been contained that NBA fans look back and say, “That was a terrible decision to throw together the 2019-20 playoffs in the middle of a worsening pandemic.”
Holding this year’s playoffs is going to be a disaster from a competitiveness and legitimacy perspective. And yet, I still can’t wait to watch it unfold.