Inside the NBA’s race to outlast COVID-19’s omicron

SIX PLAYERS BOARDED a charter to Midway Airport for a Toronto-Chicago meeting that would never happen — a ghost team flying to a ghost game. Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse kept scores of his coaching and support staff back home, separating out those with young families awaiting Santa Claus.

“One positive [COVID-19] test puts you in Chicago over Christmas,” Nurse told ESPN.

If anyone had been cursed with the sense of impending NBA gloom, it was these Raptors. Outside of the head coach and four assistants, the army of support staff that typically traveled had been whittled down to what Nurse described as “the least-attached video guy.”

What was usually a traveling crew of 60 became a spartan 20 on the team flight. “Three buses for six players,” Nurse said. “That was something to see.”

As NBA problems go, these Raptors had absorbed some of the hardest hits since the pandemic’s start in March 2020. From the bubble in Orlando, Florida, to a season-long exile in Tampa, the Raptors would go 19 months between games in Canada. Even now, home games at Scotiabank Arena are limited to 50% capacity.

The Raptors’ roster was decimated by an outbreak in the 2020-21 season, and again now — including seven players who have landed in the NBA’s health and safety protocols prior to the team charter leaving for Chicago on Tuesday night. Raptors guard OG Anunoby made it eight on Wednesday, leaving the team with four available roster players, four short of the league-required eight players to play the Bulls. For days, Nurse could see it coming. They all did.

As Raptors players kept testing positive for the virus — Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleetScottie Barnes and Gary Trent Jr. — the front office stayed on the phone recruiting replacements. “We had three when I went to bed [Monday night], four when I woke up, and we got a fifth when I landed in Chicago,” Nurse told ESPN.

The replacements would have had to play against the Bulls, but the Raptors will still need them on Sunday in Cleveland. The postponement spared Nurse a pregame meeting with his new players at the United Center, where he planned on the most elementary of introductions to Raptors basketball. Asked what, in that short window, Nurse could do to prepare them to play meaningful minutes, he said: “The simple stuff, like, ‘Here’s how to get the ball inbounds.'”

As it turned out in Chicago on Wednesday, some of the Raptors’ replacement players tested positive for COVID-19, and Anunoby needed a private plane to fly back separately to Toronto. Another wasted trip, another game cancellation for a steeled but beleaguered organization.

Such is the rudimentary state of an NBA suddenly under the siege of a three-week December barrage that has uprooted stars, starters and rotation players, and replaced them with minor leaguers and old-timers.

The Raptors aren’t alone.

As the omicron variant rages through the NBA, 11 other teams have faced outbreaks with each losing five or more players to the health and safety protocols. Three head coaches have entered the protocols, along with Raptors president Masai Ujiri. Nine games have been postponed. There have been 140 player entries into the protocols this season, with 123 this month alone, a brutal stretch by any measure. Several teams teeter dangerously close to not having enough healthy bodies, while G League players are filling vacant spots at a breakneck pace, severely impacting the level of play.

These most difficult weeks come just 48 hours away from Christmas, the league’s most high-profile regular-season slate of games. But as of Wednesday, a total of 45 players among 10 teams scheduled to play on Christmas remained in the protocols. In a league overwhelmingly reliant on its star appeal, Christmas games could be played without Giannis AntetokounmpoKevin DurantLuka DoncicJames HardenTrae Young and an injured Anthony Davis.

STANDING IN THE locker room at Barclays Center, Brooklyn Nets guard Bruce Brown stared at the empty stalls surrounding him: all his neighbors, all absent. No James Johnson. No DeAndre’ Bembry. No Paul Millsap. It was Dec. 14, and the Nets were about to face the Raptors, but they were also in the teeth of a COVID-19 breakout. As Brown glanced to his left and right, a sense of dread settled in. “I don’t think it’s going to skip over my locker,” he thought to himself.

Soon, Brown found himself on the court warming up for a rare starting assignment, a byproduct of so many teammates in the protocols. He wore a good sweat and the good-faith belief he had cleared two rounds of game-day testing. It felt like a clean getaway.

But before tipoff, Nets assistant general manager Jeff Peterson waved Brown toward the tunnel to the locker room. One of Brown’s two pregame tests had come back inconclusive, and the NBA told the Nets that they needed to enter Brown into the league’s protocols. Officials walked Brown toward an empty side room, brought him his street clothes and belongings, and walked him out to the loading dock to leave the arena.

Awaiting Brown was Nets star guard Harden.

When the Nets were pulling Brown off the court, they delivered Harden his testing news in the training room. Beyond the din of the Barclays crowd, Harden looked at Brown, and Brown looked at Harden, and they wondered what in the world was happening.

“You feel anything?” Harden asked him.

“I’m good,” Brown said. “You?”

No symptoms, Harden told him. Feeling fine.

Brown and Harden were fully vaccinated, and Brown had COVID-19 in September. “But there’s a new variant,” Brown said, and so there was something of a reset button for everyone with antibodies.

Together, Brown and Harden were the sixth and seventh Nets players lost to the team’s outbreak. Eventually, 10 players — including MVP candidate Durant — would contract the virus, and the franchise would scramble to assemble G League players and journeymen on 10-day hardship exemptions to replenish the roster.

As Brown and Harden awaited testing clearance to return, the Nets, concerned about their remaining players wearing down from playing too many minutes — namely Durant — opted to make a bold move.

They turned to Kyrie Irving.

The star guard is the NBA’s most prominent unvaccinated player. That status kept him sidelined both because of New York City law and because the Nets declared that they didn’t want him to be a part-time player who could only play in road games.

They would bring Irving back, the Nets stated, because they needed him.

Less than 24 hours after their announcement, sources said, Irving contracted COVID-19.

THE CHARLOTTE HORNETS lost five players to the protocols in three days. The Orlando Magic lost five players in two days. The Cleveland Cavaliers lost eight in six days. The Minnesota Timberwolves lost five in four days. The Boston Celtics lost seven in four days. The Raptors lost eight in five days. The Dallas Mavericks lost six in five days. The Atlanta Hawks lost six in four days. The Sacramento Kings lost six in three days. The Chicago Bulls lost eight in eight days. The New York Knicks lost six in eight days. The Los Angeles Lakers lost eight in six days, plus head coach Frank Vogel.

The absences piled up so fast that the annual G League Showcase, which was held in Las Vegas this past weekend, was being gutted of its own players to fill roster spots on NBA teams. Saturday night’s Warriors-Raptors game featured 12 players who had played in the G League in the previous three seasons. Friday’s Magic-Heat game featured nine players who played in the G League in the previous three seasons. The Celtics went so far as to sign 40-year-old Joe Johnson to a 10-day contract. Johnson, who hasn’t played in the NBA for three years, has been around pro basketball so long that the late Red Auerbach had a voice in the room the night the Celtics drafted him in 2001. Entering Wednesday night, 501 players have already played this season, the most in a season before Jan. 1.

As cases exploded, so did tension and confusion among teams facing outbreaks.

On a weekly league medical call on Dec. 14, one team health official said the Bulls expressed frustration that they had a number of asymptomatic player cases, with each required to be sidelined for 10 days. Given the urgency of their situation, the Bulls were testing everyone, but they asked, why wasn’t every other team doing the same?

The Bulls believed there were more asymptomatic players out there, and that the league, by not mandating daily testing, wasn’t doing enough to try and find them, a source said. To the Bulls, it felt unfair — that they were suffering from a competitive disadvantage.

The question of testing all players and staff daily — regardless of vaccination status — had loomed since the start of this season. Some NBA general managers believed that not mandating daily testing meant the virus could spread undetected.

“The disruptions, in my opinion, are going to come by way of the fact that the NBA isn’t testing players or staff members,” Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti said in late September.

For the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association, mandated daily testing in a league with a nearly 97% player vaccination rate didn’t make sense. And their respective infectious disease experts agreed, according to league sources. Instead, as the winter months approached and cases started to surge nationally, the league urged booster shots, increased testing around Thanksgiving and advised continued vigilance.

Privately, several team executives and team health officials believed not testing everyone was financially motivated, though league officials have disputed this characterization to ESPN. For now, when a team has a positive case, that team is encouraged — but not required — to test all players and potentially impacted staff to see how far the virus has spread; the same is recommended when a team faces another team that has detected a positive test.

So far, mandated daily testing has remained off the table.

“At the start of the year, we asked the league if they would consider testing more frequently,” said one veteran head athletic trainer. “They said no. Here we are.”

Said one GM: “In fairness to the league, not testing enabled us to make it this far in many ways.”

Other teams privately argue that not all teams have followed the protocols as strictly as others, or that not all teams test as often as others. Another GM said that if all teams were united heading into the Orlando bubble last year, the dynamics have now changed: Every team is out for themselves, trying to save their own seasons, fielding subpar ghost teams.

Amid the surge, a number of team executives started to believe — and have voiced as much to the league — that asymptomatic players should be able to play. But, at the highest corners of the NBA and NBPA, that possibility is, for now, a non-starter, league sources said.

Both the NBA and NBPA are aware that allowing asymptomatic players to play could lead to more infections and wider spread. NBA players are typically young, healthy and at a much lower risk for severe symptoms. But, both the NBA and NBPA ask, what if fans sitting near the court were to become infected? What if referees were to become infected? What if staffers and coaches were to become infected? And what if any of them, including infected players themselves, were to suffer serious symptoms, become hospitalized and die? Moreover, what message would allowing asymptomatic players to play send to the public at large?

On the subject of playing asymptomatic players, Silver told ESPN NBA Today host Malika Andrews on Tuesday, “We’re not quite there yet, but we’re paying a lot of attention to what other leagues are doing.”

There are team executives and team health staffers who also believe the risks aren’t worth it — the potential costs are far too high.

Ultimately, protocol changes must be agreed upon by both the NBA and NBPA, and there has been doubt league-wide about what substantial changes both sides could agree on that might help stem the current surge. Mandated daily testing? Instituting tight restrictions for what the unvaccinated can do outside of a team setting? Neither have been approved. Instead, in a Dec. 16 league memo to teams, new protocols were introduced that centered on ramped-up testing from Dec. 26 to Jan. 8 and more face mask use for players and staff.

There’s also a sense of resignation on teams as players who are fully vaccinated, including booster shots, are still facing infections. “We are pretty much defenseless now,” one Western Conference head athletic trainer recently told ESPN, “not against getting sick but against transmission and contraction.”

AS SOON AS the news on coach Alvin Gentry’s case of COVID became public on Dec. 15, an old friend with an ominous foreshadow reached out to Sacramento Kings general manager Monte McNair.

“Buckle up,” Arturas Karnisovas told McNair. “It’s coming.”

As the Chicago Bulls Executive VP of Basketball Operations, Karnisovas had been immersed in the NBA’s December hellfire of virus outbreak that saw 11 Bulls players enter protocols. Soon, the Kings encountered their own flare-up. But Chicago and Sacramento were connected in ways far deeper than Karnisovas and McNair huddling to compare notes on managing a crisis. When most of the league wasn’t testing its players, the Bulls and Kings were among the teams faced with the responsibility because a positive test had surfaced.

Gentry’s positive test a week ago was ground zero for the Kings the same way guard Coby White’s case was for the Bulls. (So frequent were the Bulls’ cases that a member of the organization compared getting the call from Chip Schaefer, Chicago’s director of performance health, to getting the call from the grim reaper.) But while the Bulls received a reprieve as the league postponed two of their games, Sacramento — with seven players and 10 staff members all entering protocols — had a fate worse than shutting down: The Kings had to keep going.

And the Kings didn’t just lose Gentry; they lost his top assistant, Mike Longabardi, too. The entirety of the back of the bench coaching staff became the front of the bench, and that translated to far less experience. Walk into a Kings’ game-day shootaround now, the pregame locker room talk or halftime, and you’ll see a staffer holding up a phone on FaceTime for Gentry and the players — and another holding up a FaceTime for Longabardi to detail defensive schemes to the players.

Forty-eight hours after Gentry’s test, more players and staff started to return positive tests. The Kings lost point guard De’Aaron Fox. They lost Marvin Bagley III and Davion Mitchell. Four more role players eventually contracted COVID, too. The disruption of the supply lines of players has forever been the fear in an outbreak, but the disruption of organizational supply lines delivered a different sort of impact — paralyzing in its own way — that the Kings never imagined.

Both Kings equipment managers caught COVID and couldn’t work. Yes, Sacramento lost players and coaches, scouts and video coordinators and an assistant PR director, but creative efforts can help fill gaps. Equipment managers are something else — the essentialist of essential NBA employees. The Kings were so desperate that they considered borrowing an equipment manager from nearby UC Davis, but decided against bringing outsiders into a COVID outbreak.

As GM, McNair handled the stream of conversations with the league office, players and agents. Meanwhile, assistant GM Wes Wilcox tried to patchwork the operations at the team’s facility. And, well, who was left in the building? That’s the question that Wilcox asked himself. His eyes stopped on Kwa Jones, an intern in the video room. He was a student-manager at the University of Houston. “And managers do everything,” Wilcox said. Still, he needed more help. Wilcox kept looking and settled on Khyri Marshall, a game-night attendant.

Jones and Marshall had the Kings equipment managers talking them through every detail of every duty. How do you clean the uniforms? What do you pack for Golden State? How do you pack? The Kings signed a replacement player and needed a name ironed onto the back of a uniform. “I have no idea how we got those names on the uniforms, but we did,” Wilcox told ESPN.

One afternoon, Wilcox walked into the equipment room to check on things. “It was a mess — a beautiful mess — and I just spun around and left,” Wilcox said with a laugh. It was indicative of the moment, of the situation they were in and trying to work themselves out of. The front office was grateful for how these twenty-somethings were finding a way, and even more grateful a short-handed Kings team won two of three home games amid the chaos.

Late Sunday, McNair and Wilcox were making the 90-minute drive from Sacramento to San Francisco for Monday’s game against Golden State. Karnisovas had warned McNair about everything that awaited him across these wild days, and now, the Kings GM had seen the news of the positive tests coming out of Minnesota. McNair picked up his phone, called the Timberwolves’ Executive VP of Basketball Operations, Sachin Gupta, and essentially told another old friend what he had been told himself: Buckle up.

ON A BOARD of governors call last week, it was not lost on some participants that neither a doctor nor a medical professional took part in the conversation.

NBA senior vice president David Weiss, who has run the NBA’s player health programs since 2012, was on the call, but Weiss is a lawyer by trade. His presence, and the lack of a medical expert, drove home to some a sentiment that the economic gravity of the moment is running parallel to medical concerns. A cynical view, perhaps, but for all the league’s emphasis on player health and safety, there is also the glaring reality, as many team executives around the NBA note, that the league has hemorrhaged money the past two seasons and faces more losses if it has to suspend this season.

Among teams, and amid concern, there’s also a sense of resolve. Multiple general managers pointed to last winter as being more severe and uncertain. Vaccines weren’t widely available, infections were rising, arenas were empty, and uncertainty reigned over whether the league could carry on as games — 31 all told — were either canceled or postponed.

But the circumstances this winter are different. While nearly all players are vaccinated, team health officials note that almost one-third of players received the Johnson & Johnson single-shot dose, which offers the lowest level of protection compared to Pfizer and Moderna. There are concerns about waning immunity; only about 65% of eligible players have received booster shots, roughly 275 total players, sources say.

Through it all, the more severe delta variant didn’t arrive until the summer of 2021, and now the omicron variant is pummeling the world.

Silver said Tuesday that the omicron variant is “beyond dominant” in the league and has accounted for at least 90% of the cases it is sequencing.

All the while, NBA players flow into protocols, G League players flow into the league to replace them, and more games are put on hold as the league barrels toward Christmas, though what happens beyond is of great interest — and impact — to those in the NBA and elsewhere.

“The league is iconic,” said Dr. Bob Wachter, professor and chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “For a lot of people, the pandemic began when the league canceled a game. That was the moment when people said, ‘Holy s—, this is real.'”

Wachter called the NBA a bellwether for the country at large, a sentiment Silver has echoed. The commissioner plans to trudge on into the winter, keeping basketball’s billion-dollar machine churning.

Armed with science, testing and seasons of data, a number of league executives have begun describing what they’re leaning on to reach the other side intact, a word that doesn’t appear in the thousands of pages of the league’s COVID protocols: prayer.

ESPN’s Jamal Collier contributed to this report.

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